‘An Exorcism Must Be Done’: An Anti-Putin Shaman Sets Off Unrest

ULAN-UDE, Russia — A long-haired shaman arrived on foot from the frozen north, dragging a cart with yurt poles and a stove, and preaching that the president is a demon. Days later, a cabby, invoking the shaman, strode up to the Kremlin-allied mayor of this Siberian city, yelled a string of grievances and posted his rant on YouTube.

Public protests erupted and continued for weeks, but the shaman kept walking west — headed to Moscow, “the heart of evil,” he said, to exorcise Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. Then, what he called “dark forces” — a SWAT team — packed him onto a plane to Yakutsk, a remote regional capital in eastern Siberia.

“My tales coincided with the desperation of Russians who live with injustice, poverty and destitution,” the shaman, Aleksandr Gabyshev, said in an interview at his sister’s one-room log cabin off a muddy road on the outskirts of Yakutsk.

Referring to Mr. Putin, he added: “In him there is much evil, and he himself embodies the powers of evil, so an exorcism must be done.”

That a mystic and a video-blogging taxi driver could touch off prolonged unrest in Ulan-Ude, a city of 400,000 people, underscored the depth and breadth of a new season of Russian discontent.

A spike in dissent nationwide shows that after years of economic stagnation, Russians’ patience with their government is wearing thin. Pollsters report a sustained slump in Mr. Putin’s approval ratings in the last 12 months and a growing rejection of state television’s propaganda drumbeat. Waves of protest have roiled Moscow since June, resulting in thousands of arrests and prompting the Kremlin to make rare concessions.

There is no unified nationwide protest movement that might threaten Mr. Putin’s two-decade rule, but in a growing number of flash points, years of pent-up grievances are being unleashed by previously unknown figures, or by one indignity too many. And despite the threat of arrest, dissenters like Mr. Gabyshev are willing to hold Mr. Putin directly responsible for their problems.

In an echo of how the Soviet Union treated dissidents, the shaman now faces incarceration in a mental institution. His lawyers say the Federal Security Service, a successor to the K.G.B., told them last week that their client required psychiatric treatment.

“This is most terrifying — what we really feared,” said one of the lawyers, Boris Andreyev.

Mr. Gabyshev’s team says it will fight the attempt to commit him, a process that could take months. In the meantime, he is under orders not to leave Yakutsk.

The patriotic fervor that overshadowed Russia’s economic problems in the wake of the Crimea annexation of 2014 has largely dissipated, and disposable incomes are effectively below what they were in 2013. Emboldened by cheap, expanding and mostly uncensored high-speed internet access, Russians are becoming braver in speaking out, knowing that even if the state news media ignores their voices, millions can hear them online.

That’s why Dmitry Bairov, the cabby whose tirade drew more attention to Mr. Gabyshev, rarely leaves home without two smartphones in his gray shoulder bag, a battery pack at his hip and a tripod clip dangling from a carabiner.

“I see that there is injustice — I hear it, I see it, and I talk about it,” Mr. Bairov said, adding that YouTube “is the only medium of — what’s it called? — freedom of speech.”

Mr. Gabyshev, 50, is a former welder, plumber and carpenter who took up shamanism in the tradition of his people, the Sakha, more than a decade ago, after his wife died. He said he had lived as a hermit in the Siberian forest for more than two years.

By the time he reached Ulan-Ude in late August, he had traveled for nearly six months, covering 1,600 miles. He predicted that thousands would join him along the two-year, 5,000-mile march to Moscow, to help exorcise Mr. Putin.

Passers-by spread word of his journey, posting videos showing his wispy beard and singsong speech.

Mr. Bairov learned about Mr. Gabyshev from other video bloggers on YouTube. He used a cabby chat group in the messaging app Viber to help organize support for the shaman as he approached Ulan-Ude.

After the authorities detained one of Mr. Gabvyshev’s supporters, Mr. Bairov accosted Mayor Igor Shutenkov on Sept. 9 next to the city’s most famous landmark, a 25-foot-tall head of Lenin.

