Giving Until It Hurts

Times Staff Writer

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.

But here in Moscow, many investigators say they are certain that some suspension of logical thought is involved. "Could a person operating with all of his faculties agree with a plan under which all of the money he saved during his entire life should be given to these people in the street?" said fraud detective Valery Shkarupa, who has handled hundreds of "gypsy hypnosis" cases.

Anna Yerygina, a 24-year-old economist and tax inspector, says she was walking her baby in her courtyard in August when she was approached by a well-dressed woman wearing gold chains and earrings, who asked for directions to the local clinic.

"I explained to her, and I was about to leave. But at that moment, she caught my eye with her eye. Our eyes met. She said, 'I'm looking at you, and you're a nice girl and all, but there's a death coming to your family.' My father was very ill at the time.

"She said, 'Your husband, was he married before?' I said no, but he had a girlfriend. She said, 'It's her handiwork. She did it. She moved the dirt, and it has also fallen on your child.' "

The woman told her the spell would cause her baby to drown in the bathtub. "She said, 'You will go home. And if you have any yellow metal at home, you will collect it, you will tie it into a kerchief and you will tie it into three knots.' She said, 'If you have any money at all, you count it and take it.'

"I went home," Yerygina said. "I felt panicky. I did everything in five minutes: I collected all the money, I collected all the gold -- I had rings, earrings, bracelets, seven or eight items altogether.... We had a lot of money, because we had just sold our garage, and we were getting ready to buy a car."

Why did Yerygina, an educated woman whose job is to ferret out tax fraud, hand over all her jewelry and more than $6,000? Police say the answers are always similar.

"I knew this was wrong," Yerygina said. "But I felt as if I was programmed to do it.... I was under a spell."

Later, police showed her mug shots and drawings of dozens of women linked to similar crimes. "One officer told me, 'This is nothing. We have people who gave away $300,000,' " she said.

In Moscow, detectives process an estimated 300 to 400 reports a year of what they call gypsy hypnosis.

Police say victims may exaggerate claims about hypnosis to disguise their embarrassment over being duped. But Shkarupa, the Moscow detective, says he has no doubt that many fall victim to skillful psychological techniques.

Some fraud experts refer to neuro-linguistic programming, a concept that holds that language patterns can put people into semi-hypnotic states, even in everyday situations. Victims occasionally come to their senses with no recollection of how they lost their money.

"In these cases, the victim would not be able to remember anything at all -- a totally blank mind," said Alexei Skrypnikov, a retired police colonel and former psychology researcher at the Scientific Research Institute of the federal police.

In the mid-1990s, he said, authorities were confronted with hundreds of such crimes. "They turned to us for help, to actually look into these cases to find out if it's the fruit of someone's sick imagination, or if there was truly something behind it."

Psychologists hypnotized victims in an attempt to lead them back to the moment of the crime. "The people described to us what they saw. They told us about a contact with an unidentified person who manipulated their mind.

"A certain person approached them, said, 'Do this, do that,' " Skrypnikov said. "I can absolutely say that people who are of totally sound mind, and not doped up, are being manipulated into handing over their money and valuables to people who vanish into thin air."

Skrypnikov said the techniques were simple, yet effective.

"The essence of the technique is, form replaces content. Our brain is built so it can process only so much information over a certain period of time.... In cases where the flow of information is either too powerful and fast, or on the other hand, too slow ... the brain slows down, and the person's level of vigilance drops," he said.

"For example, when a chatterbox talks too fast, you listen to his words, and you think, 'I'll just catch the thread of thought, and won't worry about the details.' Obviously, when a professor is very slow and boring, you already know what he's trying to tell you, but he just keeps repeating it, so you tune him out. You enter a kind of hypnotic state.

"What we call gypsy hypnosis is based on this same thing. A person's brain is just loaded with too much information."

Police have made scattered arrests among Russia's close-knit, secretive Gypsy community. Ethnic Russians are occasionally arrested as well, usually as accomplices who show up to swear to the Gypsy's curse-lifting abilities.

But even when a perpetrator is clearly identified, it can be difficult to make a case, Moscow detective Andrei Kuznetsov said.

"Even if we have a case where someone actually leaves something like a passport at the scene of a crime, we'll go back to their neighborhood, say, a Gypsy village in the Vladimir region, and we will end up with a scene where the entire village, 300 people, men, women and children, will come to the town square and swear that, no, [the suspect] was home when the crime occurred, she was sick in bed, they all saw her there."

In the Gypsy quarter of Savyolovo, northwest of Moscow, the local Gypsy baron's house stands taller than the rest on a nearly deserted street. The baron has not made an appearance at home lately, police say, possibly because he is on the federal wanted list for alleged drug trafficking.

Indeed, hardly anyone seems to be at home: The streets are deserted, and knocks on doors go unanswered, except for some furtive peeking from behind drawn curtains. Late-model cars without license plates stand in several driveways. Playing cards lie scattered along the street, half covered by snow.

Almost all the Gypsy residents who could be found said they had heard of gypsy hypnosis, and an equal number said they would never consider engaging in the practice.

"We have a power that comes from God. I learned it from my mother, and my mother learned it from her mother. It has been handed down from one generation to another," palm-reader Maria Rylyovskaya said.

"We don't commit bad things," she said. "We only do good things. We help people remove their spells. But the police, when they can't solve crimes committed in the big city, it's easy for them to blame us. They know where to find us. We are simple people who can't defend ourselves."

Her neighbor Ludmila Goyova added: "Of course, it is possible to hypnotize people. It is quite doable, technically. But this is the work of Satan.

"For myself, if a person repeatedly complains about illnesses, for example, it is safe to say there is a bad spell on him. I need to go out to a crossroads at the dead of midnight totally naked and ask God to help this person," Goyova says.

"Sometimes I will take bread or sausages for the children in exchange for this service. But I don't take money. I would never take money."

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