So, Putin’s heading back to the Kremlin. I didn’t really doubt he would be. But it wasn’t the hit-and-miss predictions of the experts and analysts of this world that made me so sure. It was a Siberian shaman. And as we all know, shamans are a much more reliable source of knowledge.
In April of 2008, just a month before Putin would step down in favor of that world-famous badminton player, Dmitry Medvedev, I found myself in the west Siberian town of Tobolsk. Located on the banks of the River Irtysh, the town was once the capital of Siberia, but is now a provincial backwater notable only for its magnificent Kremlin and unsuccessful Soviet-era experiments to find a vaccine for anthrax.
After checking out the sights, I spent a few hours wandering around and was planning on heading off to the train station to catch a train to Omsk when I saw a sign for “Minulla’s Folk Art”
I stepped inside the building, and came face to face with a middle aged, wild-haired (and wild-eyed) Tatar. He was dressed in a flowing robe and headband.
“Minulla Sunyaev,” the Tatar said. “Pleased to meet you.” All around him were intricate works of art, tiny figures carved from what I would later discover was mammoth bone. Apparently quite a few mammoths are dug out of the ice in Siberia.
After finding out I was from England, Minulla went off on a long speech about “your queen.” He was very taken with her, and was a touch disappointed when he realised that I didn’t really care about the richest pensioner in the U.K. in the slightest. That I thought she was, well, a bit silly.
Minulla frowned. Was he going to throw me out? “We don't have a monarchy,” he finally answered, moved for some reason to explain his own passion. “You always want what you do not have.” I didn’t argue.
The queen forgotten, Minulla set about showing me around the building.
“I grew up here,” he told me. “I'm an orphan,” he went on, “and this was a children's home in the Soviet period. They closed it in the late 1970s, when they were sure that there would be no more need for places like this under communism.” He laughed. “We were all dreaming of our futures, dreaming of travelling to foreign lands and so on. We were all also ready to work hard, though, all prepared for labour. And so I set about learning a trade…”
His art, he told me, was also a family business, and the studio offered courses in bone-carving and Siberian art for tourists from “all over Russia and Europe.”
“Especially Scandinavian countries, there is a real link between Siberian mythology and the myths of the peoples of the north',” he said.
But for Minulla, art was more than a simple way to earn a living.
“The whole philosophy of Siberian shamanism and mythology has formed an integral part of my life,” he said. I nodded.
“I’m a practicing shaman, actually. Want to come and see our worship tree?”
It was more of a sapling, actually. Someone (Minulla, I assume), had tied pieces of white cloth around it. “This is a means of respecting our ancestors,” he told me.
He then grabbed my hands and began chanting. Then he stopped. “Want a cup of tea?” he asked.
Was it, I wondered, as we drank strong, black tea in his workshop, a problem to practise Siberian folk art in the atheist Soviet era?
“Of course,” Minulla said. “It was extremely difficult to practise anything connected with religion.”
I finished my tea and looked at his carved figures in more detail. They really were excellent. I wondered how much they cost.
'I've done a piece of work dedicated to Putin too', he said.
'It's a fundamental part of Siberian mythology that a benevolent leadership will one day return to rule the land', he continued, clearing away some boxes and tools to reveal a small figure. The similarity to Russia's second president was remarkable.
“Putin has rescued Russia, like a warrior of old', he said, almost reverently. We sat in silence and gazed at the bone talisman.
What, I wondered, did he make of Medvedev?
Minulla waved a hand in dismissal. 'Nothing', he answered. 'Putin will come back to power soon enough.'
And, what do you know? He was right. Not too sure about the benevolent part, though.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).