Konstantin Gorbunov, self-styled advertising specialist, stands in his blue slippers in the centre of a room redolent of incense sticks, looking at his master-class students – 22 people perspiring in the heat – and dictating a web address to his assistant. In the corridors outside there are tents heaped everywhere; and packets of mystical and herbal teas – Da Hong Pao, Bai Mu Dan, Dragon Jasmine Pearl – lie on the shelves. By the door is a shelf full of ancient runes carved on wood, packaged in multicoloured cellophane. A Tibetan-style carpet hangs on the wall behind Gorbunov’s overweight assistant, who sits squeezed behind a plastic table, typing the address ineptly into a laptop.
‘Review. R-e-v-i-e-w’, Gorbunov spells out, still smiling, as he glances at the projector behind him. The image on the screen just won’t change. ‘V – i – w – Double U – DOUBLE U!’ - his calm finally deserts him and he raises his voice. ‘What the... it’s like ‘Forward’ when you play “Counter-Strike”’! The students laugh, the assistant finally locates the W, and yet another ugly website appears on the screen while Gorbunov goes on with his incoherent lecture about working with Yandex.Direct advertising. Twenty-two young people, most of them crop-headed young men, attentively copy down everything he says.
The Alten Centre
We’re in the very centre of Moscow, just a few minutes’ drive from the Kremlin (if the traffic’s not too bad), in a building tucked away in a courtyard. Gorbunov’s students, here to learn about online advertising, probably have no idea about the building’s main use, by the Alten Centre. If you ignore the runes and esoteric images on the walls, the Alten poster with its three-bladed blue sword and inconspicuous logo reading ‘Centre for Personal Development’ isn’t exactly enlightening. But in fact this is a place of magic rituals, consultations and study.
This is a place of magic rituals, consultations and study.
Psychic studies! Healing! Magic Tarot! Fire Massage! Vedantist Women’s Practices! Mantra chanting! Astrology! Lithotherapy! Shamanism! Lying on nails and walking on broken glass! All these and many more wonderful things go on here. Klangmassage with Tibetan bowls, for example: the bowls are placed on your clothed body and struck, and the resonance from the blow penetrates your body cells and induces harmony; or the traditional Russian art of painting with beeswax on birds eggs; or how to become a psychic. With all this mystical abundance even Gorbunov’s internet advertising lecture begins to look less alien, despite containing such advice as: ‘when you design a site you should have a ‘vacancies’ tab, even if there will never be any vacancies, because this will tell users that this is a serious company, and not just some dickheads.’ What can you say? It’s magic!
A seminar at the Alten Centre, a centre for 'personal development’. Photo via Vkontakte
Something to believe in
Last year, Moscow’s chief cardiologist bewailed the fact that Russians spend about $30 billion (£18 billion) a year on sorcerers, fortune-tellers, magi and psychics, almost twice as much as they spend on being treated by doctors abroad. The number of atheists in Russia is also dropping – people have a desperate need to believe that someone can help them. Para-normalists and magi advertise on major national media outlets; whole TV channels are devoted to mysticism. The TV show ‘Battle of the Psychics’ is at the top of the ratings, and even Lifenews TV, purveyor-in-chief of government propaganda, has been known to call on psychics to uncover the truth about, say, the Malaysian Boeing 777 crash in Ukraine.
Russians are desperate for something to believe in.
The main source of mystic services is, however, the VKontakte social network, known in the West not only as a major pirate site but also a blatant Facebook clone. If you search for ‘help from a magus’, 448 online communities come up. ‘Psychic’ brings up 2715 communities, and each of these will probably have at least 1000-2000 members, and often more. Pavel Durov, VKontakte’s creator, who tried to avoid cooperating with Russia’s security services and refused to remove opposition information they didn’t like, was recently thrown out of the company so that the network could be ‘cleaned’ and ‘tidied up.’ But the state has no interest in cleaning up the pages of psychics, fortune-tellers and the rest – the whole vast occult sphere has remained untouched.
