Perestroika and the paranormal: spiritual and social upheaval during Soviet collapse

[Caption: Celebrity psychic Anatoly Kashpirovsky conducts a mass hypnosis seance in 1989. Photo: Sergey Kyvryn/RIA Novosti]

Every other Sunday in the autumn of 1989, the streets of the Soviet Union emptied. From Tashkent to Riga, in panel apartment buildings and old wooden houses, TV screens glowed blue with the country’s must-see broadcast: psychic Anatoly Kashpirovsky’s televised healing seances. Viewers tuned in with curiosity, laughter, or cautious hope for a little healing. With his stark, fringed haircut and dark clothes, Kashpirovsky gazed into the camera and entranced his studio audience, the USSR, and beyond (his seances were broadcast throughout the Eastern bloc). 

[Caption: Kashpirovsky address the audience during the last of his six-episode healing sessions on Soviet central television, in December 1989. Photo: Anatoly Kashpirovsky’s official YouTube channel,]

At home, many viewers placed jars of water or other liquids in front of the television so that Kashpirovsky could charge them with healing properties. This water-charging ritual was borrowed from Kashpirovksy’s rival, the bespectacled psychologist-turned-psychic-healer Alan Chumak. But in the frenzied perestroika popular culture of alternative healing, alternative spirituality, and the paranormal, people adapted practices to their own needs. 

[Caption: Audiences placed jars of water and other fluids in front of the television screen so that Kashpirovsky might charge them with healing properties. This practice was adapted from Kashpirovsky’s rival, Alan Chumak, who claimed to charge water with healing properties through television waves. Photos[1] and]. 

Kashpirovsky, and other celebrity psychics and paranormal pop culture sensations, were icons of perestroika. Along with national independence movements, public opinion polls, new music, pornography, and McDonald’s, they defined the tumultuous and ever-changing landscape as the Soviet Union collapsed.

[Caption: Newspaper vendor offers new tabloid publications featuring esotericism, pornography, and everything in between in the early 1990s. Photo:

The late 1980s also witnessed a major spiritual revival in the Soviet Union. Although religions never completely died out under Soviet atheist rule, and a revival had been underway since at least since the 1970s, it reached its peak during late perestroika and the 1990s. Traditional religious institutions, such as the Orthodox Church, experienced increased visibility, legitimacy, and new converts. The spiritual renaissance also saw the import of foreign religious groups, such as Mormons and Hare Krishnas, and the formation of new cults, such as the Vissarion sect.

[Caption: Hare Krishnas in Moscow in 1990, as discussed by historian Joseph Kellner. Photo:]

[Caption: Sergei Torop, also known as Vissarion, claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and founded his Church of the Last Testament in Siberia in 1991. He gained about 10,000 followers. Photo: Bogdan Tzvetkov/]

But the return of religious groups does not fully account for the greater spiritual upheaval, experimentation, and curiosity that were endemic to perestroika life. After decades of 

scientific atheism and anti-religious propaganda, many people found themselves in a space between staunch atheism and traditional religion. This was a spiritual space populated by UFOs, poltergeists, folk healers, fortune tellers, the mysteries of the 1908 Tunguska event and the Bermuda Triangle, biofields and biorhythms, and celebrity TV psychics.

[Caption: Copies of the Estonian magazine Paradoks, one of the most widely read publications in Estonia in the early 1990s. This 1991 cover advertises stories about the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, psychic Uri Geller, and poltergeists. Photo:]. 

How does this paranormal pop-culture landscape fit into the larger spiritual experience of Soviet collapse? Where does it lie between spirituality and secularism, between religious revival and the continuity of Soviet scientific atheism? 

In some ways, the popular paranormal represented a rejection of – or an alternative to – Soviet materialism. Although the popular paranormal reached its apogee during the height of perestroika, it had roots in the 1970s, when intelligentsia circles explored yoga, mysticism, Eastern philosophy, and the teachings of the Russian mystic Nikolai Roerich. In this Brezhnev-era iteration, Soviet New Age interests fit into anthropologist Alexei Yurchak’s framework of living beyond Soviet ideology under late socialism. 

When it reached mass popularity in the 1980s, the Soviet  paranormal offered a worldview that filled the vacuum between traditional religion and scientific atheism. Although religion had survived Soviet rule and was ever growing, decades of atheist propaganda and religious repression had isolated people from religious traditions and spiritual solace. At the same time, Soviet ideological authority was crumbling. Marxist-Leninism had provided not only a political system but, in its own way, a form of spirituality and scientific understanding. When the once sacrosanct ideology was challenged, people asked – what is true and possible? This was fueled by the opening floodgates of glasnost, which removed censorship and taboos and allowed the previously unimaginable to flourish. 

At the same time, the popular paranormal emerged directly from Soviet ideology and history. During the Cold War, the state secretly conducted academic and military research into UFOs and parapsychology in competition with the United States. Popular science communication efforts in the Soviet Union even led to the theories about UFOs, parapsychology, and other paranormal ideas being disseminated and explored in public spaces, as  historian Alexey Golubev has explored.The Soviet emphasis on building a new society and a new person had emphasized self-improvement and wellness, encouraged folk traditions, and generally sought to give atheism with spiritual content, as studied by historian Victoria Smolkin. So while the pop-cultural supremacy of alternative spirituality during perestroika marked a new cultural era and a departure away from Soviet dogma, it was also undeniably Soviet.

[1] Note: The creator of this image could not be identified despite thorough search efforts. This image is widely used in Russian media and is deemed to be in the public domain. If you are the creator or hold the copyright to this image, please contact us, and we will promptly acknowledge your copyright or remove the image as per your request.


  • 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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