Did Soviet broadcasters use hypnosis to persuade their viewers to conform to communism? Simon Huxtable explores the story of TV ‘psychotherapist’ Anatoly Kashpirovsky, and the rise of parapsychology and suggestion in the last years of the Soviet Union.
Soviet Central Television – October 8, 1989
The romantic strains of a guitar and strings. An image of mist on a deserted lake. Then the titles: Health Séance of Doctor-Psychotherapist Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky. A wobbly camera zooms in for a close-up of a man with a close-cropped haircut sitting at a desk, staring intently at the camera. In the hour that follows, Kashpirovsky reads letters from viewers, and invites the studio audience, from children to the elderly, to give testimonies to his abilities, from reducing the size of one viewer’s lymph nodes to curing another viewer’s hepatitis.
Then, to the sound of romantic muzak, Kashpirovsky stares directly into the camera, and announces the beginning of his treatment. As he explains how viewers should prepare, the camera cuts to the studio audience, some of whom have already fallen asleep, while a few others have started to make involuntary movements: one woman raises her arms in the air and rocks forwards and backwards, another sways from side to side. Counting to thirty, Kashpirovsky tells viewers they will start to experience “powerful new sensations”, and that their “pain will be lifted”. He combines the implantation of relaxing images and attempts to direct viewers’ thoughts and feelings with boasts about the efficacy of his treatment:
18, 19, 20 … Everything is flowing pleasantly. […]
25, 26 … Float on the current of your feelings
27 … I have a fantasy of how many in the burns unit have stopped their screaming … of how many cancer patients have stopped grinding their teeth in pain. I can see some people have lost their fear, their persistent thoughts, which have tortured them more than any burns … 28, 29, 30 …
Then, counting up to ten, Kashpirovsky tells viewers to open their eyes, to shake themselves from their dream state: “Open your eyes. Feel wonderful! The séance is over.”
Kashpirovsky’s ‘health séance’ was the first of six broadcast in Autumn 1989. Newspapers reported that the streets were empty during his séances – a marker of success usually reserved for TV blockbusters like 17 Moments of Spring or imported dramas like the BBC’s Forsyte Saga. A 1990 survey from the country’s main polling institute, the All-Union Centre for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM), reported that 57 percent of the available audience “put everything aside” to watch the programme, while another 30 percent watched “from time to time”.[i] Over the course of those months, Kashpirovsky’s name, for better or worse, was rarely out of the headlines in the press and on television’s increasingly popular late-night talk shows. And Kashpirovsky was not the only ekstrasens [psychic] to find media fame. Among others, Allan Chumak appeared regularly on daytime programme 120 Minutes, specialising in the manipulation of the airwaves through gesture and claiming to be able to ‘charge’ jars of water with healing energy.
The rise of the ekstrasensy fascinated journalists in the Soviet Union and West alike. The former discussed in gloomy terms whether the popularity of the charismatic healer was an example of the masses’ desire for a strong leader.[ii] The latter gleefully detailed the decline of Soviet scientific rationalism. David Remnick, the Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent saw the emergence of the ekstrasensy as an example of Russians’ “naive belief in extrasensory powers”, while a New York Times piece mockingly asked “whether astral omens guide [Soviet] affairs of state”.[iii] There was, to be sure, a long history of Russian and Soviet attachment to mystical thinking – a tradition that goes from Madame Blavatsky and the theosophists to the still-widespread belief in the ‘evil eye’ and omens straddling the boundary between Orthodoxy and folk belief.
But, given that superstitious beliefs were far from unique to the Soviet Union, these explanations seem reductive. So the question remains: why did viewers fall under Kashpirovsky’s spell in the late 1980s?
Parapsychology and Alternative Beliefs
The path by which a provincial psychologist ended up on Soviet Central Television is a winding one. New cultures of self-care and persistent patterns of esoteric belief are part of the journey; the collapse of medical services in conditions of economic crisis are another; but long-running debates within the Soviet scientific establishment itself are also a crucial part of the story. The use of parapsychological techniques stretched back to the beginnings of Soviet science.[iv] In the 1920s, leading figures in the scientific establishment, including the neurologist and psychologist Vladimir Bekhterev, were keenly interested in the possibility of telepathic communication. In the 1960s and 1970s, parapsychology became a recognised (if marginal) research topic – widely believed to have been funded by military intelligence.
