This was one of my lovely birthday gifts from my mum. The title can be roughly translated as Shamanic Disease. Jacek Hugo-Bader is a Polish reporter focusing mostly on Russia and former Soviet Republics. He traveled extensively in this area, including a car journey from Moscow to Vladivostok, a canoe trip through Lake Baikal and a hitchhike from Magadan to Yakutsk.
Russia is a bit of a forgotten territory in Poland. Don’t get me wrong it is the big scary neighbor, that we still fear. But as an area as a country with so much variation, it is barely known in Poland, despite being relatively close. It is only picking up in recent years, but I think the initial rejection was a typical reaction after the end of communism everything that had to do with Russia was forgotten. In my generation it is rare to find someone who speaks Russian, I know it is slowly regaining some popularity now, but for almost twenty years it has slipped off the curriculum completely.
This is why this book was so fascinating to me. Not only it talks about shamans, which is fascinating in and of its own, but also it describes Hugo-Bader’s three-month travel through Siberia. When I think of Siberia I only have this stereotypical picture of snow, huge forest, and polar bears in mind, which of course is completely wrong. Well maybe not completely, but it does not speak to the reality of people’s life there.
Hugo-Bader travels from Kyzyl in the Tuva Republic all the way to Yakutsk, and not in a straight line, but taking his time to get to know the shamans of southern Siberia. Hugo-Bader explores the shamanic traditions of the local people, who often descend from native people of this land, and are not Russians. He meets multiple shamans and his stance is skeptical. He wants to remain critical, and not fall prey to the visually stunning rituals. We get to know the stories of the shamans that agreed to speak to him, as well as the rituals and traditions. Some of the shamans he meets are fighting to get shamanism (or Tengrism) recognized as a fifth major religion in Russia.
The beliefs are not codified, there are some common parts but every shaman explores their own practice. Tengri broadly is understood as the deity or spirit of the upper world, the heavens. But the faith in the underworld is also strong. We meet the white and black shamans that explore this dichotomy. Hugo-Bader describes their, very elaborate, costumes, as well as the rituals that together form theatrical experience. Every shaman also has to have a drum, which is used in all rituals, they typically require the drum, smoke, and fire, as well as singing or dancing. During the ritual shamans fall into a trance-like state when their body is taken over by their guiding spirit, acting and healing through it. The descriptions of the rituals are truly fascinating, with the added layer of Hugo-Bader’s reaction, initially skeptical, but sometimes following along and only questioning the experience after.
Another amazing aspect of this book is getting to know the stories of the shamans. People are not born into this profession, becoming a shaman requires the shamanic disease to happen. It usually is some form of psychosomatic breakdown, sometimes triggered by trauma, with an added huge intake of alcohol. Sometimes it simply is a nervous breakdown. In Western societies, we’d place those people in psychiatric units, but in Siberia sometimes they manage to escape that fate. They come out on the other side of the breakdown ready to accept their gift and become shamans.
The shamanic disease is a rite of passage, the sharp border between their former life, that might have been violent and the new one centered on their power and their guiding spirits. What the book also shows between the rituals and shaman’s stories is the realities of life in Siberia. And it is not an easy life, Communism often aimed to raze the ancient beliefs, they are only coming back to the surface now. But also it degenerated the social fabric, by putting Russia above the indigenous traditions. By forcing people to work in kolkhoz rather than the way thy new for centuries. When all this fell to pieces people had to find their way in the new reality. Often they fell back to the old customs, but the state is still there, taking young men away for mandatory army service, employing them in the police that is often deployed in wars Russia participates in (to mention just Chechnya). Often the shamans originate from those forces, men irreparably damaged and left to their own devices, made to deal with trauma on their own.
Hugo-Bader leaves the decision on whether to believe or not to you. You may see those people as disturbed individuals, or con-artists, or you may accept that there is something more to the world and maybe they are capable to connect with it. One thing that is made clear is that shamanism and connecting to one’s gift cannot happen in the city, it requires the vast endless nature that you can find in the taiga. It requires time and silence to delve into oneself and beyond, the Western culture is simply too noisy.
It was a fascinating read. The narration was a bit chaotic, but it reflected the way Hugo-Bader traveled as well as his process of grappling with what he learns. Once we get into its rhythm it reinforces the unplanned nature of this exploration. It allowed me to find out more about a territory that is not too far away and yet could as well not exist for all I know about it. It was also a good detox from the rush of Western culture, a peek into another way of living, not better or easier, just very very different from ours. I’ll certainly look for other books by Hugo-Bader. Those published in English include: White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia and Kolyma Diaries: A Journey into Russia’s Haunted Hinterland.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska