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On protest, propaganda, religion, and exile.
Four essays about Putin's Russia by Alissa Ordabai.

The Occult Prong of the Kremlin's Propaganda Machine 

The Occult Prong of the Kremlin's Propaganda Machine

by Alissa Ordabai

One sunny May afternoon in 2017, a 14 year-old Alina Guseinova left her home in the small town of Kaspiysk in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, Russia, to travel to the nearby town of Makhachkala to visit her friend. On her way to the railway station she rang her mother to let her know about the short trip she was about to take. When late in the evening she did not return home, her parents tried to call her cell phone. It was switched off. A search began that same evening, headed by Alina’s mother and unsupported by the police. The family spent the next two weeks searching and trying to persuade the police to cooperate. Thirteen days later Alina’s body was found on the grounds of an abandoned railroad factory in Makhachkala. The coroner told her parents the cause of death could not be established “due to advanced decomposition of the remains.”

The police registered the crime report filed by Alina’s family but thought it unnecessary to begin an investigation. “I am being completely ignored by the Kaspiysk police investigators,” Alina’s mother was saying to the local press shortly after the discovery of her daughter’s body. “They are looking upon me as if I were a fool and try to convince me that she simply went there and died.” She wrote complaints and petitions to the local chief of police while her lawyer kept demanding an audience with the Dagestan head of law enforcement.

Then, in September, after exposure in the local press, the case made it to the “watch list” of the Chief Prosecutor of Dagestan, meaning extra attention to the investigation. The police, however, insisted on pursuing a suicide line of inquiry, something Alina’s family fiercely disagreed with. Having tried in vain to convince the detectives that Alina had been a bustling, happy teenager, her mother ended up taking a desperate step: She traveled to Moscow to participate in one of the most watched reality TV shows in Russia, “The Battle of Psychics.” Answers the police was failing to provide she was now hoping to receive from clairvoyants.

In December 2017 an episode of “The Battle of Psychics” featuring Alina’s case aired on TNT, one of the top five most popular channels in Russia, owned by the state-controlled oil and gas giant Gazprom. Four self-proclaimed psychics were challenged to establish Alina’s cause of death. One, a shaman, told Alina’s mother her daughter died after jumping from the roof a building. The other, an “urban witch” claimed Alina was attacked by a group of men and killed for wearing “masculine clothes.” Finally, a self-described psychic Konstantin Getsati announced he managed to “tune” into Alina’s final hours and see things “through her eyes.” He said the culprits were three young men who followed Alina along the railroad tracks and killed her, hiding her body underneath an empty container in an abandoned railroad factory. He even gave a description of all three: one, he said, was baled, the other one hunched, and the third one wore a hooded top. Two weeks later the public voted Getsati the winner of the 2017 season of the show.

A Russian mass culture staple, “The Battle of Psychics” ran its first season in 2007 and continues to broadcast every fall, regularly entering the annual top ten of the most watched TV shows in Russia. Millions of viewers revel in following the purportedly unscripted real-life situations where self-promoted psychics and sorcerers attempt to find missing people, diagnose illnesses, and identify evildoers in unsolved murder cases. It’s hard to tell if Getsati was able to give a sense of closure to Alina’s family, but as of today the case remains unresolved, as far as this writer is aware.

For all its sinister audacity, “The Battle of Psychics” is by no means an oddity in the Russian media landscape. On the contrary — it is a standard and a norm of the present-day mainstream TV which has been swarming with “occult” shows since the early 2000s. Similar mainstream programs are abundant: “The Psychics vs. the Detectives” on NTV (another Gazprom-owned channel), “The Mysteries of the World” on REN TV presented by an ex-spy Anna Chapman, as well as the entire TV-3 network dedicated exclusively to the supernatural with its plethora of “occult documentaries,” mystical reality shows, and drama series about the paranormal. Just like TNT and NTV, TV-3 too is owned by Gazprom.

If during the Soviet times anything to do with the paranormal was viewed by the media as “atavistic” and “anti-scientific,” today’s Russia is embracing the occult with a wholehearted abandon. In a poll conducted in 2015 by the state-owned and government-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) 48% of respondents admitted to believing in sorcery and 55% — in human fate being pre-destined. Estimates show that up to a million of witchdoctors, magicians, necromancers, sorcerers and psychics operate their businesses in Russia. Many of them are quasi-legitimatized by licensing bodies which range from dubious private clubs to well-known public organizations, such as the Vinogardov Center (run by a former high-ranking police psychologist come media personalty Mikhail Vinogradov) and the Russian Ministry of Health which issues licenses to practitioners of “folk medicine”.

According to other estimates, in 2016 the turnover of “occult service providers” amounted to 2 billion USD.

How it all Began: The occult mania under Gorbachev and Yeltsin 


Although the official Soviet rhetoric denied the existence of the supernatural and condemned any such interest as “anti-scientific superstition,” when the Soviet Union collapsed, overwhelmingly large numbers of ordinary people began to admit their belief in the paranormal. According to a VTsIOM poll, two thirds of respondents surveyed in April 1990 did not believe in the success of Gorbachev’s reforms, but believed in telekinesis, telepathy, and extrasensory abilities of celebrity faith healers such as Alan Chumak and Anatoly Kashpirovsky. In 1988, just three years before the final collapse of the USSR, a series of broadcasts of Chumak’s and Kashpirovsky’s “remote healing seances” began to air on state television, signaling the end of the official materialist ideology. The programs drew millions of Russians to TV screens many of whom later reported spontaneous remission of chronic illnesses. Soon after, other media followed suit. In 1991 Moskovskiy Komsomolets, the official newspaper of the Young Communists League, began publishing the country’s first daily astrological forecast.

While Chumak and Kashpirovsky alleged doctrine-neutral phenomena such as “water memory” and “remote healing,” already by 1993 the seemingly harmless popular fascination with the mystical took a messianic turn when Sergei Lazarev published his bestseller “Diagnostics of Karma.” Lazarev, a man of no formal education beyond high school at the time when he published the book, “diagnosed” ordinary people’s physical ailments and relationship problems as “karma’s punishments” for what he called “egoism,” “striving for independence,” “attempts at self-determination,” and “individualism.” “Pride” and “attachment to ideals and principles” were classified by Lazarev as the gravest “karma-damaging factors”.

Since its first publication in 1993, Lazarev sold over a million copies of “Diagnostics of Karma” in Russia alone and to this day continues to tour the Russian Federation, Israel, and Eastern Europe with lectures and seminars, drawing a steady attendance of Russian-speaking followers — a remarkable feat for a man who as of today can only claim an undergraduate degree in business from a teacher college St. Petersburg and a one-year psychology diploma from the St. Petersburg State University as his academic credentials. Among his most recent public statements is the announcement that “Russia will save the entire world” and that “Stalin saved Russia.”

In the wake of Lazarev’s popularity, many more self-proclaimed spiritual leaders emerged in the early 1990s, each armed with a set of edicts on designated behaviors for followers. Maria Devi Christos (born Marina Mamonova in 1960 in Stalino, Ukraine, and a former communist party member) recruited tens of thousands of followers to her White Brotherhood sect. She called herself “the Mother of the Universe” and during the short time between 1990 and 1991 managed to establish a chapter in almost every major city of the USSR. Mamonova’s husband Yuri Krivonogov, before co-founding the sect with his wife, worked at the Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine in Novosibirsk and collaborated on projects with the Laboratory of the Nikolaev Oblast KGB Directorate, which conducted the so-called “mind control experiments” from the early to the late 1980s.

In the late 1990s the Yeltsin administration made several half-hearted attempts to control the booming interest in the paranormal. In 1996 the Russian Ministry of Health issued an administrative order seeking to regulate psychotherapists and faith healers. Although this piece of legislation was repealed in 2007, at the time it made some waves. Shortly after its enactment, Chumak and Kashpirovsky were banned from TV and Maria Devi Christos was sentenced to four years in prison by a Kiev court. She was released on parole in 1997 and as of today is actively engaged in pro-Russian political agitation in Ukraine, describing herself as “a fighter against the Kiev Junta,” against “the reptiloids,” and against “Satan’s children” while labeling the European Union as “a noose for all Slavic People”.

