Shamanism as a socio-political tool: the case of Park Geun-Hye and Alexander Gabyshev 

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In situations of crisis, humans as a social beings tend to turn to non-conformist religious or spiritual practices for support. Whether in times of socio-economic or political crisis, contemporary society also willingly seeks answers to urgent or global problems from representatives of different spiritual streams. In this context, shamanism, as a set of one of the oldest universal beliefs, is still an important cultural element for many nations in Eurasia. But does shamanism have a role in the political life of society, especially in times of instability? This article aims to compare the political component in contemporary shamanism in Russia and the Republic of Korea in the late 2010s. To avoid inaccuracies, it should be made clear that speaking of Russia and shamanism we take into consideration Eastern Siberia, namely Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) and partially Republic of Buryatia (Buryatia), for it is there that this tradition is represented in its purest form to this day.

Despite the lack of a wide range of work on comparative analysis of shamanism in Russia and Korea, the existing data suggest that there is a sufficient level of similarity for comparison (Zhelobtsov F. 2014, 43-45; Yang J. 1988, 20-40). In particular, ritual practices have many similarities from their spiritual and ritualistic component, and the characteristics of the figure of a shaman also have identical points. The very mission of shamans as people capable of letting in spirits and being a transmitter of information, their healing activity, as well as the format of rituals – dance, music, sacrifices – have a similar pattern. Moreover, it is women who are the main bearers of shamanic knowledge: male shamans are slightly more common in Yakutia, but not inferior to the females. In Korean and Yakut shamanism only a person marked by the will of gods or spirits could become a shaman and have a hereditary gift in his lineage, or come into contact with a deceased shaman. Most of shamans, from the very moment of their birth, have some special personal characteristics and undergo the “shamanic disease” (hereditary shamans), others experience the “disease” later in life (charismatic shaman) as they are summoned by the spirits to fulfil their duty.

What is also surprising is that shamans in both cultures are not hermits in most of the cases. Often, they are engaged in shamanic activities as a full-time occupation, and some of them have higher education in various fields, ranging from pedagogy to psychology, which they have managed to obtain before their spiritual call. It is more difficult to make a comparison of the average shaman’s client; however, based on the available sources, a generalized assumption can be made that people of different social affiliation seek services in both countries (Kim D. 2012, 12-15; Bezertinov R. 2006, 163-164). At this point it is worth reflecting on the obvious fundamental cultural and geographical peculiarities of Russia and Korea, which undoubtedly have an impact on role of shamanism in socio-political field. 

The two main and interrelated differences are territory and nationality. The main difference between vast Russia and compact South Korea in this context is the relative heterogeneity of the latter’s population. Russia is made up of a multitude of ethnic groups with different cultures and religious traditions. Importantly, both countries are secular, but have a solid history of practicing Christianity and other world religions (in the case of Russia, for example, Islam, while in Korea Confucianism or Buddhism). In both territories religions were brought in from outside, but in Siberia, as in Korea, Christianity, for example, was successfully blended with local ancient shamanic beliefs and took on a slightly new form, which is to be traced until nowadays, and falls within the concept of folk Christianity. To this day, while the western territory of Russia is also full of various pagan relics, Christianity among the Slavic population has a much more traditional form than the Christian mix with shamanism of the eastern peoples of the Siberian north (Leete A. 2004, 235-245). Shamanism, as the only indigenous belief on the Korean peninsula, is also so deeply rooted in culture and has had a significant influence on the imported religions, while remaining an integral part of the cultural code of South Korea and its people to this day (Kim T. 1998, 200-202).

On the contrary, ethnic diversity does not play into the perception of shamanism as an integral part of culture for much of the population in Russia. Moreover, while there has been a tremendous increase in the popularity of alternative pseudo-religious and esoteric practices in Russia over recent years, shamanism is not experiencing the same rise in popularity among the general public (Rozhkovsky V. 2022, 54-59).   This can be explained by the detachment of the East Siberian and Central Russian regions from Western Russia. The most important point for us is that it is Western Russia that has been the supplier of the political elite to this day on the highest level. Consequently, unlike in Korea, where the highest levels of power also see shamanism as part of the culture, the Kremlin in Russia does not share this sentiment. At this point, it would seem interesting to present two cases that are not comparable in scale, making them even more illustrative by contrast. The two cases presented below were also selected because they had the greatest socio-political resonance in the respective countries in recent years judging by the coverage in various media. 

