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Why do so many Russians turn to psychics?

Alexander Sheps
Image caption Alexander's focus is communicating with the dead

Large numbers of Russians are consulting mystics and psychics - up to a fifth of the population has done so at least once, according to one polling organisation. And there are signs that this tendency is increasing amid economic crisis and conflict in Ukraine.

I have never visited a psychic. So as I stand in the huge metal lift of a multi-storey building in a Moscow suburb, I am filled with curiosity, scepticism and some trepidation. My appointment is with Alexander Sheps, a celebrity psychic.

I grew up in St Petersburg, the city once home to Russia's most famous psychic, Rasputin.

But Sheps looks nothing like the bearded beady-eyed priest. Young and tall, he is rather as I would have imagined Count Dracula in his youth, but more softly spoken. His black T-shirt sports a picture of a ghostly skull.

Sheps is a winner of the The Battle of the Psychics, a reality TV show that attracts more than four million viewers per episode in Russia, even now into its 16th series.

"My main focus is communicating with the dead. I practise the art of magic,

I practise ritual magic, spells. I can search for people who have disappeared," he tells me.

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Media captionWatch Alexander Sheps, one of Russia's best-known psychics, at work

Opinion polls by the independent Levada Centre estimate that a fifth of Russians have visited a psychic. Another polling organisation, Sreda, estimated in 2013 that 63% believe in either astrology, fortune telling or the concept of the evil eye.

From what Sheps says, it seems that there is a particular demand for his services among the urban middle class.

"There are bankers, there are very famous politicians, a lot of famous people. My clients include two Orthodox priests. Despite praying in the church and having a congregation, they come to me to solve their problems," he says.

Image caption Orthodoxy and the occult are as compatible as mustard and ice cream, says Andrei Kuraev

Psychics and the occult are officially anathema to the Orthodox Church, but deacon Andrei Kuraev, who has spent the last 25 years discrediting psychics, say it's not that surprising that some believers put their faith in charlatans.

"You can be Orthodox and a murderer, you can be Orthodox and a burglar," he says. "No-one can force a person to be logical. That's why completely incompatible ingredients co-exist in people's heads, like ice-cream with mustard."

Christianity in Russia can be traced back over a millennium, but pagan beliefs never entirely disappeared in rural areas. Some believe this, and the existence of Shamanistic and other non-Christian beliefs in the country's vast eastern regions, could help explain the continuing appeal of the occult.

Even the USSR's militant atheism failed to suppress popular curiosity.

Find out more

You can watch the programme Russia's New Mystics in the UK on the BBC News channel at these times, and on BBC World News at these times.

You can listen to the report on World Service's Heart and Soul programme at these times.

I remember that in the 1970s and 80s Russian intellectuals, sometimes with doctorates in science, searched for alternatives to so called "scientific socialism" - even though an interest such things could lead to imprisonment or compulsory psychiatric treatment.

At the same time, however, the Soviet authorities secretly tried to harness the powers of psychics to locate enemy nuclear submarines, or to "read" secret documents locked inside safes in Western capitals.

It's no surprise, then, that in today's Russia some people in pretty responsible positions are resorting to psychics.

Detective Dmitry Bykov was recently investigating a particularly gruesome murder. The victim was incinerated in a car, and there were no clues, so a psychic was summoned to the scene of the crime.

Image caption Dmitry Bykov asked a psychic to help while investigating a particularly difficult murder case

"She had evidently connected with some flow of information… she told us to go somewhere, so we left," Bykov says.

"She said that it was as if she was being pulled by some sort of rope straight to that place. On the way she gave us information, such as who was killed, where, and the description of the person, his appearance, his lifestyle, whom he had been hanging out with.

"Bit by bit a picture began to emerge."

Nothing the psychic says can be used in court, though. Any "leads" provided have to be investigated in the usual way - and Bykov didn't tell me how useful they turned out to be in this case.

The woman he and his colleagues consulted was 31-year-old Galiya Galieva, whose main speciality is numerology - the belief in a mystical relationship between numbers and events - and, rather surprisingly, personnel issues.

Image caption Galiya Galieva's speciality is numerology

"I have consulted the psychic many times about hiring staff," says Valeria Pervitskaya, another of Galieva's clients, who runs a business making ready meals.

"She examined their photographs and birth dates, and told me whom to employ. This helped me to build the right team.

"It is a great advantage if you know whom to employ, who does not suit you, if someone would steal from you," she says, her carefully selected staff busily chopping vegetables in the background.

Image caption Valeria Pervitskaya with some of her team

Psychotherapist Dmitry Olshansky links the growing popularity of psychics to Russia's economic crisis - since last December the value of the rouble has halved.

"People feel unsure. And they want to rely on somebody. They need a 'parent' figure, a shoulder, or somebody who would tell them how to live and what to do," he says.

"Moreover, Russians don't have reliable sources of information. What people see on television, what they read in newspapers does not correspond to reality. And they know this."

This, he suggests, increases their need for someone who appears to have special powers to discern the truth.

Rasputin the mystic

Image copyright ALAMY
  • Siberian peasant and mystic believed to have had extraordinary healing talents
  • Introduced to Russia's ruling family in 1905 - earned a special place in Tsarina Alexandra's heart because he appeared to ameliorate her son's haemophilia
  • Claimed people could be healed by physical contact with him - ended up with many mistresses
  • Became the tsarina's personal adviser during World War One
  • Murdered in 1916

Source: Britannica.com

It was a personal crisis that led Sergei, a graduate from eastern Ukraine, to seek help from a psychic called Yelena.

A close friend of his had gone missing while fighting in the conflict there, and he could not get any information from official sources.

"There was hope, there was a feeling that all was OK, but there was anxiety, a very strong one. I went to her to understand, to find out at least something," Sergei says.

She gave him bad news. Sergei's friend was dead.

"The psychic described in detail what wounds, how he died, at what time of day, what was around him," Sergei recounts. But at the same time she said she felt something was not quite right and advised him not to speak to the friend's family.

Two months later news came through that the friend was still alive, but Sergei remains impressed with the psychic's powers. It transpired that another mutual acquaintance had died while wearing Sergei's friend's coat - and this, to Sergei, made some kind of sense.

"Through the clothes the psychic saw what was happening to the man," he says.

While the conflict in Ukraine drags on, Russia has entered the Syrian civil war. Meanwhile, the economy shows no sign of recovering.

Uncertain times are continuing, and as long as this remains the case, Russia's new Rasputins are likely to remain in business.

You can watch the programme Russia's New Mystics in the UK on the BBC News channel at these times, and on BBC World News at these times.

You can listen to the report on World Service's Heart and Soul programme at these times.

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