In (Post) Soviet Russia, Occult Healers Outnumber Doctors

Josh Clark

Russia's passed some weird benchmark recently. RIA Novosti, the state-owned news agency, reports that a World Health Organization survey found that there are around 800,000 witches and sorcerers operating in Russia today. That's 160,000 more occult healers than registered physicians, which means that Russia, as the RIA article put it, "has more occult healers than doctors." That's that weird benchmark I referred to a moment ago.

I remember as a kid being told that the Soviets were godless and outlawed church. I also remembering my eyebrows furrowed and I became more suspicious of things I was told when I was shortly after told that churches in the USSR didn't have pews; everybody had to stand. Eventually, I figured out that there was some kind of crossing of wires between the storied bread lines and the fact that Eastern Orthodox churches don't contain pews because it's holier to remain standing during mass.

As it turns out, there is some truth to this. Communism tends to look down on the church, as it jockeys for control with the glorious state. And the Soviet Union in particular did crack down on the practice of religion during its time. And yet, there has always remained a real fascination with the supernatural, whether it be scientific or the occult. Just prior to the Revolution, the mystic Rasputin held sway over the Romanov court. After the Bolsheviks took power and the state repressed faith, Cold War Russia funded the scientists who were on the leading edge of research into the practical applications of concepts like brainwashing and mind control.

Men like Igor Smirnov received professorships and grants to research psychoecology, the shaping of one's surroundings to influence one's mental states. Others, like competing psychic healers, Anatoliy Kashpirovsky and Alan Chumak, were broadcast regularly to millions of Soviets just before the fall of the USSR to heal viewers in their homes using ESP. Still others, like Yakov Smirnoff, went unheeded.

Like Smirnoff, Smirnov was successful enough to have developed a reputation in the West. In an awesome Wired article, there's a report of the FBI calling him in to the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco to operate his mind control soundtrack, which is said to be akin to the sound of squealing pigs.

So Russia's acquaintance with the supernatural never went away; it simply transmuted from faith in traditional healers into an interest in more humanistic supernaturalism, like psychology. At least as far as the state was concerned. As the people go, apparently they simply kept quiet for 69 years. As the Soviet Union dissolved an explosion in interest in the occult surfaced. Today, that interest has been normalized, and the Web and print publications are awash in ads for Magicheski Uslugi, or magical services, which range from occult solutions to alcoholism and fruitful outcomes in court to curses for 2o euros, RIA reports. As much as 1/5 of Russians say they've used these services at some point.

I'm glad to realize that the Russians haven't gotten any less fascinating since the Iron Curtain fell.

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