After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the introduction of wanton capitalism, smalltime Russian entrepreneurs took advantage of the new and novel opportunities to advertise their skills. Inspired by the success of Kremlin-backed psychics Allan Chumak and Anatoly Kashpirovsky, the country’s many occultists quickly joined in the fun.
At first, many of these adverts were simple: pieces of paper tacked to lampposts offering to magically treat alcoholism or family problems, telephone numbers scrawled on as almost an afterthought. Flash forward to the first decade of the 21st century, and in a nod to the realities of urban life, the vast majority of Russia’s wizards, witches and psychics now have their own Internet sites.
But while many witches and wizards operate exclusively in the virtual sphere, there are thousands more who meet clients in the real world, renting office space, employing staff, and registering with the authorities.
Marina’s stylish and well-laid out website boasted that she was one of the top operators in her field, able to “see” the past, present and future and to alter events using a range of powers for her clients’ benefit. My visit to her office took me to southeast Moscow, through a grimy residential area and a street market selling dried fish, beer and pirate DVDs.
There were about 10 women, mostly middle-aged, overweight and harassed-looking, in her tiny waiting room. They looked at me as I walked in, and I stared back. It was obvious that they were all wondering what problem I needed fixing.
Maybe they suspected I was looking to give my business a magical boost? Or perhaps I was just unlucky in love? I hadn’t had time to wash my hair that morning; could it be they figured I wanted Marina to provide some supernatural solution to the age-old problem of the bad-hair day? Were it not for the “No speaking! Talking disturbs the specialists!” sign, I would have tried to find out.
“I usually see around 20 clients a day,” Marina told me, after introducing me to her two-year-old owl, Sofia. “Sometimes more.”
Marina had a lullaby-style way of speaking, a tuneful drone that, coupled with the pungent incense and candle smoke, was making me feel oddly drowsy. Was she perhaps trying to hypnotise me?
“What are the main things people come to you about?” I asked, getting in a question of my own to break up the flow of her patter.
“Personal lives, business, health, and career issues.”
“I can help a person get a promotion, to move up the career ladder.”
But what about the concept of meritocracy? Surely this was bad for Russia’s development? After all, the country already had a big enough problem with ingrained nepotism as it was.
“My powers come with a maximum six-year guarantee,” Marina told me. “After that period is over, if the person hasn’t cemented their position, there is nothing I can do.”
I wasn’t quite satisfied with her answer, but I pressed on. I had decided that non-confrontation was the best approach, and asked her to outline her powers to me.
“They are a mixture of psychic and magical abilities as yet unknown to science,” she said, smiling. “I can mould reality.”
“There is however only one thing that I cannot alter, and that is death. All I can do is give a person a little bit more time on the planet. But even if they manage to avoid death on the appointed day, it will claim them in the near future.”
A bit like the plot of the Final Destination films, then?
“In a way,” nodded Marina, obviously a fellow horror fan. “You know, films and books, especially horror and sci-fi, often tap into the true nature of things, even if the writer isn’t aware how near he is to the truth.”
“Another film that is close to the way things really are is Minority Report with Tom Cruise. The movie where the authorities employ psychics.”
Based, I pointed out, on the short story by legendary science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. However, Marina, obviously no Dickhead, shrugged. “I haven’t read it,” she said.
Marina advertised herself as a psychic, but the services she offered were exactly the same as those listed on thousands of websites that offered “magical services.” So I posed the big question; given that she admitted to using magical powers, was she also a witch?
“Good question,” said Marina. “I guess we all have a witch or a wizard inside us.”
It was only later that I found out that Marina’s decision to advertise her powers as “paranormal,” rather than “magical” had its roots in Russia’s complex legal code.
Since 2008, the snappily named Federal Scientific Clinical Center for Traditional Methods of Diagnostics and Healing has been issuing permits (for around $500) to practitioners of what it calls “traditional medicine” – an extremely broad definition that includes folk medicine and psychic healers. But not magic. That, after all, would be ridiculous.
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.