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Giving Until It Hurts

Many Russians are opening their wallets against their will, saying they're victims of 'street hypnosis.' The problem has deep roots.

January 29, 2005|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

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 7,000 -- about $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 gave him $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 assassination and billion-dollar business fraud cases, the idea of street hypnosis has the whiff of mumbo jumbo. Not so to many Russians who were reared on folk tales of vampires, witches and, in the modern era, the hidden powers of the mind.

Czarina Alexandra famously fell under the influence of the allegedly hypnotic powers of the "mad monk," Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, in the early 20th century. The late Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev had a personal psychic healer. Former President Boris N. Yeltsin's staff included a security consultant hired to protect him from "external psychophysical influence" after a mysterious antenna was found in his private office.

In 2001, President Vladimir V. 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. An official note attached to the bill said Russian scientists were trying to create "effective methods of influence of humans at a distance."

For years, famous Russian chess masters have suggested that their games were impaired by hypnotists planted in the audience. Garry Kasparov has long credited Azerbaijani psychic Tofik Dadashev with helping him win the world chess championship in 1985 against fellow Russian Anatoly Karpov, who had his own psychologist trained in hypnotic techniques on hand.

"What I was doing there was not hypnosis in the scientific sense of the word," Dadashev explained. He said he "created the positive energetic and psychological background which would make it easier for him, and more difficult for his opponent to play."

The attraction to mysticism has intensified in recent years, 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 on 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 & 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.

"These are people who have honed their skills to perfection; they have been pulling these kinds of confidence tricks on people for centuries, for generations," Dadashev said. "They are able to turn off their [victims'] inhibitory mechanisms and ram through their psychological defenses."

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."

Philadelphia police officer Louis Sgro, a specialist in gypsy crime in the United States, said he frequently saw cases of victims claiming hypnosis but did not give them much credence. "What it is, in short, is: 'I'm embarrassed.' People don't want people to know they were stupid," he said.

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