But despite the hesitant efforts of the Yeltsin government to curb the paranormal fad in mid-1990s, according to some researchers this was exactly the time when it became unstoppable. Philosopher Valentina Yarskaya-Smirnova of the Saratov State Technical University and sociologist Pavel Romanov identify this time as the turning point where the paranormal became validated in the Russian mass consciousness and legitimized by the media with the tacit approval of the political establishment. The Commission on Pseudo-Science, a division of the Russian Academy of Science, upheld this view in its 1999 report which, among other things, warned of the “impeding takeover of the public discourse by organized pseudo-science.” But it wouldn’t be until Putin’s time when the Russian government would begin using the power of the mass belief in the occult to its full capacity.

Secret agent werewolves digging for oil: Occult imagery in the mass culture of Putin’s Russia

After Putin came to power in 2000, his government took a very different view on the subject of the occult from that of the ambivalent confusion of the Yeltsin administration. The occult was now allowed a prominent spot not only in mass media — including the state-sponsored TV — but also in popular political discourse. The ascent of Vladislav Surkov, the “grey cardinal” of Kremlin, contributed greatly to this shift.

Surkov, who was 35 by the time he moved to Kremlin, started his career in the early 1990s as Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s PR man, then became the head of PR at Channel One where he worked closely with the then Kremlin advisor Boris Berezovsky. “He personally curated what was allowed on to Russia’s television screens, and was seen as the architect of ‘post-truth politics’ where facts are relative,” the Guardian’s Shaun Walker wrote about Surkov in 2016.

With appointment of Surkov to the post of the deputy head of the presidential administration, the Russian media saw a sharp upsurge of entertainment shows and TV programs on the subjects of extrasensory perception, witchcraft, telepathy, fortune telling, astrology, faith healing, UFOs, and contact with the dead.

Prominent Russian photojournalist Ilya Varlmaamov reported visiting Surkov’s Kremlin office in his 2011 photo blog entry which showed framed photos of John Lennon and Che Guevara on Surkov’s book shelf next to Jasper Ridley’s biography of Mussolini and Martin Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics?”

The mastermind behind the emergence of the youth nationalist movements such as Idushie Vmeste (“Walking Together”) and Nashi (“Ours!”), Surkov is also a self-confessed music fan known for socializing with Russia’s rock’n’roll beau monde. In 2003 he collaborated on an album titled “Peninsulas” with veteran rock star Vadim Samoilov. Surkov’s lyrics to one of the album’s songs, “Let Us Be Like Everyone Else,” evoke poignant apocalyptic imagery: “Our master is Lucifer, we know his style. For Christmas he sends us dust instead of snow. We walk among his endless herd. I will be like you. You will be like him. We will be like everyone else. … God will forgive himself and he will forgive him, and he will forgive another hundred thousand of Judases.”

Around the same time and soon after the emergence of the Surkov-inspired “politics of post-truth,” a huge boom began in Russia of the so-called “pop occultism” in film and in literature. A novel titled “Numbers” by Russia’s cult author Victor Pelevin won the National Bestseller literary prize in 2004 for its tongue-in-cheek depiction of Russia’s banking system as a secret society controlled by the FSB and various esoteric practitioners in its employ. The book’s main character, banker Stepa, is described by Pelevin as “an eclectic kind of shaman, just like the majority of the well-off Russians: he collected Tibetan amulets and African protection talismans, and used the services of Siberian psychics.”

Another Pelevin plot in his 2004 novel “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” portrays FSB generals performing shamanic rituals to ensure uninterrupted supply of Siberian crude oil. Five years and three more metaphysical novels later, Pelevin — who is not only a novelist, but an occult buff and a former staffer at Russia’s Science and Religion magazine — was voted “the most influential intellectual in Russia” by a public vote on the Russian Internet portal OpenSpace. Other contenders Pelevin left behind included the then imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, dozens of Russian novelists, and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill.

In cinema, Timur Bekmambetov’s 2004 supernatural thriller “The Night Guard” was produced by the state-owned Channel One and became the highest-grossing Russian film release up to that date (16.7 million USD in Russia alone), beating “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Philosopher Mikhail Rylkin described the main theme of the film as the collapsed Soviet Union versus capitalism where the former is depicted as a positive, vibrant reality, and the latter as something sinister and dark.

Psychics guarding the motherland: Intelligence officials endorsing the occult

Another sign of the Surkov times showed its eerie scowl when high-ranking intelligence agents began going public with in-depth interviews about their experiences in telepathy and remote viewing. In 2006 a retired FSB general Boris Ratnikov who was the key figure in the protection of president Yeltsin, began talking at length to the Russian press (including the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta) describing his involvement in parapsychology research conducted by the Russian security agencies in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ratnikov later became the subject of several Russian TV documentaries where he spoke about the alleged occurrences of his family being “telepathically targeted” by the American Embassy vehicles parked outside of his house, as well as Russian security agents “penetrating” the mind of the U.S. President George H. W. Bush. According to Ratnikov, the latter operation delivered plenty of important information, including the U.S. plans to destroy the military-industrial complex of Russia and to turn Russia into a factory for all of the world’s “dirty industries” such as steel milling and production of chemicals.

But Ratnikov isn’t the only anti-American believer in the paranormal who racks up “likes” on YouTube. In fact, he is one of many exponents of the booming genre which uses metaphysics to justify nationalist rhetoric. When searched for “Rothschild Conspiracy” — a popular topic among the modern-day ultrapatriotic conspirologists — the Russian-language segment of YouTube returns over 1,300 results. Many are homemade films by what seem to be private individuals, but some can be traced back to small NGOs. A lecture by conspiracy theorist Valery Pyakin titled “The Rothschild and the Rockefeller Clans in the Global Prediction Structure” was filmed in 2013 and put up on YouTube by an ambiguously named Fund for Conceptual Technologies. Here Pyakin spends over an hour speaking about continuity of occult knowledge from Ancient Egyptian priesthood, to “the global Jewry,” to the American “clans” which — as he vehemently asserts — “regulate” and “control” the Western economy, culture, and diplomacy. The end conclusion of his disjointed train of thought is that only Putin can prevent an imminent nuclear war.

Open source research shows that Pyakin is not only one of the senior officers of the Fund for Conceptual Technologies, but is also a cofounder the Folk Movement for the Godly Monarchical Rule which was established in 1997 by late Konstantin Petrov, a Soviet general who in the 1980s served as a deputy commander of the Russian space agency mission control center in Baikonur, and who after the collapse of the Soviet Union declared himself a neo-pagan.

But while home-made videos by small groups and loner eccentrics make up a large segment of such material, another source of conspiracy theory material on YouTube are independent TV production companies. One such company is Telekompaniya Meinstrim led by Nikita Chisnikov, a TV producer who previously worked at major Russian television channels such as NTV, TNT, and TV-6. Telekompania Meinstrim uploads various documentaries on YouTube, all dealing with conspiracy theories of how the West is trying to undermine Russia. Program titles range from “Anna Chapman and Her Men” to “Stars at the Service of Secret Agencies” — a series of programs which, among other things, allege that Charlie Chaplin worked for the KGB.

Selling resurrection: FSB-connected occultists disrupting grassroots activism

In 2005, a self-proclaimed messiah Grigori Grabovoi approached the Mothers of Beslan advocacy group of parents whose children died in the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, offering to raise their children from the dead for a fee of 39,000 rubles (1,400 USD). This split the grassroots organization in half. Until then Mothers of Beslan have been gaining momentum demanding release of conclusive materials relating to the crisis during which 334 died. The grassroots group originally formed as a response to what was seen as incompetence of the security services during the rescue attempt and refusal of the government agencies to disclose information relating to the siege. Immediately following Grabovoi’s announcement that he could resurrect the children, some members of the Mothers of Beslan flew to Moscow to meet him. Others declared him a charlatan and denounced his offer as an attempt to discredit the group.

