Social Analysis of the Role of Magic in Contemporary Russia | Wilson Center

Social Analysis of the Role of Magic in Contemporary Russia

At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Vladimir Svechnikov, Professor, Department of Ergonomics, Saratov Technical University, discussed the role of magic in society. Anthropologists and other social scientists have long studied the practice of, and ideas about, magic in traditional societies. Svechnikov argued that it is equally important to understand the many roles that magic plays in modern societies, such as contemporary Russia.

Svechnikov, who is himself an accomplished magician, argued that the essence of magic is the magician's ability to communicate an alternate version of reality to his or her audience. This alternate reality can affect viewers in many different ways. Svechnikov provided an example from his own career, when he gave a performance for President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin appeared to enjoy the performance until Svechnikov performed a trick in which he wrote a number on a card, and then asked the president to say a number, which turned out to be the same number that was written on the card. Svechnikov argued that Yeltsin had enjoyed watching the alternate reality of magic while it was kept on the stage and separate from the reality that he lived in and understood. However, Yeltsin was very uncomfortable with the idea that his mind had been read, because the magical reality had interfered with his own reality. As an extremely strong-willed, confident, and self-reliant person, Yeltsin disliked the feeling that he could be touched by a reality that was beyond his understanding and control.

Svechnikov argued that because most people who have done academic studies of magic are not familiar with the techniques that a magician uses to create an alternate reality, they are entirely at the mercy of the magician for their information. His own familiarity with creating magic, he contended, gives him a different perspective for understanding the role of magic in society.

The influence of magic is strong in contemporary Russia, according to Svechnikov. In the post-WWII USSR, the telepath Wolf Messing was very popular and performed mind reading acts throughout the country. During perestroika, Svechnikov stated, there was a profusion of popular magical figures. Public interest in mystics, psychics, and healers peaked, and the relaxation of state censorship allowed these figures to receive a great deal of publicity. Svechnikov argued that the Russian people have a great wish to believe in magic and miracles. In addition to the popularity of mystics and healers, he cited the financial pyramid schemes common in the early post-Soviet period as evidence of the importance of magic in contemporary Russia. People invested their money in pyramid schemes, accepting the claims that this would make them rich, without any understanding of how the investment worked. This is the same phenomenon, Svechnikov contended, as an audience's acceptance of a magician's alternate reality, despite the fact that they do not understand how this reality is created.