Deeper Than Oil: One nation under a spell

From rumors of Stalin’s magical powers to Yeltsin’s obsession with getting “energy from stones,” the Moscow elite have long shared their countrymen’s passion for the occult and the paranormal.

From rumors of Stalin’s magical powers to Yeltsin’s obsession with getting “energy from stones,” the Moscow elite have long shared their countrymen’s passion for the occult and the paranormal.

In 1920, three years after the Bolsheviks seized power, the Cheka state security organization (the forerunners to the KGB), was tipped off about a gathering of occult masters on the outskirts of what was then Petrograd, now St. Petersburg.

According to Russian biophysicist Alexander Chizhevsky, who witnessed the secret police operation, the Cheka officers burst into the building and arrested the occultists in the middle of an attempt to place curses on Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky by concentrating their powers on photos of the Soviet leaders. The would-be psychic assassins were shot out-of-hand.

While they were obviously wary of the unknown, the Soviets also sought to exploit occult powers for the promotion of world communism. In 1921, an expedition headed by scientist Alexander Barchenko was sent to northern Russia’s Kola Peninsula. It’s goal? To uncover the remains of the ancient civilization that was thought to have once thrived there, and discover its secrets, believed to include the ability to split the atom.

Although Barchenko claimed to have discovered a passageway leading beneath the earth during his trip to the remote region, the Soviet Union would have to wait over another 30 years before harnessing the power of the atom. Barchenko would not live to celebrate the achievement, though, as he was executed by the Soviet secret police in 1938. Perhaps he should, Alice-like, have plunged down the tunnel to another world?

Aside from widespread, albeit whispered, rumors that Stalin was an occult adept himself, the 1930s saw speculation that the dictator made use of the unearthly powers of one Natalya Lvova, “a third generation witch”. Shakeups in the top ranks of the Party, which usually meant a trip to the Gulag for the unfortunate official, were said by terrified Muscovites to be the result of Stalin and Lvova’s black magic Kremlin sessions.

This state interest in the supernatural and the paranormal continued unabated after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Boris Yeltsin giving the green light to a number of bizarre projects, including one that saw state funds pumped into a scheme to “extract energy from stones.”

During an early 1990s visit to the Russian Academy of Sciences, Yeltsin shocked scientists by mumbling, “Is it possible to extract energy from stones?” an article in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper claimed.

The academics asked him to clarify.

“Straight out of stones.”

When told that, unfortunately, it was not, Yeltsin replied, “They reported to me that it was.”

“In this case, you were reported to by fraudsters,” elderly Academy member Eduard Kruglyakov retorted.

In 1999, the last year of Yeltsin’s catastrophic and chaotic reign, Kruglyakov, never one for sucking up to the authorities, would state in a scathing Novaya Gazeta piece that, “there are psychics working in every security organ in the Russian Federation.”

“In December 1995, 127 psychics in the pay of the Ministry of Emergency Services spent two weeks searching for a passenger plane that had disappeared off Khaborovsk [in Russia’s Far East.] The remains of the plane were only eventually located, and in a matter of hours, when the ministry decided to make use of air defense radar systems,” the scientist wrote in a scathing article in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Indeed, as a brochure for a Natural Law conference in Holland in 1994 I recently came across proved, Russian officials in the immediate post-Soviet era were not too choosy about what ideas they were seen to be giving their backing to.

The Amsterdam gathering of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi followers was devoted to the concept of ‘Invincible Defence” and featured “delegations, military observers and scientists” from around the world. ‘Invincible Defence,’ it turned out after an examination of the text, a combination of pseudo-science and almost impenetrable mysticism, involved the creation of groups of Yogic Flyers (who all bore an uncanny appearance to Beatle’s guitarist George Harrison) to protect the borders of every country in the world, making war impossible and ushering in a new era of peace.

But, apart from a rogue German air officer and an enthusiastic Mozambique defense official, the remaining “military observers and scientists” were all, oddly enough, Natural Law members. All except that is a rather bashful looking Colonel Yuri Chudov, a representative of the Russian Ministry of Defence, and Colonel General Yuri Rodionov, a member of the Russian lower house of parliament and the former vice defense minister of the Soviet Union.

While the Vladimir Putin-era has so far been notable for its absence of any overt state interest in the occult or the paranormal (or as a former KGB man, perhaps Putin is simply better at covering up the Kremlin’s forays into the unknown?), the supernatural is obviously still very much on certain Russian politicians’ minds.

In late 2008, just before the presidential term of office was controversially extended from four to six years, a member of the LDPR, one of modern Russia’s largest political parties, proposed instead increasing the period to seven years.

The reasoning behind the proposal was not a desire to give Putin, widely expected to run again for the presidency in 2012, longer in the job without the inconvenience of elections.  No, as MP Sergei Ivanov explained to parliament, he simply wanted to avoid any dealings with the number of the beast.

“Six is connected with bad beliefs. But seven is a good number,” he expounded.

His fellow MPs failed to pass his proposal.

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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.

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