‘You will give me all your money’

Russians describe spellbinding crooks

Moscow — He was striking, with dark eyes, a long black ponytail and a stylish suit. He had a large, cheap ring that Olga couldn’t stop looking at as he waved his hand repeatedly in front of her face.

“He was talking gibberish,” she recalled. That he had left his wallet in a taxi. That he was supposed to meet someone at Sheremetyevo Airport. That he couldn’t remember where he lived.

Olga offered him the $250 in her purse for a taxi, but he said it wouldn’t be enough. She found herself leading the man up to her apartment. There, she opened her safe and counted out $500. “Can I have more?” he asked. “Can I have the 7,000 rubles in your purse?” Without replying, Olga emptied her wallet into his hands.

As they rode back down the elevator, Olga knew the man was a thief. She knew she should demand her money back before it was too late. But she couldn’t open her mouth. “I was in a trance,” she said later.

Almost immediately after he left, Olga broke into hysterical sobs and phoned a friend, who persuaded her to go to the police. There, detectives nodded knowingly. “Gypsy hypnosis,” they said.

Across Moscow, a chestnut as old as crystal balls and gypsy curses makes regular appearances on the crime logs — hundreds of victims a year who say they were seduced out of their money in seemingly chance encounters with strangers. Many claim they were hypnotized by intense stares, mesmerizing babble and warnings of curses on their loved ones.

To some of Moscow’s cynical detectives, their desks heaped with mafia assassinations and billion-dollar business fraud cases, the idea of street hypnosis has the whiff of mumbo jumbo. Not so to many Russians reared on folk tales of vampires, witches — and, in the modern era, the hidden powers of the mind.

Czarina Alexandra fell famously under the influence of the alleged hypnotic powers of the “mad monk,” Grigory Efimovich Rasputin, in the early 20th century. The late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had a personal psychic healer. Former President Boris Yeltsin’s staff included a security consultant hired to protect Yeltsin from “external psychophysical influence.” In 2001, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill making it illegal to employ “electromagnetic, infrasound … radiators” and other weapons of “psychotronic influence” with intent to cause harm.

The attraction to mysticism has intensified recently, Russian sociologists say, because of the tough economic climate and pent-up interest released with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its long-standing prohibitions against dabbling in the occult practices.

“Many people now live on the verge of despair, given their economic situation, which humiliates them and destroys their families,” said Yelena Bashkirova, head of the Bashkirova and Partners Independent Sociology Center in Moscow. “They are attracted to psychics, to magicians and witches … out of fragility and desperation.”

Police say the main perpetrators of such street fraud are Gypsies, long the victims of police profiling and widespread public discrimination.

Many Gypsies scoff at the notion of street hypnosis and accuse the police of unfairly maligning the entire community. “Gypsies have their own unique culture and traditions which, like the ones in all other nations, are based on good, not evil,” said Nadezhda Demetr, a Gypsy who has a doctorate in Gypsy studies. “Gypsy culture has nothing to do with cheating, thievery and confidence tricks.”

But many fraud investigators say they are certain that some suspension of logical thought is involved. “Could a person operating with all of his faculties agree with a plan under which all of the money he saved during his entire life should be given to these people in the street?” said detective Valery Shkarupa.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Los Angeles Times, via the San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Feb. 1, 2005
Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

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