Although Grabovoi was later sentenced to 11 years in prison, he managed to do an irreparable damage to the group’s image, painting it to the public eye as a disorganized assembly of gullible, unstable women. The existence of a political will to silence the group was confirmed three years later when its lawyer Taimuraz Chedzhemov, who was seeking to prosecute Russian officials over the massacre, announced that he was forced to pull out of the case because of a death threat to his family.

Grabovoi, however, did not approach Mothers of Beslan completely out of the blue. By the time he announced his supernatural abilities, he already had plenty of media exposure as an experimental scientist come “occult researcher,” as well as patronage of some powerful backers in the Russian political establishment. Born in Uzbekistan in 1963, at the age of 23 Grabovoi graduated from the Tashkent University with a Bachelor of Science degree in applied mathematics. In 1995 he moved to Moscow where he set up his Universal Salvation cult. A 2013 article about Grabovoi in Izvestiya newspaper claimed that extensive coverage on state-owned TV praising Grabovoi as “a cutting-edge para-science researcher” was afforded to him by various high-ranking officials in the Yeltsin administration, including Georgi Rogozin. Rogozin was a notorious occult dabbler who during his time as the deputy head of Yeltsin’s security service flooded the Kremlin with astrologers, Kabbalah practitioners, and self-proclaimed telepaths, according to claims by a prominent Russian astrophysicist Eduard Kruglyakov.

In 1999 Grabovoi gave a series of lectures at the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations on the topic of prediction of emergencies. By 2000 he was presenting his own TV show on the now defunct TV-6 channel and became the publisher of a newspaper whose editorial board included two senators and twelve parliamentarians. In 2002 the Russian Ministry of Culture financed a laudatory documentary about Grabovoi titled “Grigory Grabovoi’s Mission.” The finale of this extraordinary career came in June 2004 when Grabovoi announced at a press conference that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ and could resurrect Beslan’s dead children.

The calculated inhumanity of Grabovoi’s plot caused an outcry even among the most blatant charlatans of Russia’s metaphysics industry. A celebrity “sorcerer” and self-proclaimed miracle worker Yuri Longo, who himself once staged a theatricized resurrection in a Moscow morgue (which he later admitted was a stage magic hoax), called Grabovoi “a liar and a cynic” during a live debate between the two on the TNT TV channel in February 2006. A few days later Longo was found dead in his apartment aged 55. Heart failure was announced as the official cause of death.

From the occult-obsessed neo-nazi underground to academic establishment: How Putin’s administration legitimatized fringe radicals

In March 2018, Russian ultranationalist writer Alexander Prokhanov published an essay on the far-right web site Izborsk Club where he decried “… the awful hostility, a murderous war which has been declared against Russia by America” which he went on to describe as “an incredible concentration of forces in the hands of our enemy — military, informational, psychological, magical, and spiritualistic — the entire grandiose culture which includes digital technologies of the future and medieval magic which are all directed at Russia.”

A member of the governing body of the Union of Russian Writers, Prokhanov became a very loud pro-war voice in Russian mainstream media since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. His 2014 essay in Izvestiya (which that year became the most widely cited Russian newspaper) condemned the Ukrainian revolution using freakishly grotesque imagery: “… the black sperm of fascism has spilled over Kiev — the mother of all Russian cities. … Fascism, like rotten poisonous dough has now spilled over from the Kiev bowl and begins to spread across the Ukraine.” The essay ended with an appeal to Putin to command the Russian army to take over Donetsk, the main city of the Donetsk Oblast of eastern Ukraine. This piece of writing caused an uproar across the Russian media, partly due to its bizarre symbolism, partly — due to its extremist tone.

Prokhanov’s ties to the Kremlin “grey cardinal” Vladislav Surkov go back as far as 2005 when in an interview to the Echo Moskvy radio station, Prokhanov spoke excitedly about their meeting: “I have had several meetings with him where we spoke very trustingly in a very confidential setting, tete-a-tete. I think he is a brilliant man, a magnificent man, an intellectual, a spirited person, a refined person, a most sophisticated casuist. … Only Putin is higher than Surkov.”

A year later, in 2006, Prokhanov, an award-winning novelist, published a mystical novel “Motor Ship Joseph Brodsky” with a plot full of witches, sorcerers, and vampires, which depicted Surkov as a patriotic intellectual fighting “anti-Russian forces” and saving Russia from “the global deep state.” In 2013, following the Bolotnaya Square anti-Putin protests in Moscow, Prokhanov wrote another mystical cliffhanger dedicated to Surkov, “The Golden Age.” The book tells a story of a man with magical powers who fights the Americans and “the global Jewry,” as well as “Russia’s internal enemy,” i.e. the protest movement.

Prokhanov’s interest in the occult began in the 1970s when as a young man he was introduced to the circle of writer Yuri Mamleev, a far-right nationalist and a founder of the “metaphysical realism” movement in Russian literature. Another member of the Mamleev club was Alexander Dugin, the son of a Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) general. Over the years, Dugin became a widely cited, influential Russian far-right ideologist and an author of dozens of books with subjects ranging from geopolitics, to Russian nationalism, to sorcery. His 1997 bestseller “The Foundations of Geopolitics” is claimed to have had a strong influence on the Russian foreign policy establishment. Some even say it is being used as a textbook at the Academy of the General Staff of the Russian military.

The book also drew attention in the West with its list of priorities for the Russian security services to be attained through a program of destabilization and disinformation. Among what Dugin sees as Russia’s first concerns is separating the UK from Europe, “absorbing” Finland, annexing Ukraine, and “dismantling” China.

As a member of the Mamleev circle (which continued to exist long after Mamleev himself emigrated to France in 1974), Dugin spent the best part of the 1980s studying Nazi esoteric writers such as Julius Evola and Miguel Serrano. In 1988 he joined the Pamayat’ (Memory) society which described itself as a “people’s national-patriotic Orthodox Christian movement” and was condemned by many as antisemitic. As a member of the governing board of Pamyat’ Dugin gave lectures to its members on occultism and “nordic mysticism” before beginning to study the Third Reich in earnest. In 1991 he researched documents pertaining to Ahnenerbe, a Nazi Germany research project into the racial heritage of the Germanic people which used to be Heinrich Himmler’s tool for finding occult justifications for nazi theories. There was speculation at the time whether access to the material was granted to Dugin by his GRU general father. But already by 1993, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dugin solidified his doctrine and began to present a series of programs on the state-owned Channel One about the occult and the philosophy of German nazism. By 1996 he was producing a daily program on nazi occultism on Radio 101-FM and was publishing two occult magazines: Milyi Angel (Dear Angel) and Elementy (Elements). In the first issue of Elementy, Dugin wrote: “We are interested in the spiritual and idealistic aspects of fascism, in fascism as an ideology which attempts to address the national factor and to overcome class tensions in society.” The article goes on to praise Himmler, Mussolini, Franco, and numerous Third Reich personalities. That same year Dugin published his scandalous book “The Metaphysics of Russian Orthodoxy: Russian Orthodox Esotericism” where he described Jews as “a damned nation and community whose spiritual leadership belongs to Judas Iscariot.”

After 17 more books, hundreds and articles and interviews on topics ranging from metaphysics to geopolitics, Dugin finally sealed his status of a mainstream intellectual when in 2009 he became the Head of the Chair of Sociology of International Relations at the Moscow State University, the top ranking institution of higher education in Russia. And although he lost this post in 2014 (which happened just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine when the university’s rector Viktor Sadovnichii fired him following Dugin’s public appeal to “Kill, kill, kill” in the Ukraine), his productivity grew after the layoff. Relieved from duties at the university, he is now able to dedicate more time to writing about Putin, Russia’s global mission, and, of course, the occult. The result is the crystallization of Dugin’s status as one of the foremost ideologists of the Kremlin and the main mouthpiece for its nationalist message — a staggering conclusion of a half-a-century journey which turned a fringe oddity into an integral part of the Russian intellectual establishment.

