UARU
UPDATED: Indigenous Spiritual Leader Takes on Kremlin Amid Anti-Government Protests in Siberia
7 October, 2019
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This spring Aleksandr Gabyshev (pictured) set out with the aim of walking over 8,000 kilometers, to reach Moscow by 2021 and “expel the demon” – President Vladimir Putin – from the Kremlin. Andrey Zatyrko / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

UPDATE: Russian authorities have accused indigenous spiritual leader Aleksandr Gabyshev of calls for extremism, but declared him mentally unfit to stand trial and released him on his own recognizance. Now, he has announced plans to reunite with his followers and resume his long walk to Moscow to conduct a “ceremony to expel Putin.”  The shaman plans to pick up his route at the border between the Buryatia and Irkutsk region, where he was detained on September 19, 2019.

In an interview with Yakutia.Info, the shaman described his detention and the FSB’s attempts to send him for compulsory treatment as “the return of the punitive medicine of the late USSR.” He then called for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s resignation: “Leave, Vladimir Vladimirovich, resign voluntarily – this will be good for Russia, for Yakutia, for the whole world.”

While the international press was focused on the protest movement in Moscow, elections were stirring up dissatisfaction in the country’s far-east as well. And one indigenous spiritual leader has quickly become a fixture in it all. 

This spring, shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev left the east Siberian city of Yakutsk on foot and began to walk 20 kilometers a day. He set out with the aim of walking over 8,000 kilometers, to reach Moscow by 2021 and “expel the demon” – President Vladimir Putin – from the Kremlin. Thanks to social media live-streaming, he gathered an “army” of people and dogs along the way, who joined him on his long walk. 

But on the morning of September 19, armed, masked men detained him near the village of Vydrino in the Republic of Buryatia and took him to a detention centre in Ulan-Ude. There, he was put on a plane back to Yakutsk and taken to a psychiatric hospital. 

Amnesty International has since declared him a political prisoner and called for his release.

According to the Russian Interior Ministry, Gabyshev was wanted for an unspecified crime in Yakutia. But his name doesn’t appear on any wanted lists. He had been walking along the federal highway since the spring without hiding at all, but in that time he had become a trigger for protests – and ahead of him were troubled places like Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk and Omsk. 

Hromadske explains how an indigenous spiritual leader became a target for the authorities amid anti-government turmoil in Siberia. 

Illustration by Petr Sarukhanov / Novaya Gazeta

Backstory

Shaman Gabyshev’s route across Siberia was taking him through cities where discontent has been growing for years. And provincial elections were a particular point of contention.

Russia resumed direct elections in the provinces in 2011, backpedaling slightly on a push for centralization that had been going on since 2004. At that time, Putin cancelled direct elections for most provincial governors, while strong fiscal centralization made local self-governing elites directly economically dependent on the Kremlin. 

When direct elections were reinstated in 2011, this was done through a party nomination process – which effectively put the candidate selection under the tight control of the ruling party. Over the years, dissatisfaction with the lack of self-governing powers started brewing – and the political turmoil surrounding the last wave of local elections in Russia took root from there.

Meanwhile, the story of Shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev (also known as the Yakut-shaman, Sasha-Yakut and shaman Sanya) had already become a phenomenon. While some might consider him a madman or a joker, others see him a hero – playing a role akin to the holy fool in Russia’s medieval period. Many across Russia see him as an adequate reaction to the Kremlin’s irrationalism and propaganda, making them sympathetic to his cause. 

Anti-Government Protests in Buryatia

Thanks to live streams from popular Buryat video-blogger Dmitry Bairov, Gabyshev had already captured the imagination of the locals before he arrived in Buryatia’s capital, Ulan Ude. Residents even chipped in to buy the shaman a GAZelle minibus since walking on the tundra is so difficult. 

But during the night between September 6 and 7, police seized the vehicle carrying the caravan’s supplies and detained two of the shaman’s assistants. The driver was given 13 days in custody for disobeying the police.

The crackdown on Gabyshev and his followers coincided with Ulan Ude’s mayoral elections, in which  the pro-government candidate scored a narrow victory. In response, locals took to the city’s central square on September 9, 2019, in a spontaneous protest demanding a re-do. 