Starting in chronological order, the very high-profile case of the ouster of President Park Geun-hye of the Republic of Korea comes first. One of the most scandalous allegations was that the president’s friend, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter and follower of the founder of the “Church of Eternal Life” sect, which incorporates a mixture of shamanistic, Confucian and Christian distortions, had direct access to government documents and edited the president’s speeches without holding public office (BBC 2018). In the year 2016, events unfolded rapidly, with more and more accusations surfacing against the friend and the president herself. The opposition even claimed that shamanistic rituals were being conducted in the presidential palace. Choi Soon-sil has influenced the crucial relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. The hardline of Park Geun-hye’s course toward North Korea, which many attributed to intelligence reports of Kim Jong-un’s deteriorating health, may be related to the Choi Soon-sil’s shamanistic prediction that North Korea will basically fall apart in two years (Voanews 2016). Moreover, according to the prosecution, several high-ranking officials from the president’s inner circle personally carried documents to Choi Soon-sil for verification and approval.

 It is difficult to imagine which decisions were taken without the active involvement of representatives of the shamanic cult. One could say that despite this dubious way of decision-making, the President’s shamanistic proclivities did not directly harm the state functioning, were it not for the multi-million dollar corruption machinations. According to sources, Choi Soon-sil organized a kind of secret society, “Eight Fairies”, which oversaw many investments at the highest political level (Korea JoongAng Daily 2016). In this connection the president’s entourage is accused of forcing major South Korean companies such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai to donate millions of dollars to charitable foundations grounded by Choi Soon-sil, such as Mi-R and K-Sports, which supposed to promote trade and economic cooperation with China, but were more of a money-laundering scheme (National Post 2016).  As a result of Korea’s biggest protests, Park Geun-hye was stripped of office by impeachment and sentenced to 25 years in prison but was released after two years being granted a pardon by the new President Moon Jae-in. Choi Soon-sil was sentenced to 22 years and is still in jail. In 2020, she released her memoirs under a different name- Choi Seo-won, in which she claimed to have provided only mental support as a friend and did not interfere in actual politics (KBS World 2020).

 Notably, the head of Korean shamans has publicly condemned Choi Soon-sil’s actions, stressing that her deeds negatively change the public perception of shamans as charlatans and bribers, which they are not (The Korean Times 2016). Interestingly, the articles occasionally refer to Choi Soon-sil as the “Korean Rasputin”, which underlines the mystical overtones of the events and, of course, the enormous influence on the head of state. However, as can be seen from further developments, the impeachment scandal has not undermined Koreans’ faith in shamans. A large number of people, amid economic instability, continue to turn to shamans of varying degrees of moral rectitude for fortune-telling and blessings (the Groundtruth Project 2018).

The case of Alexander Gabyshev, a shaman from Yakutia, reveals a very different perspective on shamanism in Russia from that in South Korea. As of 2018, he intended to walk to Moscow, called himself a pilgrim and described his goal as popularizing beliefs of northern peoples of Russia. Gabyshev himself worked as a janitor, his wife died, which, as he claimed, was part of his challenge within the shamanic call. 

Having made an unsuccessful attempt at the march, Gabyshev went to Moscow again in 2019 and as of July 2019, the purpose of his pilgrimage had changed to “expelling Putin” through a ritual in Red Square. According to Gabyshev, Putin is a demon who is disliked by nature and he, as a shaman-worrier, can overthrow the president. Importantly, Gabyshev initially said that he did not wish physical harm to the president. The ousting was to happen through a peaceful protest by all Russians, because of which Putin would realize that he had step back (BBC Russia 2019). It is unclear what was the reason behind Gabyshev’s pivotal change in the purpose of his march, but It is noteworthy that such outspoken oppositional sentiment on the part of the shaman did not lead to his immediate arrest. It might be connected to the above-mentioned territorial factor and remoteness of Yakutia from political center. He progressed through Yakutia and Buryatia, and gradually a group of supporters gathered around him, which consisted of people of different social strata, from former prisoners to local cultural figures. Moreover, during stops in rather big cities such as Chita, Gabyshev took part in anti-government rallies with slogans such as “Russia without Putin” (Current Times 2019). 