According to one leading scientist, who was head of the Radio-electronic Diagnostic Methods Laboratory in Moscow, in the 1970s a group of scientists was charged with identifying a scientific basis for ESP. They used military and astronomical sensing technology to try to detect the presence of energy fields surrounding organic matter (biofields), which might help to diagnose illness and explain anecdotal accounts of extra-sensory perception.[v] While in interviews Kashpirovsky professed to disdain such research, the practice of ‘charging’ [zariadit’] liquids with healing energy through radio waves, which both he and Allan Chumak popularised, can be linked to this fascination with the relationship between the mind and electric currents.[vi]
Around the same time, research was taking place within Soviet psychology to determine the power of suggestion. These experiments found their way into everyday practice in attempts to maximise the potential of athletes. Kashpirovsky, who spent the 1960s and 1970s working as a psychiatrist in Ukraine, proved himself to be a professional with considerable skill in hypnotherapy. A weightlifter himself, he worked closely with the Soviet team that won ten golds at 1987 World Championships. As Aleksandra Brokman has shown on this blog, Soviet trainers used ‘emotional-volitional training’ with their athletes in the hope of increasing performance and physical durability. In the same way that Soviet trainers drew athletes’ attention to their bodies’ physiological processes, and encouraged them to have faith in their innate abilities, Kashpirovsky’s TV séances offered viewers similar hope of self-healing: “Our organism can itself find what it needs to eliminate, and what it must deal with,” he told viewers. “Don’t worry – trust in your organism!”
Just as scientists were testing the limits of human perception and communication, the Soviet public was beginning to explore new ways of being in the world, including organised religion, yoga, and body-building. Alongside these self-care practices, the 1970s saw the persistence – and perhaps even the growth – of alternative modes of making meaning, drawing on cosmic speculations and folk superstition. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, for instance, was widely believed to have consulted the services of the Georgian bio-healer Dzhuna Davitashvili. Though alternative beliefs were largely kept outside the public sphere, even in the tightly-controlled Brezhnev era, articles about unexplained phenomena appeared in the mainstream press.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms allowed these emergent practices to reach a mass audience. The transformation of mass media under glasnost’ was a crucial factor. In a climate where ratings began to matter more and more, figures like Kashpirovsky fed the appetite of talk shows for exclusives. In his recent book, media scholar Wladimir Velminski claims that the Kashpirovsky’s séances were “the last effort of Soviet power to initiate the citizenry into the mysteries of the communist apparatus that was in the course of disappearing”.[vii] While it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Kashpirovsky’s prime-time performances were directed by the Party, no researcher to date has produced any evidence. Rather than a last-ditch state-sponsored attempt to psychologically manipulate the population, a more convincing explanation for Kashpirovsky’s appearance might be that, as the Party’s grip on its media apparatus loosened, a quest for ratings began to overtake the quest for minds. Kashpirovsky and Chumak’s séances can be considered alongside televised Madonna concerts and South American soaps as a sign of media liberalisation.