The crackdown on Gabyshev (pictured) and his followers coincided with Ulan Ude’s mayoral elections, in which  the pro-government candidate scored a narrow victory. Photo: social media

The demonstration turned into ongoing protests against local election rigging – and Gabyshev got on board. But participants at the rallies faced violence and threats. Masked individuals attacked protestors with pepper spray, while the police dispersed them with the help of volunteers carrying axes. 

Video-blogger Dmitry Bairov – who is also known for organizing successful taxi driver protests in Buryatia against aggregator companies Yandex.Taxi and Maxim – was detained almost immediately after the election, having demanded that shaman Gabyshev’s supporters be released from detention. 

Bairov stood trial on September 11, 2019, and was sentenced to five days in prison for violating the procedures for organizing a mass event, in addition to two more five-day sentences for disobeying a police officer and petty hooliganism. 

In spite of the violent response and legal consequences, the protestors remained undeterred. According to organizers, around three thousand people attended a sanctioned rally against police brutality and in support of free elections on September 15, 2019. 

When the head of the Republic, Alexei Tsydenov address the crowd, he was met with cries of “Shame” as protestors called for his resignation and re-elections. He was booed until he left the square, surrounded by guards. 

FSB Declares Gabyshev “Mentally Unfit”

After leaving Ulan-Ude, shaman Gabyshev got as far as the village of Vydrino, which straddles the border between Buryatia and the Irkutsk region. After he was detained on September 19, 2019, the Federal Security Services (FSB) declared that between March and May the shaman had delivered speeches that constituted a “public call for violent action in relation to the President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin.”

After he arrived in Yakutsk, FSB officers escorted Gabyshev to a neuropsychiatry clinic, where, on September 20, 2019, he was forced to sign a voluntary examination agreement. According to Olga Timofeyeva, a lawyer from the rights group Pravozashchity Otkrytki, Gabyshev underwent an assessment at the clinic, but later withdrew his consent for the examination. 

Following the assessment, the Yakutia department of the FSB told lawyers that Gabyshev had been officially declared mentally unfit to stand trial. But when the lawyers from Pravozashchity Otkrytki contacted the clinic where Gabyshev was assessed, they denied that he had been brought to them. 

While Gabyshev has admitted to having suffered from mental illness in the past, he also claims that he has been cured. Gabyshev’s lawyers are planning to have independent experts assess his mental health.

Gabyshev has since been released from hospital, but is now facing a criminal case on charges of calling for extremism – meaning that he now faces up to four years in prison.

That being said, the crackdown on Gabyshev seems to have drawn more people to his cause. A sanctioned protest in support of shaman Gabyshev took place in Yakutsk on October 5, 2019, and up to 1,000 people are expected to attend the rally. 

A sanctioned protest in support of shaman Gabyshev took place in Yakutsk on October 5, 2019. Photo: Hangalasskiy ulus / vk.com

“If a person considers himself a shaman, this is his right to freedom of conscience, religion, guaranteed under Article 28 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation,” Yakutia State Assembly Deputy Sulustaana Myraan told Interfax. “If a person wants to express his thoughts on the political, economic situation in the country, his right to speak and think is guaranteed under Article 29 of the Constitution.”  

“The call for change, the first vibrations in a stagnant long-vanishing system, the first unrest in the spring of 1986 [began] in Yakutsk – the current spring of unrest has expectations formulated just as they were then: that ‘the backwoods will save Russia’,” Novaya Gazeta columnist Alexei Tarasov says, comparing the political backlash in Siberia to the events of the late 1980s, when Yakutia emerged as one of the first regions to rebel against the collapsing Soviet regime. 

“Today is an eighties cosplay, promising a nineties cosplay. Who has not noticed this striking resemblance – down to the physical details, events and places.”

Meanwhile, Gabyshev’s associates are still en route to Moscow and have declared on Youtube that they are “coming from God” – carrying flags with the words “for the return of freedom to Russia” and “the way of the shaman.”

READ MORE: Inside Moscow’s Courtroom Crackdown: The Case of Activist Konstantin Kotov

/Adapted by Eilish Hart, with materials from Novaya Gazeta (1, 2, 3, 4)

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