“Today is the first seance,” says a short-haired woman in a pink cocktail dress, seconds before blissful footage of fog flowing over a lake takes over the screen while acoustic guitar music plays. The scene is meant to give viewers a taste of the mysteries to come, but it feels more like the beginning of a late-night infomercial.
It’s October 8, 1989, and our glitzed-up presenter is here to introduce millions of Soviet citizens to the power of psychic healing. Her services, it seems, are needed; to say there’s too much happening in the world around them would be an understatement. Years later, in his book Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State, Princeton professor Mark Beissinger would dub this era of the Soviet Union a period of “thickened history”—the final years of the Soviet era, in which “the pace of events . . . outstripped the movement of institutions and the understanding of leaders.”
Beissinger was speaking in particular of national identities and the rise of nationalist movements in the mid-to-late 1980s, but this “sense of momentum” had an impact on Soviet mass culture as well. Age-old superstitions blossomed, finding fertile ground amidst chaos and uncertainty. Soviet media opened itself up to the unknown. In 1989, three years after Mikhail Gorbachev adopted the term glasnost, or “openness,” to describe his wide-reaching sociopolitical reforms, the central Soviet press agency, TASS, proclaimed the unthinkable: aliens, the “once-staid” press agency noted, were, in fact, real and had landed in Voronezh, a city in European Russia. While a reporter made contact with these extraterrestrial beings, he remained earth-bound despite requests to see their home planet. “You might bring thought bacteria,” the not-so-little green men (no, not those ones) said, when pressed for comment.
Neither conspiratorial nor magical thinking were unique to the far right.
While the impact of the massive tide of dissent that arose out of the Soviet state’s botched effort to reform itself is well known, reflections on glasnost tend to ignore the extent of some of the oddities that arose from free(r) speech in the Soviet Union’s twilight period. Out of the Party’s effort to craft its own centralized historical narrative rose a wave of “alternative” histories, including a number tainted by conspiratorial and magical thinking. Reactionary nationalist histories were in vogue, too. Dmitry Andreev’s The Alternative History of the Twentieth Century: The Victory of the Counter-Revolution in Russia in 1917 revisited the career of conservative statesman Peter Stolypin. And, of course, thanks to the rise of far-right ethno-nationalism, efforts to uncover the supposed “secret history” of Israel and of the “Judeo-Masonic alliance” found new audiences.
Yet neither conspiratorial nor magical thinking were unique to the far right. The climate of growing cultural openness, combined with an eagerness to revisit the parts of the USSR’s past that had been buried in the shadows, birthed a plethora of oddities as well. Some, such as a Russian strain of Atlantology, which posited that the ancient mythical city of Atlantis was once located in Russia, bordered on the comical. Others, like New Chronology—a system concocted by Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko that “proved” traditional chronological history is false, and, among other things, that Jesus Christ lived in the twelfth century—were similarly ridiculous, but New Chronology earned at least a bit of positive PR due to endorsements from figures like chess champion Garry Kasparov. (Fomenko’s multivolume master work is entitled History: Fiction, or Science?, which sounds suspiciously like a Ben Shapiro tweet meant to own the libs and is long enough that one must wonder: Has anyone actually read the whole damn thing?)
Polarization did little to stymie these trends. While organizations like the virulently anti-Semitic Pamyat, which blamed the Jews for everything from alcoholism to economic turmoil, sought to “heal” the Russian nation through violence against those who didn’t belong, an eclectic band of mystics and psychics capitalized on the era’s need for meaning—not to mention the ease of broadcasting access. Their popularity may, in turn, be able to help explain the surge of conspiratorial thinking that we’re witnessing in the United States today.
Each of the televised seances starts the same way. Prosaic but tranquil music mollifies the viewer in preparation for the main event. Eventually, the camera cuts to Anatoly Kashpirovsky, a burly, middle-aged man with cropped black hair who addresses a massive audience from a studio in Moscow while sitting stoically at a table. A cup of black tea with lemon and a pile of various messages from viewers throughout Russia surround him. On a night that promises healing miracles of all kinds, he informs the crowd, seemingly unmoved: “I want to direct your attention to the most important miracle, which is . . . that we have gathered in one of the very best auditoriums in the Soviet Union, and that we are featured on Central Television.”
