The “Shaman Warrior” Aleksandr Gabyshev: Identity at the Intersection of Two Cultures

Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: Institute for Humanitarian Research and North Indigenous Peoples Problems of the Siberian Branch of the RAS
Address: Russian Federation, Yakutsk
Journal nameEtnograficheskoe obozrenie

The figure of “shaman warrior” Aleksandr Gabyshev from Yakutsk became the object of attention in social media in 2019–2020. The interest toward Gabyshev was sparked both by the goal he declared (“to drive President Vladimir Putin out of the Kremlin”) and by his peculiar personality. This article is drawn on a wide range of materials gathered in the course of research work on a visual documentary about Gabyshev. The worldview of the “shaman warrior” was a paradoxical tangle of the native Yakut culture and the Russian Orthodox culture. In many ways Gabyshev adhered to the line of behavior typical of “holy fools” in the Russian Orthodox tradition. Indeed, his behavior and personality image could be seen as grounded in a sequence of contradictions that seemed meaningless and illogical in the context of the shamanic tradition. Yet aspects both of neoshamanism and of “blessed foolishness” were important assets that let him creatively develop his personal identity.

KeywordsGabyshev, Siberia, Yakutia, shamanism, neoshamanism, shaman warrior, holy foolishness, personal identity, penal psychiatry
AcknowledgmentThis article is a translation of: М.Б. Башкиров. “Шаман-воин” Александр Габышев: идентичность на стыке двух культур // Etnograficheskoe Obozrenie. 2021. No 5. P. 130–146. DOI: 10.31857/S086954150017419-0
Publication date23.12.2021
Number of characters48131
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1 In the summer of 2019, the Russian media space was filled with numerous reports about Aleksandr Gabyshev, who called himself a “shaman warrior” and walked from Yakutsk to Moscow. The “shaman warrior” had a mission he used to talk about: “to exorcise the demon out of the Kremlin in 2021”, who was the President of Russia Vladimir Putin. In a very short time, “Sasha the Shaman” from an extravagant eccentric who walks the roads of Siberia began to turn into a media figure and even a kind of a spiritual leader for his followers and some part of the audience who followed him on social networks.
2 In the media space, the story of the “shaman warrior” has come to its peak twice. Both times this was due to the state’s repressive actions against Gabyshev. Thus, for the first time, he was arrested at the end of September 2019 on the border of Buryatia and the Irkutsk Region and taken to Yakutsk, where a criminal case was opened against him under Article 280 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Public calls to carry out extremist activities”). At that time, the fame of the “shaman warrior” went beyond the all-Russian level and reached the world level: such media as The New Times, BBC, Guardian, etc. wrote about him. A number of Russian politicians and even the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov talked about Gabyshev (Peskov Does Not Know 2019). The second time the media wrote about the “shaman warrior” especially actively was at the end of May 2020, after Gabyshev’s house was taken by storm by the police, and the “shaman warrior” was forcibly taken to the Yakut Republican Neuropsychiatric Dispensary, where he was until 22 July 2020.


Fig. 1. A. Gabyshev with followers. Trans-Baikal Territory (photo by B. Bashkirova, August 2019)

5 Gabyshev’s way (both literally and figuratively) is counter to ideas about the norms and customary behavior of representatives of (neo)shamanism in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) and in Russia (see, for example: Ilyakhov 1994). On the other hand, in terms of the polyvariety of behavior strategies of modern Russian (neo)shamans and transformations in modern Russian (neo)shamanism, the “shaman warrior” fits well into the existing diversity and rather motley religious-spiritual mosaic (see: Kharitonova 2020). Undoubtedly, Gabyshev falls out of the traditional shamanic roles. He neither treats nor reads fortune: he is a “shaman warrior”, in other words, a shaman exorcist fighting demons. Thus, when meeting the author of the article, after mentioning the book Shamanism by Ksenofontov, Gabyshev immediately categorically stated that he was far from traditional shamanism: “I only know my destiny, my way. I know the history of shamanism superficially and I don’t want to go deep into it” (PMA 2019–2020: Gabyshev). Gabyshev’s case demonstrates not so much a violation of existing canons (within the framework of the Yakut shamanic tradition) as an attempt to invent his own rituals and even his own distinctive shamanic identity. All this created fertile ground for accusations of imposture on Gabyshev (“a fake shaman”). The combination of a political action and a magical-mystical ritual (the rite of exile) into a single whole became the basis for all kinds of political conjectures and speculations. For example, the head of Yakutia in one of the interviews hinted that the US State Department could stand behind Gabyshev (How One Yakut 2019).
6 The image of Gabyshev, replicated in many media and social networks, caused violent disputes. The use of mass media optics and the polarity of assessments of the audience of social networks have led to the formation of numerous stereotypes: “urban madman”, “psycho”, “hype man”, “honest Siberian man”, “new Rasputin”, etc. Obviously, such clichés cannot explain Gabyshev’s motivation and behavior, often devoid of the usual everyday logic. To some extent, this article is an attempt (probably not an exhaustive one) to answer the question: who is Aleksandr Gabyshev?

Methodological notes

8 The idea of this article arose in the process of working on a documentary film about Gabyshev (authors B. Bashkirova and M. Bashkirov, Ethnofond Film Company LLC and Les Steppes Production). The source base of this article includes the set of audiovisual materials collected during the work on the film from July 2019 to February 2020. Filming was carried out exclusively by the film authors; more than 150 hours of video materials have been filmed to date. The film character was observed from “the closest possible distance”; during the filming, the authors were incorporated into the life world of Gabyshev and his followers. This technique does not imply any preparation of the character for filming and is aimed at fixing what is happening “here and now”.
9 Thus, all the “interviews” recorded during this time began only at the behest of the “shaman warrior” and are monologues uttered off the cuff, without any special preparation. The dialogues that arose between the authors and the film character during the filming process were also almost always off the cuff and used to be everyday, even routine ones. This filming technique excludes any situations artificially modeled by the authors, especially manipulations. Despite the fact that the film character got used to the constant presence of the camera in his daily life, he obviously never forgot about it. For ethical reasons, the filming was not carried out in secret, except for a few times. However, after each time Gabyshev was informed about it. In those situations when he asked not to film him, the filming was not carried out. The authors filmed not only Gabyshev but also members of his “squad”, as well as people who knew him before the “campaign”.

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