Lilian Pizzichini on Russian Shamanism

There was an undercurrent in my encounter with Valentin Khagdayev that I cannot put into words. It was as though, cloaked in ceremonial robes, intoning shamanic spells and, later, in his normal workaday clothes, sitting at his kitchen table, lecturing me on western sanctions and Russian fortitude, there was no sign of who he was, just how heavily he was weighed down. A heart-breaking loss, the burden of unexpressed grief and how it bends people, how it shapes a society and strips an individual of his or her dreams – perhaps this was what I saw in Valentin Khagdayev.

To his neighbours, Valentin is the tourists' shaman. Even his cousin, my driver, shook his head when I said I was going to see him. "The real shamans only see their own people", he said. But I had come all the way to Siberia and I was not going to leave till I had dug deep into the earth of this vast, terrifying land. I had to see Valentin because I wanted to see inside the mystery of a continent that since I was a child has been considered the enemy. Everything about Russia, even its alphabet, spells mystification. I wanted to see the land that Gogol talks about when he describes his fellow writer Pushkin saying "Goodness, how sad is our Russia!", and yet "...what is this inscrutable, mysterious force that draws me to you?" I wanted to see if Valentin Khagdayev could explain what this force was that I myself felt emanating from the waters of Lake Baikal.

As I looked into the saddest eyes I have seen, I think Valentin understood this. One year later I have not forgotten him. When I heard news of his colleague, a shaman from eastern Siberia, who was forcibly hospitalised for offering to cleanse Putin of his demons and, more controversially, to cleanse Russia of Putin, I thought of Valentin.

In a post-secular world, Russia's President Putin takes religion very seriously. If you happen to be Russian Orthodox, this is good news. The Patriarchate's embrace of Russia is so encompassing that in 2012 its grip reached the courtroom with the trial of the Pussy Riot collective and other "blasphemy" trials against artists. This was in Moscow, Putin's showcase. I was more interested in what was happening in some of the more obscure departments of Russia where I hoped the grip would be looser.

Across the formidable expanse of Siberia, where the continent of Europe becomes Asia, ethno-nationalist identities are being shaped by the practice of less orthodox but far older belief systems. In particular, Siberian shamanism is enjoying a resurgence. Shamanism is a mix of religion, naturopathy and occultism. A shaman is a middle man, a Mr Fix-It. In other words, he is an ecstatic, a soul-projector, a spirit-master. Valentin had a lot to live up to.

I got off the Trans-Siberian Express just before it reached Mongolia, at Irkutsk, the Paris of Siberia. This was the south-eastern part of the Siberian Federal District, and the ancestral land of the Mongols and the khans. Hilly country surrounds the city. Herds of horses and cattle feed on the broad pastures that spread out from the hills. My first driver was Anatoly, a direct descendant of one of the Cossacks who came to this region in 1661. The Cossacks founded Irkutsk Oblast (district) as a satellite state of Tsarist Russia. Before the Cossacks drove them out, this land belonged to the Buryats, close cousins to their neighbours in Mongolia.

Shamanism has been practised here for centuries (except during the Soviet era). The closer we got to Lake Baikal the more Asian features I saw in the faces around me. Baikal, the oldest lake in the world, is sacred to shamans; for them, it is the holiest place in the northern hemisphere. There were still signs of Buryat shamanism along the empty highway. The cult of obo, holy places of power, were the most visible sign. At each obo, a totem pole, Anatoly paid tribute to the local spirit guide. He got out of the car and placed a cigarette at the bottom of the shrine. He advised me to sprinkle mineral water in the four cardinal directions. It should have been milk or vodka, but never mind. We then took advantage of the narodnidom, or "people's house", that stands beside each obo. In the old days travellers could find a room, stables and a samovar. Now we entered breezeblock cafés with formica tables and unsmiling proprietors who serve up borscht and pelmeni. Packs of dogs whine for scraps of meat or affection. No one smiles here. The campaign against smiling started in the early Soviet era. Old agitprop posters show US capitalists wearing cylinder hats, smoking cigars and smiling, as they relish their piles of money and their power over the exploited classes. The image of an insincere smile was used to depict US politicians, "warmongers" from the military-industrial complex. But it also applied to normal Americans, who, Soviets were told, used smiles to betray one another in business and personal relations. A smile also indicated an egotistical expression of individuality inappropriate to a collective community.

During the Soviet era, which was approximately seventy years, the Buryats, like other Soviet citizens, had to believe in the USSR, learn to speak only in Russian and memorise the "Moral Code of the Builder of Communism". Many forgot their own language, not to mention their religion. No one has told them that it's okay to smile again. Or maybe they have forgotten how.

