June 7, 2010

Russia's New Rasputin: Faith Healer Anatoly Kashpirovsky

Psychic healer Anatoly Kashpirovsky once held the entire USSR under his televised spell. But after 15 years in self-imposed exile, following claims that his shows had caused a wave of suicides, he is back – and as controversial as ever.

Marc Bennetts
The Observer
6 June 2010

"Let's get one thing straight. Your level of understanding is this big," Anatoly Kashpirovsky announces, after striding on stage at north Moscow's Cosmos concert hall, indicating the space between his thumb and forefinger. "But mine is 1,000 times greater."

The 2,000-strong crowd looks suitably impressed. But then, having just shelled out the rouble equivalent of up to £60 a ticket and another £20 for one of Kashpirovsky's "remote healing" DVDs, they are clearly expecting to witness something out of the ordinary.

They will not go home disappointed. (Although, it must be said, some will go not home at all, but rather to hospital, suffering from nausea and intense headaches.)

His terse introduction over, Kashpirovsky, who at 70 boasts the appearance and energy of a man two decades younger, launches into an almost hour-long monologue, taking in subjects as diverse as self-programming, Genghis Khan and unsightly vaginal moles.

As fascinating as all of this may be, I can't help feeling that most of the audience would rather he just cut to the chase and laid on the healing touch that once made him the most talked-about man in the Soviet Union.

As the Soviet system began to collapse under its own weight in the late 1980s, a widespread underground belief in magic and the paranormal flooded into the mainstream, turning society on its head. The pinnacle of this scramble for new ideas to replace the certainties that Marxism-Leninism had once provided saw the incredible spectacle of extrasensory experiments carried out on state TV, prime-time viewing spots devoted to psychic healing sessions.

Where once there were screenings of Communist Party congresses and rhythmic gymnastics, now there were men with hypnotic eyes and soothing voices promising to cure the entire country of its ailments. The nation was entranced.

Kashpirovsky, who first came to public attention during a televised broadcast of a Kiev healing session in October 1989, was the most famous of these Kremlin-approved psychics. At the height of his celebrity, the former weightlifter and qualified psychiatrist regularly topped polls to find the most popular public figure, easily beating the still sober Boris Yeltsin into second place. His live appearances at venues from Moscow to Vladivostok saw crowds sobbing and writhing to his command, a mass casting-out of demons, Soviet-style.

"They idolise me,'' Kashpirovsky said of his countrymen at a 1989 joint news conference with a foreign ministry spokesperson. "I can reverse what was once thought irreversible. I tap the inner resources of the body."

Such high-level patronage led to immediate and widespread comparisons with the mad monk Grigory Rasputin, the mystic healer whose malign influence over the royal family played a large part in the collapse of the Russian monarchy and the rise of the Bolsheviks.

This, then, was no Uri Geller-type spoon-bending novelty. If the Israeli psychic's shows were something of a joke for most people in the west – a few moments of entertainment before the big match – Kashpirovsky's appearances were a genuine cultural and social landmark, his name a byword for all that was bizarre and unfathomable during the final years of the Soviet Union. Indeed, by pointing to another reality beyond the party line, the Ukrainian-born healer may well have even contributed to the downfall of the "Evil Empire".

Clad entirely in black, his piercing eyes staring into apartments across the vast territory of the USSR, Kashpirovsky "treated" millions, his voice both reassuring and oddly threatening.

"For those of you with high blood pressure, your blood pressure will lower… whoever has hip injuries, they will heal…" he droned, his litany of the suffering and the saved a potent lullaby that plunged the nation into a communal trance.

Who cared if the country was collapsing around them, if the shops were almost empty, and the threat of separatist violence in the Caucasus was moving ever closer? The USSR turned on, tuned in and switched off.

"The streets would empty whenever Kashpirovsky came on," journalist Katya Murzina tells me. "I was just a kid, but I remember we all talked about his shows at school. Everyone was convinced he really could heal the nation.

"We had never seen anything like this on TV before," she goes on. "You have to remember, there were basically no adverts on Soviet TV. Everything was taken at face value. So if state TV presented him as possessing these incredible powers, most people believed it."

Kashpirovsky's great rival was Alan Chumak, a white-haired figure for whom the word eccentric could have been invented. During his show, after a brief matter-of-fact introduction, Chumak would silently and slowly, like some Soviet Zen master, move his hands for half-an-hour or so, "charging" with healing energy the jars and saucepans full of water that his millions of viewers had placed around their flats.

"On Fridays Chumak will help viewers to overcome their allergies," a helpful announcement for one of his shows stated. "People with stomach problems should tune in later."

The post-Soviet period saw Kashpirovsky's star fade quickly, as claims that his mass hypnosis sessions had driven hundreds if not thousands of people out of their minds grew stronger. In 1995, after a brief flirtation with politics during which he was elected to the state Duma, Kashpirovsky left Russia for the US, where he reportedly found work treating immigrants from the former USSR.