Fighting negative vibes in Moscow. Photo CC: VkontakteSupposing that someone wants to know whether everything is okay in their life; whether they have a ‘negative vibe,’ or a jinx, or they just feel that something’s been not quite right recently; then he or she navigates to VKontakte, finds a magus, joins his group and reads. The magus runs distance séances, for which you have to pay, but sometimes, to increase his client list, he’ll give a free quickie consultation. So you send a photo of yourself – it must be full length – and wait for an answer. You get back something along the lines of, ‘your energy is quite narrow at the bottom and narrow at the top, but it is wide in the middle, in the area of the Manipura and Anakhata chakras.’ If the answer is unpleasant in some way, a procedure is suggested that will take away the negative energy, clean out the channels and remove whatever is to blame. Prices vary from 500 roubles (£10) to stratospheric levels, depending on the complexity of the problem; payable through payment terminals, ATMs and, for those in the know, B2C (business to customer) transactions. People are generally happy with the outcome – they haven’t a clue how it works, but they can feel some kind of force.
And the Alten Centre is one of the places that teach this force. Anyone who wishes can join the club and learn all they need to know. Everything is organised through VKontakte, where their group has around three and a half thousand members, who regularly attend master classes and courses, and leave enthusiastic and grateful feedback on the Centre’s page. Take Andrei, a man in his early thirties. ‘I have been to just ten classes, my consciousness has changed and I have had an awakening – I can now see people’s most delicate structures. At first I thought it was just chance, but it has happened so often, and new possibilities have been opening at each session, and I have realised that there is a reason behind it. HURRAY, and TRUTH be with us, RUSSIAN ORTHODOX people.’
How to become a psychic
Courses and activities at the Alten Centre are not free: a four-session course in bio-energetics and healing will set you back 8000 roubles (£130); a course of clear consciousness magic – 17000. For that you get: work with the five elements, multidimensional consciousness, a preview of the future, a purge of your family ties, and insight into your previous incarnations. It’s a very serious business – the Centre recently introduced a magnetic membership card that gets you a discount on its services. Apart from activities in the building itself, it also runs regular pilgrimage-seminar trips to ‘places of the force.’ In July, for example, there was a two-week trip to Lake Ladoga near St Petersburg, the largest lake in Europe, where initiates worked with crystals and ancient spirits, developed their intuition, and learned how to work with Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The Centre then took a summer break, which is how Gorbunov came to be there, lecturing on online advertising – development of a different kind.
But before that, the room next door to Gorbunov’s was where you could learn to be a psychic under the tutelage of hereditary wizard, para-normalist, mage (and, in his day job, engineer) Vladimir Svetashov. A variety of people turned up for the course: young men and women, middle-aged women, and one elderly man in a sweatshirt. Svetashov himself was the very picture of a wizard – long hair, goatee beard, and dressed in a white short-sleeved shirt with a black dragon motif, white trousers with a black belt and black socks. He circled the room, gesticulating madly and occasionally clapping his hands together. ‘It’s all very simple,’ he told us with a conspiratorial smile, ‘you just need to widen your consciousness and then you will be able to change the past and the future.’ The engineer magus snapped his fingers. ‘What’s a psychic?’ he asked his listeners, and answered the question himself. ‘It’s someone who feels, understands, senses and knows something that seems inaccessible to everyone else.’
‘The Earth has emerged from darkness and a new age is dawning; everything is possible.’
