21 May 2020
Putin and the Shaman.
A 1212 moment for Russia?
By Neil Tidmarsh
Just over a year ago, Alexander Gabyshev set off on a 5000 mile walk from his home in Siberia to Moscow. His mission? To exorcise Putin. He planned to conduct a ceremony outside the Kremlin which would drive the “evil demon” president out of office and establish democracy.
Mr Gabyshev, 51, is a shaman. Between one and two million people in Russia believe in shamanism, in the ability of men and women like Mr Gabyshev to pass to and fro between the material world and the spirit world.
News of his mission spread across the country as his journey progressed. He attracted a crowd of followers and donations of food and money. Folk musicians and rap artists praised him in song. By July he’d covered more than 1000 miles and had reached the city of Ulan-Ude where anti-government protests broke out on his arrival. By September he’d covered almost 2000 miles; at that point, however, he was stopped and arrested by armed police.
He was held in a psychiatric institution. The authorities opened an extremism investigation against him. Government doctors declared him mentally unstable (independent psychiatrists, however, did not agree). He was eventually put on a plane and flown back to Yakutsk, his home city in Siberia.
He set out again in December, but this time he was stopped and sent home after only two days.
Last week, according to his lawyer, Mr Gabyshev was arrested by a police special forces team who raided his home, handcuffed him and took him off in a police van to a psychiatric asylum. Some vague excuse about the coronavirus has reportedly been made by the authorities.
Questions about Putin and the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018 (did the president know about it? Did he sanction it? Did he order it, directly or indirectly?) have suggested parallels with King Henry II and the murder of Becket in another English cathedral city eight centuries earlier (did the king know about it? Did he sanction it? Did he order it, directly or indirectly? What is Russian for “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”). Questions about President Putin and the shaman Gabyshev, however, suggest even more intriguing parallels with King Henry II’s son King John and the hermit Peter of Wakefield.
Peter of Wakefield (also known as Peter of Pontefract) was an ascetic who was reputedly gifted with the power of prophecy. In 1212 he prophesied that John’s rule would come to an end and his crown would pass to another just before the fourteenth anniversary of his coronation – Ascension Day the next year, 1213. King John had him arrested and attempted to silence him by imprisoning him in Corfe Castle. But the prophecy swept the country and the nation held its breath as it waited to see if it would come true. Come the next Ascension Day, however, John was still alive and still king. He had Peter taken from Corfe Castle, dragged to Wareham by horses, and hanged. John being John, he had Peter’s son hanged as well.
King John’s reaction to the prophecy was particularly jittery because it coincided with growing unrest among his mighty barons. The kingdom he’d inherited was dominated by a relatively small number of powerful barons; keeping them in check was one of the biggest problems of his reign. Those who behaved themselves and observed his authority, he rewarded with lands, titles, offices, sinecures and wealthy heiresses as wives for themselves or their sons. Those he didn’t trust (and John didn’t really trust anyone) he loaded with impossible debts and took their sons as hostages to guarantee good behaviour. Those who misbehaved and challenged his authority were imprisoned on trumped up charges, ruined by the recall of debts or driven into exile abroad.
The barons remained loyal to the tyrant as long as it was in their interests to do so. But eventually John lost his grip on them and on events. Many of the barons lost land and estates in France when John lost most of his continental domains. Many of them faced ruin through the exorbitant taxes and corrupt penalties John levied to finance his ultimately futile attempts to win back those domains. Many of them were exasperated by John’s habit of sleeping with their wives and daughters. Magna Carta – their attempt to rein in John’s abuses – followed in 1215. Baronial rebellion, following the complete breakdown of their relationship with the king, broke out in 1216.
President Putin has a similar problem with Russia’s oligarchs. The country he inherited from President Yeltsin was dominated by a relatively small number of extremely rich and powerful men. After the fall of communism, Boris Yeltsin had allowed a handful of his followers to plunder the state’s assets, thus becoming immeasurably rich and powerful – even more rich and powerful, between them, than the president himself. Keeping them in check, asserting his authority over them, has been one of the biggest challenges of Putin’s presidency.
As Roger Boyes wrote in The Times last week, Putin brought the oligarchs to heel by “rewarding loyalists with access to the lucrative energy and mining sectors, and punishing critical businessmen by forcing them into exile or, in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, dispatching them to the Gulag. This was the foundation of the Putin kleptocracy. The businessmen regularly paid tribute to the Kremlin…”
Nevertheless, as Roger Boyes reminds us, “the tide is changing”. The oligarchs are dismayed at the president’s complacent and ineffective reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. They’re having to pick up the pieces of this disaster, digging into their own pockets to save businesses and people from the crisis. They’re worried by the global slow-down and by the danger to their economy posed by the sudden collapse in the price of oil (its gradual slide in recent years has been bad enough). They’ve seen the plan for another 12 years of power for Putin being put on ice. They’ve seen apparently never-ending wars in the Middle East and elsewhere draining the country’s resources. “For the business elite, it is becoming increasingly plain that there has to be a new compact between them and the Kremlin, one that addresses the manifold failings of government” Roger Boyce tells us. “As Putin’s rule limps on, the impatient, frustrated oligarchs will want more of a say in the running of the country.”
That all sounds as if Russia is facing a 1212 moment and Magna Carta is just around the corner. No wonder Putin or his authorities appear to be as shaken by the sayings of an obscure and questionable individual thousands of miles away at the far end of the country as King John was by Peter of Wakefield and his prophecies.
At least Putin can take some comfort from the story of Peter of Wakefield. After all, the hermit’s prophecies didn’t come true. Did they?
Well… Just before Ascension Day 1213, the fourteenth anniversary of his coronation, King John – desperate for the Vatican’s help against his enemies at home and abroad – declared himself a vassal of the Pope. In effect, he surrendered his crown, his throne and the sovereignty of his country to the Papacy. Technically speaking, his rule had indeed come to an end and his crown had passed to another. Technically speaking, the hermit’s prophecy had come true.