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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Healer Lures Out Spirits, and Cash

ST. PETERSBURG -- The audience is a sea of knit caps, fur hats and wrinkled faces, some of the faces wet with tears. The Kolizei movie theater on Nevsky Prospect is packed, all 800 seats occupied and the walls lined with old women. They have come seeking a cure from Baba Nyura, also known as Anna the Savior, Master of Folk Medicine, Famous Healer, the Russian Wonder.

For an hour and a half, the elfin Baba Nyura has been training her powers on the believers in the audience. She paces back and forth across the front of the stage, commanding evil and pain to depart, blessing the audience with exaggerated crossing motions and exhorting them to press her photograph to the spot, any spot, where they have pain, and it will disappear. Just believe, she tells them, preaching her peculiar hodgepodge of self-help, Russian Orthodox ritual and tent revivalism. And they do. Especially when Baba Nyura reaches the pinnacle of her performance: the exorcism.

Spiritual healers are nothing new in Russia. In a land of ancient superstitions and holy fools, Baba Nyura is merely the latest incarnation in an unending line of Russian mystics. But she is surely the first to conduct an exorcism on a stage flanked by posters of James Bond.

"If there is any woman in this hall who is more than five months' pregnant, anyone with a heart ailment, or anyone with a child younger than a year and a half, please leave the hall NOW!" booms Baba Nyura's assistant, Sergei. "Please pick up small children and hold them tightly in your arms! Clear a path to the stage! Anyone who needs the healing power to expel the devil from his body, please come up to the stage now! You can be healed!"

The lights are shut off and the auditorium falls black, save for a spotlight shining on a large icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus at the front of the stage. Baba Nyura kneels in front of the icon to pray, as a tape of ominous church bells thunders in a minor key through the hall.

The first brave trickle of the "possessed" quickly broadens to a flood, as people rush to reach the healing hands of Baba Nyura. Elderly men with arthritis-stiffened knees hobble forward, fashionably dressed young women swoon dramatically under the weight of emotion and their fur coats, and small, wide-eyed children holding the hands of determined grandmothers make their way forward. The guards pull the afflicted up the steps, and ease them toward Baba Nyura, who, raising her hands to the faces of her flock, exhorts them to "Believe! Believe in God and believe in me!" and shoves them aside if they linger too long in her holy presence.

Then suddenly, the lights come back on, the church bells go silent, and Sergei comes on stage with the most important announcement yet.

"Dear ladies and gentlemen," he intones, "there are five minutes left in our seance. There is just enough time for you to get your own special packet of Baba Nyura's aids to purify yourself and your home. Please make your way to our assistants on the left and right sides of the hall." And the second stampede begins.

For 50,000 rubles, one can purchase the entire set of holy materials: a photograph of Baba Nyura (the photo has healing qualities, unlike photos of the great healer reproduced in newspapers, warns Sergei), one minuscule packet each of salt and herbs, and a special amulet: a dried bird claw (the amulet only works for the original buyer, warns Sergei, so don't attempt to borrow).

The final "five minutes" of the seance stretches into half an hour, and the assistants begin working the room like peanut vendors at a baseball game: "Who wants a set? No, you can't buy just the photograph. You can get just the salt for 20,000. Or the herbs. Who wants what? Speak up!"

Meanwhile, on the stage, the "possessed" continue to await the touch of their savior, while the multitude in the auditorium seats press the photographs of Baba Nyura to the places of their greatest pain.