Sorcery as a legitimate trade: Russian parliament’s refusal to curb occult service providers

The Russian Parliamentary Committee on Economic Policy twice tired to introduce legislation to ban advertising of occult services in Russia: in 2008 and in 2010. Although supported by other parliamentary committees, both times it failed to be voted into law. Distinguished parliamentarians opposed the bill, such as Tatiana Yakovleva, a state-decorated medical doctor who told Moskovskij Komsomolets newspaper that she herself had studied “bioenergetic fields” and knew about existence of people with magical ability. Another parliamentarian who spoke to the press on the issue, Yaroslava Neelova, said she opposed the bill to protect freedom of conscience in Russia.

In 2017, the lower house of the Russian parliament declined to support a bill “On Fraud in Occult and Magical Activity” which was drafted to introduce criminal liability for fraud by the so-called witches and psychics. Its author, parliamentarian Sergei Vostretsov, claimed that in 2016 the extrasensory services market (which in his definition includes fortune telling, necromancy, spiritualism, sorcery, magic, and shamanism) had a turnover of 2 billion USD and that it kept growing due to support from mass media.

While attempts to curb the spread of the occult services in Russia continue to fail, efforts of the Russian government to normalize and standardize such businesses has proven to be more successful. In January 2009 the Russian Ministry of Economic Development included sorcery and telepathic communication into its official classificatory register of trades and occupations. Another government action taken in 2009 was to shut down the Federal Scientific Center for Traditional Medicine. The center employed over 40 Ph.D.s and from 2006 to 2009 worked on proposals to regulate practitioners of “folk medicine.” The then minister of health Tatiana Golikova personally ordered to close the center, while offering no explanation for this decision.

Apart from the Russian Parliament, another body which intermittently tries to restrict the proliferation of occultism in the country is the Commission on Pseudo-Science. It was formed in 1998 by the late physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Vitali Ginsburg and although it is officially affiliated to the Russian Academy of Science, in reality it receives no funding and functions on its member’s voluntary contributions. In spite of having several prominent Russian scientists among its members, it regularly comes under attack from the political establishment and big business. In 2010 the Commission was criticized by the Parliamentary Anti-corruption Committee which alleged it “impeded research by young scientists.” In more recent news, a homeopathic drug manufacturer sued the Commission for declaring homeopathy a pseudo-science, claiming defamation and commercial disparagement.

The silence of the church

In the recent years the Russian Orthodox Church has gone on record with condemnations of a remarkably wide variety of social, cultural, and political realities, including homosexuality, liberalism, and rock music. Curiously though, no official Russian Orthodox Church spokesman, including its leader Patriarch Kirill, ever addressed the subject of proliferation of the occult in mass media. October 2004 was the last time when the Russian Orthodox Church formally denounced anything remotely resembling the occult, when its then leader Patriarch Alexy II spoke out against neo-paganism. Kirill’s quietness on the topic is an odd stance for a patriarch who is known for consistent attempts to apply a conservative approach to the broadest range of social agendas, such as, for example, Pussy Riot’s performance in a Moscow cathedral in 2012. His public vilification of the band was cited in the press before, during, and after the band’s trial as a major factor for the court in its sentencing decision.

But this silence is puzzling not only to the public at large, but also to the scientific community. In 2014 the Commission on Pseudo-Science at the Russian Academy of Science issued an appeal where it asked religious leaders to use their power to “remove the subject of the occult from the respectable segment of public discourse.” No response from the church followed, in stark contrast to its frequent comments on issues as diverse as child vaccination, surrogacy, the juvenile justice system, the war in Syria, and even data collection.

One of the rare mentions of the issue came in November 2017, when Andrei Tkachev — an archpriest at one of Moscow’s historical churches — was asked during a live TV broadcast about the reasons for the church’s reluctance to condemn occult shows on mainstream television. His reply was staggering: “… high-brow art, such as the Bolshoi Theatre, is in demand by free nations only. Enslaved people only need the so-called entertainment programs.”

But many in Russia have reasons to believe that Patriarch Kirill’s apparent indifference toward the subject of the occult is feigned. As a young man, he — as many KGB cadres at the time — had an interest in ESP and telekinesis and even met on several occasions with Dzhuna Davitashvili, a celebrity telepath and “biofield healer” who counted many high-ranking Soviet statesmen among her “patients” and who too is rumored to have been a KGB employee. In May 1981 Dzhuna received Kirill (who at the time was the provost of the Leningrad Theological Academy) at her home in Moscow and in June she spent several days in Leningrad by his invitation. When this detail of Kirill’s past became public knowledge in the early 2010s, some began to sarcastically speculate whether Dzhuna taught Kirill magic. Others claimed not to have been surprised, especially those who consider the Russian Orthodox Church no more than “a branch of KGB / FSB.” This widely held view was corroborated in 2012 by a former KGB general Oleg Kalugin in his interview to a popular Ukrainian TV show “Dmitry Gordon’s Guest.” There Kalugin spoke of how all church leaders during the Soviet times had ties to the KGB. With a knowing smile, he called Patriarchs Kirill and Alexy II his “former buddies” referring to the days when he was the head of the foreign counterintelligence branch of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB.

Anointed by the church: Sacralization of Putin’s power

Although the Russian Orthodox Church declines to comment on anything to do with the proliferation of the occult in mass media, it readily supports the idea of “sacrality” of Putin’s regime. The age-old belief in the otherworldly origin of political power, inherited by Russia from Byzantium, helps legitimize its four-term president the same way it gave its blessing to dynasty after dynasty of Russian monarchs. Not only were the Russian tzars held out by the church as the living image of Christ on earth, but the Russian Constitution of 1833, which was still in effect when the last Russian tzar, Nicholas II, ascended the throne, stated that “God himself commands us to obey the Emperor’s power not out of fear but for conscience’ sake.”

In July 2017 bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, a noted theologian, church historian, and the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations, said in an interview to the state TV channel Russia-1, that absolute monarchy — where the head of the state is anointed by the church for life and whose power is inherited by his descendants — is a better form of political rule than elective forms of government.

While sacralization is a universal, archaic way to endorse power, the word “sacral” traditionally bore a wider meaning in Russia than the word “religious.” “Sacral” denoted the entire supernatural realm, accessible to select few, as opposed to organized religion which held its door open to everyone. As a result, the interest of the Russian rulers in the metaphysical realm beyond Christianity became a recurring theme throughout history, as Nicholas II poignantly illustrated with the trust he placed in the self-proclaimed healer and mystic Grigory Rasputin.

Since the early 1990s some radical pro-monarchy Russian Orthodox circles have been calling for canonization of Rasputin as a martyr saint “murdered by liberals.” The idea’s main proponent used to be Metropolitan Ioann who before his death in 1995 became the head of the ecclesiastical province of St. Petersburg, and was a well-known writer and publicist, although frequently criticized for his antisemitic and nationalist views.

Today the official church position on Rasputin’s canonization remains ambivalent. In March 2017 bishop Tikhon, the head of the Patriarchal Council on Culture (and, according to some, Putin’s “spiritual advisor”) told an audience during his lecture in the State History Museum that “very serious research” needed to be done in order to establish who exactly Rasputin was. “An entire group tries to proclaim Rasputin a saint,” he said. “I do not wish to say a categorical ‘No’, but this issue needs to be researched very thoroughly.” But while the church is not quite prepared to canonize the witchdoctor, it canonized the tzar who believed his magic, declaring Nicholas II the “passion-bearer saint” in 2000, for having suffered in the hands of the Bolsheviks.

The legacy of Nicholas II may have little bearing on the Kremlin’s modern-day ideology, but the idea of the sacral nature of Putin’s power has been gathering momentum since the early 2010s. “I see Putin as a man who was given to Russia by fate and by the Almighty,” Surkov said in a 2011 interview to a Chechen TV channel. And as if to put an end to any doubts regarding his own godliness, Putin himself called his decision process “sacral” just a few weeks before the 2018 presidential election. When asked in an TV interview with the Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Soloviev what factors usually contributed to his policy choices, Putin declined to give an answer. “It’s a sacral issue,” he said.

To put a spell on a crooked cop: Grassroots occultism in search for personal security and empowerment

Despite the efforts of the Kremlin ideologists to daub metaphysical gloss over their explanations for Russia’s increasing isolation, grassroots occult communities continue to regard them with passive indifference. While the interest in witchcraft, folk magic and spell-casting among ordinary Russians is booming, the reasons for this couldn’t have had less to do with the Kremlin nationalist propaganda. Against the background of the erosion of human rights, disappearance of independent courts, brain drain, and falling education standards, the disenfranchised parts of the Russian population turn to magical beliefs in search for self-confidence and a sense of security which are increasingly being denied to them by the government institutions.