Kashpirovsky was born in Ukraine in 1939 and made a name for himself as, depending on who you ask, a crank, a healеr, or worthwhile entertainment. After at least twenty-five years practicing as a clinical psychotherapist, Kashpirovsky engaged in the ultimate pivot: he embraced his psychic abilities and used them to, supposedly, help the Soviet Union’s Olympic weightlifting team dominate the competition during the 1988 Summer Olympics. He first captured the attention of Soviet audiences that same year through a bizarre psychic experiment, in which his “power of suggestion” enabled surgeons to conduct a stomach operation on a woman in Kiev without anesthetics. (She contested the claim that this surgery was painless, asserting that the process was actually excruciating.) This was the beginning of his television career. Several of Kashpirovsky’s so-called “seances” were broadcast throughout the Soviet Union in the fall of 1989. Somewhere between the second and fourth broadcast, the Berlin Wall collapsed. To be clear, there was no connection.
The “magic healer” of Soviet TV was far from an anomaly; indeed, Kashpirovsky was just one of many Soviet ekstrasensy—Russian for “psychics”—to take advantage of the newfound cultural freedom during glasnost. His rival was a fifty-something-year-old man named Allan Chumak, who used his healing energies as a regular on 120 Minutes, a Soviet morning news and entertainment show. Each morning, the white-haired, professorial-looking Chumak would gather his psychic powers for the benefit of Soviet society, radiating therapeutic energies. His brief sessions often started with a discussion of the malady that was meant to be treated that day (e.g., allergies), which would quickly transition into an extended session of Chumak moving his hands ponderously through the air while staring directly into the camera. Chumak’s most loyal viewers believed he was able to imbue various substances, the most famous of which was water, with a “charge.” In 1989, David Remnick reported in the Washington Post that the middle-aged Chumak had also set his sights on an even more pressing problem facing the “nation of empty shelves”: food shortages.
Superstition was now front and center on state TV.
The ekstrasensy were a veritable, albeit perplexing, cultural phenomenon that no one quite knew what to do with. Both Soviet and Western newspapers found themselves grappling with the oddity of the psychics’ popularity. Some, such as the Moscow-based weekly newspaper Argumenty i Fakty (Arguments and Facts), encouraged readers to embrace some caution when engaging with these “newly-minted messiahs.” But the ridiculousness of these claims to psychic healing did little to stop their spread. As one Moscow correspondent for the Guardian noted, Kashpirovsky’s grip was so strong that “even normally skeptical intellectuals [were] admitting that they or their friends have found him helpful.” They were, it appears, in agreement with the roughly 57 percent of Russians who would lay aside whatever they were doing at the time to watch his seances, at least.
In the country where Maxim Gorky had once implored Joseph Stalin to be more proactive about highlighting “the church’s struggle against science” in order to quell tendencies toward “a religious disposition,” superstition was now front and center on state TV. “Grigori Rasputin probably would be a TV star now,” noted one interviewer in Argumenty i Fakty, in reference to the (in)famous, almost-unkillable mystic who attached himself to Tsar Nicholas II’s family. Others saw sinister machinations on behalf of the Communist Party at play in the ekstrasensy. The president of the Independent Psychiatric Association of Russia, Yuri Savenko, argued that the entire spectacle was created by, and for, the party. The government, historian Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal writes, may have “hoped that Kashpirovksy’s teleseances would serve as a ‘grand diversion,’ to distract people’s attention from the plummeting economy and end the talk of an imminent apocalypse or a new Time of Troubles.” Chumak, it seems, was inclined to agree—at least when it came to Kashpirovsky’s popularity, not his own. Viewers, he noted in an interview with journalist Marc Bennetts for his book on superstition in post-Soviet Russia, Resurrections for Roubles,“sensed I was showing them the path to freedom.”
Perhaps he was, in a way. As Wladimir Velminski, a media theorist and author of Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny, noted, it was as if
the population was slowly waking up from a kind of trance and starting to realize what had been happening for the last few years; in the process, it came to recognize the gulf in the standard of living that gaped between the Soviet Union and the West, whose economic power controlled the world. Now, at this perilous juncture, a new force—one that was not manifestly political, but rather “therapeutic”—would restore the former state and rally the individual forces constituting the collective.
