MOSCOW -- Last week, Russians of a certain age saw a familiar face return to their screens. Anatoly Kashpirovsky, a self-styled psychic healer who entranced TV audiences as the Soviet Union was coming apart three decades ago, is back as an octogenarian YouTuber offering solace as the coronavirus spreads.
And some are taking what he has to offer, apparently, helping revive the career of a man who had become an almost forgotten symbol of a time when desperation ran high.
Almost 250,000 viewers have watched Healing Seance, a video posted on April 9 to Kashpirovsky's channel on YouTube:
He sits immobile against a background of beige wallpaper and asks viewers to cover their eyes with their hands -- not normally advisable as a pandemic rages.
"Over the coming days," he says toward the end of what is essentially an hourlong monologue, "comments will keep coming in from people who have been cured."
Kashpirovsky, now 80, achieved celebrity status in the Soviet Union through a series of televised sessions beginning in 1989 -- two years before the country ceased to exist. Fixing his steely gaze on viewers who sat at home, some transfixed, he claimed powers to cure the sick and heal a nation that was hurting from the effects of economic decline.
At the peak of his celebrity in the early 1990s, Kashpirovsky was traveling the country to appear before packed halls and placed second only to President Boris Yeltsin in surveys of Russia's most popular public figures.
In the waning days of the U.S.S.R. and the early years after its collapse, millions of people looking for meaning amid the chaos of change and stark economic challenges turned for relief to people like Kashpirovsky, who years earlier might have risked being sent by the Soviet state to a psychiatric hospital but now found a prominent place on prime-time television.
Early Morning Psychics
Kashpirovsky was not alone. Hundreds of thousands watched Allan Chumak, his main rival, as he flailed his arms in a "healing" ritual on his early morning TV slot. Viewers would place water bottles or tubs of cream in front of their TV sets to "charge" them with Chumak's energy, which the mystic claimed was enough to heal ailments if drunk or smeared on the skin.
Kashpirovsky's most famous stunt came in March 1989, when he appeared on a screen inside an operating room in Tbilisi, Georgia, via video link from Ukraine, and proceeded to guide a woman who could not use anesthesia through open abdominal surgery.
"Now everyone who watched me can go to the dentist and have their tooth pulled," he told viewers afterward. "There will be no pain at all."
The woman, Lesya Yershova, said in an interview several months later that she had felt "terrible pain" throughout the operation, which required a 40-centimeter incision, and had only cooperated because she didn't want to let Kashpirovsky down. She agreed to forego anesthesia because Kashpirovsky had promised to make her thinner and bring her along to his shows around the world as an example of his healing powers, she told the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta.
He didn't keep his promise, she said.
Kashpirovsky's claims of supernatural powers soon drew comparisons with the 20th-century healer Rasputin, whose malign influence on the family of Tsar Nicholas II sparked accusations that he was meddling in affairs of state and contributed to the collapse of Russia's war effort in 1917 and the ultimate downfall of its monarchy. Rasputin was said to ease the pain of the tsar's hemophiliac son simply by talking to him.
A former weightlifter and a trained psychologist, Kashpirovsky has largely retreated from the spotlight since the 1990s. In 2009, with Russia reeling from the effects of the global financial crisis, he sought to stage a comeback of sorts by launching a TV show devoted to "paranormal investigations." But in a country where there's no shortage of such offerings -- a show called Battle Of The Psychics is now in its 20th season -- his star soon faded again.
In 2010, shortly after he announced that comeback, Kashpirovsky -- who did not immediately respond to RFE/RL's request for comment -- launched his YouTube channel. Since then he has posted videos from auditorium shows performed in various countries, where he meets with locals and members of Russian emigre communities who pay money in hopes of being healed. The videos are posted with titles like Instantaneous Cure For A Slipped Disc and Salvation From Pain.
In a video he posted last August, an elderly man who appears to have a heavily curved spine walks across a stage in Taraz, Kazakhstan, to meet Kashpirovsky, before disappearing backstage. Minutes later he runs back onstage, waving his arms in triumph to rapturous applause from the audience, his back seemingly healed.
The coronavirus pandemic appears to have drawn new attention to Kashpirovsky as it spreads in Russia, where the numbers of confirmed cases have risen sharply in recent days and President Vladimir Putin said on April 13 that the situation was "changing for the worse."
Officially, the number of confirmed cases now exceeds 21,000, with 170 deaths, but experts suspect the real numbers may be higher.
Viewership of Kashpirovsky's YouTube channel has risen substantially in recent weeks: His March 25 monologue -- titled Coronavirus. Its Pluses And Minuses -- has almost half a million views.
As he spoke during his "healing seance" on April 9, a scrolling text chat displayed comments from viewers.
"My tinnitus has completely gone," one woman wrote. Another reported that a chronic neck pain had passed within three minutes. "I've believed in you since 1989," wrote a third -- though it was unclear whether in earnest or in jest.
After 53 minutes, Kashpirovsky signed off with a message to gullible viewers.
"Our meeting will naturally provoke in you an explosion in your immune system, which will protect you," he said. "I crave that from the bottom of my soul."
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