"If a person considers himself a shaman, he can be a shaman". About the Theater.doc performance "The Tale of the shaman" and not only
Anna Lifirenko
On October 30, 2020, the premiere of the play "The Tale of the Shaman" took place at the venue in Moscow Theater.doc The director of the play Beata Bubenets and the playwright Mikhail Bashkirov created a documentary about the famous "Yakut shaman" Alexander Gabyshev and about his hiking trip to Moscow in order to expel the evil spirit from the current president of the Russian Federation. The play was shown twice, after which the production was removed from the repertoire of the Theater.doc, and subsequently the site, where the performance was shown, had been also closed. There was even an attempt to disrupt the performance, as happens with many Theater.doc’s performances that meet the current political agenda, as well as other ways to discredit the theater.

We will try to move away from the political and even ideological context that is somehow present in connection with this production for a while, and look at it as an artistic (even though a documentary one) work and an established fact of the cultural life of the country. Beata Bubenets defines the genre of the play as a documentary puppet show, or a documentary fairy tale, and in this, at first glance, definition-pleonasm, both components are equally important. We will return to the "documentary" one more time, but now the fairy-tale component of the performance is of the highest interest, in which the fabulousness is manifested, as it is connected with the Yakut epic and shamanism.

In the modern layman's view, shamanism is some kind of spiritual practices aimed at getting rid of diseases or spiritual purification of a person, a society of people or some territory from the influence of evil spirits by entering ecstatic states. Now this concept is almost separated from the content that was historically embedded in it, and describes the heterogeneous practices of various ethnic groups. By definition, shamanism is a special stage in the development of religious beliefs of mankind, formed at a time when hunting, fishing and gathering were the main means of living; that is, we can say that shamanism is one of the early forms of religion. Shamanism is based on the shaman's communication with spirits during the so-called “kamlaniya”, that is, a specific rite of "exit" and communication with spirits. Shamanism is characterized by a syncretic view of the surrounding reality, that is, the animation of the whole world, the idea of the universal interconnection in nature, the close connection of man with space, his ability to visit other worlds. But only a shaman can have such abilities. According to the belief of shamanic cultures, only the spirits themselves choose a person to become a shaman, it is impossible to become a shaman independently or with the help of another person. Therefore, in these cultures, the concept of shamanic illness is important – the period of becoming a shaman by overcoming severe physical and spiritual trials by the will of the spirits. During the shamanic illness, the future shaman experiences what could happen to him in the spirit world.

Photos from the performance

According to the indigenous peoples of Siberia and, in particular, the Yakuts, the universe consists of three worlds: Upper (celestial), Middle (human) and Lower (underground). The Upper world is divided into tiers and is inhabited by gods and spirits, the same hierarchy is in the Lower World. In Yakut mythology, the evil spirits of all three worlds are called Abaasy, and the spiritual worlds themselves are called Doidu. More benevolent spirits were associated with the cult of ancestors and were called Ayyy. This cosmogony is described in Olonkho, the oldest epic art of the Yakuts. The central theme of Olonkho is the biography of the epic Ayyy Aimaga tribe – the progenitors of people who achieve a happy life in the Middle World. Usually the main character of Olonkho is a hero or a heroine from the Ayyy tribe, who is endowed with extraordinary qualities from birth. His main goal is to fulfill what fate has ordained for him: most often, it is to protect his own kind or even all people. The antipode for such a hero is a hero from the tribe of Abaasy, a dark spirit hostile to people. The rest of the characters are grouped around the main character and his opponent, representing members of their tribes.

Returning to shamanism, it is worth saying that it was not enough for the shaman himself to believe in his vocation, it is also important that he has to prove his destiny to others, because the shaman's activity in the era of the communal-tribal system performed the function of protection and representation of his kind. Shamanism and shamanic practices are often considered as something connected not only with altered states of consciousness, but also with some mental disorders and even diseases. A considerable amount of research has been created on this topic, but it is impossible to accept a single point of view on this issue. According to one of the researchers, the shaman's condition during the ritual (ritual or spiritual practice) can be called psychopathic, but only by some signs. First of all, the main sign of a mentally ill person is his social maladaptation, the inability to build communication with people. Shamans, on the contrary, are actively introduced into society, being not only its bright representative, but a saviour from diseases and other sabotage of evil spirits. There are also opinions that shamanic illness and an ardent desire to become a shaman is nothing more than a strong psychological autosuggestion, often provoked by the use of substances that excite the nervous system (fly agaric is most often called as such a substance).