In 2017 Alexander Grebeniuk of the School of Social Sciences at the Moscow State University told Lenta.Ru news site that “European and, particularly, anglo-saxon countries drain Russia of its best talent like a vacuum cleaner.” Vladimir Mukomel, a professor at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Science agreed with Grebeniuk: “Young people see it as very important to have a system of social lifts, and this is precisely the area where we have big problems. A just society is also important to young people. This is not only a political problem, but a social one too.”

The latest statistics show that approximately 100,000 people leave Russia each year. And while the declining education standards is not the only factor, its influence remains a key concern of many sociologists. The World Bank’s index of expenditure on education puts Russia in the 98th place, between Slovakia and Paraguay, and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings report for 2018 shows that none of the Russian universities belong to its top 100. The only Russian university in its top 200 is the Moscow State Lomonosov University at 194th place.

Other domestic policy problems keep persisting. The Human Rights Watch in its 2018 report on Russia highlights abuses of the freedom of assembly among its main points of concern. Amnesty International in its 2017/2018 Russia report calls attention to reduction of cultural rights and violations of the right to a fair trial.

Partly as a result of the erosion of civil liberties and institutions, and partly because of the promulgation of the occult in the media, a plethora of online occult forums and discussion boards have sprung in Russia since the early 2010s. This is where accountants, secretaries, small business owners, students, and clerks discuss magic spell formulas, spirit invocation techniques, and all kinds rituals purported to help with finding a job, deal with harassment at work, or fend off a corrupt policeman. The biggest forum of this kind is Chernaya Magiya (Black Magic), which as of today has 1,571,744 posts on 12,764 topics and 25,118 registered members.

Magical folk remedies being shared and recommended on Chernaya Magiya are endless — from necromancy, to sorcery, to planetary magic. Nationalism or racial identities of members are never discussed, and neither are war, politics, or Putin. When asked what made them turn to magic, most members give reasons such as “life crisis,” “poor health,” “family problems,” and “unemployment.” Posters do frequently speak negatively about the Russian Orthodox Church, but the tone is more of contempt rather than genuine hatred. Topics having to do with Russia’s minority faiths (Islam, Judaism, Buddhism) are raised infrequently and strictly in the “practical” context, with members seeking knowledge on how different traditions approach “removal of evil eye,” “money magic,” and “help with finding work.”

Dealing with corrupt law enforcement stays one of the biggest themes on the forum, which is not surprising in a society where the police is distrusted and feared. One member’s detailed descriptions of graveyard ceremonies she performed to make a corrupt policeman stop harassing her drew huge response, with many requesting more details on how to perform similar rituals. Such stories are not only typical but pervasive: by seeking ways to deal with unethical policemen, psychopathic bosses, abusive loan collectors, bullying landlords, alcoholic neighbors, and sadistic family members, ordinary Russians are striving to normalize their lives when institutions fail them.

Similarly, Russia’s best-selling authors on mysticism, such a Vadim Zeland and Alexei Pokhabov speak with distaste about nationalism and encourage followers to explore all world traditions to find their own spiritual path. Pokhabov often goes into great lengths to explain that divisions along national, ethnic, or religious lines are what he calls “artificial constructs of the system.”

That is not to say that attempts of the Kremlin propagandists such as Dugin and Prokahnov to self-identify as “folk philosophers” go completely unnoticed. Both Dugin and Prokhanov are well-known across the entire breadth of the Russian society, but instead of being recognized as reputable nationalist thinkers (the way Alexander Solzhenitsyn is), they are relentlessly mocked on social media by young people and are seen as self-serving populists by people in their 40s and 50s. Prokhanov’s egregious “black sperm of fascism” simile in his 2014 Izvestiya article drew — and continues to draw — a furor of sarcasm.

It appears that once it reaches the grassroots level, Kremlin’s nationalist propaganda becomes either ridiculed or ignored by ordinary Russians, with its metaphysical slant evoking the most contempt. At the same time, peer-to-peer sharing of “hands-on” occult instruction — which is devoid of a political component — remains ubiquitous, even though practice of the occult happens to each person in private. Be it ancestor worship, or visualization techniques, or ceremonial magic, such is the nature of the occult by definition, the way this archaic self-therapy works, that it will always be a tool for seeking personal self-empowerment, not a route to a collective goal. The irrational serving a rational purpose of self-preservation is at the heart of modern Russia’s obsession with the occult, not abstract ideas of the nation’s greatness or its purported transcendental purpose.

In the end it turns out that the efforts of Russian mass media to spread occult beliefs in society have borne fruit, but in a remarkably different way from what was expected by the Kremlin political strategists. Inst ead of uniting ordinary Russians around Putin’s nationalistic discourse, it even further atomized the society whose current main tenet — especially among those who practice occultism — is “every person for themselves.”

New York, June 2018

The Curious Case of Arkady Babchenko
Why Oleg Sentsov Matters
The Unfreedom of Radio Liberty

The Curious Case of Arkady Babchenko

by Alissa Ordabai

Two days ago the main news emerging out of Russia was Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike. The filmmaker was on the 15th day of his perilous fast, protesting Russia’s persecution of Ukrainian political prisoners. Human rights organizations, journalists, and volunteers were gathering momentum in their effort to publicize his deadlock with the Russian regime. But then in a flash something happened that obliterated Sentsov from the international headlines:  the deadly shooting in Kiev of Russia’s prominent war correspondent Arkady Babchenko. The world’s leading news outlets announced he was killed in his Kiev apartment, less than a year after fleeing Moscow following death threats.  


Babchenko was a brave, passionate reporter, a fearless critic of the Putin administration.  He went through the hell of two Chechen wars, emerged badly scathed, battled PTSD, but never gave up speaking the truth about war and about Russia’s domestic policies. He withstood years of harassment, threats, intimidation, and forced unemployment. Over the years his writing became intense, and at times callously brutal. He would refuse to mourn the deaths of musicians who flew to Syria to entertain the Russian troops and attacked the father whose children died in a shopping mall fire disaster for not being critical of the authorities. But despite his harsh and unforgiving stance against everyone who — even tacitly — supported the Putin regime, he always came through as a sincere, honest man, and someone deeply pained by Russia’s social and political decay.


An outpouring of grief in the Russian-speaking social media following the news of Babchenko’s death was immense.  Late at night his editor at ATR TV channel Ayder Muzhdabaev wrote in a Facebook post: “I was the one who persuaded him to remain in Kiev.  Damnation is what I deserve.”  A lot of others commented and sympathized — Babchenko had many friends and a lot of followers. 


So today, after the news of Babchenko’s death just began to sink in, another shock news grabbed the headlines:  Babchenko is alive.  Apparently, his killing was staged as a part of a Ukrainian security agency’s sting operation to expose Russian interference. And while this twist of the already baffling plot rang many alarms, what truly stupefied was the reaction of the Russian opposition and its leaders:  Babchenko is alive and it’s all that matters, no questions asked.  


I do not attribute this to naivety. Russian dissenters and opposition leaders have seen their hopes dashed too many times to remain guileless:  first by Gorbachev’s "restructuring" in the late 80s, then by Yeltsin’s empty promises of fair governance in the 90s, and then by seeing too many reform initiatives systematically quashed over the past 18 years — either by the regime itself, or by more mundane things such as their own infighting and rivalries.   


But what Russian opposition attained in knowingness of its own realities, it lacks in international awareness. The inability to see the world-wide repercussions of domestic events is its marked modern-day trait. How the West perceives deceit, how it judges Babchenko’s disregard for his own reputation and for the reputation of his fellow journalists are just some of the things neither Babchenko, nor his supporters take into account yet. 