Mr. Shutenkov, backed by Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, had just beaten a popular Communist candidate in an election that critics called rigged. After Mr. Bairov parked his car at the central square to protest the treatment of the shaman’s group, the Communists parked a minivan nearby to protest the election results.

The next afternoon, masked men in civilian clothes, wielding hatchets and backed up by riot police officers, stormed the two vehicles under Lenin’s gaze, broke the windows, dragged Mr. Bairov and a Communist politician into an unmarked white van and drove off.

Anna Zuyeva, a longtime host on government-friendly local television, witnessed the raid and uploaded video of it to YouTube, where it was viewed around 800,000 times. The next day, she quit her job and refashioned herself from propaganda mouthpiece to critical blogger.

“I don’t want to make a deal with my conscience,” she wrote on Instagram, adding in a later interview, “People can’t be silent anymore.”

The ensuing protests were unheard-of for Ulan-Ude, a regional capital near the Mongolian border. It is home to the Mongol Buryat ethnic group, and residents describe the city as particularly calm.

More than 1,000 protesters demanded new elections and the resignation of Alexey Tsydenov, the Putin-appointed governor of the region, Buryatya. They made huge banners showing a crossed-out hatchet, an instrument that quickly became the symbol of the state’s overreach.

Cultural figures, including the artistic director of the government-funded State Russian Drama Theater, Sergey Levitsky, went public in support of the protesters even as more of the organizers were put in jail.

“No matter what happened in Moscow or in other cities, everything in our city was always quiet,” Mr. Levitsky said. “People have crossed a threshold.”

In Mr. Putin’s first decade in power, oil-fueled economic growth improved living standards and increased his popularity. Since then, low oil prices and Western sanctions have squeezed the country, but for years, Mr. Putin successfully convinced Russians that restoring their great-power status was worth the economic pain.

Mikhail Dmitriev, a Moscow economist who uses nationwide focus groups to track public opinion, says the root of Russian discontent is economic, with years of stagnation in personal incomes breeding disdain for the authorities, distrust of the state news media and disinterest in Mr. Putin’s foreign policy adventures.

But in the last year Mr. Dmitriev has detected a marked shift: For the first time since the early 1990s, most of his respondents said greater political freedom mattered more than higher incomes.

“The conditions for a serious destabilization of the country don’t currently exist, but on the other hand this isn’t a static situation, it’s a dynamic one,” he said.

The question now is how many more people will make the leap from private grumbling to public protest — the only effective way, many analysts say, to pressure the Kremlin.

Anastasia Matveyeva, a 31-year-old entrepreneur in Ulan-Ude who organizes craft markets and nightclub parties, had no interest in politics until this year. But then one of her favorite YouTube stars, the popular journalist Yuri Dud, started voicing louder criticism of the state and backing the protests in Moscow.

She began reading the opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s blog, which spotlights corruption in Russia’s ruling elite. She did not attend the rallies in Ulan-Ude, but is starting to think she needs to take responsibility for her country’s future.

“I understand that, probably, something needs to be done,” Ms. Matveyeva said.

Near a recent demonstration, a 55-year-old woman said she sympathized with the protesters but did not dare attend. As a company executive, she had too much to lose, she said, refusing to give her name for fear of retribution.

“I’m a woman of the old days” whose relatives were executed by the Soviets, she said. “The fear is in my bones. The regime is coming back.”

Mr. Gabyshev, the shaman, said that to exorcise Mr. Putin he would light a bonfire on Red Square, just outside the Kremlin wall. In the Sakha tradition, he would feed it fermented mare’s milk and horsehair, bang a leather drum and perform a prayer, and “Putin will come to his senses and quietly resign.”

If the authorities were to prohibit the ritual, he said, people would rise up by the millions, calling for Mr. Putin to go.

For now, he awaits his fate. He has moved out of his sister’s house, where after his detention he slept on two thin blue mattresses on the empty patch of floor, and is living in a separate cabin in the yard. The family still shares an outhouse.

Mr. Gabyshev compared himself to a caterpillar that had been crawling slowly along a road and then wrapped itself in a cocoon.

“A new world will appear out of this cocoon, flying very fast,” Mr. Gabyshev said. “No one knows when.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed research from Moscow.

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