Occult, Spiritual Movements and Esoteric Doctrines in Russia

Occult, Spiritual Movements and Esoteric Doctrines in Russia
© Photograph by Yuliya Duzhnikova

After the collapse of the communist system, it was not only the established denominations (the Russian Orthodox Church, various Protestant churches) that experienced a boom in Russia, as people tried to fill the spiritual and ideological vacuum left behind by the previous system.

Numerous religious and spiritual movements, which current scientific classifies as occultism, esotericism or alternative religion have been offering ways of coping with life to a population that is looking for meaning.

As early as 1988 the national newspapers ran the first articles on UFOs, yoga and parapsychology that showed none of the aggressive and “unmasking” features previously characteristic of publications on these topics. Now, these areas were presented as merely “insufficiently researched” and “full of open questions”.

The pioneer of this process was the national newspaper Komsomol’skaia pravda, whose target audience was mostly the generation of 20-30-year-olds. Soon after the newspapers had broached the subject, books using the same neutral popular-scientific approach with regard to contentious issues began to appear.

The first newspaper exclusively specializing in this subject area appeared in 1990 under the title Anomaliia. Publisher and editorial board, who had set themselves the goal of providing unbiased reports on enigmatic phenomena, chose the following epigraph for their newspaper: “The miracle is not incompatible with nature but with what we know about nature.”

In the first two years, the paper’s print run reached 250,000 copies per issue. However, shortly afterwards the number of copies sold fell quickly, probably because of the emergence of a large number of rival publications on the same subject.

This newspaper still exists, if insignificantly modified form. However, the highest number of copies (up to 550,000 copies per monthly issue) has been reached by other specialized esoteric newspapers and journals, including Oracle, UFO, Secret Power, The Age of Aquarius, and Paranormal News (Orakul, NLO, Tainaia vlast’, Era Vodoleia, Anomal’nye novosti).

The largest of these, Oracle, belongs to the German media corporation Bauer and, unlike the above mentioned pioneering publications, has a strong commercial focus and relies heavily on advertising.

The newspaper is sold in Russia, Ukraine and other countries. However, it is marketed not as a yellow-press paper but a worldview- specific publication with an orientation towards popular science.

Political liberalization was followed by rapid growth in publications on all kinds of topics related to occult knowledge. The books of Blavatsky, Roerich, Gurdjieff, Andreev and other Russian and Western esotericists of the past came out in massive print runs.

The number of publicly acting healers, magicians and astrologers grew exponentially. Healing with the help of magic techniques was especially popular. Moreover, other movements that the author of this article considers to be at the margins of the esoteric subculture, such as Slavic neo-paganism and the concomitant Russian nationalism or traditional shamanism in Siberia and certain other Russian regions, have also seen an upturn.

Television played a special role in the process of spreading esoteric knowledge and skills in the years of Perestroika. The uniqueness of this historic moment probably consists in the fact that the mass media were still highly centralized when the Soviet Union collapsed, while state control over the information presented in these media suddenly disappeared. This is why those who managed to gain prominence on television as esotericists during this time quickly acquired country-wide fame.

The first popular subject was healing. On March 31st, 1988, the Ukrainian doctor Anatolii Kashpirovskii (b. 1939) performed a live operation on the show Vzgliad, using a kind of hypnosis as an anaesthetic.

On October 9th, 1989 the public channel Ostankino, which can be received all over Russia, began broadcasting Kashpirovskii’s healing séances.

In 1989, the Muscovite Allan Chumak (b. 1935), a trained sports coach and journalist, appeared with similar séances for the first time. While live on television he charged water, food and other items with healing energy, solely by gesticulating, unlike Kashpirovskii, who pronounced some formulae.

The next vogue was astrology. In January 1989, the astrologist Pavel Globa (b. 1953), a trained historian and archivist, and his wife Tamara made their first appearance on the Leningrad channel The Fifth Wheel (Piatoe koleso). Pavel Globa had been teaching astrology underground since the late 1970s, for which he was charged for anti-Soviet agitation and imprisoned.

The Globas have made a significant contribution to the popularity of astrology among the broad masses of the Russian population, mostly by propagating astrology as a form of ancient esoteric knowledge with links to Zoroastrianism. Their prognoses for the future, including politics, which they regularly presented on television, also became popular with ordinary Russians.

The third very popular area of applied occultism was magic. In the late 1980s–early 1990s, also on television, the Ukrainian Iurii “Longo” Golovko (1956– 2006) gained notoriety as a practitioner of white, practical magic. The phenomena demonstrated included levitation and even the resurrection of the dead. Later on, he switched to individual consultations. In the last years of his life, Longo frequently spoke about his plans to found a “practical religion” that would help people to do the right thing in various situations.

