Moscow is not Russia, goes the saying. To experience the genuine nature of things here, you have to travel out of the capital to the provinces. In many ways, that’s true. Compared to large parts of the regions, Moscow is a veritable paradise, “The Best City on Earth,” as the breathless placards in the run-up to the annual City Day celebrations put it.
But as far as the nation’s occult mania goes, the expression is way off the mark. The provinces are as mental about magic as Moscow. Perhaps even more so.
When Tatiana Zhenova moved from east Siberia to the central Russian city of Voronezh in 1990, one of the first things she noticed was that there were witches all over her new hometown. Such things existed in Siberia, of course, but Voronezh was a veritable witches’ coven.
On the buses, in the state-produce stores, on street corners, there were cackling crones everywhere she looked. Although Hollywood horror was kind of hard to get hold of in the Soviet Union, Tatiana agreed, after a bit of prompting from me, that her experience was like the plot of one of those many teen supernatural films from the late 1980s or early 1990s.
“I guess so,” she said, shrugging.
We were sitting in a small café in central Voronezh, munching on margarita pizzas and talking of the occult. I liked the juxtaposition. Another thing I liked was that no one so much as glanced in our direction when we spoke of witches and spells and curses.
“My mother told me that Voronezh was an occult center, and after that I would see those witches everywhere,” Tatiana, now a journalist with a local paper, told me. “You would get on the bus and there would always be some old wrinkled crone sitting in the corner, muttering to herself and giving everyone the evil eye.”
Protection against the evil eye is one of the most lucrative lines of business for witches and wizards. Of course, for a similar fee, they are also more than happy to curse your love or business rivals. Or anyone else you happen to dislike, come to that. Which kind of made me wonder if they would also sell protection against their own evil eyes? And if so, how exactly did that work?
“I tried not to pay them much attention though,” Tatiana went on, “even though friends told me how they went to see them to get guys to fall in love with them or to help them or their relatives overcome illnesses.”
That last bit was weird, I thought. I mean, love is a mysterious thing of the heart, and maybe magic really can have an influence here. But health matters? Why didn’t they go to see a doctor?
Tatiana laughed. “This isn’t Moscow. The hospitals here, all over the provinces in fact, are deathtraps. The doctors are corrupt. Besides, didn’t you once experience one of our hospitals?”
She was right. I had almost forgotten, or, at least tried to blank the experience from my mind. In 1999, I was unlucky enough, or stupid enough, depends how you look at it, to get into a punch-up with a gang of skins in the city and ended up in a state hospital on the edge of town with a fractured arm.
The ambulance journey there was almost a parody of an Englishman’s experiences in the heartland of provincial Russia, the driver constantly turning back to me to quiz me on “his favorite British author,” James Herriot, of All Creatures Great and Small fame.
“So, has he got any new books coming out? Is he still a practicing vet? Have you met him?”
It was when we arrived in the hospital that things got really bad though. The stray, filthy dogs running wild in the corridors seemed through the pain like canine hallucinations, beasts from hell designed to torment me. Or bite chunks out of me at least. The semi-snockered doctor immediately set about grilling me over NATO’s recent bombing of Belgrade, cursing Bill Clinton and calling me half-jokingly “an English spy.”
I left with my arm in a crude sling, staggering past a teenager slumped in the corridor with half his face burnt off and stumbled through the surrounding forest to the main road, where I hitched a lift back into town.
The oil boom may have made a small number of Russians obscenely rich and transformed Moscow into a vibrant and exciting city, but it has done little for social infrastructure in the forgotten provinces. In state hospitals all across Russia patients are left in corridors until they stump up bribes for a bed in a ward, operations are routinely and fatally bungled, and diagnoses are dangerously inaccurate.
I had to agree with Tatiana. Were I given the choice again of going to a provincial state hospital or visiting a wizard or a witch, even I might plump for the occult option.
“My best friend even went to see a psychic healer to help cure her husband’s impotence,” Tatiana told me, lowering her voice to impart this last piece of information. Erectile dysfunction was obviously far more shocking than witches and wizards for the good citizens of Voronezh.
I took another bite of pizza.
“He had dumped some girl before he married my friend and she was convinced that she had gone and paid someone to put the evil eye on him.”
Was the psychic able to help?
“I’m not sure. She didn’t say anything about it again. They got divorced recently though, so maybe not. Still, that could have had something to do with his heavy drinking.”
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.