MOSCOW — A Siberian shaman walking to Moscow to exorcise the “demonic” Vladimir Putin was seized by armed police in a pre-dawn raid that sparked criticism from rights groups and mockery from opposition activists.
Alexander Gabyshev, who calls himself a “shaman warrior,” set out from Yakutsk, northeastern Siberia, in April. He planned to trek some 8,300 kilometers across Russia before arriving at the gates of the Kremlin in 2021.
“God told me that Putin is not a man, that he is a demon, and that I must exorcise him,” Gabyshev, 51, said during his journey, which was covered by a number of Russian-language media outlets. “There can be no democracy with the demon [in power].”
Gabyshev had trekked almost 3,000km, gathering around two dozen followers along the way, before his arrest at a makeshift camp in eastern Siberia’s republic of Buryatia on Thursday.
“Armed security services blocked the highway, quickly encircled our camp and headed straight to the shaman’s tent,” Viktor Yegorov, one of Gabyshev’s supporters, said in a video from the scene. “They drove him off in an unknown direction.”
Russian state media reported he had been placed in a psychiatric hospital in Yakutsk for observation.
Amnesty International quickly condemned the arrest and labeled the anti-Putin shaman a “prisoner of conscience.”
“The shaman’s actions may be eccentric, but the Russian authorities’ response is grotesque. Are they truly afraid of his magical powers?” Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty’s Russia’s director, said in a statement.
Investigators later confirmed Gabyshev had been detained and would be flown back to Yakutsk, where they said he is wanted in connection with an unspecified crime. He may also be charged with forming an extremist organization, an offense punishable by up to 10 years behind bars, according to several unconfirmed reports.
On Friday, Russian state media reported he had been placed in a psychiatric hospital in Yakutsk for observation, a move some critics likened to the Soviet-era use of punitive psychiatry to incarcerate dissidents for indefinite periods.
“His forced confinement in a psychiatric hospital is a blatant violation of his rights,” said Tanya Lokshina, the Moscow-based associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “His actions involved no danger to society or public order.”
The shaman’s arrest came just days after he told Russia’s Znak news website he would build up an “army” to drive Putin from power. Online videos showed ordinary Russians greeting Gabyshev and providing him with provisions as he and his followers made their way to Moscow.
“Here he is — the great Putin,” Alexei Navalny, the prominent Kremlin critic, wrote on Twitter. “He was so afraid of the shaman from Yakutia that he had him arrested by 20 people with automatic weapons.”
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, declined to comment on Gabyshev’s arrest.
Gabyshev’s trek across Russia coincided with the biggest opposition protests in Moscow for almost a decade and a dramatic slump in support for United Russia, Putin’s ruling party, amid growing poverty and allegations of high-level corruption.
Alexei Kondaurov, a retired KGB major-general and former lawmaker, said government officials were spooked by the prospect of Gabyshev traveling on through some of Russia’s most economically depressed regions with an open message of insurrection.
“The authorities in the regions, like no one else, sense the growing domestic discontent,” according to Kondaurov.
Earlier this month, the arrest of some of the shaman’s supporters in Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, triggered three days of protests that also saw demands for a rerun of allegedly rigged elections for governor. In Chita, a city in eastern Siberia, Gabyshev spoke to around 1,000 protesters at an opposition rally that was one of the biggest there in recent years. The Russian Orthodox Church, a key Kremlin ally, threatened to excommunicate anyone who attended.
‘The shaman’s curse’
Shamanism — the practice of communicating with what adherents believe to be the spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness — has roots stretching back centuries in Siberia. Followers defied attempts by Soviet authorities to stamp it out and the religion has made a comeback in Russia in recent decades.
But not everyone in the community was on board with Gabyshev’s foray into politics. In August, the shaman was confronted on the outskirts of Ulan-Ude by a group of pro-government shamans who accused him of spreading discord.
“[Shamans] do not care about politics. We need harmony. We do not need a bloody war,” one of them told him in remarkable scenes reminiscent of images from bygone centuries (smartphones aside).
As news of Gabyshev’s arrest broke on Thursday, opposition supporters began posting the hashtag “#I/We are the Shaman” on social media, a reference to a recent successful grassroots campaign to free Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist who police tried to frame on drug-dealing charges.
The collision of the occult and the political sphere is not new in Russia, a country with a deep-rooted fascination with the paranormal.
“We’ve lived to see this. A shaman as a victim of political repression,” Yelena Lukyanova, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, wrote in a Facebook post.
“There is about as much chance of replacing the authorities through elections as there is by the shaman’s curse,” Igor Eidman, a Kremlin critic, posted on Facebook. “Yet, they have been jailing [opposition] candidates for a long time, so it’s only natural they have now started on shamans.”
The collision of the occult and the political sphere is not new in Russia, a country with a deep-rooted fascination with the paranormal. Russia’s Academy of Sciences estimates that 67 percent of all Russian women have at some time sought help from a “psychic or sorcerer.” The figure for Russian men is one in four.
That fascination has leeched into politics. In the late 1980s, as the Soviet system began to crumble, state television broadcast so-called “healing sessions” by Anatoly Kashpirovsky, a Kremlin-approved “psychic healer.” Kashpirovsky was later elected to the State Duma, Russia’s parliament.
Under Putin, Grigory Grabovoi, another self-proclaimed psychic healer, sparked outrage when he claimed to be able to resurrect the 186 children killed in the 2004 Beslan school siege. Grabovoi’s actions trigged allegations he had been tasked by Kremlin spin doctors with discrediting the Beslan Mothers, a group of bereaved parents asking uncomfortable questions about the government’s handling of the incident.
More recently, it emerged that the Kremlin had funded a secret mind-reading division in the 1990s. One of its “discoveries” was that Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. Secretary of State, believed it was “unfair” Russia had sole possession of Siberia and its vast natural resources. Boris Ratnikov, a retired general, said the “discovery” was made by a psychic agent who “read” Albright’s mind. Putin repeated the claim at a press conference in 2014, although it is unclear if he was aware of its source.
“The most frightening thing is that [the political elite] really saw a threat in the shaman’s campaign,” wrote Lev Rubinstein, a Russian poet and Kremlin critic.
“They really believe in shamans and wizards … and what if that shaman had stronger connections with important spirits than their shaman? You just never know!”