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From Ideology to Magic

IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION

By Desmond O'Grady | January/February 1995
Desmond O'Grady is a journalist based in Rome.

I noticed Marina Tsvygun almost as soon as I arrived in St. Petersburg: the whiteness not only of her long robe but also of her hair wound above her head like a cotton-wool wig. She holds a crosier in her left hand while the first two fingers of the right are raised in blessing. There are few posters in the St. Petersburg underground: At one stop there are only two, one for Marlboro cigarettes. But even if there had been a barrage of advertisements and posters, it would have been hard to ignore that for Marina.

My St. Petersburg friend Aleksandr describes her as a sinister figure whose pseudonym, Maria Devi Kristos, suggests an Indian goddess as well as the deified Virgin who is the Messiah. Then Aleksandr, who is an internationally known scientist in a state institution, talks of his financial problems: His salary is $40 a month. He says that those who run footpath food stalls sometimes earn as much as $40 a day. He, like other state employees, pensioners, and all on fixed incomes, is suffering from the introduction of the free market. Aleksandr has the resources to resist Marina, but some who lack them fall to her appeal.

Her proclaimed intention to be crucified in Kiev in November 1993 was foiled, but similar cult figures thrive in the former Soviet Union, reflecting a significant shift from ideology to magic. Perhaps they say something about the emergence of nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

From St. Petersburg I went to Ukraine, where, in the coal mining district near Donetz, Maria was born in 1960. In St. Petersburg’s pedestrian passageways, people stand holding the pets they hope to sell, as it is preferable to eating them, while in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev the main thoroughfare is lined with women of all ages and conditions holding pieces of cardboard on which dollar signs are inscribed. If they can get their hands on a dollar they know they have a shield against well over 2,000 percent inflation. Desperation is even more apparent in Kiev than St. Petersburg.

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From Ideology to Magic

I noticed Marina Tsvygun almost as soon as I arrived in St. Petersburg: the whiteness…