Like Boris Yeltsin, the Soviet populace had now seen the glory of an American grocery store. Except a not-insignificant chunk of the population was transfixed not by pudding pops but by the tabloids near the checkout.
Kashpirovsky and his ilk, as one New York Times journalist pointed out at the time, “[lent] a last-days-of-Pompeii quality to perestroika’s midlife crisis.” The ekstrasensy represented a “common madness” that, near its ultimate moment of fracture, managed to unite the Soviet Union through a shared, deeply human tendency to search for order in the unknown. Of course, it’s fair to say that those placing open jars of water around the television to soak up Chumak’s healing powers weren’t giving much thought to this ritual’s relationship to economic turmoil. Yet Kashpirovsky and Chumak’s rise were, without a doubt, bound up in the Soviet system’s existential crisis. “Russians,” Bennetts notes, “clambered for ideas to replace the certainties once supplied by the Soviet system.” And they found them—at least for a time.
Kashpirovsky eventually turned to politics. He found common ground with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), who was riding the wave of the party’s only major electoral triumph at a national level in 1993. Zhirinovsky—himself a sort of television personality, albeit more along the lines of Trump-with-Billy-Bush than a ponderous psychic healer—was a natural partner, in a way. He had his own brand of kitsch, as many fascists do. For him, propaganda and entertainment were one; for Kashpirovsky, the lines between entertainment, healing, and propaganda were similarly blurry.
But glasnost’s foremost psychic had little success in entrancing voters, and he made his way to the United States in 1995. By then, his star had faded. Media reforms, combined with the growing lobbying power of the Russian Orthodox Church, pushed ekstrasensy off the airwaves. The cottage industry born of Russians’ broader interest in the occult continued to grow, but without televised mass seances on state TV. Assuming Chumak was right about Kashpirovsky’s mission to deflect criticism of the state—and, of course, the democratizing power of Chumak’s own healing sessions—Kashpirovsky’s eventual return to Russian television in 2009 did nothing to halt the largest anti-government rally in post-Soviet Russia a mere two years later. Of course, who’s to say whether it’s similarly implausible that his presence in Brighton Beach had an effect on the 2016 American presidential election?
Our hacks are better networked and better equipped to succeed in a globalized world.
With Cold War nostalgia now dominating parts of the news cycle, not to mention a whole swath of conspiracy-minded grifters peddling their own hokey homeopathic panaceas to ills political and otherwise, it’s safe to say that America in 2019 is trapped in a “common madness” of its own. The Trump presidency has created a void of meaning that, for many, can best be filled by a departure from reality. Such escapes, it’s clear, more often than not lead us to the hellish bedlam of far-right fever-dreams.
Of course, America has long been home to faith healers of questionable intent—televangelists promising instant salvation, New Age grifters peddling overpriced vaginal jade eggs, and even dunderheaded shock-jocks with their own branded supplements. Our recent paranoia and gullibility isn’t an anomaly, as Richard Hofstadter has made clear. Yet the present crisis of meaning is unique in its potential for durability. Our hacks are better networked and better equipped to succeed in a globalized world. They have, as journalist Anna Merlan recounts in her forthcoming book Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, been building themselves up for decades on the fringes. In their world, “everything and every possibility is equally plausible.” They’re not reliant on state TV for support (even if certain networks, such as Trump’s beloved Fox News, have begun to resemble it); today’s snake oil salesmen also have several of Silicon Valley’s gifts to the world at their fingertips.
The ekstrasensy may have only succeeded for a brief moment in time, but their influence lives on. After all, notes one interviewee in Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, “spiritual stuff is always good to keep people distracted. And the ratings will be good—our people love some mysticism when things are bad.” More broadly, the magical and conspiratorial thinking that made their popularity possible has adapted to meet the needs of Putin’s Russia. In some cases, these manifestations are goofy, quirky, and even endearing. Few, for instance, would argue there’s something seriously sinister about a cadre of witches casting spells in support of the Russian president. Others, like the Kremlin’s obsession with “foreign agents,” have had profound policy implications. Unfortunately for those who have sought solace in the belief that America’s own hyper-paranoid age will fade away, this legacy offers little consolation.
 As translated by Marlene Laruelle. There are no official English translations of Andreev’s book, which reads in the original Russian as Al’ternativnaya istoriya XX veka: pobeda kontrrevolyotsii v Rossii.