Monday, February 25, 2019

Russia has Real Shamans but Unfortunately Some Fake Ones Too, Ethnographer Says

Paul Goble
            Staunton, February 25 – Last week the Russian media couldn’t get enough of a story coming out of Buryatia where someone who styled himself “the deputy supreme shaman of Russia” carried out what he said was a traditional ritual sacrifice of five camels “for the good of the Russian state and its peoples.”

            He was immediately disowned by the real shamans in the region and by the Buryat people as a whole who said that those who had done this were neither shamans nor Buryats but rather “fake shamans” from outside the republic who were discrediting Buryatia, its people, and shamans, Buryat ethnographer Radzhana Dugarova says (

            The man who conducted the ritual with the camels is named Artur Tsybikov, she continues.  He and his associates don’t fit the standard model of shamans: they look European, they live in a city that didn’t even exist before 1945, and they came to the practice of shamanism late in lives in which they had tried their hand at other ways to make money.

            Judging from Tsybikov’s biography, Dugarova says, he is clearly one of “’those who survived the 1990s.’”  Although born in Buryatia, he worked building roads in Ukraine, served int eh special forces, worked as a bodyguard, operated a restaurant and was even an aide to Duma deputy Iosif Kobzon.

            In addition, he bought a tea factory in Georgia, laid gas pipelines in Adjaria, and was able to get two university degrees: physical fitness and economics. Only then did he catch “’the shaman disease,’” yet another way to make money.  “I think if Ostap Bender had lived in our time, he would have gotten involved with extra-sensory activities rather than running a house.”

            In 2010, she continues, Tsybikov as “a newly minted shaman,” moved from Moscow to Angarsk and established a local religious organization and training academy for shamans where he has trained hundreds of shamans and apparently has a great deal of money in the process.

            “In June 2018,” the ethnographer relates, an international shaman conference took place in Tyva in the course of which was first chosen a supreme shaman of Russia – Kara-ool Dopchun-ool” and at which Tsybikov became his deputy. But “far from all shamans recognized these elections as legitimate.”

            “The majority of them, living in their uluses and villages most probably have not heard about any supreme shaman,” Dugarova continues. “Shamanism is today recognized as one of the traditional religions of Tyva, Buryatia and Sakha.” But those who organized the congress wanted it to be recognized as a state religion of Russia as a whole.

              “Paraphrasing Chernomyrdin,” she says, one can say that “they wanted to make neo-shamanism as a world religion and instead and like always got the CPSU.”  What that can lead to in turn is what happened last week in Angarsk where those claiming to be shamans simply made things up and ignored even modernized shamanistic practice.

            She provides details of the many ways that what Tsybikov and his fellows did has nothing to do with shamanism either of the classical, pre-Soviet kind of the new shamanism that has emerged since the 1980s.  Those two kinds differ from one another in importance respects, but they have a core belief in common, one Tsybikov violates.

            To give but one example, the ethnographer says, sacrificing animals is not done at least on the scale he engaged in, and animal sacrifices in Siberia, are usually conducted by others, with shamans in attendance but not conducting any such ritual. And the way in which shaman services are conducted has nothing in common with what Tsybikov did.

              “Shamanism today,” Dugarova says, “naturally is different from the faith of our ancestors.” It was based in rural areas and villages not in the cities where more than half of Buryats now live, something that has given rise to what some call “urban shamanism,” something unthinkable earlier

            “In Soviet times,” the ethnographer says, “shams were forced to go underground, and as a result of the policy of ‘de-shamanization’ the tradition of transferring the shaman gift was broken” and many older traditions were forgotten because they could not be practiced in public.

            When shamanism began to be reborn “at the end of the 1980s,” it turned out, however, “that despite the repressions and forgetting, this faith remained alive and its ancient practices were again revealed to people who received the shamanist gift,” Dugarova says.

            “What distinguished the real shaman, even a neo- on, from an adventurist and pseudo-shaman?”  According to the ethnographer, it is “an understanding of good and evil,” or “sin” and sinfulness” in the shamanistic sense of “the violation of harmony” in the world and among people.

            In the past, shamans “always knew what it was possible to do and what must not be done … They knew in this regard when ethical prohibitions were violated. Shamans, who support the tradition, know this today.” Tsybikov in all respects has completely “forgotten about this principle.” 

            What he has done is not only a violation of the principles of shamanism, Dugarova argues, but engaged in a kind of “black PR” that has blacked the reputation of shamans and the Buryat people. And thus, “instead of the expected strengthening of Russia and its peoples” he promised, some have been slandered and others have come to look down on them.

            Dugarova says she doesn’t want to end her essay “on this sad note,” however. Her mother was saved by a shaman after doctors had given up.  The shaman not only saved her but her children and her children’s children.  After this action, “I no longer could call myself an atheist.” And now that shamanism is being misappropriated, I cannot remain silent, she adds.

            Shamanism, of course, “will survive this scandal, too small and insignificant in comparison with the terror of de-shamanization, she insists. And real shamans will continue to be born and to pass on their gift from generation to generation, just as they did thousands of years ago.” 

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