It is all a bit like a visit to an elderly relative - a favourite grandfather, perhaps. Although to be honest, I don’t recall my granddad ever talking to me of energy fields and healing powers.
As Chumak sits puffing away next to the extractor fan, it strikes me that I just can’t imagine sitting down for snacks with his great rival, Kashpirovsky. My mind refuses to even waste precious resources on trying to picture the scene – the Black Force just isn’t a tea and biscuits kind of guy.
“Kashpirovsky and I were complete opposites,” Chumak says, as if reading my mind “That’s why they eventually took the decision to replace me with him.”
Politics penetrate every sphere of life here. From sport to religion to the Eurovision Song Contest, political intrigue is never far away. The world of psychic healing is also, it seems, not immune.
“A new word – democracy – had appeared in Russia at that time,” he explains. “We’d heard it before of course, but no one knew what it meant. My televised sessions taught people the true meaning of democracy – individual freedom.”
What is he on about? What does freedom - at least as I understand it – have to do with a bespectacled psychic waving his hands around on television? Has fame gone to Chumak’s shaggy white head?
That is my initial reaction, at least. It is only later that I begin to see, partly anyway, and after long conversations with friends and acquaintances, where he is coming from.
Imagine a world where the Party was everything, where there could be no deviation from the norm, where the state media served only to forward the ideals of Marxism-Leninism – and then picture Chumak suddenly appearing on the screen and telling you to place jars of water all around your flat because he is going to charge it with a miraculous healing energy. To a people starved of external stimuli for so long, here was a figure you could really have an opinion about. And thanks to Gorbachev’s glasnost, you didn’t have to be too afraid of sharing it with your neighbour. Chumak’s shows were a breath of fresh air, a tantalizing glimpse of the world beyond the Soviet bloc.
Of course, this isn’t quite exactly how he sees it.
“My sessions - I didn’t speak, I didn’t give any orders – saw me enter into a give-and-take relationship with the people,” he says. “They instinctively sensed I was showing them the path to freedom.”
But I am confused. Where does Kashpirovsky come into all this?
“The totalitarian system we lived under just couldn’t allow this level of freedom, and Kashpirovsky – a trained hypnotist – was brought in to replace me, to return the people to their previous submissive state. It was more than a question of healing. It was good versus evil, freedom versus slavery.”
“But if Kashpirovsky could place his millions of viewers into a deep state of hypnosis, he was unable to bring them back out again,” Chumak goes on, really hitting his stride now. “They even showed his sessions at half-time during important football matches in an attempt to do so. But he failed.”
So Russia has been stuck in a trance for two decades? That, I reasoned, would explain the ongoing widespread nostalgia for all things Soviet.
There is a spring to my step as I leave Chumak and walk out into an unseasonably warm October afternoon. This might, I suppose, be partly down to the three cups of strong black tea I have downed, but it could also have something to do with the positive vibes flowing from the elderly psychic.
I am not convinced he can do all the things he claims to be able to do, and he is definitely guilty of inflating his own importance, but he is, I have decided, a good sort. It’s just a gut feeling, but there is no way I can believe he is a simple conman. He is simply far too passionate about his work.
Logic dictates then that he is either a genuine healer or utterly convinced he is. And if only the latter is true, and others believe in him as much as he believes in himself, then maybe faith really can work miracles? He and the countless healers like him were and remain for many people in Russia, faced with inadequate and even dangerous medical care, the last roll of the dice, the final opportunity to live a full and happy life.
After all, as Kashpirovsky once said: “Whether television healing produced results or not, for a large number of suffering people it was the last available chance…who ever cared about the people in our state?”
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 (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.