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Confined To Siberian City And Facing Extremism Probe, Russian Shaman Urges Putin To Resign

Russian shaman and anti-Putin campaigner Aleksandr Gabyshev (file photo)
Russian shaman and anti-Putin campaigner Aleksandr Gabyshev (file photo)

MOSCOW -- A Russian shaman who was arrested while on a cross-country quest to "exorcise" President Vladimir Putin and drive him from the Kremlin is pressing his calls for the long-ruling leader to abandon power.

Aleksandr Gabyshev, an ethnic Yakut whose unusual protest drew a throng of followers and attracted attention nationwide, made his remarks in an interview posted on the regional news site on October 10.

"Leave, Vladimir Vladimirovich, voluntarily. Resign," said Gabyshev, whose trek coincided in part with the biggest wave of protests in Moscow since 2011-12. "This will be for the good of Russia, of Yakutia, and of the whole world."

Gabyshev offered Putin a kind of security assurance, saying: "No one will touch you. Not a single hair will fall from your head, and not a single drop of blood will be spilled." He also said he plans to continue his journey to Moscow at a later date if the president does not step down.

Gabyshev set out from his native Yakutia region in March, telling followers he expected to reach Moscow in two years. Calling Putin "a creation of dark forces," he pledged to use his shamanic powers to cast out the president's demons and free Russia from his rule.

Shaman On 8,000-Kilometer Trek 'To Topple Putin'
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Before he was detained on September 19 by masked and armed special-police troops in Buryatia, more than 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow, he had traversed a large swath of eastern Siberia and become the star of numerous YouTube videos posted by people he encountered along the way.

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Gabyshev was subsequently flown back to Yakutia, sent for testing at a psychiatric clinic, and declared mentally unfit to face trial -- a determination that rights activists and supporters have disputed. He remains under investigation on suspicion of making public calls for extremism and is forbidden to leave the regional capital, Yakutsk.

The support and attention Gabyshev received on his marathon westward journey seemed to fit into a broader current of discontent in Russia, where falling real wages have hit citizens in a sluggish economy and critics of Putin, in power for two decades and in the second year of a six-year fourth term, say elections offer little real choice.

'Seething' Political Life

In Ulan-Ude, a city that Gabyshev passed, protests over the election of a pro-Kremlin mayoral candidate in a vote demonstrators believed was rigged mixed with anger over the shaman’s arrest. The subsequent police crackdown on protesters only fueled the outrage, even prompting one National Guard officer to publicly urge colleagues to refrain from using force.

In the interview posted on October 10, Gabyshev -- dismissed by some Russians as wacky and hailed by others as a bellwether for shifting public sentiment -- appeared acutely aware of the support his mission had garnered.

"Greet my legendary brigade, carry it in your arms," he urged people, praising those who followed him on his journey and predicting they would join him when, and if, it resumes. "They’re not alone. All of Russia stands behind them."

Despite being barred from leaving Yakutsk, Gabyshev nevertheless said he plans to take up his trek again and suggested that time is on the side of Russians calling for change.

"Political life will begin to seethe. It's already seething," he said. "Before, people were [living] in fear, but they have tasted freedom. And that's an irreversible process."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.