Just as important as media reform was a change in belief – occasioned by the hollowing out of communist ideology. Pavel Romanov and Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova argue convincingly that a collapse of faith in Soviet doctrine was a necessary condition for the rise of the ekstrasensy.[viii] Mikhail Nenashev, then Chairman of Gosteleradio, argued that Soviet society was in a state of “spiritual confusion” and defended broadcasting Kashpirovsky’s séances, claiming that television needed to “take an active concern in the spiritual defence of man”.[ix] With communism fatally discredited, there was a curious giddiness to late-1980s media coverage: white magic, Scientology, numerology, astrology and shamanism offered new ways of interpreting a world that had lost its solid foundations. “We live in pivotal, tempestuous times,” commented one academic in 1989. “Thought has become more relaxed. What was for a long time artificially suppressed can now be voiced. That’s why we’re the witnesses of a very real boom in the mystical and occult – UFOs, aliens, poltergeists can’t be shifted from the pages of the press. The attention paid to the mystical has prepared the ground for Kashpirovsky’s séances …”[x]
Hypnosis as Alternative Healthcare
Media reform, the prominence of parapsychological research and the prevalence of paranormal beliefs go only part of the way to explaining the esktrasensy. Kashpirovsky’s rise coincided with a period of economic collapse, which reached its nadir between 1989 and 1991. Public services became dangerously over-stretched, and while medical treatment remained ostensibly free, doctors and nurses frequently demanded back-handers and shortages of medicine meant that viable treatment was often impossible. In such conditions, turning to folk cures, homeopathy – and to the services of the ekstrasensy – appeared logical. As a woman in Tashkent wrote in a letter to the newspaper Soviet Culture in 1989: “Maybe the academics who are criticising Kashpirovsky also treat the sick, but they’re not there for me and my family. We go to the doctor, standing in queues for two or three hours, and they give us prescriptions for medicines that aren’t in any pharmacies and that you can only get for big money, even though our medicine is meant to be free.”[xi]
The growing popularity of the ekstrasensy set off a debate about the efficacy of alternative treatments. Kashpirovsky was not shy in proclaiming his abilities, boasting that he could cure, to quote his own words: “diabetes, osteoporosis, stomach and bowel ulcers, heart scarring, burns, physical injuries, cuts, headaches, psoriasis, haemorrhoids, varicose veins, fibroids, mastitis, infertility, and gout”.[xii] For a brief period, Kashpirovsky appeared to have proof of his methods: he first came to Soviet viewers’ attention in March 1988 when, as a guest on Viewpoint, he hypnotised a patient who underwent painless surgery without anaesthetic, a feat he repeated a year later on two women in Tbilisi. Established medical professionals were wheeled out in front of the press to explain the medical basis for this success, and letters were printed attesting to his abilities. Polled a year later for VTsIOM, more than half of viewers believed that Kashpirovsky possessed genuine healing powers; over a third experienced positive effects (sleepiness, involuntary movements, improvement in mood) from viewing.[xiii]
By this time, however, Kashpirovsky’s reputation was unravelling. In November, the current affairs show 600 Seconds alleged that a child had been made seriously ill by Kashpirovsky’s séances. There followed a steady trickle of allegations in the papers from individuals who claimed negative side-effects from Kashpirovsky’s work. Most damningly, Lesia Ershova, one of the women operated on without anaesthetic, claimed in a TV interview that she had been “tormented” with pain “from the first minute of the operation to the last”. Pravda cited a doctor from Moscow, who claimed that just two hours after Kashpirovsky’s séances there was a sharp spike in hospital admissions for cardiovascular complaints, hypertension, and mental problems – even in those who had never previously suffered from such conditions. [xiv] In a statement published in Pravda in early 1990, the Ministry of Health responded to demands for action by expressing its frustration with Kashpirovsky’s refusal to co-operate with their requests for further research, citing the case of a thirty-year old diabetes sufferer who suffered “psychosis with hallucinations” after watching a Kashpirovsky broadcast, and was now being kept in an artificial coma with her life “hanging by a thread”.[xv] Amid widespread discussion about the possible dangers of Kashpirovsky’s treatments, and a clamour of protest from the increasingly powerful Orthodox lobby, Kashpirovsky’s show was cancelled early in 1990, though it took three more years for alternative treatments to be fully outlawed.
A “common madness”
Vladimir Welmisnki suggests that Kashpirovksy’s sessions were choreographed by the Party, “aimed at reassuring citizens panicked over the ongoing political upheaval—and aimed at taking control of their responses to it”.[xvi] His interpretation belies the ease with which we are drawn towards invoking mind control or brainwashing as ways of explaining the Communist past.
The Soviet viewers of the late-1980s had indeed lived their whole lives under a single ideology, but far from persuading them to toe the Party line, Kashpriovsky exposed them to an alternative belief system, which they eagerly grasped. This abrupt shift from one truth to another, taking place in the full glare of the public sphere, accounts for the power of the Kashpirovsky phenomenon. When I interviewed viewers about their memories of Soviet television in 2013-14, one recalled an atmosphere of profound confusion in the late-1980s in which all epistemologies were susceptible to questioning. “Now,” she added, “everybody has found their niche, some to the church, others somewhere else, so there’s no longer that common madness, thank God”.
