Argument

The Anti-Putin Shaman’s Magical Mystery Tour

Alexander Gabyshev vowed to drive the “demon Putin” out of Russia through an exorcism. Here’s why Moscow took the threat seriously.

A shaman is pictured behind a fire during a traditional Slavic holiday celebration in the Kalugskaya region of Russia on June 22, 2008.
A shaman is pictured behind a fire during a traditional Slavic holiday celebration in the Kalugskaya region of Russia on June 22, 2008. Dima Korotayev/AFP/Getty Images

This year, Alexander Gabyshev, a middle-aged man from Siberia who had declared himself a warrior shaman, launched his own personal protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin by setting off on foot from the far north of Russia. His goal: to walk the 5,000 miles to Moscow to drive out the “demon Putin.” He hoped to accomplish this by gathering an army of protestors along the road who would follow him to Moscow, where they would witness his exorcism.

But Gabyshev was stymied halfway through his protest, and neither he nor his followers are likely to ever reach Moscow.

After six months on the road and nearly a third of the way from his hometown of Yakutsk to Moscow, he arrived in Ulan-Ude, near the Mongolian border, in September. There, he was kidnapped and arrested by armed and masked security officials. He was sent to eastern Siberia, and Russia’s Federal Security Service has since recommended that he be incarcerated in a psychiatric facility.

He has since become not only a celebrity in Russia but throughout the world as well. Amnesty International has called Gabyshev a prisoner of conscience, and the director of its Russian offices, Natalia Zvyagina, voiced a question on many people’s minds: “The Russian authorities’ response is grotesque,” she noted when the organization urged Russian authorities to release Gabyshev. “Are they truly afraid of his magical powers?”

In short, yes. The reaction of the authorities seems more reasonable the more you understand about Putin’s voters. For many rural Russians, one shaman is much more credible than thousands of people mobilizing at rallies in Moscow. And the Kremlin understands this perfectly.

To be sure, few people in a big cosmopolitan city like Moscow would think much of magic. But, for the most part, Putin’s base doesn’t live in Moscow. The 86 percent of Russian voters who comprise his supporters live outside the city’s pro-Western confines, and many of them believe deeply in what Gabyshev represents.

It is not unusual for someone in Russia’s more remote stretches to pay his or her last penny to wise men or fortunetellers for good luck, a plentiful harvest, more money, or love. By some estimates, there are more than 1,000 shamans in Russia, and in 2018, the shamans of the Russian Federation elected a “supreme shaman” and called for their practices to be an official recognized religion in the country. Shamanism has always held a special fascination for Russians, and studies have shown that two-thirds of Russian women have consulted some sort of shamanic or psychic figure.

Meanwhile, even in big cities, churches still hold relics of saints, which see steady foot traffic from devotees. And according to a recent investigation, Russia sees three new churches built every day—that’s one in the morning, afternoon, and evening—despite the economic stagnation, decline in the construction of schools and hospitals, and social problems facing Russia.

Perhaps in line with a belief in shamans and supernatural power, many pro-Putin voters also believe what they see on pro-government television channels. They believe in Russian exceptionalism. No matter how bad the Russian economy gets, they aren’t shaken in their support for Putin’s policies. When they see rallies against their president on the news, they double down in their support for him. For many of them, Russia’s troubles are because of the West, the Americans, and perhaps Georgia and Ukraine.

That’s why a protest from someone like Gabyshev is dangerous. It strikes at the core of a traditionalist worldview. If a shaman believes that Putin is a demon, then so he might be. Gabyshev’s methods, too, are particularly powerful. Unlike a mass protest, a one-man march is both a slow and steady drumbeat and also deeply personal. It’s not a text alert or a Facebook post. It’s serious, and it’s real.

There is no good data showing the extent of rural Russian support for Gabyshev, but along the way he did gather a tight circle of followers who joined him on his journey. Some of them tried to continue moving on after his arrest, but security forces’ threats forced the group to disband. At a certain point on Gabyshev’s journey, in one city in eastern Siberia, he attracted a crowd of about 1,000 protestors, and videos of him posted by people he met along the way have garnered millions of views online.

In turn, Gabyshev’s protest, although perhaps smaller, was much more dangerous for the regime than marches of cosmopolitans demanding reform. And that is why the authorities had to nip it in the bud. Gabyshev is the embodied anger of the poorest. In a country where power and money are highly concentrated in one place—Moscow—Gabyshev has become a flash point, and anger from the countryside may boil over into the cities, already reeling from their own anti-government protests.

Gabyshev himself will probably never make it to the capital, of course. In a country where even rockets are sprinkled with holy water before taking off into outer space, it was better for the Kremlin to expose itself as superstitious than to risk his continued march. But Gabyshev’s example is powerful, and it may yet prove contagious. Although it does not appear that anyone else has taken up Gabyshev’s mantel for now, only time will tell whether any other mystics will one day reach Moscow.

Vitali Shkliarov is a Harvard University fellow at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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