The way Babchenko’s questionable adventure single-handedly diminished the degree of trust in anti-Putin reporters will take some time to sink in, but at the moment Russia’s liberals are oblivious to it.  I remember well how in 2015, a few hours after the murder of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, watching various Russian commentators and journalists on CNN I was shocked by their rudimentary grasp of the English language.  A language barrier is always also a cultural one.  The next time there is a political murder in Russia or Ukraine, it will be much more difficult for dissenters to prove and explain what happened, and much easier for Putin’s supporters to question its mere fact, never mind the motifs and potential culprits.  


Western millennials already question the establishment’s news outlets such as the BBC, and an entire generation of under-35s in countries like Britain and Germany is exploring alternative news channels, Russia Today being one of them. The same Russia Today which tells them there is no connection between the Kremlin and the Skripal incident or the Kremlin and the shooting of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.  The same Russia Today which now welcomes Babchenko’s stunt as an example of how the Kremlin “unjustifiably" gets blamed for various crimes and espionage incidents across the world. 


None of it rings any bells to the Russian opposition just yet, which firmly believes that the Kremlin propaganda doesn’t work outside Russia. The sad news is that it does and plenty of young people on the West find themselves at a crossroads as we speak, choosing who to trust — their own mainstream media or the eloquent, strident presenters on Russia Today who tell them their own governments are conspiring against them. With many choosing Russia Today, the Babchenko affair is another small victory of the Kremlin propagandists.  

New York, May 2018

The Unfreedom of Radio Liberty

by Alissa Ordabai

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty has announced today the departure of its Central Asia Program Director Abbas Javadi amidst heavy criticism of his all-too-cosy relationships with the authoritarian regimes in the region. 


The retirement of the veteran administrator comes just two days after Eurasianet published a scolding investigative report revealing a long-standing practice of RFE/RL quashing and watering down stories aimed to expose authoritarianism in Central Asia.  A U.S. State Department internal memo cited by Eurasianet speaks of RFE’s benevolent partiality toward local governments and criticizes the organization for eroding Washington’s stature in strategically important Central Asia “when it parrots an authoritarian government’s messaging to its own people.”  The article also reports that the U.S. Agency for Global Media — RFE’s governing body — had asked the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General to investigate the RFE/RL Tajik Service and its practice of camouflaging and concealing human rights abuses by the country’s autocratic ruler Emomali Rahmon.


RFE/RL — which is funded by the U.S. government — from its inception in 1950 had been charged with a mission to provide accurate news to the censorship-ridden countries of the Eastern Bloc. Given that for many people in the region — and especially in Central Asia — RFE/RL to this day remains just about the only source of reliable news, it comes as no surprise that its journalists and decision-makers are viewed as important potential allies by the local governments.  After all, communist spy agencies in not so distant past have been remarkably successful at infiltrating RFE/RL.  Some such agents have remained staff members for years,  gathering information and not interfering with broadcasts.  But others, like the infamous Polish spy Andrzej Czechowicz, who worked for the RFE in Munich in the late 1960s, went further,  and upon returning back to the East proceeded to do all they could to publicly discredit Radio Liberty as on organization and the United States as a country. RFE’s most embarrassing and bizarre defector story, however, remains that of Oleg Tumanov, a KGB agent who joined Radio Liberty in 1966, worked his way up to Acting Chief Editor of its Russian language service, and in 1986 returned from Munich to the Soviet Union, embarking on a bombastic slander campaign — accusing RFE/RL of anti-Soviet espionage and calling its leadership “dogs of the cold war.”


Times have changed.  People don’t disappear the way Tumanov suddenly did from his Munich office one sunny April day in 1986 only to reappear a week later at a press conference in Moscow, blasting his employer of 20 years. Influence and power these days move through relationships more complicated than 30 years ago, and motives are often multiple, varied and answer several needs. No one is expecting Javadi to settle in Tajikistan (whose leader Rahmon he’s been shielding from bad press so selflessly for years) or go on a smear campaign against RFE. Javadi was let go, and calmly at that, without any mention of the circumstances of his retirement on the RFE/RL web site. We don’t know what motivated him to whitewash human rights abuses in the deeply authoritarian, corruption-ridden region. Neither do we know the extent of the goodwill between him and the Central Asian authorities.  What we do know is that complaints against him have been plentiful, the most recent one coming on March 29 in the form an open letter to the RFE/RL Acting President Daisy Sindelar from a group of Kazakhstani independent journalists and human rights activists. The letter described censorship within the Javadi-led Central Asian service, as well as a routine practice of quashing stories critical of the Kazakh authorities, and bullying by RFE/RL of its own award-winning investigative journalists. We also know that Javadi’s career thrived under Nenad Pejic, RFE/RL’s Vice President and a former Yugoslav communist, who had been repeatedly accused by human rights journalists in Kazakhstan of protecting Javadi and Javadi's cosy relationship with the country’s authoritarian leadership. 


Speaking of former communists in the employ of democracy-promoting institutions, the legendary Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky tells a poignant story in his upcoming book Judgement in Moscow, which is due to be published this May. When in the early 1990s former GULAG prisoner Bukovsky questioned several Western human rights organizations about their practice of offering employment to former communist apparatchiks and KGB careerists, he received a startling answer. Not only — Bukovsky was explained — did such people possess valuable “administration experience” but their placements were seen as desirable, a kind of re-education of former servants of totalitarian regimes which afforded them opportunities to change their old autocratic mindset. The conversation Bukovsky describes took place some 25 years ago. Today’s scandal around RFE/RL in Central Asia now gives us a chance to assess whether the former prison guards and propagandists of tyrannical regimes have indeed managed to change their minds. Or whether our collective failure to put communism on trail following the collapse of the USSR has trapped them in a repetitive loop of delusion and unaccountability. 


But what this story also shows is that Radio Liberty remains relevant in the post-Soviet countries, especially against the background of the crackdown on the freedom of speech across the region in the recent years. Radio Liberty’s popularity peaked some four decades ago when it provided a platform for leading Soviet and Eastern European dissident thinkers and its heyday may have passed, but in Central Asia it plays an important enough role to be of interest to local governments and their efforts to control public opinion. In his 2010 interview to RFE/RL former KGB general Oleg Kalugin described how in the 1970s and the 1980s Radio Liberty had been a KGB intelligence priority and a infiltration target. The fact that it remains a coveted prize in the battle for hearts and minds in the post-Soviet countries, confirms its continuing status as one of the key players in the region's media space. U.S. taxpayers’ money which funds RFE/RL’s operations, however, could be spent on rethinking its employee vetting. In the age of social media, instant user-generated news and video-blogging, competition among providers of accurate content is fierce, and Radio Liberty's five-decade history which continues to oscillate between triumphs and embarrassments could be put to an end rather abruptly by something as trivial as a new startup YouTube channel, and without any trying from a powerful totalitarian opponent. One former communist too many deciding on Radio Liberty’s policy, or one whitewashing scandal too many, and an entire generation of young readers and viewers could switch to an alternative news source -- without coming back -- before you could say “meddling.”

New York, April 2019

Bukovsky's Pale Shadow: Alexei Navalny and Post-Soviet Intelligentsia

Bukovsky's Pale Shadow:

Alexei Navalny and Post-Soviet Intelligentsia

by Alissa Ordabai.

“He fought for the Baltic states like a lion. He fought for Jewish refuseniks like a father and a brother. He fought for East German prisoners as the bravest soldier,” Israeli and Lithuanian newspapers wrote about Vladimir Bukovsky in their obituaries in October 2019. “He, a Russian, became fast friends with Ukrainian partisans who throughout their 25-year prison terms have never warmed to the nation which had conquered them,” seconded a Kyiv newspaper commemorating Bukovsky’s life and friendship with the Ukrainian people.

Words and sentiments of a different kind, however, are reserved for Alexey Navalny among the critics of the Kremlin in Russia’s neighboring ex-Soviet countries. Their list of objections to Navalny is extensive: from his ambiguous stance on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and his verbal abuse of the Georgian nation (whom he had called “rodents” during the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 ) to his calls to vote for communists, and his continuing emphasis on corruption with little mention of human rights. But perhaps the ire he draws from commentators in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kazakhstan wouldn’t have been so persistent, if not for the haunting comparison which looms large in a lot of people’s minds: the contrast his figure draws with the heroes of Russia’s human rights movement of the 1960s.