Although these individuals were national celebrities in the late 1980s, they no longer have the same influence on the population as they used to, but they remain active to the present day, mostly in the esoteric milieu.

Kashpirovskii, for example, has been on several short tours throughout Russia since 2005, even though his performances no longer draw large audiences and there have been several protests against his “charlatanism” in several towns (Novgorod, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii).

Allan Chumak toured Germany for a month in 2005, giving séances in various towns. Just like Kashpirovskii, he seems most popular among Russian émigrés who left in the late 1980s–early 1990s and maintains links to aspects of Russian culture that were prominent during that historical period (e.g. pop singers who have long since fallen into oblivion in Russia itself).

Pavel Globa still reads the horoscope every morning on one of the commercial television channels and publishes articles in newspapers and journals. He also advises politicians and businessmen.

During the market reforms of the 1990s, the range of esoterically oriented materials and activities grew so large that now there is a large number of active magicians, astrologers and healers. However, what they all have in common is that their practice is usually limited to a single service to a single customer (“client”).

This service can entail information or advice (in the case of astrologers and tarot readers) or healing and/or health promotion (the two kinds of healers most common in Russia are called celiteli and ekstrasensy).

These representatives of the esoteric sub-culture in contemporary Russia are not organized in institutions (associations etc.), which makes establishing their correct number next to impossible. Representatives of the esoteric subculture often advertise in free magazines, complete with photos.

Due to the overall lack of both institutional organization and written sources, providing a structural overview of this part of the Russian esoteric milieu is possible only to a minimal degree. In addition to the first differentiation according to specialization — astrologers, tarot readers, magicians etc. — first attempts have been made in the literature to divide, for example, those esotericists who engage in various kinds of healing practice into subgroups according to the primary method of healing they use. Perhaps the same approach could be used in order to structure the milieu of magicians, wizards and fortune-tellers.

However, the scene in contemporary Russia is not limited to those representatives of the esoteric subculture we have subsumed under the term “suppliers of exclusively applied esotericism”. Next to them we find those who specialize mostly in the dissemination and/or teaching of different schools, training systems and practices.

These systems and practices offer different focal points to their followers, e.g. influence on the human body (like Malakhov’s ‘Cleansing of the Organism’, (Ochishchenie organizma), Levshinov’s How to get a Perfect Figure (Kak sdelat’ figuru velikolepnoi) or Norbekov’s ‘Path towards Youth and Health’ (Tropinka k bodrosti i zdorov’iu), the development of certain abilities that the majority of people do not possess (Zolotov, Klein, the “late” Norbekov and Bronnikov) or how to bring about fundamental changes in the relationship between man and his surroundings (Lazarev, Sinel’nikov und Sviiash).

This theoretically founded section of the esoteric subculture includes bioenergetics (often also called psychics), the development of psychic abilities, as well as several approaches from the field of practical psychology as long as they appeal to the existence of supernatural forces or laws.

Some of the most important forms of knowledge transfer for the representatives of this second section of the esoteric subculture are the so-called “seminars for personality development”. One of the first such seminars was held in 1988 in Southern Siberia by Boris Zolotov and his closest disciples, Nikolai Denisov and Aleksandr Klein.

Zolotov (b. 1947) is a native of the city of Odessa and from the family of a military rocket engineer and member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He calls himself a “specialist in complex systems”.

According to the participants in his seminars, Zolotov allegedly possesses healing — and other unusual abilities. During the 1990s Zolotov regularly held seminars in different cities in the Ukraine (Kiev, Kherson, Krivoi Rog), Bulgaria, Hungary and Russia.

A large Zolotov-seminar took place from July 10th to September 10th in Evpatoriia (Crimea). Zolotov’s methods for working with his disciples resemble the ones used by the Sufis: knowledge is transferred not directly (verbally) but must reveal itself to the disciple, without further action from the teacher, during the process of living through certain situations in which his teacher has placed him. Zolotov himself says he is teaching “expert-operative interaction”.

Another important way of communicating esoteric knowledge in contemporary Russia, both theoretical and practical, is through books. The pioneer in this field was Gennadii Malakhov (b. 1954), who published his first book on this topic, ‘Cleansing of the Organism and Diet’ (Ochishchenie organizma i pitanie), in 1991 in the small southern town of Staryi Oskol.

This book was followed by several others and, according to ‘Book Market Survey’ (Knizhnoe obozrenie), by 1995 Malakhov (b. 1954) had sold more than four million copies of his highly esteemed four volumes. He still lives in his native town of Kamensk– Shakhtinskii in the Rostov area in southern Russia. He regularly travels the country, meets his followers, publishes a newspaper, has his own television show and owns the publishing house Genesha.

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