When I first moved to Russia in 1997, despite only initially knowing about ten words of the language, I would buy a couple of papers every morning and attempt to decipher them with the help of my brand new Russian-English dictionary. The broadsheets, I figured, would most likely prove too tough to decode, and so I opted instead for the tabloids. There’s nothing quite like the gutter press for getting to the heart of a nation’s passions and obsessions, and Russia is no exception.
After skimming the sports pages, and picking up such vital additions to my vocabulary as “shtrafnoi - “free-kick,” and “uglovoi” - “corner,” I would flick through the classified ads. Among the usual dentists, plumbers and cockroach exterminators, I was surprised to see page after page of adverts for witches, wizards and psychics, all of them offering to solve my everyday problems for a reasonable sum. Intrigued by the images of mysterious women in black and serious, slightly menacing sorcerers, I reached for my trusty dictionary.
While a more organized student of Russian would undoubtedly have been building his basic vocabulary, learning crucial phrases like “Can I call my embassy?” and “Where can I buy a plug?” I instead spent my time filling my notebooks with occult terms - “vyedma - witch,” “koldovstvo - sorcery,” “proklyatiye - curse,” and so on.
I doubted they would be very helpful, but it was certainly a lot more fun than cramming up on more down-to-earth phrases. I also looked forward to Russians wondering why I was able to say “cast a spell” in their native tongue, but not, for example, “pass me the spoon, please.”
As it turned out though, the new additions to my vocabulary weren’t quite as useless as I had imagined. In fact, they came in downright handy.
My attraction to the occult ads was born of a more than a minor interest in the subject.One summer in south London, in the leafy district of Brockley to be precise, I’d forced myself to read from front to back Aleister Crowley’s seminal, yet extremely hard-going, “Magick,” and I’d made a sincere attempt to explore the astral realms that the “wickedest man in the world” had described. After all, I reasoned, they had to be more interesting than Brockley, home to UK soul star Gabrielle, future Manchester City winger Shaun Wright-Phillips and not much else. Disappointed with the results of my attempt to escape south London through the power of the mind, I left shortly afterwards for the much more tangible and accessible alternate reality that is modern Russia.
Of course, upon my arrival, I already knew all about Grigory Rasputin, the mystic whose malign influence over Tsar Nicholas II and his wife led to the collapse of the Russian monarchy. I’d heard the stories of his involvement with the self-flagellating Khlysty sect and his rumored psychic powers. I had also read about Madam Blavatsky, the 19th-century Russian-born spiritualist who claimed to be in touch with “secret masters” in Tibet.
But Russia for me was a serious place, full of bearded dissidents and earnest intellectuals. Surely over seven decades of communism had dampened this occult passion? I couldn’t have been more wrong. Rasputin not only had heirs - they were thriving.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that the Russians were still utterly obsessed with magic and the paranormal. Although it’s obviously hard to get exact figures, there are an estimated 400,000 plus professional occultists in Russia, with the business worth, according to some reports, up to $2 billion a year. That’s a lot of spells and a lot of cash floating around, whichever way you look at it. The advertising of “magical services” has been banned recently, but – as ever in Russia – loopholes have been found.
Over a beer, friends would tell me of love spells cast on acquaintances, while in more formal settings businesspeople would confess that they made use of clairvoyants or psychics to aid them in decision-making.
On top of all this, there were the Kremlin-backed psychic healers whose shows had drawn audiences of millions, the dozens of sects scattered across the country’s vast wilderness, and the media savvy shamans who never seemed to be out of the news. Not to mention, if the police were to be believed, a rapidly growing Satanic underground.
Walking home at night through forests of concrete tower blocks, I would picture the occupants of the flats carrying out magical rituals in their bedrooms or casting spells in their living rooms. Flickering shadows behind curtains invariably took on sinister qualities as my imagination, fueled by my longtime love of horror films, ran wild.
Were the old women I saw on the subway with plastic bags full of market produce on their way home to knock out potions in their tiny kitchens? Was that old guy with the beard and the intense eyes a master of the dark arts? After all, if the statistics were right, some of the people I saw every day had to be witches or wizards. Or, at the very least, psychics.
Obviously, though, I tried hard not to stare too much.
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, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).