The further I got from Irkutsk the flatter the land became; it was exposed to winds from all directions, so that every breeze was a sign of incoming weather. Some distance from the highway the land was an empty space that filled me with awe. Underfoot there was spongy thistle and aromatic herbs and to my mind this immense, treeless steppe was as enchanting as the pine forests I had watched from my cabin window on the train.

At Lake Baikal the sun was high and the sky was blue and the water was cool and transparent. It was once the purest on the planet. Local legend has it that swimming in Baikal gives you an extra five years of life. Its water, filtering down from the surrounding mountains in 183 streams, is so clear and fresh it is like drinking Perrier. In terms of surface area, the lake is as big as Belgium. Its volume is equivalent to all five of the North American Great Lakes. And just as the cliffs rise up several hundred fathoms from the edge of the lake so do they go down to its bed. Given its unfathomable depths, it is the largest body of water in the world, and, in a million years or so, will have become a sea. Another legend has it, and local newspapers report it to this day, that visions suddenly appear out of nowhere: villages hang over the lake in summer, trains roll silently across the ice in winter, and castles and ships float on the horizon.

I had a new driver now, Leonid, cousin to Valentin the shaman and one of the 16th generation of his family to live on Lake Baikal. "All Mongols and Buryats are descended from the same 272 men", he said, and those 272 men were Chingis Khan's sons. The ruts in the land were several feet deep. The 4x4 UAZ 469 was a real vintage piece, originally built in 1971 for the army. Stones smashed against the truck's belly as we jolted from side to side. We were coming to the part of landscape around the lake that is semi-desert. The road to the tract was constantly dissolving, and at times it would have been impassable if it hadn't been for Leonid's iron-fisted grip on the steering-wheel. This went on for hours. In a forest clearing we stopped to pick berries. Through Alina, my interpreter, I asked Leonid about his life. He said he had spent his youth in one of the labour camps that once surrounded the lake.

What was that like, I asked naively.

"Fishing in all weathers and processing it with my bare hands standing up to the waist in water; spending the night in the barracks, wet through and with very little food. The prisoners had it worse. In the winter, they stood for several hours at a time in frozen water holding the nets; they caught the omul under the ice, and ate it raw."

The steeliness of this man seemed unbreakable.

"When a stormy wind blew", Alina said, echoing Leonid's words, "the Sarma – we rejoiced."

She explained Leonid's meaning. "The Sarma is the coldest wind on the lake. It blows at 40 meters per second."

I was speechless in the face of such extremity.

"Yes. Leonid and his colleagues rejoiced on those days because they were days off."

It sounds brutal, I said.

He preferred it to being a tourist guide, she replied.


She turned to him, and repeated my question.

"I didn't have to talk to anyone", he said.

With the subject of tourism, Leonid's tone became harsh. He was angry that tourists come to Baikal – this cosmology of animal spirits and dead souls, where a species of shrimp eats all organic matter and keeps the water clean; they come and they climb over its sacred places, where the gods meet once a year on marble rocks jagged as fangs and where the Lord of the Lake lives in a cave festooned with red lichen. They come here to take selfies and deface obos with their litter.

"They leave ribbons on poles and have no idea what they are doing. They don't understand our traditions. When they go, when the season ends, we remove their ribbons and burn them. We keep our sacred places hidden."

More than anything, more than irritation with naive tourists and uncaring authorities and contempt for the hotels that dump their waste into the water, Leonid grieved for Nature. Leonid loved this land, and I found myself jealous of his place in it.

"A shaman is born once in 100 years with a cleft thumb."

This is how Alina introduced me to Valentin Khagdayev. Unlike his cousin Leonid, Valentin is trying to educate the world about Buryat shamanism. In a windswept, bleak encampment called Yelantsy, about 160 miles northeast of Irkutsk, Valentin puts on displays of Buryat dance and storytelling. He is one of the few Buryats who actually speaks the Buryat language. He can even read it.

Like the steppe that harbours folded green shoots from the taiga, Valentin keeps his people's language safe. The descendant of a long line of shamans, he was born with a split thumb on his right hand, a kind of sixth finger that is considered a sign of the shamanic spirit. As a boy, he was sent to live in seclusion with elders. He grew up in a yurt, learning the old ways. Despite stints in the Communist Youth League and the Soviet army, Valentin held to his beliefs. When I met him, he was wearing robes and carrying a drum similar to the Irish bodhran. It was made from animal skin stretched over a wooden frame and decorated with feathers and magical symbols representing spirit journeys to the Otherworld. He invited me into his home. I had just bought offerings for the spirits he was about to importune on my behalf and I was having doubts. The lady in the shop where I had done my shopping had just told Alina that Valentin was considered to be a tourist's shaman, not the real thing.

