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Russia Is Afraid of Western Psychic Attacks

Pseudoscience and mysticism are common among the Moscow elite.

By , an award-winning journalist.
Pedestrians stand next to a New Year's decoration stylized as the "Kremlin Star," bearing a letter "Z," a tactical insignia of Russian troops in Ukraine, in Moscow.
Pedestrians stand next to a New Year's decoration stylized as the "Kremlin Star," bearing a letter "Z," a tactical insignia of Russian troops in Ukraine, in Moscow.
Pedestrians stand next to a New Year's decoration stylized as the "Kremlin Star," bearing a letter "Z," a tactical insignia of Russian troops in Ukraine, in Moscow on Jan. 2. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons these days to wonder if Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies are off their rockers. But a recently leaked memo from the Kremlin reveals that those in charge of the Russian government are farther down the rabbit hole than most of us realized.

The memo, published by the Insider, a Russian news outlet in exile, outlines how the Russian Federal Guard Service (FSO), which protects high-ranking officials such as Putin, would handle the invasion of Ukraine — or any other war — spilling over onto the country’s own soil. It focuses on psychological preparedness, ensuring that FSO officers would have the “moral and psychological support” needed to resist what the memo calls a potential “massive ideological attack.” But the Russians aren’t simply worried about the usual wartime propaganda, like sneaky radio broadcasts or underground newspapers. Instead, the Kremlin is mounting preparations for what it calls the “psychological infection of personnel” by an enemy who would manipulate them through hypnosis—as well as through unknown mystical and psychic powers. The memo warns of “psi-generators” and “hypnotic abilities” used by foreign personnel.

Belief in mystic powers is relatively common in Russia, where roughly 20 percent of people have visited a psychic and more than 60 percent believe in some form of magic. Natalia Antonova, a Washington-based writer and Russia expert who spent seven years reporting from Moscow, said “This issue of hypnosis and telekinesis, whatever it is that they’re attempting to do, I think the Russians truly believe it. Most of us are still trying to exist in the real world, and [the Russian leadership] are not. They’re not trying anymore.”

There are plenty of reasons these days to wonder if Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies are off their rockers. But a recently leaked memo from the Kremlin reveals that those in charge of the Russian government are farther down the rabbit hole than most of us realized.

The memo, published by the Insider, a Russian news outlet in exile, outlines how the Russian Federal Guard Service (FSO), which protects high-ranking officials such as Putin, would handle the invasion of Ukraine — or any other war — spilling over onto the country’s own soil. It focuses on psychological preparedness, ensuring that FSO officers would have the “moral and psychological support” needed to resist what the memo calls a potential “massive ideological attack.” But the Russians aren’t simply worried about the usual wartime propaganda, like sneaky radio broadcasts or underground newspapers. Instead, the Kremlin is mounting preparations for what it calls the “psychological infection of personnel” by an enemy who would manipulate them through hypnosis—as well as through unknown mystical and psychic powers. The memo warns of “psi-generators” and “hypnotic abilities” used by foreign personnel.

Belief in mystic powers is relatively common in Russia, where roughly 20 percent of people have visited a psychic and more than 60 percent believe in some form of magic. Natalia Antonova, a Washington-based writer and Russia expert who spent seven years reporting from Moscow, said “This issue of hypnosis and telekinesis, whatever it is that they’re attempting to do, I think the Russians truly believe it. Most of us are still trying to exist in the real world, and [the Russian leadership] are not. They’re not trying anymore.”

Such fears may be enforced at the top. It’s long been rumored that Russian leaders, including Putin, believe in mysticism, astrology, numerology, and psychics—as well as a conviction that their rule over a greater Russia is predestined. As far back as 1988, the New York Times reported that “[h]oroscopes, folk medicine, psychic healing and all manner of mysticism occupy a prominent place in Soviet society, part faith, part fad, but no joke.”

