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Magic and Healing in Contemporary Russia

Galina Lindquist

Marketing Magic

While the occult, by definition, is a hidden knowledge, urban magic in [Russia’s] big cities is a conspicuously public phenomenon. As such, it is created by the media and upheld by the market as a thriving field of service and commodity exchange. According to estimates of Russian sociologists, in 1998 there were more than 50,000officially registered “specialists in non-traditional healing methods” in Moscow alone (Pachenkov

2001). For the whole of Russia, Nezavisimaiagazeta (10 June 1996) gave an approximate number of “hundreds of thousands of ‘magic, sorcerers, and fortune tellers’ [magi, kolduny,predskazatek’].” This figure seems to me rather arbitrary, since there are plenty of practitioners who never register nor advertise; there are also people who practice magic and healing in their free time, treating friends and relatives, and combining these activities with other professions that may have nothing to do with either medicine or magic.

 Magic and healing services are broadly advertised in several specialized newspapers. The number of these newspapers varies depending on the financial conditions of the publishers – two or three such newspapers disappeared after the economic crash of 17 August 1998, the black day for Russian entrepreneurs and the incipient middle class. Other similar newspapers, such as Oracle and Hidden Power [Tainaia vlast’],survived the crisis and now circulate millions of copies. In addition, new ones crop up. These newspapers are a source of information about rediscovered and reinvented folk beliefs and practices, providing advice as to how to behave during fasts or how to use cards or coffee grounds to predict the future or to find a loved one. They also feature articles on the era of Aquarius

(known as New Age in the West), astrology, the magic of numbers and names, paranormal and occult phenomena in everyday life, advice on how to acquire inner harmony, outer beauty, and material wealth.

Russian Magi Inclined Toward Orthodoxy

Many magi, both those who claim folk or rural descent and those of the more syncretistic brand, consider themselves pious Russian Orthodox Christians. They go to church regularly, follow church holidays and prescriptions, fast according to the elaborate Orthodox schedule, wear across, surround themselves with church candles and icons, regularly acquire water blessed in the church, and make plentiful use of church paraphernalia in their rituals. As a standard part of their treatment of all kinds of complaints, many magi ask their patients to buy a popular brand of mineral water called Holy Spring [Svyatoiistochnik], bottled by the church as part of its thriving business activities, and blessed by the Patriarch himself (as the bottle labels inform the

buyer). The magus then charges the water withers own energy and instructs patients to drink it at certain times of the day, and to wash their hands and face with it. Magi also serve as church missionaries in their dealings with clients, as many of them prescribe as part of their treatment going to confession and Communion, buying candles and icons, making pilgrimages to holy places, being baptized if they have not been so, or simply going to church for a liturgy, a prayer, or the blessing of water.

The Midwives’ Movement: From Syncretismto Orthodoxy

The Russian Orthodox Church has become a major source of moral guidance and authority in Russia, and magi are not the only people who look towards the church in their attempts to forge legitimacy for their activities. In her article on home birth in contemporary Russia, anthropologist Ekaterina Belousova (2002)describes transformations in the rhetoric and ideological moorings among the Russian homebirth movement. In the end of the 1980s, their proponents presented themselves in broad terms of “basic spirituality” (familiar from the New Age paradigm), blending Russian Orthodoxy with Yoga, Zen Buddhism, and transpersonal psychology. In the end of the 1990s, however,

ideologists of the movement were talking about the dangers of “alien” practices, casting them, instead, in the idiom of “Russian Orthodox mentality.” Midwives’ use of traditional folk remedies and other elements of folk magic presented for them no contradiction with their Russian Orthodox identity. Just like other areas of health-care practices that reemerged alongside bio-medical ones, home birth had to latch on tithe Russian Orthodox Church to wield legitimacy. Clients of magi use symbols from the Russian

Orthodox repertoire to express the perceived positive changes in their lives. In the case of home birth, these references seem innocuous because the church itself has no ideological objections to the practice per se. Nevertheless, for magic and their clients this reliance on the church can be rather dubious. The Russian Orthodox Church is the fiercest opponent of all sorts of healing and magic. Thus, one of the very few sociological analyses of magic and New Age movements in the Russian language is offered by a church ideologue, Deacon Andrei Kuraiev,who denounces all varieties of what he calls

Okkul’tizm v pravoslavii [Occultism in Russian Orthodoxy] (Moscow: Fond “Blagovest,” 1998).


