«The number of people becoming shamans increases. It is a quick way to get your place in society»

«The number of people becoming shamans increases. It is a quick way to get your place in society»

In September, Maria Volkova, a graduate of the Fundamental Sociology program of the MSSES, received a grant from the Oxford Russia Fund to conduct the research “Shamanism as a vocation and profession” on the institutionalization of shamanism and shamanic organizations in Buryatia and the Irkutsk region. We asked Maria what it all means and how it happened that Siberian shamanism is now considered also as a career path.

- Is the study, apparently, still only planned? Or is there any background already?

When I applied for the Oxford Russia Fellowship, the study was titled “Shamanism as a vocation and profession. Social mobility and traditional beliefs in Buryatia and Irkutsk region”. But now I will probably change the name. I was interested in what shamanism (or neoshamanism) is today, when shamanic organizations began to appear and gain strength.

- Do shamans have organizations...?

Yes. This was precisely the paradox of my object - the question about shamans having organizations: why do shamans need organizations?! This is also problematic for social theory. Durkheim says that there can be no church of wizards, but there is a certain community, there is solidarity within it, there is a wizard or shaman in relation to whom there are other collective ideas - for everyone else he acts rather as a doctor than as a clergyman who reproduces solidarity among ordinary people. He has a slightly marginal position relative to everyone else.

In literature on sociology and anthropology, we can follow the idea that the shaman's beliefs are more fluid and more individual than the beliefs of other members of the community. Therefore, the idea itself that there can be some kind of stable organization of shamans sounds problematic: on what basis can they agree, if each operates with his own ideas?

With the spread of shamanic organizations, a shaman, per se, ceases to be an individual magical specialist and is forced to maintain relationships with other shamans, participate in collective rituals, undergo training and ceremonies.

- Is it some new phenomenon that shamans start to gather in the organization?

Yes, it is. It is relatively new, they appeared in the late 1990s - early 2000s. And now, according to my observations, these organizations are gaining greater strength: they conduct some common rituals, gathering shamans from other organizations, try to choose a leader, sometimes argue over whether they can have a leader among different organizations.

- And how does the strength you are talking about express? What are they recruiting it for?

They are more and more consolidated, and more and more people in the region perceive shamanic organizations as an integral part of life. When I was on an expedition in 2016 - 2017, we were told that over the past few years more and more people have become shamans, more and more people are involved in that every year shamanic rituals are needed to be performed - for example, ancestral (each family should hold an annual ritual of honoring their ancestors). It means that the revival of shamanism, at least according to the observations made in our expedition, has been gaining more strength in the past few years than it was in the early 2000s.

- Does it turn out that they create something like their own cultural bureaucracy?

Yes, it does. This is the exact word - bureaucracy. Maybe my anthropological colleagues will correct me in calling it neoshamanism. It is clear that such a way of self-organization is an absolutely unconventional thing. In order to create it, shamans use the language familiar to this context - the language of bureaucracy. For example, in one interview we heard the phrase “Comrade Spas Spasov, the head of the most influential local public shamanic organization, said ...”. As I said, the language of the shaman has always been individual. As a result, the common language that they are developing now turns out to be a fusion of the most unexpected things.

Why I believe that this is gaining strength in recent years. Look: in May 2019, a shaman temple was opened in Ulan-Ude – that is what we cannot imagine in the context of how anthropologists usually describe shamanism. For some reason they needed a cult object, where rituals are held centrally. In 2018, the supreme shaman of the Angarsk religious organization Blue Sky Forever writes a letter to Vladimir Putin stating that "we want to be officially recognized as the religion of the Russian Federation." It means that it is a movement that claims to be a religion. For Tuva and Ulan-Ude, it is really a common place that they perceive shamanism as a religion.

- Do you approach this issue as an anthropologist or as a sociologist?

I begin to work with anthropological literature, which describes a similar phenomenon in Mongolia with the revival of shamanism, how it exists in the post-Soviet period. But there conceptualization is more sociological, although I take as a basis Mary Douglas - she has the work "How Institutions Think". Speaking more specifically, I am interested in the following in this situation ... Again, going back to how the shaman traditionally existed in his community: he was a shaman for the local community - there is a village, the village has a shaman. And he fulfills his role in relation to his community. His formation as a shaman is described through the narrative of initiation - it is a shamanic disease: in order to become a shaman, he goes through some kind of trials, gets sick, he is torn apart by spirits and all that. This is inherited, by the way.