In addition to his other far-reaching achievements, such as exposing Soviet punitive psychiatry and standing up against abuse and torture in Soviet prisons, Vladimir Bukovsky — the founder and of the human rights movement the USSR — was also known for supporting numerous national liberation campaigns in the Soviet Union: not only in words, but in deeds. He organized Jewish refusenik sit-ins in the early 1970s in Moscow, rallied in support of Ukrainian independence in Kyiv in 1992, spoke out against the massacres of civilians in Chechnya by the Russian troops, condemned the invasion of Georgia in 2008, and continually brought to President Reagan’s attention the plight of the Crimean Tatars.

Bukovsky’s panoramic vision of human rights as a global issue which is inseparably tied to foreign and domestic policy both of the East and of the West, made him unique among other Russian rights defenders. “Whenever the Soviet Union commits an act of aggression abroad, it is always a message to its own population,” he would famously say, and this vision of interconnectedness of the Soviet economic decline at home and aggression abroad informed, by President Reagan’s own admission, his administration’s policies throughout the Cold War.

It wasn’t just Bukovsky’s intellect, but also his background and unique placement in history which gave him this all-embracing frame of reference. On par with intelligence, he also possessed first-hand experience of both the harshest of Soviet realties and the most elevated company one could find in the West: working with the State Department, serving as an unofficial advisor to Margaret Thatcher, guesting at the table of Queen Elizabeth II, and — most importantly — leading the anti-communist alliance called Resistance International where he collaborated on ideas and initiatives with some of the most illustrious intellectuals of his generation: Eugene Ionesco, Michel Foucault, Alain Besançon, and Bruno Bettelheim to name just a few. A far cry from the intellectual and political isolation of the current Russian opposition.

So it becomes understandable why Russia’s modern-day opposition figures — such as Garry Kasparov — continue to feel uneasy in Bukovsky’s shadow, despite their worldly-wise demeanor and intercultural savvy. None of them have managed to come close to advising Western superpower leaders or been able to cooperate as equals with the world’s eminent intellectuals. In a telling gesture, Kasparov’s website back in 2020 chose to delete mentions of Bukovsky’s advisory role to Reagan and Thatcher when publishing a press release listing Bukovsky’s accomplishments.

However, regardless of whatever feelings the former chess champion may harbor toward the now-dead legend, it hardly matters now in 2022. Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment a year ago had instantly turned him into a leader of the Russian opposition and Vladimir Putin’s number one enemy — at least in the eyes of the Western media.

But while lauding Navalny as a hero who selflessly chose to return to Russia following his poisoning only to find himself jailed, many in the West overlook a flaw in his modus operandi which remains glaringly obvious to observers in Russia’s so-called “near abroad” — a term often used by the Kremlin to describe the neighboring countries to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Georgia. And it is in these countries that Navalny’s name draws if not outright acrimony, then deep skepticism.

Examples of Navalny’s disengagement from the suffering imposed by the Kremlin on nations of other post-Soviet countries are numerous. The first — which constantly gets cited in online discussions — is his famous insult of the Georgian nation whom he had called “rodents” during the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. It keeps haunting almost every debate about the sincerity of his stance on civilized society. His wife quoting Russian cult movie “Brat-2” on a flight from Berlin to Moscow (“Kiddo, bring us vodka, we are flying home”) also keeps drawing sarcasm. In the finale of the famous “Brat-2” movie, a female companion of tough-guy Danila Bagrov delivers this line onboard of a Moscow-bound flight after Bagrov’s killing spree in the United States. The fact that Yulia Navalny had chosen this quote to emphasize the nature of her husband’s plight is viewed by many as a deliberate nod to the cruder part of the Russian nationalist voting segment. Others, however, see it as a spontaneous utterance of a particular kind of Russian nationalist who found the most natural way to express her patriotism.

But the most serious criticism being waged at Navalny by the Kremlin’s critics from the “near-abroad” is his stance on the Russian occupation of Crimea. Instead of condemning the annexation, he called it “reunification” in his 2014 New York Times opinion piece, and lamented not the fact of it, but the way it was done: “at the end of the barrel of a gun.” Not once did he mention the suffering of the Crimean Tatars — the indigenous people of the Crimea who are staunchly opposed to annexation — but did claim the existence of a “consensus” “in both Russia and Crimea that the peninsula has historically been closer to Moscow than to Kiev.”

A wavering “Crimea is not a sandwich” response he later gave when interviewed on the subject by the Ekho Moskvy radio station was meant to convey that Crimea can’t be passed around back and forth like a piece of insignificant property. But instead it underlined Navalny’s refusal to engage with the issue which calls for a clear display of vision and principle. This is the main grievance of Navalnhy’s Ukrainian critics and the one he fails to set straight to this day.

But Navalny is viewed with mistrust not only by opponents of the annexation of the Crimea or those who see his nationalism as vacuously boorish. Many grassroots nationalists — those who do not belong to any associations, are deeply pained by Russia’s social decline, and claim to bear no ill will toward other ethnicities of Russia — view Navalny’s populist nationalism with a great degree of disdain. “For a person of Asian origin to support Navalny equals to having zero self-respect,” wrote one Russian nationalist in a recent blog post.

There are also others — neither nationalists, nor those particularly concerned with Russia’s military escapades abroad — who intensely distrusted his calls for the so-called “smart voting” plan which encouraged people to vote for the communists in the State Duma elections of 2021. In a country where a vast number of people still remember having a family member perished either in the Civil War, or the collectivization, or the terror waged on the nation by the communist secret police organizations, and where the crimes of communism have never been fully exposed or condemned by the leadership, this felt like a particularly bad maneuver, albeit the one touted as a tactical strategy to deprive the ruling United Russia party of votes.

Among those, however, who have had a lifelong experience of either observing or actively participating in Russian politics, Navalny rings another alarm bell: the suspicion of him being in cahoots with one of the fractions of Russian’s top elite. The main question such analysts ask is whether it is possible — without having a source among the elites — to get hold of the highly sensitive information which Navalny and his team have regularly been making public. Vladimir Bukovsky was one of such doubters, speaking of Navalny in 2018:

“I don’t believe that he is doing what he is doing without any contacts with the government. I always keep suspecting that he is being given this information by the authorities, that this is part of a struggle between different clans, and he is being used. He is crafty. He had managed to use the situation well to ignite some sort of noticeable action. This is certainly to his credit. But I view such things with a great deal of caution.” Bukovsky made this comment at the time when Navalny was still a free man, and while his brother was in jail. “It’s the usual practice,” Bukovsky explained. “Тhey cover all their bases. Making sure he doesn’t abscond.”

A lot of the old hands of Russian politics also know that nationalist movements have been traditionally overseen by the KGB / FSB — ever since the inception of the ultranationalist “Pamyat” society back in 1980. And nationalism first featured in Navalny’s curriculum vitae in 2006, when he appealed to the Moscow City Hall asking it to grant permission to conduct the nationalist Russian March — an annual demonstration of several Russian nationalist organizations, some of them neo-nazi, although in 2006 a flag showing what some reporters later described as “a conventionalized swastika” was raised by just one participant — the Head of SS-Slavic Union Dmitriy Demushkin. A quick parting of ways with the Yabloko Party (where Navalny at the time served as the regional council of the Moscow branch) followed the Russian March of 2006 with Yabloko condemning “any ethnic or racial hatred and any xenophobia.”

Another thing that the old-timers also remember well is the impenetrable wall of silence which often surrounded those of political prisoners who had been most feared by the Soviet regime. At one point in 1975 Vladimir Bukovsky’s mother could not get any information from prison authorities on whether her son was dead or alive for eight months, despite constant petitions to the Soviet leaders and appeals to international human rights organizations. By contrast, Navalny’s interviews and articles are a constant feature on the Ekho Moskvy website, which is owned by the majority state-owned oil and gas giant Gasprom. Many point out that a true enemy of the Kremlin would never be afforded such an opportunity. After all, one such enemy — Bukovsky — now has his name more or less blacklisted from mentions by all Kremlin-linked media.

