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Russia's bizarre obsession with psychics and the occult

A fortune-telling session in Moscow.
A fortune-telling session in Moscow.
Anastasiya Markelova/Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Modern Russia is, apparently, a hotbed of psychic activity. Recent reports have estimated that Russia's psychic industry is worth between $15 million and $2 billion. These aren't super-reliable figures, but that they exist at all indicates the scale of psychic devotion in Russia. A new book, by freelance journalist Marc Bennetts, explores the scale of this phenomenon — and the reasons behind it.

In a tweet advertising his book, Bennetts advertises stories of "Kremlin-backed psychics, 'resurrections' for $1,500 a corpse, [and] urban witches with too much make-up." His previous reporting on Russia's psychic underground, like this piece in Sabotage Magazine last year, certainly delivers some equally crazy stories:

  • "Town halls that had once hosted Communist Party meetings [and] now saw sorcerers armed with ouija boards attempting to conjure up Lenin's spirit."
  • A Moscow witch who promised that her "mixture of psychic and magical abilities as yet unknown to science" could help a client land a promotion (maximum six year guarantee).
  • Since 2008, the Russian government has required an official license to advertise any services as "magic." In other words, the Russian state is formally licensing magicians, as well as any sorcerers, wizards, witches, or other characters who would like to sell themselves as performing magic. But it does not require a license to advertise "paranormal" services.

So why is this so prevalent?

The basic explanation offered by Bennets and others has to do with Soviet communism's collapse. Since the Warsaw Pact began falling apart in the late 80s, large numbers of Russians turned to psychic and spiritual beliefs to make up for the ideological void that communism left.

Take faith healer Anatoly Kashpirovsky, who first became famous in October 1989. Kashpirovsky "would appeal to viewers to place pots and pans full of water by their television sets during his show, so that their contents would be charged with healing properties by being exposed to his waves of telepathic energy," Radio Free Europe correspondent Tom Balmforth writes in Russia Profile. According to Balmforth, a 1990 poll found that 52.3 percent of respondents believed that Kashpirovsky's techniques could cure illnesses.

Bennetts reports that Kashpirovsky began performing mass healings again in 2010, despite claims that his hypnosis sessions had driven hundreds if not thousands of people insane. And Kashpirovsky is just one man. There's a lot more in Bennetts' book, which you can buy here.