October 17, 2019

Siberian Shaman on Trek to ‘Cast Out’ Putin From the Kremlin Is Arrested

Siberian Shaman on Trek to ‘Cast Out’ Putin From the Kremlin Is Arrested

MOSCOW — Increasingly jittery over all forms of public protest, Russian security forces on Thursday cut short a trek of thousands of miles to Moscow by a Siberian shaman who has been walking for six months on a mission to drive President Vladimir V. Putin and “demonic” forces from the Kremlin.

The Interior Ministry in Buryatia, a region in eastern Siberia, said in a statement that the shaman, Aleksandr Gabyshev, had been detained because he was wanted for “committing a crime” in his home region of Yakutia and would be sent there for questioning by investigators.

It did not specify what this alleged crime was or explain why, if Mr. Gabyshev had indeed been wanted for months, it took so long to pick him up even as supporters regularly publicized his whereabouts on YouTube.

Amnesty International protested the shaman’s arrest and called for his release, saying that he had been “abducted by a squad of masked law enforcement officials and held in an undisclosed location.”

“The shaman’s actions may be eccentric, but the Russian authorities’ response is grotesque,” Natalia Zviagina, the group’s Russia director, said in a statement. “Are they truly afraid of his magical powers?”

Mr. Gabyshev, who set out on foot from Yakutia in March, had been largely ignored by the authorities, who initially regarded him as a harmless crank. But he turned into a threat as he gathered a growing band of followers and nationwide publicity for his quixotic mission to unseat Mr. Putin, whom he has denounced as the “demon of fear.”

In a recent interview with Znak, a Russian website, Mr. Gabyshev said he had been told by God to go to Moscow to “cast out the Devil.” He added: “He, Putin, is not a man. He is the Beast, the demon.”

Mr. Gabyshev’s trek has struck an emotional chord in Russia, recalling the long journeys on foot made over the centuries, particularly in times of political uncertainty, by legions of self-proclaimed prophets and holy men.

The most infamous of these was Grigory Rasputin, the Siberian priest who, after his arrival in St. Petersburg in the early years of the last century, befriended the family of the last czar, Nicholas II, a relationship that has often been blamed for fueling hostility to the monarchy and helping to pave the way to the 1917 revolution.

Confronted by a wave of protests in Moscow over the summer, the Kremlin has become increasingly determined to damp down all potential sources of unrest. Its strategy is to mix a campaign of repression with occasional concessions to prevent public outrage over excesses by the security forces feeding further protests.

Shortly after Mr. Gabyshev’s arrest overnight at his roadside camp in eastern Siberia, prosecutors in Moscow asked a court to free a jailed actor whose recent conviction on transparently trumped-up charges had stirred widespread outrage. Protests have emerged even from some of those who normally support the Kremlin, like priests in the Russian Orthodox church.

The actor, Pavel Ustinov, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on Monday for supposedly assaulting a police officer during a protest in Moscow last month. A video of his arrest published online, however, showed Mr. Ustinov standing calmly with a phone in his hand when four police officers in riot gear suddenly grabbed him, pushed him to the ground and beat him with rubber batons.

Mr. Ustinov, who pleaded not guilty, has denied even taking part in the protest, saying he was merely walking nearby when police officers attacked him. The judge refused to accept the video of his arrest as evidence during the trial.

In a remarkable about-face, the office of Russia’s General Prosecutor said in a statement on Thursday that the actor’s sentence should be canceled because of its “exceptional severity.” The prosecutors who brought the case against Mr. Ustinov had requested a sentence of six years.

Mr. Gabyshev, a bearded mystic and self-described “warrior shaman” from one of Russia’s most remote regions, has little in common with the urbanites who took to the streets in Moscow over the summer to protest rigged elections for the city’s municipal council.

But his fervent hostility to Mr. Putin, transmitted around the country through videos and interviews posted on the internet, has meshed with a long campaign by Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, to rouse public anger against the Kremlin.

When the shaman reached the city of Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, in August, local security forces arrested several of his followers while a group of rival shamans denounced him as a fraud.

Mr. Navalny in a video posted online last week mocked the authorities for fearing a longhaired shaman with no organization and no political program, other than a desire to exorcise demonic forces.

“Putin is scared,” Mr. Navalny said in the video “He is stamping his feet and crying: ‘God save me from this shaman. What if he really does banish me?’”

Word of Mr. Gabyshev’s trek largely spread by YouTube as Russian journalists and video bloggers chronicled his journey and sometimes-bizarre statements. He was filmed pulling a cart along the highway connecting eastern Siberia to the rest of the country, with a Bluetooth speaker blaring Russian pop music hits. Mr. Gabyshev presented himself as both a Christian and a believer in the traditions of his ethnic group, the Yakut people, who make up much of the population in his home region.

Overnight, around the time of Mr. Gabyshev’s arrest, Buryatia’s senior official, Alexey Tsydenov, an ally of Mr. Putin’s, posted on Facebook, “I think we should all calm down a little bit.”

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