Here’s what we know about the Siberian shaman who set out to battle Putin’s evil spirit, and how police finally got to him
For half a year, Yakutsk resident Alexander Gabyshev had been walking on foot toward Moscow, thousands of miles and six time zones west of his hometown. Gabyshev describes himself as a “warrior shaman,” and he plans to defeat “Putin the Demon” at the conclusion of his journey. Along his path to Moscow, the shaman gave speeches at multiple protests, attracted a group of companions who walk with him along Russia’s highways, and became a subject of energetic discussion and meme production nationwide. On September 19, officials arrested Gabyshev and sent him for a brief psychiatric evaluation. He also reportedly faces felony extremism charges. These developments have prompted leading newspapers around the world to write about Gabyshev. Meduza is also looking at this man’s story and the life events that led him to where he is now.
The Warrior Shaman vs. Putin the Demon
It’s difficult to find verified biographical information about Alexander Gabyshev, but it’s been established that he’s 51 years old and lives in Yakutsk, a city roughly 5,000 miles east of Moscow. (Google Maps says this trip would take 108 hours — by car.) Gabyshev himself has said he graduated from Yakutsk State University with a major in history, but he says he chose to follow a different career path, working as a welder, a street sweeper, and an electrician, among a series of other short-term jobs. Then, a few years ago, his wife died. He has said he took her death so hard that it pushed him to the edge of mental illness. Though friends encouraged him to seek professional treatment, Gabyshev says his mother refused to allow his institutionalization. Instead, he spent three years living in a forest, ultimately realizing, he says, that he was meant to become a warrior shaman.
This is also when Gabyshev got the idea to walk to Moscow. In the fall of 2018, he set off from Yakutsk, but he had to cut his journey short when his dog, Rex, was hit by a car while the pair were walking along a highway. Locals say Gabyshev claimed no political golas at this point, and was only trekking across the country as a physical and spiritual challenge. Gabyshev says he knew even then, however, that his goal in Moscow was to protest against Vladimir Putin, whose “power must be counterbalanced by the power of the people.”
In March 2019, he began his second attempt to reach Moscow on foot, expecting to arrive by early 2021. At first, Gabyshev implied that he would remove Putin from office by force. “It’ll be a good battle, oh yes, a glorious battle! I was born to fight — I know all the martial arts. This isn’t just going to be an hour-long battle; it’s going to take an entire day. And when somebody fights for an entire day, all of Russia will rise up. There are millions of eyes and ears behind me,” he said.
By the summer, Gabyshev had arrived at a more peaceful idea: “I’m walking to exorcize Putin the Demon. Not a single hair will fall from his head. I have no right to cause physical suffering — that’s a sin. Just [his] removal from power, without any violence whatsoever. Violence is forbidden, even against a demon.”
Nearly 2,000 miles later, Gabyshev becomes an Internet meme
In six months, after setting out in March, Alexander Gabyshev walked almost 2,000 miles along national highways, wheeling behind him a small cart packed with his yurt and personal belongings. In the early summer, he reached Chita, where he spoke at an anti-Putin protest on June 12. In a four-minute speech, Gabyshev advocated the creation of “people’s assemblies” that would start issuing their own laws. “From now on, you don’t take orders from Putin. Live free! That’s the law!” he told the crowd.
Throughout this time, Gabyshev gained attention online in Russia, inspiring several Internet memes. Communities with millions of subscribers on VKontakte started sharing stories about the “Shaman headed to Moscow to exorcize Putin.” The Twitter account StalinGulag tweeted about Gabyshev to its 1.1 million followers, the independent TV station Dozhd aired a report about him, and other media outlets started piling in with more details about this curious man and his unusual mission. On YouTube, videos showing and discussing Gabyshev’s journey attracted hundreds of thousands of views. Like a Russified, otherworldly Forrest Gump, Gabyshev even inspired total strangers to join him on his cross-country quest. These new arrivals cataloged the trip in online broadcasts and crowdfunded money to sustain their shaman as he walked.
Not everyone welcomed this spiritual rebirth, however. Russian Supreme Shaman Kara-ool Dopchun-ool says Gabyshev is insane; Buda-Shirap Batuev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Council of the Supreme Shaman, says Gabyshev is a fraud; and Buryat shamans outside Ulan-Ude from the “Tengeri” religious organization even tried to stop him by threatening that he would cease to be one of them, if he continued en route to Moscow. Gabyshev ignored them all.
In Buryatia, the arrests of Gabyshev’s supporters provoked protests
In early September, Alexander Gabyshev reached Ulan-Ude, which held mayoral elections on September 8. With 53 percent of the vote, “independent” candidate and Acting Mayor Igor Shutenkov narrowly defeated Communist Party representative Vyacheslav Markhaev, who won 36 percent. While this was happening, one of Gabyshev’s local supporters — a man named Igor Konoshanov — tried to register a truck that he bought using crowdfunded donations. (The vehicle was meant to carry the personal belongings of those who’d started walking across country with the shaman.) Traffic officials refused to register the truck, however, and the police later seized the vehicle and arrested Konoshanov for disobeying police orders. Pyotr Dondukov, another of the shaman’s supporters and the former campaign manager for Alexey Navalny in Ulan-Ude, then tried to convince the authorities to release Konoshanov, but he ended up in jail, too.
