Beyond the Veil: Paranormal Pursuits in the Former Soviet Union and the Cultural Echoes of Perestroika

In the tumult of post-Soviet Russia, a cultural phenomenon emerged as deeply entwined with the era’s chaos as the political upheavals themselves: a fervent belief in the paranormal. From mass seances to televised psychic healings, this article (see the first part here) reflects how paranormal pursuits provided a unique lens through which to view the spiritual and societal transformations during and after perestroika.

The frenzied exploration of paranormal and alternative spirituality during the Soviet collapse years paralleled the overall chaos, upheaval, and uncertainty of that period. Economic and political structures were turned on their head, jobs and ways of life disappeared, and an already declining healthcare and welfare system plummeted. Disappointments in official medicine and worsening health conditions led desperate people to seek alternatives – even miraculous ones. This applied not only to physical health but also to people’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Caught in between the fledgling state of psychological services, the diminishment of spiritual sources of solace by militant atheism, and overall isolation and alienation of global late twentieth century life, people explored new spiritual avenues.

As perestroika society openly questioned Soviet history, legacies, and the current societal landscape, public opinion polling had its heyday. From the late 1980s, institutes like the Levada Center and the All-Union Center for Research on Public Opinion (VTsIOM for short) investigated popular attitudes towards Soviet history and contemporary problems.These institutes were also interested in everyday matters, and in trying to examine homo sovieticus from different angles. 

In 1991, VTsIOM took one approach to this question when it launched a survey of 2844 individuals across every Soviet republic that asked: Do you believe in the following phenomena, abilities, and events? The results found that although areas of belief or interest varied, the Soviet populace was invested in paranormal possibilities. 

Believe (%)Don’t believe (%)Hard to say  (%)
Possibility to communicate with souls of the dead116524
Possibility to move objects with one’s mind234136
Possibility to transmit and receive thoughts at a distance (telepathy)422533
Possibility to heal illnesses with the biofield (like Dzhuna) 511336
Possibility to heal illnesses with television psychotherapy (like A. Kashpirovsky) 561727
Possibility to heal illnesses (like A. Chumak)293437
Possibility to heal illnesses with hypnosis 621226
Ability of certain people to predict the future, fate with the stars, horoscope412336
Ability of certain people to conjure, hex353629
The appearance of “flying saucers” on Earth342739

*Reproduced in translation from Sobranie Daidzhest, no. 3/91, 1991. Sourced from Harvard Library Independent and post-Soviet press collection, box 67. 

These findings were republished and scrutinized in the flourishing new tabloid media. “And witches were burned at the stake” headlined the discussion in Sobranie Daidzhest, a new independent newspaper that printed political reporting alongside pieces on astrological prognoses, sorcerers’ syndicates, and celebrity psychics. Their framing poked at the irony of such ideas being so widespread in the 1990s, after centuries of enlightenment and decades of Soviet scientific propaganda. Tabloid sensationalism did not just revel in paranormal possibilities, then, but in the very idea that one’s neighbors were enchanted by the irrational. 

[Caption: front page of Sobranie Daidzhest, a new independent newspaper that published on the paranormal beliefs poll. Sourced from Harvard University Library Independent and post-Soviet press collection, box 67.]

The VTsIOM survey was not only intrigued by the general popular interest in the paranormal, but in which types of people were most enthralled. The resulting perception of socio-economic class structure was pure perestroika. Coverage focused on the new class of cooperative workers and persons occupied in individual labor activity — labor that had only recently been fully legalized under Gorbachev’s radical economic reforms. These new market workers demonstrated a particularly high rate of belief in extraordinary human abilities, it was reported — 51 percent believed in telepathy, 68 percent in hypnosis, and they bowed to the celebrity psychic practitioners, with high rates of belief in the celebrity faith healer Dzhuna (60 percent), in the TV psychic Alan Chumak (55 percent), and, of course, in Kashpirovsky (62 percent).