In his absence the Russians' centuries-long passion for the occult and the paranormal mushroomed, with all manner of psychics and sorcerers popping up to offer so-called "magical services".

Behind the facade of today's Russia is a bizarre place unknown to most westerners, a world where businesspeople turn to urban witches for solutions to their problems and lawyers consult psychics to predict the results of upcoming cases. Although it's hard to get exact figures, there are an estimated 100,000 professional occultists and psychics in Russia, with the business worth at least $15m in Moscow alone.

But Kashpirovsky's hold over Soviet society remains, for many people here, something they would rather forget. His manhandling of their psyches has left some uncomfortable memories. Indeed, a recent opinion poll showed that while almost 90% of the Soviet Union watched Kashpirovsky's healing sessions, only 13% of Russians old enough to have done so will admit to having tuned in.

Nevertheless, despite warnings by health officials over Kashpirovsky's "record of causing serious harm to the nation", the man-in-black returned to Russia's TV screens in late 2009 as the host of a show dedicated to "paranormal investigations".

And then, this spring, he announced the restart of his mass healing sessions, including his first public appearance in the Russian capital for some two decades. With Russia struggling to emerge from a period of economic downturn and public discontent with the ruling Putin-Medvedev tandem at unprecedented levels, there was something undeniably symbolic about the return of the man whose rise to fame coincided with the collapse of the USSR.

Or was there more than mere coincidence to the timing of Kashpirovsky's second coming? There are those, among them Kashpirovsky's one-time professional colleagues in the field of human psychology, who believe that the psychic healer's comeback is an attempt by the authorities to placate Russian society, to divert attention from falling living standards and rising state brutality. But, if so, this plan may well turn out to be a double-edged sword.

"Kashpirovsky's reappearance at a critical moment for society is no coincidence," Boris Yegorov, head of the ethics committee of the all-Russian league of professional psychotherapists, tells me. "But his mass healing sessions are being permitted by people who know nothing about the psychology of the masses. They are counting on being able to calm people down, to remove some of the tension in society. But the authorities have lost touch with reality and are simply encouraging aggression," he adds. "When the public's hopes for Kashpirovsky are not justified, they will turn on those in power."

Kashpirovsky is reluctant to give face-to-face interviews, preferring to communicate via emails. Ahead of his return to Moscow, with the psychic in the middle of an Israeli tour catering to the vast number of immigrants from the former USSR, I fire off a letter giving him a chance to answer his critics.

"These are the ravings of crazy people," he replies, his fury losing none of its edge over the internet. "There will always be unrighteous critics. Their weapons are lies and slander. Their overwhelming motive is envy and their own inadequacy."

He never was one for pulling either his figurative or literal punches. I once saw a Russian talk show where he had attacked a fellow guest who was giving him a hard time, scrapping on the floor like an ageing street fighter. For the man who had kicked open the doors to a new, stranger reality for the Soviets, somehow it just didn't seem becoming.

While modern Russia has changed beyond recognition since Kashpirovsky's glory days, the country's passion for the esoteric is stronger than ever. But was the man who started off the whole craze impressed with his successors?

"This was all given a kick-start by my televised operations and programmes. After this, the public split into two parts – one half wanted to treat and the other half to be treated."

I liked that image: 50% of the nation seeking someone to psychically heal, the other 50% desperate to submit their cancers, growths and warts to extrasensory probing.

"This is coming to its inevitable end though," he continues. "This is down to the new saviours' inability to come up with the goods."

Was this a touch of jealousy? Or envy? Did he miss the days of glory, the years of Soviet-wide fame when his shows could empty streets?

Bizarrely, Kashpirovsky is not the only Russian psychic to have been the subject of political conspiracy theories. In 2005, prospective presidential candidate Grigori Grabovoi ("My first act will be to ban death") achieved immediate nationwide notoriety when he offered to use his otherworldly powers to resurrect, at a cost of $1,500 a corpse, the children killed in the Beslan terrorist act. An article in the Mikhail Gorbachev-funded opposition Novaya Gazeta paper claimed Grabovoi had been used by the Kremlin to discredit the Mothers of Beslan pressure group and their attempts to uncover the truth behind the attack. If so, the authorities were guilty of abandoning their man – Grabovoi was jailed for 11 years on fraud charges in 2008.

"I doubt if he was as much a danger to Russia as the people who so cruelly punished him," Kashpirovsky says. "I don't believe the allegations against him."

Kashpirovsky declines to comment further. Still, I couldn't fail but be impressed by this touching show of unity among psychics.

"It is not for nothing Anatoly Kashpirovsky calls his DVDs and photographs his heavy artillery," an authoritative female voice announces over the concert hall's sound system as the clock ticks down to the big comeback show.