Now the story is different and, accordingly, the folklore story about the shamanic disease is also probably being transformed. A person who becomes a shaman becomes one not in his own community, but somewhere else [means being elected in new shamanic organizations]. Now this is a story about how he literally leaves his village for Ulan-Ude or Irkutsk, where he receives his initiation, changes his status in the shamanic organization.

My initial intuition was to understand how a story about initiation turns into a story about a career, moving in a geographical space while moving up the social ladder, plus about how the shamanic organization will distribute who goes where. There are several options: he can return to his village and play the role of a shaman there, he can go to another village, or he can travel as part of a group of people and take part in large collective rituals.

If we return to the narrative about the shamanic disease, we noticed such an interesting thing - we were even "beaten" for this moment at one conference: this narrative is increasingly being linked to some social problems. The person could not find a job, was considered almost crazy, drank a lot, etc. It means that he was such a marginal not only in the ritual, but also in the social sense. After a person left for Ulan-Ude, where he was initiated into the status of a shaman, he returned in a new status - he received a certain influence and began to collect clients. Therefore, in the research application I am not talking about the shamanic disease, but about the "shamanic career." Because we see such a trajectory: a marginal position in our community - defining him as a shaman - leaving for Ulan-Ude or Irkutsk - joining the organization - advancing in the organization from the 1st level shaman to the 9th level shaman.

There were many stories as follows: “During the Soviet years, our traditional religion was forbidden to us - we forgot everything, and after the collapse of the USSR I drank a lot, could not find a job, everything was really bad. But then I realized that this situation is connected with the fact that I am a shaman. And the problems happened due to the fact that the spirits forced me to become a shaman - I could not interpret them correctly, because I had no sources, everything was forbidden. Now I have become a shaman and solved these problems." It is a common explanation. 

- So, on the one hand, there is an ancient shamanic tradition, that goes back in centuries, is fixed in all sorts of folklore legends among a whole nation, etc. But on the other hand, they suddenly begin to gather in bureaucratic organizations, elective shamans appear, and "career paths" appear for them. Where does it come from? This cannot develop from age-old practices, folklore. Is it from somewhere above? How is this perceived by non-shamans?

I don’t think that the tendency comes from above, that these organizations arose for this and that reason. I had an idea (it needs to be checked) that they perform some important role, because they really create a way, conditionally, to make a career. In fact, the reason why I took up this topic is the following: when we were coming back from an expedition through Ulan-Ude to Moscow in the first year, we met a girl-researcher who was engaged in folk Buddhism. She said: “I stay away from shamans, because these are very strange people - either graduates of some university in Ulan-Ude who have not found themselves in life, or former prisoners.” Apparently, this is a quick way to get your place in society, which assumes that you occupy some conditionally good place. It is a kind of social rehabilitation. I will check this: now I have a feeling that shamanic organizations are really working for this kind of rehabilitation.

And for clients, they turn out to be an important consolidation story. Because clients are also required to do some work to recreate their family ties. What does it look like? You come to the shaman, he says to you: "Remember what your ancestors are - your difficulties are connected with the fact that you forgot to honor one of your ancestors, that’s why you have such problems in life or you are sick." To honor these ancestors, you need to restore the genealogy, which was also lost at some moment. In parallel with the spread of shamanic organizations, the genealogy is being actively restored - they (clients who came to the shaman) constantly travel to the archives, looking for their relatives in other places. The next time they come to him, they say: “Here, I visited the archive, contacted my relatives in Moscow, found where my great-great-grandmother lived, I have connections so-and-so. The shaman says: "Ok, and from this large list of ancestors, this grandmother is offended by you - you must make a ritual for her."

An additional effect of this is that you create social connections that were lost at some moment. It means that you find relatives, you bring them together to carry out the ritual. One ritual is followed by another, because the more relatives you found, remembered, the more options for who of them could be offended by you. Consolidation of family ties increases the need for shamans, and shamans, in turn, contribute to the restoration of family ties.

- You've probably heard about the Udmurt scientist who burnt himself in front of the regional parliament. Is there a kind of constitution of their national, ethnic self-identification in the shamanic history with the bureaucratization of their institutions? So here we, the people, we have such beliefs, and now we will have organizations.