Afterwards, local videoblogger Dmitry Bairov (who accompanied Gabyshev through Buryatia) started calling on people to assemble in Ulan-Ude’s central square. Dozens of people turned out, and they were soon joined by communists, angry about the mayoral election. As a result, the crowd started demanding the mayor’s resignation. At this point, the National Guard intervened and dispersed the demonstrators.
In response, locals in Ulan-Ude gathered again on September 15 to protest police brutality and advocate honest elections. The region’s governor, Alexey Tsydenov attended the rally, where demonstrators shouted at him, “Disgrace!” and “Resign!” Two days after this event, police arrested Dondukov again, this time for organizing an unlawful assembly. He was soon convicted of repeatedly violating Russia’s laws on demonstrations, and sentenced to 10 days in jail.
The police hadn’t yet turned their attention to Gabyshev, however, who continued on his way. On September 16, the website Znak.com published an interview with the self-appointed shaman, who vowed to lead a whole “army” of supporters to Moscow, despite the barriers being put in his way. “They won’t stop an army! The truckers weren’t an army. The protesters in Moscow weren’t an army. I will have an army. Just try to stop us,” Gabyshev said.
Gabyshev is arrested and sent for psychiatric analysis
On September 19, Gabyshev was arrested at the boundary between Buryatia and the Irkutsk region. His companions say he was taken in the middle of the night, near a highway where their group was encamped. The arresting officers did not identify themselves as members of law enforcement, and eyewitnesses say the men were armed with automatic weapons and clubs. “Two buses with police rolled in, they loaded up [Gabyshev] and his cart, and drove off in the direction of Ulan-Ude,” said one of the shaman’s followers. It was unclear why he’d been arrested, but some speculated that it was because of his speech in Chita.
Buryatia’s Interior Ministry later confirmed Gabyshev’s arrest, stating that he was wanted in Yakutia for an unspecified crime, though the website Tayga.info later reported that Gabyshev appeared nowhere on Yakutia’s electronic database of wanted persons. Regardless, officials promptly loaded him onto a plane and flew him to Yakutsk.
On September 20, the region’s Health Ministry revealed that Gabyshev had been transferred to a neuro-psychiatric hospital to undergo “expert examination.” “In the event that any abnormalities are detected in the patient, we are prepared to provide the appropriate medical assistance. If necessary, social services could be involved,” health officials said in a press release.
Alexey Pryanishnikov, the coordinator of Open Russia’s human rights initiative (which is providing legal assistance to Gabyshev), told Meduza that the shaman never arrived at the designated mental hospital on September 20. Yakut health officials did not answer Meduza’s telephone calls.
Interior Ministry officials in Yakutia also refused to comment on Gabyshev’s arrest and institutionalization. Receptionists for the ministry’s regional office told multiple journalists that they don’t know the whereabouts of the officers responsible for speaking to the media. At Tayga.info’s request, one secretary actually walked to the ministry’s press office and found it empty.
Gabyshev is declared a prisoner of conscience, and leading Western news outlets write about him
Following the shaman's arrest, Amnesty International called Gabyshev “a prisoner of conscience deprived of liberty solely for peacefully exercising his rights to freedom of expression and assembly.” “The Russian authorities’ reaction looks simply absurd. Are they really afraid of his magical powers? Like all Russian citizens, Alexander Gabyshev has the right to worship and express his political views freely,” says the group's Russia director, Natalia Zviagina, who also stresses that Gabyshev committed no crimes while on his journey to Moscow.
Publications like The New York Times, Deutsche Welle, The Guardian, and others have also covered the shaman’s adventures. The New York Times says the authorities initially ignored Gabyshev as a “harmless crank,” but he grew “into a threat as he gathered a growing band of followers and nationwide publicity for his quixotic mission.”
Gabyshev was soon released from the mental ward, but the authorities then opened an extremism case against him
By the afternoon of September 20, Evgeny Rostokin (one of the shaman’s associates) announced on YouTube that Gabyshev had been pronounced mentally competent and released from the hospital. The shaman later said that he was feeling good, and explained that he’d suffered “no human rights violations” while in state custody. He says he was examined by psychiatrists and then questioned by an investigator — “all within the rule of law.”
After the shaman’s release, Open Russia’s human rights initiative reported that Gabyshev is being investigated for extremism. Expert testimony allegedly claims that his public remarks contain “incitements to violent acts against President Vladimir Putin.” Officials say the shaman made these statements “verbally at an unknown location.”
In a video interview after he went free on Friday, Gabyshev said he now plans to “rest” in Yakutsk with his relatives, before dealing with the “investigative and judicial actions.” He also encouraged his followers to “relax,” while he deals with the criminal charges, and he even told supporters to return to their homes, asking them not to continue the trek to Moscow without him.
Not everyone appears to have received this message, however. One of the shaman’s supporters who identified himself as Dmitry told Meduza that Gabyshev only advised rest for those who are too tired to keep walking to Moscow. “We’re staying on the path, of course,” he said.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock and Hilah Kohen