A Bogus Focus on Hocus-Pocus

A Bogus Focus on Hocus-Pocus

Published: May 11, 2011 (Issue # 1655)

There were three women waiting in line, differing widely in age. Although they were surrounded by shoppers, the place where they were waiting wasn’t dispensing medicines, food, or fashion items.

 They were each waiting for a session with a fortune teller who works from a consulting room in a large shopping mall in the center of St. Petersburg.

One of the women gushed with praise when I asked her if the fortune teller was any good.

“This is my second visit to Olga,” she said. “I didn’t even have to tell her my story. She just seemed to know everything. Now I feel I’m on the right track to return to normal life.”

Her situation was not unusual. Her husband had left her for someone younger, and the woman, who’d been a housewife for more than 10 years, had been left on her own, with no man in her life, no job, and not much money.  

The desperate divorcee recounted that before she found Olga the fortune teller, who charges 1,000 rubles ($37) per hour, she had paid a staggering 70,000 rubles to a magician who had promised to make her husband return to her. No prizes for guessing whether he succeeded.   

So what had Olga the fortune teller done for her fee? It turned out she had merely told the woman that she would soon meet another man and that she should seek counseling to cope with her unhappiness.

Olga is one of more than 800,000 fortune tellers, healers, and magic practitioners, who, according to state statistics, are officially registered in Russia. The numbers also include shamans — basically witch doctors, who are especially common in Siberia.

Now this industry has become the target of the State Duma. In a new crusade, deputies are expected to approve, in the next few weeks, the second hearing of a bill that bans advertising of such services.

One of the bill’s most enthusiastic supporters is Yevgeny Fyodorov, head of the Duma committee for economic policy and entrepreneurship.

“I think it’s necessary to restrict such advertisements because the victims of these swindlers now amount to many thousands,” Fyodorov said. “People contact these so-called magicians in frustrating situations only to lose what is often the only money they have left.  

“This is most cynical and it has to be stopped. The quacks promise to solve all your problems, from bringing back your lost love, to treating cancer, to making your fortune. But what they really do is paint a picture of a rosy future for clients who are so desperate they’ll believe anything.”

As it happens, the bill to clamp down on tricksters of all kinds coincides with a campaign by the Ministry of Health to tackle depression and mental health disorders. There has been a vast increase in these illnesses since the downfall of the U.S.S.R. 

The Health Ministry claims that, while more than 80 percent of Russians will at some stage need treatment for a mental health disorder, only 3 percent seek counseling.

So why do so many people in Russia choose a shaman or some other kind of quack over a psychologist or a medical doctor? It hardly seems connected with advertising, since there is no shortage of ads for professional counseling services.

It seems more likely that people who opt for the quacks and tricksters are utterly desperate. A visit to a fortune teller is a form of escapism, an attempt to enter an alternative reality.

In this respect, the flight to dodgy practitioners resembles drug addiction. But there is also a harsh reality about conventional medicine that drives them to desperate measures. They know that to obtain proper medical treatment in Russia you will often be asked to pay a hefty bribe, and that may be well beyond your means.

Although each fortune teller, faith healer, or shaman has his or her own list of services and prices, they are all essentially selling the same thing: hope. This hope is offered to clients in the form of a new man, a vast inheritance, a plum new job, or a successful medical treatment.

These prophecies, unlike counseling, are very popular in Russia. In one nationwide survey, more than 20 percent of people admitted having used the services of a fortune teller, shaman or “magic practitioner.”

Much of the despair that drives Russians into the arms of shady operators surely comes from an awareness that they live in a very corrupt state, where, in a critical situation, if you do not have the right connections, you are playing roulette. Of course if you are already suicidal it may be Russian roulette.

“I lost my job, and then my husband died, and then I spent almost half a year looking for a job without getting any response at all to my CV,” said Marina, who had gone to a fortune teller in a situation where a Western European would surely be more likely to seek counseling.

“I don’t know if I actually do believe in all this mystery and magic but in my real life I had nothing to hold on to,” Marina told me. “All my efforts were in vain, and nothing brought results, however hard I tried. I felt like I was drowning, and in having my fortune told I was clutching at a straw that I was hoping would save me.”

The experience of Olga, the fortune teller, suggests the crackdown planned by the Duma may not have much effect. She says that she doesn’t even need to advertise, as word of mouth brings her all the clients she needs.   

So the advertising ban being planned by the state deputies may have no more effect than President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent proposal to put drug addicts in prison. For both “solutions” fail to treat the causes of these two forms of escapism. Causes that are largely rooted in the ugly system of social injustice that exists in the country and that often drives the victims to go shopping for hope.

A full version of this commentary is available at Transitions Online, an award-winning analytical online magazine covering Eastern Europe and CIS countries, at www.tol.org.

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