Magi Marketing – With Orthodoxy in Tow

Many healers (and magi) refer to God, faith,and religion, either in very direct terms, or, more  subtly, through using Russian Orthodox Church paraphernalia, in conjunction with legitimation through the “folk tradition,” and in order to augment references to “roots.” For example, Avery concise advertisement introduces “a folk healer” who promises to “cure all diseases in one séance.” Instead of lists of degrees and distinctions, references to scientific publications and license numbers, there is one single phrase:


“Faith in God will heal you!” Advertisements feature an establishment referred to as “the Center of Russian Orthodox Religious Healing”; a healer who heals through “Russian Orthodox prayer from the church prayer books,” and so forth. This kind of blend, however, is quite contentious, in view of the already mentioned deep resentment that the church has against all kinds of healing and magic (Lindquist 2000a).


Scholars (Ryan 1999 and Ivanits 1989) agree that the main difference between Russian folk magic in pre-revolutionary times and Western witchcraft and sorcery was Russia’s lack of a philosophically grounded demonology. However, demons and the devil were not at all absent from folk beliefs. One of the most frequently encountered terms in their lexicon was nechistaiasila (or nechist’), “unclean force(s).” This term was a designation of the devil, but it also referred to all potentially harmful spirits in general. Popular belief attributed to sorcerers and witches was the ability to send evil spirits to harm people.

 One form of this affliction was klikushestvo, a disease that affected women and was attributed to demonic possession. It manifested itself as hysterical or epileptic attacks or violent outbursts, or as spectacular public fits of obscene behavior(descriptions of klikushestvo and demonic possession remind one strongly of the symptoms of a psych neurological disease called Tourette’s syndrome; see Sacks 1995).

In today’s Russia, klikushestvo is not as common as it was in the old days, but possession (oderzhaniie) does sometimes occur. It is tacitly agreed that magi are not powerful enough to deal with it. There are a small number of priests in the Russian Orthodox Church who are known to treat demonic possession. They usually live in monasteries and regularly offer services where they perform group exorcism. These services are reportedly highly crowded, dramatic, terrifying spectacles, believed to be dangerous for idle onlookers to witness, but visited by dozens of sufferers from all over Russia. Priests who can drive out demons are much in demand, and the church turns a blind eye to their activities. Even though healing from demonic possession is greatly discouraged by the church, the tacit understanding is that its rare and chosen representatives are the only experts who can deal with it.

 Icons Co-opted

Prayer books, candlesticks, and Russian Orthodox icons are always plentiful in magi’s working rooms. This ubiquitous presence of icons was explained to me by a young, tough, and pointedly secularized healer who otherwise tried to forego all references to the church and confided that the roots of her practice lay in Reiki healing.

[Editor’s note: Reiki practice derives from Nikolai Roerich (1874-1947), painter, theosophical spiritualist, and peace activist.]

“I don’t care about Russian Orthodoxy,” she said, pointing to the latter-day, kitschy creations on the walls of her small apartment, as if apologizing to me for their presence there. “People need images of love and kindness – things they can immediately relate to, and this is what icons are.”♦

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Galina Lindquist, Conjuring Hope: Magic and Healing in Contemporary Russia (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006). Galina Lindquist, a native of Russia, teaches in the Department of Social Anthrop


Belousova, Ekaterina. “The Preservation of National Childbirth Traditions in the Russian Homebirth Community.” The Journal of the Slavic and East European Folklore Association 5 (No. 2, 2002): 50- 77; www.virginia.edu/~slavic/seefa/fall02.pdf. Ivanits, Linda J. Russian Folk Belief. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

Kuraiev, Andrei. Okkultizm v Pravoslavii [Occultism in Russian Orthodoxy]. Moscow: Blagovest, 1998.

Lindquist, Galina.”Not My Will but Thane be Done: Church Versus Magic in Contemporary Russia.” Culture and Religion No. 2 (2000): 247-76. Pachenkov, Oleg. “Ratsional’noie ‘zakoldovyvaniie mira’: sovremennyie rossi iskiie ‘magi’ [Rational

‘Reenchantment of the World’: Contemporary ‘Magic’in Russia].” In Nevidimyie grani sotsial’noi real’nosti

 [The Unseen Facets of Social Reality], Vol. 9. St. Petersburg: Center for Independent Social Research, 2001. Pp. 96-109. Ryan, W. F. The Bathhouse at Midnight; Magic in

Russia. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars. London: Picador, 1995.