Nowadays, practices and beliefs that are directly related to shamanism have been preserved in many places and are even flourishing, receiving the name "neo-shamanism" and becoming an independent religious movement. On the territory of Siberia, each ethnic group revives its shamanic traditions, adapting them to modern realities. And it would be correct to consider Alexander Gabyshev and the movement created by him from this point of view, although Gabyshev himself does not belong to any "official" shamanic organizations. Can Alexander Gabyshev be called a shaman then? He is really well versed in shamanism, but has never been "officially" recognized as a shaman by any shamanic religious organization. Gabyshev lived in the forest for a long time and, according to him, it was there that he heard the calls of the spirits to become a shaman. This fact correlates directly with the culture and traditions of shamanism. In addition, according to Gabyshev, the spirits also outlined his goal to him, his way of protecting people from the evil spirit. And here we can observe a direct connection with the existing shamanic culture of being chosen, a sense of one's destiny, which must be proved by deed, namely by going to Moscow to expel the evil spirit.

Portrait of Alexandr Gabyshev via the sakhaday.ru website. Photographer unknown

The play "The Tale of the Shaman" in its form is an epic journey of the hero, the Yakut shaman Gabyshev, across Russia to Moscow. This epic form is found in many cultures across the world. In the epic, you can see the combination of two folklore traditions - Russian (fairy tale) and Yakut (Olonkho). The performance thematically goes beyond the boundaries of the Russian fairy tale, and the interweaving of two different cultures, supported by a documentary history, gives rise to an unusual work. As it was in reality, the shaman and his procession are joined by other “fairy-tale” characters – Raven and Angel; all the participants of the campaign had nicknames given to them by Gabyshev. For example, the prototype of Angel is a kind, bright, open person with an angelic appearance. Gabyshev gave his companions nicknames based on their similarity to one or another archetype “Cat”. As already mentioned, this is a typical feature of Yakut mythology – animating the world, endowing people with “animal” qualities.

Four actors are involved in the performance, one of them plays the shaman (Mikhail Zanadvorov), and the other three are Gabyshev's companions and opponents. With the help of dolls, masks, and costume elements, the actors (Dzhan Badmaev, Nikolai Berman, and Vladimir Bagramov) transformed into different characters whom Gabyshev met on his way. Therefore, employing tent-cloaks, they turned into Yakut Udagan (shaman women) who supported Gabyshev. In another episode of the clash between the Yakut shaman and the Buryat shamans, the latter appear in bizarre shamanic masks. Throughout the performance, a shamanic drum appears, the blows of which play not only a symbolic role but also separate the episodes from each other, add dynamics and sound contrast to the performance.

An important motive is preserved from the Russian fairy tale in the play: the main character is ready to “tell the truth to the tsars with a smile” and go against the tsar alone. It is enough to recall any Russian folklore, where the conventional Ivan the Fool, belonging to the archetype “fool”, opposes the tsar, and is not afraid to tell the truth to his face. The play features the fairytale narrator Petrushka (Dzhan Badmaev), who often utters improvised text that changes depending on the conditions. In the Russian folk theater, Petrushka often improvises and works with the audience, this director's decision can also be called a tribute to folklore tradition. Beata Bubenets initially laid the idea that the play should be performed in the format of a folk theater, and therefore a fairy tale with Petrushka and dolls was born.

Photos from the performance

Beata Bubenets, who is a native of Yakutsk, together with the historian and playwright Mikhail Bakshirov took part in the procession of the Yakut shaman for a month, during which the material for the play was collected. It uses videos that Bubenets filmed while traveling with a shaman. The performance also includes videos from Alexander Gabyshev’s official YouTube channel. Alexander Gabyshev is a public figure, he has many followers who put his life together (which is also in line with the worldview in epos). According to the actors, the videos shot by Beata helped them work on the characters – observing them in almost a real-time mode gave a strong impetus.

Dzan Badmaev, actor: Many people perceive this performance as some kind of scandalous anti-government piece of work, but, first of all, for me as an actor, this performance is a way to get acquainted with a culture I am not familiar with, with archetypal characters of this culture. We showed the hero's path from the beginning to current events, his aspirations, and hopes. This is the hero's way. If a person considers himself a shaman, he can be a shaman, he has an absolute right to this as a person, as a human being. He does a lot of ethnic research, works with Olonkho, Yakut songs. I see him as a kind of cultural hero of modern Yakutia. This is a play about the path of a man with a capital M, about a very morally strong man, even though he lives in his own reality. I tried to be above this situation, but Gabyshev still evokes warm feelings in me, which broke out even when performing Petrushka, who is supposed to be independent and ironic. This is the behavior of an absolutely sane person who has a goal and a desire to change something. The people followed him, the people supported him, so they sympathize with him, and this is not a coincidence. I think it is the story of a modern little man in 21st century Russia, and each of us is in some way a shaman Gabyshev. I wish him moral and physical strength. Surely, we do not live in a fairy tale, but for me, he still remains a fairy-tale character, and in a fairy tale, good always wins.

At the time of the creation and release of the play, its authors especially emphasized that it had an open ending since the denouement had not yet come and events could unfold in different ways. A year after the release and almost immediately following the close of the play, events took, alas, the expected turn. Today, Alexander Gabyshev is undergoing compulsory treatment at the Novosibirsk psychiatric hospital of a specialized type with intensive supervision. We wish him a speedy release from there and hope for the continuation of the play.