Some would argue that the penitentiary system of today’s Russia is much milder than the death-dealing cells of the Vladimir prison where Bukovsky was barely surviving on punishment rations in the 1970s. But recent research by the human rights group and its revelations of endemic torture in Russian camps and prisons shows that given the hypothetical choice, one would perhaps choose Soviet confinement over a Russian prison of today. At least chances of getting raped by the prison guards were next to zero in the USSR.

One thing, however, that unites both supporters and critics of Navalny, are their calls for his release — be it coming from liberals, nationalists, his associates, or even those who actively criticize him. The inhumanity of his arrest and the trumped-up charges against him turn the stomach of all thinking people — both in Russia and abroad. Although Russia finds itself not without some select few conspiracy theorists who believe Navalny is not actually doing any time in prison at all — a far-fetched theory for which evidence is non-existent.

However, whether Navalny is popular or unpopular among the ordinary Russians is a difficult matter to gauge. A great number of young people certainly find this anti-corruption calls laudable, and some see him as the only visible alternative to the Putin regime. But the question is perhaps not how many of the regular folks support Navalny, but how many would be willing to take risks for him. And when viewed in those terms, the support for him clearly wears thin.

Given the now-illegal status of his organization and persecution of his associates who are leaving Russia in droves, few and far between are prepared to declare their support for him publicly. His imprisonment did not draw as many people out in the streets as had been expected, and his former co-workers prefer to immigrate rather than fight for his ideas in Russia.

There is however, a small chorus of well-known voices of the Russian human rights landscape, which offers constant — and very enthusiastic — support for Navalny. Those are not the generation of the old-guard dissidents whose nonconformism was forged in confrontations with the KGB in the 1960s and to whom Bukovsky remains an authority above exception. It is the generation after that — those who never suffered the burnt of the Soviet labor camps or punitive psychiatry, but who began to speak out about rights and democracy after it became safe to do so — during Gorbachev’s reforms and Yeltsin’s leadership. Where Navalny is crude, they are sophisticated. Where he is boorish, they are sarcastic. But they — remarkably — hail him as an almost Christ-like figure, viewing his prison time as “martyrdom” and his decision to return to Russia after being treated in Germany for poisoning — “a heroic act”.

These supporters of Navalny now find themselves on the receiving end of some cruel appraisals by a number of critics in the ex-Soviet countries, particularly in the Ukraine. Viktor Shenderovich — a charismatic humorist and social commentator — has back in 2018 been vilified by Ukrainian observers for piling praise on his mentor Oleg Tabakov following the latter’s passing. Tabakov was a distinguished theater director, “trusted representative” of Vladimir Putin during the 2012 elections, and an avid supporter of the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

These days Shenderovich continues to be derided for failing to condemn Tabakov’s xenophobic views on the Ukrainian nation. Another accusation waged against Shenderovich is, however, more recent and is more of an aesthetic than moral kind. The matter in question is his practice of placing a notice on all of his social media posts notifying his readers that he is a “foreign agent.” Russia’s Roskomnadzor — the country’s federal agency which supervises communications, information technology, and mass media — assigns this status to anyone who, in its view, receives foreign funding while engaging in “political activity,” studying and reporting crime, corruption, or issues of the military and security industries. And, by law, any such person, media organization, or NGO must preempt their public messages with notices of their “foreign agent” status.

Many find these labelling requirement degrading and aimed to sow mistrust among the general public toward the country’s most outspoken journalists and activists. And many find the fact that Shenderovich continues to adhere to this labeling requirement not only unnecessary but also somewhat unpalatable, given the fact that he had recently emigrated from Russia and no longer lives there. Yet others defend him, pointing out that Roskomnadzor’s fines are still applicable to him and could result in depletion of his Russian assets.

The grievance, however, runs deeper than the bizarre “foreign agent” self-description or panegyrics to dead chauvinists. What vexes many commentators is the fact that while Shenderovich is widely admired among the Russian liberals, he chooses to avoid some deeply important topics. Many feel that the plight of the Crimean Tatars or the deployment of the Russian troops to suppress protests in Kazakhstan require serious scrutiny by prominent liberal opinion leaders, as do some moral issues which go right to the heart of the human rights discourse in Russia.

One such issue is Vladimir Bukovsky — the only Russian human rights activist who went to prison again, and again, and again, and again in order to speak the truth about the human rights abuses in the USSR, and the only one who organized prisoner resistance while in confinement. The fact that Shenderovich is unable these days to speak of Bukovsky and of his example while having previously — when it was relatively safe to do so — showered Bukovsky with lavish accolades, to many looks like a clear indication of one thing: That the Kremlin insists on the line being toed even by the most outspoken of its Russian critics. Which depletes their “credit of trust” as the popular phrase goes in the post-Soviet space.

Lacking the credentials of the Soviet dissidents who proved their convictions by sacrificing their freedom and risking their lives, Russian liberals such as Shenderovich find themselves in a particularly vulnerable position from the attacks of the Kremlin’s critics in Ukraine, Georgia, and Central Asia. Whether they are driven by fear, or a particular kind of myopia, or by plain indifference toward the plight of other nations who find themselves bullied by the Kremlin, is a finer point their critics not often discuss.

Some kinder analysts point to the fact that Russian opposition — as well as the Russian society as a whole — still, for its larger part, finds itself lacking vital English language skills. This means that it remains not only cut off from important conversations taking place in other countries, but lacks crucial tools for understanding the current Western political discourse and its genesis, as Alain Besançon used to point out as far back as the early 1970s. What follows, according to Besançon, is the nation’s isolation which often leads to chauvinism which, in turn, impoverishes it and “dries it up.”

Others express themselves in blunter terms and attribute the Russian liberals’ caution in the face of important ethical issues to them sharing the same kind of “empire mentality” as the rulers in Kremlin. Yet another opinion draws attention to the shapeshifting character of Soviet (and now post-Soviet) intelligentsia which had historically been forced to exist in a symbiosis with the government in order to survive.

Eminent political scientist Ilya Zemtsov wrote about the Soviet intelligentsia in his 1989 seminal tome “Realities and Facets of Perestroika”:

“The intelligentsia had first been ridiculed, then bullied and brought to heel, and then put in the dock in its entirety. In essence, all the political trials inspired by Stalin were reprisals against the intelligentsia. So the communists have achieved their goal. The intelligentsia has been fettered by fear — so much so that even its most independent and proud representatives began to serve them.”

Those who are still more forgiving, excuse those of the Russian intelligentsia who do not condemn their country’s war crimes in Syria, persecution of the Crimean Tatars, and the deployment of troops in Kazakhstan by drawing attention to the horrific crackdown on civil society within Russia itself: “People comment only on issues they can afford to comment on — they cannot do or say more without risking jail”.

Be it myopia, indifference, or, indeed, fear, many in Russia who before had been seen as “liberal opinion makers” are now doing things they themselves perhaps couldn’t imagine doing just a year ago. Some former human rights activists vilify and discredit political prisoners. Others — once fearless — keep off political topics and post pictures of kittens on social media. It helps some to stay safe from persecution, and it helps others to make it easier for their children to receive government funding for elegant art history documenters sponsored the the Russian Ministry of Culture — the one which had recently declared the United States “a threat” to Russia’s “traditional values.”

But all hope is certainly not lost. The older generation may succumb to government pressure, but Russian schoolchildren (those, who — according to Dostoyevsky — "when seeing a map of the night sky for the first time in their lives will hand it back to you with their own corrections") quietly wonder why Navalny — this 45-year-old man with expressionless eyes — spends hundreds of hours describing еach fine point of furnishings inside Putin’s new residence, but omits to tell them in any substantial detail about human rights, parliamentary democracy, political freedoms, Russia’s aggression abroad, and sovereignty of neighboring states. And seeing that Navalny’s videos do not offer this kind of information, they quietly switch to channels that do.

Bukovsky was well-aware of this phenomenon, and called it “the law of generations”: “Some generations take great interest in material things, while other generation take great interest in political ideas.”

New York, January 2022.

Russia's Tongue-Tied Society: Chechnya, Syria, now Ukraine
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