MOSCOW -- A self-professed mass healer who made his name on national television in the rocky years surrounding the Soviet collapse is promising a return to the airwaves as Russians hit by the financial slump seek refuge in the paranormal.
Russia's NTV network is set to bring back Anatoly Kashpirovsky, whose shows, like before, will offer a mixture of mass healing rituals and soothing hypnosis.
At the height of his career, Kashpirovsky was attracting an audience of millions to his weekly television show. Appearing to fix his steely gaze on viewers as they sat transfixed in their homes, he claimed he could make the sick well again and banish every sort of ache and pain.
"Your fears will disappear, fears that have tortured you for many years," Kashpirovsky intoned in a typical broadcast. "You will stop clenching your fists. And most importantly, many people will find their pains simply slipping away; as soon as I say the word, those intense pains, wherever they might be, will simply vanish into thin air."
Russians remember his shows being so popular that there was barely any traffic on the streets when they were aired, and the following day there would be talk of little else on the buses and metros during the morning rush hour.
Although some were skeptical about Kashpirovsky'a healing powers, his fame was such that he even won a seat in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in 1993, with Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).
While Kashpirovsky, with his black, brillo-pad hair and menacing look, was the best known of the television mystics, he was not the only one. One of his rivals was Alan Chumak, who called himself a faith healer and had a regular early-morning slot on national television.
On given days, Chumak announced he would cure certain ailments. Viewers who weren't able to watch the program were instructed to simply place a glass of water in front of the screen; Chumak claimed he was able to charm the liquid through the airwaves, and that would be enough to cure the person who eventually drank it.
History Of Success
Russia's three main national television channels -- including NTV, which will air Kashpirovsky's program -- are controlled either by the state or state-friendly enterprises.
In a recent radio broadcast by RFE/RL's Russian Service, academic Isaak Khalatnikov from the Russian Academy of Sciences said television shows involving extrasensory perception and hypnosis were a mainstay of the perestroika years.
As food supplies dwindled, and shelves in shops and department stores remained empty, people turned to what Khalatnikov describes as "pseudo-science" as a means of escape. He suggests that the current financial crisis may explain why Kashpirovsky's show is being resurrected.
"People long for miracles," Khalatnikov says. "Science doesn't offer too many miracles now, so people feel a need for something that rocks all foundations, something that has popular appeal."
He adds that such distractions can "undermine" the foundations of science. "I suppose this is something that a narrow-minded part of society has a need for," Khalatnikov says.
Kashpirovsky has sometimes been compared to another mystic and hypnotist in Russian history -- Grigory Rasputin, who rose to power during the reign of Nicholas II, Russia's last tsar. He was said to have been able to ease the pain of the tsar's hemophiliac son simply by talking to him.
Rasputin's increasing control over the tsar and his family had serious implications: His meddling in affairs of state is thought at least partly to have brought about the collapse of the Russian war effort in 1917, the execution of the imperial family, and the revolution soon after.
'Big Empty Hole'
For socio-psychologist professor Tatyana Stepanenko, Russian society's long-standing penchant for the paranormal is what makes Kashpirovsky and Chumak so popular.
"Of course, it is targeted primarily at people who are not very educated," Stepanenko tells RFE/RL. "Our television is generally targeted at people who are not very educated. Most entertainment programs are also of very low quality. And the majority of people are not well educated."
But for television critic Bronislava Taroshchina, there is a more sinister element to broadcasting these types of shows.
"There are no political broadcasts in the country. Freedom of speech has become a derogatory term," Taroshchina says. "So these acts of diversion -- you can call them marketing ploys or new creative urges -- these entertainment programs are meant to make up for the absence of a functioning television organism, so to speak, and to cover up this big empty hole."