"They possess a universal and remote healing effect. Even when his stay in your town or city is over, by using his material, it is as if Anatoly is really with you, gazing into your eyes," she goes on. "Some people place the DVDs under their pillows at night and others, mainly those suffering from heart problems, wear his photo under their shirts.

"At least 16 people were healed of total blindness last year by staring at Kashpirovsky's photograph," she concludes, before the pre-recorded message starts over again.

Actually, I'm not sure I got that last part right. Surely I must have misheard? Or does Kashpirovsky have such a low opinion of his followers that he has taken to outright mockery?

In any case, the punters don't need much persuading to part with their cash. Sales are frantic, with grannies jostling each other for a place in the ever-expanding queue.

"Give me the latest show, the freshest, the best," a red-faced, overweight pensioner says, thrusting forward a 1,000-rouble (£22) note along with her superlatives.

"That will be the Vladivostok show," the woman at the stall replies. "We've got a good one from Donetsk [eastern Ukraine] as well."

Next to part with their cash is a middle-aged couple from one of the former Soviet Central Asian republics. They are with their teenage son, who is in a wheelchair, and are clearly counting on him walking home after Kashpirovsky is through. They buy all the discs on offer, plus a large selection of photos.

When the last person has been served, the show finally gets under way, some 30 minutes behind schedule. Straightaway there is a surprise as a pre-recorded up-tempo acoustic rock number featuring vocals by Kashpirovsky himself kicks things off.

"I'm no sorcerer… but I can replace a million doctors," the psychic growls in an unexpectedly competent, Johnny Cash-style performance –albeit sung in Russian with a strong Ukrainian accent. As the last note fades away, Kashpirovsky makes his entry. The crowd stands up and applauds as if greeting royalty. Our host for the evening, clad in a black jacket and a crisp white shirt, grimaces and gestures impatiently for silence.

"How should I address you?" he ponders, gazing into the crowd. "Spectators, friends… citizens? None of these seem quite right."

"The sick?" someone suggests, the voice coming from just behind me.

"Computers," he says, giving no sign that he has heard. "You are computers ripe for programming."

Around me, people close their eyes and start to trance out – the lecture itself is apparently part of the healing process. It's not the words that are so important, but rather, as Kashpirovsky puts it, "the movement at a molecular level" that is going on while he litters his talk with enigmatic yet essentially meaningless phrases such as: "Man is far from the stars, yet the stars are even further from man."

"The most powerful medicine can only be obtained through non-medical means," he announces. "For example, if we hear the sound of shattering glass, we're frightened. Is that medicine? No. And when the sun warms your body – is this medicine? No, this is biochemistry… We must awaken the medicine within.

"I don't need your belief," Kashpirovsky states, spitting out the words as his monologue finally comes to an end. "Why would I? Does the violinist need the violin to trust in him? Does the sculptor the sculpture? Do I need this piece of paper to believe in me before I crumple it up and throw it away?"

Satisfied he has made his point, Kashpirovsky then invites members of the audience to join him on stage, to submit to his magic touch. The security guards are nearly trampled in the rush. I think about becoming part of the throng, to experience whatever powers Kashpirovsky claims to possess at first hand, but something holds me back. To be honest, I'm still not sure what.

Given the prevalence of pensioners in the audience, there is a remarkably sexually charged atmosphere in the hall, and the trance techno that suddenly starts blasting out of the speakers only adds to the air of abandon. The pounding drums and bass hammer through me and I can only imagine what the music is doing to the rest of the crowd, most of whom will never have experienced such rhythms before. "Hardcore, funky bass," declares a robotic voice and the keyboards kick in. This is a long way from the Soviet ballads and stirring proletariat anthems the majority of people here grew up on.

The "computers" approach Kashpirovsky one at a time. Some are hesitant, taking tiny steps, while others stride joyously across the stage. Kashpirovsky touches them, stares into their eyes for a second and they slump to the floor.

"But they do not sleep!" he declares, and indeed they do not, one of the woman on stage taking care to adjust her skirt to make sure she doesn't inadvertently flash her knickers.

I glance over to the boy in the wheelchair. His parents are arguing furiously with a security guard who will not allow them on stage. On the other side of the hall, a woman attempts to lead her blind husband up the steps to Kashpirovsky.

"No, no, no!" the psychic shouts. "He could hurt himself when he falls. Take him away. I will deal with him remotely."

The woman, distraught, her hopes for the evening dashed, whimpers something in reply, but the music drowns her out. There will be no healing tonight for the lame and the blind.

Before long, the stage is almost covered in fallen bodies. The scene reminds me of nothing so much as a processing line at a slaughterhouse. A few members of the crowd rise from their seats and begin to dance waltzes with unseen partners, ignoring the techno that continues to shake the building.