[Caption: Healer Dzhuna Davitashvili performs a mass seance in Riga in 1990. Although Dzhuna reached the peak of her celebrity in the midst of perestroika, she got her start earlier in the 1970s and 1980s, when she participated in parapsychological experiments with Soviet scientists and treated member of the intelligentsia like film director Andrei Tarkovsky, as he describe in his diary. Photo: Still from film “Kurp ej, medicīna?” (“Where are you going, medicine?”), produced by Riga Film Studios in 1990.] 

A separate new class comprised the cooperative bosses. The new managerial class featured a high rate of belief in superhuman abilities including healing with biofields (59 percent), hypnosis (79 percent), and the abilities of Kashpirovsky (71 percent), as well as in sorcery and hexes. Around one half of managers believed in “black magic,” it was reported. 

Looking to the longer-standing Soviet professions, specialists in the humanities demonstrated a higher rate of belief in supernatural healing, fortunetelling, omens, and UFOs — “in a word, that which so weakly relates to the dogmatic dialectical materialism in which they are trained!” commented journalists in Sobranie Daidzhest. Workers from the Communist Party, Komsomol, professional unions and government organs had a higher-than-average belief in all paranormal phenomena — except flying saucers. Army and military workers were the most skeptical class, it was said, showing the lowest rates of belief in paranormal ideas. 

The VTsIOM survey’s research methods are not shared in any of these materials. We do not know how subjects were selected, how they were interviewed, nor how their “social-professional position” was determined. But while this poll likely cannot tell us about real rates of belief in the paranormal, its sensationalist discussion in popular media suggests how people thought about the trend in the larger context of perestroika change. Rupture in the social structure corresponded with rupture in the material and spiritual world. All together, these social and cultural phenomena guaranteed that perestroika and early 1990 would be remembered not only as transformative, but chaotic. 

While alternative spirituality and healing is still present today, the cultural supremacy of the Soviet paranormal fizzled out between the mid-1990s and the new millennium. Kashpirovsky’s ascendancy died out as people turned against him, fueled by reports that his televised seances actually made people go crazy (in one newspaper report, he refuted this claim, saying the viewers must have their television controls improperly set). Celebrity psychics were no longer prime-time viewing, and the distinctly kitschy paranormal flavor of alternative spirituality was replaced by a greater visibility of non-institutional spirituality based inflected by individual self-improvement and eastern philosophy, which had previously been more popular among intelligentsia groups. 

[Caption: Luule Viilma, an Estonian spiritual guide and healer, gained fame in the next generation of New Age figures in the mid-to-late 1990s. As opposed to the pseudo-scientific paranormal culture of the earlier part of the decade, Viilma’s teachings emphasized self-help, individual responsibility, and philosophies from Christianity and eastern religions. Her book A Teaching on Survival was translated from Estonian into Lithuania, Latvian, Russian, Finnish, English and more. Photo:]

Throughout the former Soviet Union, psychics still offer their services, horoscopes are regularly printed in newspapers and magazines, and UFO rumors pop up now and then. This type of paranormal interest resembles that in the rest of the world, albeit sometimes with a distinct Eastern European flavor. The frenzied interest in and visibility of the paranormal of over 30 years ago, however, signified something particular about that time — not merely a reflection, but a core part of the culture of chaos, rupture, and spiritual and social transformation. 

Although Anatoly Kashpirovksy’s telecast seances have not been must-watch TV for over three decades, the psychic still graces screens with his broadcast healing powers. Since 2020, from his home in New York state , Kashpirovsky has regularly uploaded seances to YouTube that offered healing and protection from the Covid-19 virus, among other physical and spiritual ailments. It’s clear from the videos’ comments that his audience returns for the excitement, spectacle, curiosity, and comfort that the man in the television set provided 35 years ago.

[Caption: Live-streamed seance to combat Coronavirus in October 2020.] 


  • Emma Friedlander

    Emma Friedlander is a PhD student in History at Harvard University. Her dissertation explores alternative spirituality practices and the collapse of communism

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