While Kashpirovsky and Chumak appear regularly on the couches of talk shows, making a living selling out provincial theatres and hawking healing creams and DVDs, they exist in a world where individuals are free to find their own sources of belief, and where the paranormal merely constitutes one belief system among many. Today, Russia is still in the grip of the psychics: one of the most popular shows on television is TNT’s Battle of the Psychics [Bitva ekstrasensov], a Pop Idol-style reality contest in which contestants battle to prove their gifts. But this time, viewers watch the parade of psychics and illusionists, wizards and witches not to be healed, but merely entertained.
Simon Huxtable is a Visiting Fellow in Media and Cultural History at Loughborough University and writes on the history of media in Eastern Europe. His recent publications include ‘Making News Soviet: Rethinking Journalistic Professionalism after Stalin, 1953–1970‘, Contemporary European History (2018), and an article on viewers’ memories of Anatoly Kashpirovsky, which was published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies in 2017. He is a convenor of the Russian Studies Seminar Series at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
[ii] Aleksandr Iakovlev, Igor’ Gamainov, ‘Manikheiskii mif: kem, kak i pochemu sozdaetsia, obraz vraga’, Literaturnaia gazeta, 29 Nov. 1989, 13.
[iii] David Remnick, ‘The Magic Healer of Soviet TV’, Washington Post, 4 Sep. 1989; Bill Keller, ‘The Russians, Too, Embrace ‘Secret Silliness’ of Astrology’, New York Times, 14 May 1988.
[iv] For a fascinating, if methodologically sloppy, account of these experiments see Wladimir Velminski, Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017). Vastly superior is Alaina Lemon, Technologies for Intuition: Cold War Circles and Telepathic Rays (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).
[v] Tatiana Chudakova, ‘The Pulse in the Machine: Automating Tibetan Diagnostic Palpation in Postsocialist Russia’ Comparative Studies in Society and History 57/2 (2015): 407–434 [414-416]. See also Welminski, Homo Sovieticus, pp. 75-83.
[vi] This may have influenced musician and prankster Sergei Kurekhin in his famous Fifth Wheel broadcast of 1991, where he asserted that Lenin’s consumption of mushrooms (which, he claimed, contained radio waves) caused the Soviet leader’s genetic makeup to change, leading to the famous conclusion: “Lenin was a mushroom”. Viewers frantically called the Leningrad broadcaster, demanding to know whether the story was true. On electro-magnetic energy and mind control experiments, see Velminski, Homo Sovieticus, p.87 and passim.
[vii] Welminski, Homo Sovieticus, p.87.
[viii] Pavel Romanov, Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova, ‘Sotsial’noe kak irratsional’noe (diagnozy 1990 goda)’, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 83 (2007), http://nlobooks.ru/sites/default/files/old/nlobooks.ru/rus/magazines/nlo/196/329/341/index.html
[ix] Mikhail Nenashev, An Ideal Betrayed, p.106 (see also pp.89-90).
[x] I. Mozin, ‘Predely real’nogo’, Pravda 27 Nov. 1989, 3. For examples of such articles see ‘NLO: mesto vstrechi – Petrozavodsk’, Sovetskaia kul’tura, 30 Sep. 1989, 2; ‘Mozhno li ob”iasnit’ odnu iz zagadok veka i drugie tainy mirovogo okeana’, Sovetskaia kul’tura, 21 May 1988, 8.
[xi] N. Dashkevich, ‘Pochta nedeli’, Sovetskaia kul’tura, 12 Dec. 1989, 2.
[xii] A. Appolonova, ‘Sila cheloveka v nem samom’, Argumenty i fakty, 28 Oct. 1989, 5.
[xiii] ‘Televizionnye chudotvortsy’.
[xiv] Mozin, ‘Predely real’nogo’.
[xv] S. Lesokv, ‘Minzdrav daet ustanovku. Eshche raz o seansakh A. Kashpirovskogo’, Izvestiia 4 Jan. 1990, 6.