What must it do to a man's ego, this ability to stir up hysteria at the flick of a hand? With Kashpirovsky, it appears to have hardened his contempt for the great unwashed masses. It strikes me that his popularity might have something to do with the Russians' well-known longing for an iron fist, for authoritarian leaders. Just as I start to scribble the thought down in my notebook, the techno subsides, and Kashpirovsky begins to walk among those members of the crowd still in their seats. Instinctively, with the speed of a schoolboy concealing notes passed in class from the teacher, I hide my pen and paper.

Two rows over, a pensioner is sobbing, tears streaming down her face as Kashpirovsky stops in front of her to offer some life advice. Curiously, this consists mainly of: "Go home and eat vegetables for supper tonight," but we are beyond language, the woman's face crumpling immediately in a mixture of joy and sorrow, passion and regret.

The next day, the newspapers will round on Kashpirovsky, publishing reports stating that his "odious" performance had led to a number of people seeking medical assistance for psychosomatic illnesses ranging from intense headaches to ulcer pains.

The madness continues. A woman in her twenties, the one who concealed her knickers from the crowd, rises from the stage and glides towards Kashpirovsky. The look on her face reminds me of footage I have seen of the Manson family girls at Charles's trial. Devoted, blissed out, confused. She stands next to him, waiting for the object of her undivided attention to turn away from the pensioner. Kashpirovsky brushes her aside, barely glancing in her direction as he passes. "That's not how we do things," he says.

And then, as if he has had enough of the insanity all around him, as if he has tired of being worshipped, he gives the signal for the fallen to rise. Which they do, a little shaky at first, but with massive smiles on their faces.

"We've had a good evening," Kashpirovsky says. "And we've got plenty of DVDs in stock. If you do buy them, don't forget, never lend them to anyone."

And with that, he is gone.

The post-show atmosphere reminds me of the scene after the raves I attended in the early 1990s. Saucer-shaped eyes, streams of consciousness, strangers embracing one another. I half expect the loved-up pensioners to head off to a chill-out club.

I take the opportunity of all this comradeship to ask some questions. What I really want to know is as simple as this: were these people sick and, if so, do they now feel better?

"We were in a car crash six months ago," the overweight woman who wanted the "best" Kashpirovsky DVDs tells me, gesturing at her husband, a skinny fellow dressed all in black. "We suffered internal injuries," she goes on, an odd hint of pride in her voice.

And now?

"I felt my liver move in there," she says. "I'm going to get better, I'm sure."

I refrain from suggesting that the earth-shaking bass might have had something to do with that.

"It's bad that you are sceptical," her husband says, reading my expression. "Kashpirovsky is a wonderful man."

The girl whose undergarments just escaped public scrutiny is holding court a few feet away. "I just felt like I had to get up and go to him," she says. "He was like a magnet."

The grannies around her are hanging on her every word.

"Did he make me do that?" she wonders.

"Of course, love," one of the women whispers. "Everything he makes us do is for our own good."

I get in my questions.

"No, I'm not suffering from any illness," she says, not at all put out by my query. "My brother's schizophrenic though, so I thought I'd go and check out the show. To see if it could help him. I'm so glad I came."

The next people I talk to, a pair of middle-aged women who have the habit of finishing each other's sentences, are less enthusiastic.

"We have both been suffering from nasal problems for many years," the first says, sniffing as she speaks. "I can't say there has been a distinct improvement," the other adds. "But we will certainly watch the DVDs," her friend goes on, "and I'm sure that will do the trick."

I don't begrudge Kashpirovsky's followers their conviction that everything will turn out for the better, that their illnesses and pains will somehow miraculously disappear. This ability to believe passionately, for a short time at least, in the promises of charismatic figures is a very Russian trait.

From the Stalinist shockworkers who laboured in mines to hasten the dawn of communism to the Perestroika-era crowds who supported Yeltsin in his struggle against Kremlin hardliners, the Russians have always been ready to invest everything in the quest for a brighter day. But invariably their hopes have never lasted long, and the line between love and hate is so small here as to be barely discernible.

As I make my way to the exit, I pass the Central Asian couple and their disabled son. The mother is weeping openly, the father's face red with anger. The boy, a pile of Kashpirovsky products balanced in his hands, looks uncomfortable, bemused by all the commotion, as if he alone doubted all along that he would rise miraculously from his wheelchair.

A couple of pensioners comfort the mother, telling her that she must have faith, that the discs and the photos will eventually work their magic. She looks unconvinced, and her sorrow shows signs of turning to rage. Perhaps the warning that the public's inevitable disillusionment with Kashpirovsky.

I wonder where the conversation will go next and, simultaneously, where Russia's eternal passion for the paranormal and the occult will take it. But for now I have had enough and walk out into the Moscow night.

Marc Bennetts lives in Moscow and is a journalist and translator. He is the author of Football Dynamo (Random House, £8.99)