In fact, said Svetashov, these abilities are available to all, especially now: ‘The Earth has emerged from darkness and a new age is dawning; everything is possible.’ He asked the students whether they had recently noticed changes in their lives. They agreed that they had. ‘It’s all because of 2011.’ Svetashov explained. ‘Was that when all the huge rats crawled out of the earth?’ asked a young woman. The mage gave an enigmatic smile – ‘Perhaps.’ Then he asked the class to look at their hands and clap hard, then rub them together, and discharge the energy: ‘In the course of the day they collect all sorts of muck.’ Next, he asked them to hold their hands with palms facing, to try to feel the warmth, and slowly move them from side to side until the warmth disappears but the elasticity remains. The students obediently followed his commands. ‘Do you feel the elasticity?’ he asked. A mumbled chorus of ‘Uhuh.’ ‘The main thing is to relax your hands,’ he repeated. Now they had to imagine that light was flowing from their right hand and into their left, and that they could pass it back from one hand to the other. The mage started circling with his arms and hips. ‘You get a circle of light, don’t you?’ ‘I immediately got a ball,’ replied a woman. Svetashov threw up his hands in joy. Congratulations! You are now psychics!’ ‘Is that all?’ a young woman asked hesitantly. Everyone laughed. ‘No, that’s just the beginning.’
Pearls of wisdom
The course contained amazing pearls of wisdom: you feel better if it’s raining outside but you are feeling happy, happier than if the weather is good but you are in a bad mood. Your state is very important and you can change it, explained Svetashov. At one point he asked the class, standing on a carpet in a small stifling room, to shut their eyes and imagine the following: ‘you are in a room, the sun is shining, you have a warm carpet beneath your feet and everything is going well. Now you are on a beach.’ The engineer-magus was moving his hands the whole time, passing light around in a circle, and the overweight middle-aged woman standing beside him, in lipstick and a pink top, smiled a beatific smile. ‘The picture is changing,’ continued Svetashov, ‘you’re in the metro, it’s rush hour. How do you feel now?’ ‘Crap,’ answer the young psychics. Svetashov waved his arms more forcefully and moved them back to the beach: waves, warm sand, a salty breeze. ‘You can smell the breeze, can’t you? It feels like summer although there’s no breeze here. But there’s nothing strange about this: we are radiating the sea and the outside world is responding to us.’
Channeling positive thoughts at the Alten Centre. Photo via Vkontakte
Among other aspects of the class were reflections on the fact that the homeless are the most enlightened people on earth, ‘because they have nothing; they are free; they have no problems. They need something; they go to the dump and find it.’
The homeless are the most enlightened people on earth.
The neophyte psychics removed the negative vibes from their glasses of water. ‘The water becomes lighter and its taste changes, doesn’t it?’ Everyone simultaneously drank their water and nodded: ‘yes, it has a different taste.’
Finally, there was the healing part of the course. A middle-aged man whose mother is ailing asked whether psychics could provide her with medical help. Of course, said Svetashov. He jumped up, started waving his arms around and asked everyone to imagine this sickly woman. The students, moving their arms around in all directions, ‘gathered information’ about the mother, rubbed their hands together, put ‘her’ in the centre of their circle, and began to send light to her. The main thing this ritual achieved was to confirm that she was indeed ill; and most likely she had problems with her head and heart – her body was all clogged up. Slowly moving their arms up and down, the budding psychics also gathered information about curing her condition: she needed to drink water.
We cannot be 100% certain that this is all complete hogwash. The people who spend £18 billion a year on it believe it, after all, which is a kind of magic in itself. The only thing we can be sure about is that magic can be useful in everyday life. One Alten Centre habitué certainly knows how to work his magic – during Konstantin Gorbunov’s lecture he stood at reception, his elbows on the counter, and quietly bewitched one of his female fellow initiates. ‘I am now opening the doors of my soul. It’s not an easy exercise; the soul has to be perfectly smooth, without any flaws. And I can feel it, there they are, there are the doors. You understand, I can think visually, I passed this test, but it wasn’t easy.’ The girl, entranced, can only sigh voluptuously in reply. ‘You can’t deny it, it’s magic.’
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Russians spend $30 million a year on sorcerers, fortune-tellers, magi, and psychics. The correct figure is $30 billion.