Soviet 'psychic' Nina Kulagina

After All: “When all else fails, bring on the extra-sensory perception!”

Image credit: Mary Evans Picture Library/John Cutten

Of the unexpected and often openly bizarre uses of the paranormal in the former USSR

In autumn 1989, when the Berlin Wall was already crumbling and the Soviet Union was in the throes of perestroika, with all the chaos it entailed, an extraordinary event could be seen on TV screens throughout the Soviet Empire. I was living in Moscow and remember only too well a composed middle-aged man with piercing eyes popping up on Channel One straight after the evening Vremia (‘Time’) news show. He was Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky, a licensed psychotherapist conducting a mass hypnosis ‘seance’. For the first time in the history of the USSR, he offered millions of disgruntled viewers a 30-minute session of direct TV hypnosis. “Relax and let your thoughts wander free,” he began, iconoclastically.

The next day, Kashpirovsky was the talk of the country. Five more TV sessions were to follow during which the hypnotist, among other things, encouraged viewers to place a glass of water in front of the TV screen and then claimed to have charged the water with his own bio-energy, so that drinking it could provide the ultimate healing experience.

On another occasion, he ‘charged’ a copy of that day’s newspaper, which made the nation wonder what one was supposed to do with it: put it on the wall and stare at it, or gobble it up for breakfast?

The latter would have been more appropriate, for in most Soviet homes there was not much food on offer. But who cares about food when faced with a long-awaited spiritual awakening?

The main purpose of those excursions into the paranormal – which were somewhat unexpected for the rampantly materialistic Soviet television – was obvious: to distract the long-suffering people from the vicissitudes of their miserable lives. Indeed, in any human society freedom of speech is normally conditional on ‘freedom of sausage’. Take away the latter and few will worry about the former.

Unleashing Kashpirovsky was one of many efforts to mind-control the submissive Soviet crowd, efforts that began straight after the Bolshevik coup d’état of 1917 and continued past the USSR’s spectacular collapse in 1991 (incidentally, as a regular on the ‘Saturday Night Clive’ BBC TV show in 1989-91, I was the first to introduce Kashpirovsky to a British audience).

 “The question is how to educate and control the human being,” Leon Trotsky once noted cynically. Constant fear of repression and purges was one such control. But from the Soviet tyrants’ point of view, fear alone was not enough. To achieve full control, they tried to mobilise science and technology and, for that purpose, recruited talented engineers and inventors.

Some of these, like Aleksei Gastev, began as idealistic believers in the construction, or ‘calibration’ as he himself put it, of ‘the New Man’. He invented and patented a device, a peculiar appliance “for exercising the joint of the elbow or wrist in teaching work with a hammer”, which, supposedly, caused the worker “to be calibrated in such a way that he operates as part of an organic system without outside intervention”.

“When everything else fails, bring in the ESP (extra-sensory perception),” ran an unwritten motto of the Soviet officialdom. There was the outspoken ‘telepathist’ Wolf Messing, whom Stalin himself would ask for advice, and notorious ‘psychic’ Nina Kulagina (pictured), known to excel in telekinesis – the ability to move objects by mental power alone. She, allegedly, once removed a marked matchstick from a box under a glass dome, and could stop a frog’s heart beating by the sheer force of her stare.

There was also Dr Pavel Guliaev of Leningrad University, who claimed to have invented a device capable of detecting and recording ‘human auras’. By this Guliaev supposedly meant (attention, readers, electrical engineers in particular): “a complex electric field around the body, a sort of ghostly second self,” which he believed could be used to diagnose illnesses.

Such reports were almost never shared in the Communist Party-controlled media, but rumours were spread – deliberately and semi- clandestinely – by officially vetted ‘lecturers’, who brainwashed the Soviet public.

So strong was the resulting faith in the paranormal that it outlived the existence of the USSR itself. According to some reports, when the first post-Soviet President Boris Yeltsin thought that his offices were electronically bugged, he would summon not engineers but psychics to scan the premises. He also relied on psychic healer Djuna Davitashvili and her ‘bio-energy’, rather than on medics, for health advice. Davitashvili reportedly promised to extend his life beyond 100 years with frequent contactless massages, which didn’t stop Yeltsin from dying in 2007 at the tender age of 76.

As a roaming special correspondent for the Soviet satirical magazine Krokodil, I had several encounters with self-proclaimed (and quietly promoted by the authorities) healers, and was once sent to investigate a man in Moldavia who claimed to have found a cure for cancer. I visited him in the guise of a patient and had to cough up a lump sum of money, borrowed from our publishers’ accounts department, to acquire a small bottle of his foul-smelling ‘remedy’. A Moscow chemical laboratory, where I took the liquid for testing, promptly concluded that the ‘medicine’ was nothing but a weak water solution of ordinary kerosene – a smelly petroleum component widely used in aircraft and rocket engines as well as some kitchen appliances!

The ‘healer’ must have hoped that the solution would ‘propel’ the illness out the sufferers’ bodies, or, more likely, just wanted to cheat them out of large sums of money, which proved surprisingly easy in the country where the official medicine was both incompetent and corrupt.

It must have been the same lack of faith in the system that prompted one of the less-known escapades of the above-mentioned Kashpirovsky, who, according to a 1996 news agency report, threatened to use his psychic powers to render impotent anyone (he obviously meant males) who tried to evict him from his government-allocated apartment. He must have succeeded in the end, for the birth rate in Russia has been falling ever since.

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