In 2021, Alexander Gabyshev, a Yakut shaman, embarked on an 8000 km trek from the republic of Sakha in far eastern Russia to Moscow to ‘exorcize’ the demon Putin. Gabyshev made this journey, not one, but three times until Russian authorities arrested him for “extremism.” A court eventually condemned Gabyshev to indefinite compulsory psychiatric treatment—a Soviet practice against dissidents dating to Brezhnev. Was Shaman Alexander’s spiritual and political activity typical for post-Soviet shamanism? And what do we make of this harsh response against Indigenous people in the Russian Federation? This interview with Georgetown University’s Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer discusses how indigeneity and religion evolved across the Soviet and post-Soviet divide. To what extent have traditional indigenous spiritual practices survived communist rule? Or is today’s shamanism a result of a cultural-national renaissance over the last 30 years?
Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer is a Faculty Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, of Georgetown University, and cofounder of the Indigenous Studies Working Group at Georgetown. She is the valedictory editor of Anthropology and Archeology of Eurasia, a translation journal featuring scholars from the region. She has authored or edited seven books on Eurasia, mostly focused on Siberia, including Galvanizing Nostalgia (Cornell, 2021) and Shamans, Spirituality and Cultural Revitalization (Palgrave, 2012). One of the first U.S. anthropologists allowed to do fieldwork in the Soviet period, she continued intensive and frequent fieldwork in Siberia’s Far East in the post-Soviet period until Putin regime politics made this difficult. Since 2016, she has worked with Siberian diasporas, creating a Siberian compound at her home in Maryland.
The music in the interview is Yuliyana Krivoshapkina and Nachyn Choreve “Horses”