"The real shamans don't talk to Westerners", she said, echoing Leonid's words. "They help their own people."

I asked Valentin about the grief his cousin felt for their country. Leonid had mentioned that the Chinese wanted Lake Baikal back – historically, it had once belonged to them. And now the lake and surrounding land are providing "the factory of the world" with raw materials – oil, gas and timber. Increasingly, Chinese-owned factories in Siberia churn out finished goods as if the region were part of the middle kingdom's economy. In fact, Baikal is targeted by China's Belt and Road strategy.

"All the hotels they are building are illegal", Valentin said. "Chinese property developers pay locals to purchase building permits in their name. They then tear down the traditional buildings and construct hotels and car parks so that they can come here every summer."

Every summer Russian newspapers run headlines about a Chinese "invasion", about its "conquest" and even "China's yoke", a reference to the Mongol stranglehold over Russia in the middle ages. Headlines like this inflame nationalist fervour, and fears about Russia's more prosperous and populous neighbour.

"Because of the sanctions from your country and the US we need China to help our economy."

Valentin led me past his family home, a concrete bunker in a wind-swept moonscape, into his yurt. He is a large man in the mould of Santa Claus and he has an open and generous nature. He showed me the cleft thumb on his right hand. "Like your Anne Boleyn's", he said, as though I might go and knock on her door and ask her to show me this sign from the gods.

He showed me his drum and explained how he got it. In unfelled woods that stand in an island in the middle of Baikal, Valentin had received his fifth level of initiation. He was given the drum by shamans who were more experienced than him. "This was a long time ago when I was young." He is about fifty now and there are no shamans in the Baikal region at a higher level.

"At the ninth level shamans receive the gift of levitation. Not since the end of the 19th century have we been able to reach this level."

I asked Valentin whether his children were taught the Buryat customs at school.

"The Constitution states that all ethnicities are equal but these are just words", he said. "Our schools don't teach Buryat culture or language or music. When the government donates money to preserving our traditions it's really just for the tourists." Valentin's children were swimming in the sea of Russian language, Russian TV and consumer goods.

Finally, he began the ceremony, intoning and tapping his tambour. He wore a long blue gown with a wide belt. The hypnotic beat and intense heat of his stove summoned up a world of ceremonial fires and the old days when Valentin's forerunners would have sacrificed a horse to the god of thunder. Instead we fed the stove milk, butter, vodka, cigarettes, tea, thyme and tinned meat – all from the corner shop. Valentin's song grew more intent as did the beating of his drum.

The ceremony over, I asked him how he saw the future for his people.

"Sanctions from the West will only make us stronger."

Anatoly, my Cossack driver, had joined us for tea and noodles. He nodded enthusiastically at Valentin's statement of national patriotism. The Buryat shaman, the descendant of Chingis Khan, was Russian after all.

"We Russians come together to face the enemy", Valentin said. Anatoly almost smiled.

But the reasons for Valentin's identification with Russian hegemony are depressingly obvious. The Buryats have been virtually wiped out in their assimilation. Even the name Buryat is a Soviet creation, applied during the Thirties to separate them from their brethren in Mongolia. Just as it was in Soviet Russia, assimilation is safer in Putin's Russia.

Feeling outnumbered, I asked Alina what she thought about sanctions from the West.

"I'm too young to have an opinion", she simpered.

It was as we said goodbye that Valentin the shaman revealed the weariness that prevents him reaching the transcendence of the ninth level.

"Whoever the politicians are", he said, and he clasped his hands together, "they are hand in hand with businessmen." He uncoiled his fingers, and shook my hand gently.

"It's about the money", he said.

Lilian Pizzichini is the author of Dead Men's Wages: the Secrets of a London Conman and his Family (winner of the 2002 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction), published by Picador. In 2009 Bloomsbury published The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys (a BBC Radio Four Book of the Week), in the UK. Norton published it in the US, where it was shortlisted for the Marfield National Arts Award. Her most recent book was Music Night at the Apollo: A Memoir of Drifting (Bloomsbury 2014), a Spectator Book of the Year. Her next book is The Novotny Papers, to be published by Amberley in March 2021. As a journalist and critic, Lilian has worked on the TLS, the Literary Review and the Erotic Review, as well as writing travel pieces and arts and book reviews for national papers. She has taught Creative Writing in prisons and in universities.