You are here:   Dispatches > Siberia: Shamans, Spies and the Secret Police

Soothsayer: Tuvans go to the shaman as we go to the doctor. There are shamans for baldness, weight loss, or communicating with dead ancestors

Last summer I had a dream about Vladimir Putin. I woke up, pulled myself together, left the flat and made for the lift. The buttons were old, Soviet and plastic. I pressed "Ground" all the way in. I hummed as the lift-cage clanked into place, but what the tune was I can't remember. Then I pushed open the front door. It's bright outside, but Putin is there, three steps back. His hands are in his pockets and he has something to tell me. He is wearing a light-brown trench coat and he is smiling — his unmistakable smile. 

I woke up with a start. But I was not the only dreamer. Dreaming about Putin is a mounting phenomenon. One friend told me Putin repeatedly asks her to fire a gun at a crumbling estate. Another, that Putin comes at night to tell him to get in shape. A diplomat admitted he had recurrent dreams that he has learnt Putin's secret — but forgets it the moment he wakes up. A dissident activist confessed he has nightmares in which Putin tells him, quite earnestly, that he is the soul of Russia. He wakes up with his heart racing. In Moscow, the opposition-inclined magazine Bolshoi Gorod has picked up on the fact that almost everyone working in politics, big business, journalism, affairs of state, has dreamt about him. 

Last summer all the news channels were being pumped with reactionary, Sovietophile propaganda, presenting the ideal Russia as something that consisted of the Red Army, an absolutist patriarch, undercover KGB agent Stirlitz (Russia's answer to James Bond) and Orthodox biker-priests, all tied together by the new Nordstream gas pipeline to Germany.   

It was a sticky, oppressive summer full of cockroaches, the summer they banged up Pussy Riot, and I was no longer sure what I was doing in Moscow. It was already clear the anti-Putin protest movement that broke out in December 2011 had failed. Its leaders had lost their nerve at the crucial moment, failing to unite or speak in a way that could resonate beyond Moscow, barely bothering to leave the city to agitate against what they called "the party of crooks and thieves".   

This made it all too easy for the Kremlin to cow them with a crackdown: its leaders were harassed, their flats searched and criminal charges opened against them. More than a dozen activists were facing jail, supportive MPs were expelled or punished in the Duma, and any big business thinking about donating money to the opposition was warned this could result in a "tax inspection" — or worse. 

Power was scaring the public away from the opposition by saying that without Putin the country would shatter. Kremlin-produced videos showing China seizing Siberia, Nato grabbing Kaliningrad and an Emirate being established in the North Caucasus went viral. Fears from the 1990s of the break-up of Russia resurfaced. The opposition was becoming equally apocalyptic. "I really, really hate this regime," seethed Alexey Navalny, the pop-star-famous protest leader. "They are leading this country into a catastrophe. It is not the opposition that will make the country collapse. Putin will make the country fall apart."

View Full Article
February 28th, 2013
8:02 PM
"The Putin years have seen a boom in quack healers" Not true - if anything, they've seen a decline. The final years of the Soviet Union saw a mass explosion of psychic healers, etc. The trend continued steadily through the Yeltsin era.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
More Dispatches
Popular Standpoint topics