As Gabyshev’s march became more high-profile (videos with him went viral online, local news portals wrote about his movements) the attention of law enforcement instituitions became more precise. After several arrests and several attempts to start the campaign again, as a result of a medical examination in October 2022, Gabyshev was declared insane and sent for compulsory treatment to a special-type psychiatric hospital in the town of Ussuriysk (TASS 2022). 

It is noteworthy that several well-known regional politicians stood up for Gabyshev, in particular Sardana Avksenteva, but as it became clear that Gabyshev would not make a deal with the investigation, support faded. It is also noteworthy,  that the human rights society Memorial has declared Gabyshev a “prisoner of conscience”, which indicates the sharp socio-political overtones of the events (Memorial 2020). Moreover, Gabyshev was also criticized by the largest Buryat community of Shamans “Tengeri”, who called on him to renounce shamanism, since his goal is not benevolent and is fraught with bloodshed. Importantly, at the federal level, the story did not receive a strong resonance, although it was mentioned in several news releases (Siberian Realities 2019). 

Thus, in both cases, the shamans’ activities, which were in the long run objectionable to the state, were suppressed and the main actors were deprived of their freedom. The main difference lies in the level of influence on the public and in the groups that resorted to shamanism.

In the South Korean case, despite the obvious component of shamanism, the main reason for condemning politicians was abuse of power and corruption schemes. The presence of a shamanistic element in the case involving political elites only confirms how deeply this cultural element is embedded in Korean society. Also, the fact, that the scandal did not lead to any kind of protests against shamans as a social group, shows how commonplace the phenomenon of shamanism itself is for the mass public. In the case of the Yakut shaman, however, a certain marginalisation of what is happening is visible. Even the tone of various news articles is derogatory and not serious. However, one cannot ignore the clear oppositional overtones of the events. And the attempts of media to underplay the importance of the march shows might be a sign of potential fear of spreading the movement all over Russia. By framing his discontent with the political regime in the country in a simple statement about “expelling” a bad leader, and by talking about the importance of spreading the beliefs of the Russian north, Gabyshev has set a precedent for potential next protests in Russia’s so-called national republics. Shamanism in this case acts as a cultural divider between Western Russian elites and Northern regions.

 Both cases provide an opportunity to explore ways of influencing elites in specific contexts. The South Korean case demonstrates the direct influence on politics, while the Russian case, incomparably less vociferous and important for the inner politics of the country, shows the opposition potential, which lies in the local shamanism.

Moreover, in the current Russian religious situation it is not possible to make profitable use of local beliefs to enhance one’s political prestige.  Although the role of religion has been promoted in recent decades as one of the backbone of Russian cultural code, Russian society cannot be described as truly religious (Smirnov M. 2014, 2-3), except for the rapid radicalization of some Caucasian republics. Despite the absence of a state religion, Russian high-ranking officials pay most attention to the two main religions in the Russian Federation – Christianity and Islam. But even despite the role of religion as one of the staples of Russian society, religion as such is never at the forefront of, for example, election campaigns, or any kind of political In contemporary Russia, Christianity or Islam is used more as a counterweight to the Bolshevik (absence of) religion, while Shamanism has no such privilege. Therefore, in modern Russia it does not seem possible to use shamanism to attract the electorate at the federal level. That leaves its potential migration into the grey zone of opposition on the republican level.

It can be concluded that in both cases shamanism acted as a socio-political lever.  The manifestation of shamanism at the highest level in Korea, as well as the population’s continued belief in the power of shamans amid the long-term economic downturn, indicates how important a socio-political factor it is for the country. In the Gabyshev case, however, the appeal to shamanism in the national republics and the rise of various pseudo-spiritual cults mirrors the need for answers and guidance among general public amidst the specifics of domestic politics and external political tensions.

Sources and Literature 

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