There is a large field of anthropology indeed that studies how traditional beliefs work to create identity. But it seems to me that the explanation "Shamanic organizations arise because there is a need for identity" simply does not work well. The group for which it is important to reconstruct their identity through shamanic organizations is not as large as the people involved in rituals and other processes associated with these organizations. It cannot be said that only Buryats will come to these organizations.

One interesting story is connected with the fact that there are Buryats, Tatars and Russians, everything is mixed, and shamanism is trying, as it seemed to me, not to build opposition between friends and strangers, Buryats and non-Buryats, but vice versa. For example, we were told a story about how a shaman performed a ritual for a Russian who had Old Believer ancestors. What does it look like? The spirits of the ancestors of this Russian “entered” the shaman, and he says “Here are the ancestors-Old Believers and my shamanic spirits. The spirits of the Old Believers begin to fight the shamanic spirits, because they consider each other to be enemies. As a shaman, I needed to pacify them, to explain that we live in new peaceful times. I showed them that now I will help your descendant find your religion”, and so on.

We also constantly met the narrative that we have orthodoxy, Buddhism, shamanism, but in general it's all kind of the same - gods are the same, but approaches are different. It means that it is impossible to say that new practices are lined up as a border between our own and others - rather, on the contrary. They are trying to make a set of translations between different practices by this way, to figure out how to make shamanism more universal.

For clients who told us why they turn to shamans, all this is not very important at all - they solve their practical problems, for example, to heal. If I need to recover from alcoholism, I will go to the shaman. If I have any other problem, I will go to the lama. The third one – I’ll go to an Orthodox priest. The fourth problem - I’ll go to the doctor.

- You say that you have already been on expeditions. Does it mean that the research that will take place now is the final stage?

No, this is new research. When I was on expeditions in 2016 - 2017 with my friends and colleagues Yulia Lyakhova and Danila Rygovsky from the Center for semiotics and typology of folklore, we were interested in everyday ritual practices. We have created a corpus of these practices in order to compare them with neighboring territories, in particular, Mongolia. We needed to see how a person remembers the spirits living in the house, heals, returns the soul to a person if he is sick, etc., and how the structure of these practices differs from similar practices in Mongolia.

Shamanism is something that we additionally encountered during our expedition. At that moment it intrigued me, but the story that we would take the structure of shamanic rituals, look at what oral tradition it was based on, was slightly broken. That is because these are shamanic organizations, but not a shaman as a specialist of magic. A specific shaman uses not only the oral tradition as sources, but also a mass of different things - Mircea Eliade, the works of Soviet ethnographers. This always creates a problem for corpus analysis - we understand that everything that is transmitted orally is also folklore; but if he says: "So, now I will open Potanin and tell you how the shaman should behave," you do not know what to do with it, because it is no longer an oral tradition, but a different way of knowing.

That’s why, in this project, I decided to deal with shamanism and shamanic organizations: to look at how each organization formulates the cosmologies, which they rely on, in its own way; how a person makes a career in these organizations; what sources they take; how they borrow a bureaucratic language, because there are such things as the supreme shaman, the deputy supreme shaman, some documents. I have decided to look how they would combine this bureaucratic language with a well-known oral tradition so that it would not contradict each other; how these languages ​​differ for each shamanic organization, and how the success of a particular shaman would depend on how the language of each organization is structured.

- How will you do it? An in-depth interview?

Apparently, yes. I will begin with going to the villages and finding out the biographies of shamans from the people who live there: how they defined a person as a shaman. Then I will move to cities, work with shamanic organizations (participatory observation and in-depth interviews), correlate different parts of their bureaucratic language with sources, look at how different languages ​​correlate with the amount of clients a shaman has, collect customer reviews about who do they trust more, etc. These are mostly qualitative methods from anthropology and ethnography.

I will have 2 trips: I will spend a month in the village, a month - in the city. Maybe it will increase - we need to find everyone.

On October the 13th, I am sending the TOR, where will be all plans for expeditions. I will go there at the end of October. On January the 10th, we will have a deadline for explication, i.e., the first stories that I find in the field. After that I will go to the field again, do the second stage - I should have the main part of the research till April.

The field stage always changes everything very much. I have to go back and understand what kind of material I will have.