Mysticism merges with more conventional Russian Orthodox beliefs about apocalyptic scenarios and satanic influence. At a September ceremony of the annexation of parts of Ukraine, Putin described how the Western “suppression of freedom itself has taken on the features of a religion: outright Satanism.” Then, in October, the Russian government shifted its justification of the war, claiming it had a moral imperative to “carry out the de-Satanization of Ukraine.” While the language of satanism is sometimes used purely as exaggerated rhetoric, sometimes it’s meant literally. Conservative Russian Orthodox ideas of spiritual warfare, in which the West is depicted as literally demonic, have become incorporated into the Russian state’s own vocabulary—and mixed with the country’s enthusiasm for psychic pseudoscience.

Not to worry, though. The memo laid out how the FSO plans to avert this kind of psychic assault. Tactics include psychically strengthening officers by telling them stories about the bravery and heroism of their colleagues. Another means of counteracting psychological infection involves giving officers tours of the FSO Hall of Fame and History and visits to Moscow’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan—presumably to pray the devil away. There will also be a kind of buddy system: “It is necessary to attach the most politically savvy officers of the FSO to the least stable,” the memo reads. Or, as a precaution, it may be necessary to commit psychologically vulnerable officers who suffer “neuropsychiatric instability” to a hospital in these mysteriously perilous times. Concerns about psychology and the morale of officers—critically important in a losing war—have become blended with more esoteric worries such as psychic assaults.

The Soviet state and its successor both experimented with mind control (as did the United States during the Cold War, employing a secretive psychic project of its own). A Russian memo declassified in 2019 laid out how, in the 1980s, scientists investigated extrasensory perception (ESP) and other mystical abilities. And in 2019, a Russian military journal declared that the country’s soldiers have psychic powers—and that they had used them before. The soldiers purportedly learned how to read thoughts from telepathic dolphins. But it isn’t all just Flipper-imparted mind control. The article’s author, an army colonel, wrote that the telepathic soldiers also are able to jam communications signals and crash computers with their thoughts.

In the paranormal arms race of the Cold War, no psychic “weapon” was too weird to consider—as long as whatever scientists were trying didn’t sound like it was attached to the occult.

Investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen wrote in a 2017 book: “Soviet nomenclature around ESP was rewritten to sound technical, thereby severing all ties with ESP’s occult past.” Telepathy? It was renamed “long-distance biological systems transmissions.” Psychokinesis? Moving objects just by thinking about them was instead called “non-ionizing, in particular electromagnetic, emissions from humans.”

The leaked FSO memo explains that the deputy director of the FSO, Gen. Alexander Komov, is responsible for the ultimate implementation of the secret plan to ward off a psychic attack should it be needed. Komov is part science-minded, part kook. He participated in a conference organized last year by the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences about the possibility of spying on Earth from space. He also apparently leads a group of freelance advisors that includes astrologers, black magicians, and psychics.

According to the leaked memo, among other strategies the Russians believe the enemy may employ include “psycho-corrective games,” “computer psi-viruses,” and “chemical and biological” psychological influence. Psychocorrection, as best I can tell, is a pseudoscience meant to “correct” the development of young children, often using toys, and may include experimental psychology. Its utility for officials being targeted by foreign psychics is questionable. The Insider notes that the possibility of “computer psi-viruses,” whatever those are, are unlikely to affect the Kremlin because officers are forbidden from using cellphones or tablets while on duty.

The initial invasion of Ukraine was backed up with hard power: an army of nearly 200,000 men accompanied by serious artillery, tanks, and air power. Russian pundits boasted of an easy victory. That crumbled in the face of Ukrainian resistance, and a panicky mass mobilization did little to change the course of failure. That may be contributing to the atmosphere of fantasy. “With all of these delusions that have been festering for years,” Antonova said, “when they run up against the cold, hard reality that they can’t win in Ukraine, they start breaking down mentally.”

 

 

Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning journalist who also teaches at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Twitter: @wolfe321

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