Russian Elections: Hypnotist seeks power: Helen Womack sees a Russian psychotherapist campaigning in Yaroslavl via a televised seance

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THE serious politicians of Yaroslavl, from free marketeers to Communists, are united on one matter - their contempt for a fascist hypnotist who thinks he can represent this city in the new Russian parliament without bothering to meet the voters.

Anatoly Kashpirovsky, a psychotherapist famous nationwide for televised seances during which he claims to cure the sick with his intense stare, is on an extended working trip to the United States despite the fact that elections are to be held this weekend. 'He is just mocking the attempts of Russian people to create a proper parliament,' says Yelena Mizulina, a lawyer and candidate for parliament's upper house from the reformist Russia's Choice bloc. 'He is turning our election into a farce.'

In his absence Dr Kashpirovsky, a candidate for Vladimir Zhirinovsky's misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is being represented by his sister, Svetlana Kashpirovskaya. She has an excuse for her brother: 'The press has said that Anatoly Mikhailovich has an unfair advantage because he can use his powers to sway people, so he has decided to stay away so that no one can later declare his election invalid.'

Critics can hardly call Ms Kashpirovskaya's campaign over-forceful. The young linguist made a trip to Yaroslavl this week with three women, Galina Martinova, Yelena Ivashinenko and Yevgenia Kirilina, the latter being especially devoted to the doctor because, she said, he had cured her of weight problems with his amazing healing powers.

As the train set off before dawn, we huddled in the dark and cold around a tape player with a message from the great man recorded before he left Russia. Parliament should be 'the national collective brain', he said. He had a role to play in it not because he could influence people but because he understood them. This tape, along with a recording of a song of adulation by Ms Martinova's daughter, a few pamphlets, some posters of Dr Kashpirovsky dressed in black leather and a video of one of his seances, was the propaganda material the women were taking to Yaroslavl.

In the Volga River city, we were met by Gennady Fyodorov, representative of the nationalist LDP, a cheerful and nave man. 'I love Vladimir Wolfovich (Zhirinovsky),' he said. 'I have just written an article comparing him to God and the Polar star.' To which the women protested: 'Oh no, no, no, we have to think how we will go down with the voters. We must avoid extremes.'

In other ways, the women were not entirely satisfied with Mr Fyodorov. He had done so little preparation that hardly anyone seemed to know the film of Dr Kashpirovsky's seance would be shown at the Ars Cinema, after a matinee screening of The Young Lady Chatterly. Worse, the public was being asked to pay for entrance to what was supposed to be an election meeting. I was rather looking forward to the film. Russian friends had said Dr Kashpirovsky provokes mass orgasms from the screen and the women half-confirmed this. 'Well, not mass orgasms but there have been individual cases,' said Ms Martinova. But I was bored stiff. The video consisted of the 54-year-old doctor, whose cropped black hair must surely be dyed, staring in a sinister manner at an audience and droning: 'Close your eyes. Whether you believe in me or not makes no difference. Just as you did not feel your illness come, so you will not feel it go. The subconscious knows the way back to health. I am waking in you what you already know.' People in the film then recounted how they had been cured of ills from piles to baldness.

'Well, were you cured, were you cured?' asked Ms Kirilina, when the film ended. But the 20 or so members of the Yaroslavl audience left the cinema glum and mostly silent.

Dr Kashpirovsky's opponents might take comfort from the fact that so few voters attended the seance. But the turnout is not much higher at their own meetings. 'People are just too busy working and feeding their families to go to these events,' said Albina Volkova, manager at a post office where Russia's Choice candidates talked to about 30 workers during their lunch break.

The latest opinion poll shows that Dr Kashpirovsky is more popular than any of four other candidates standing for parliament's lower house. But he only has 9 per cent support while a full 75 per cent of Yaroslavl's voters are undecided.

Andrei and Valery, two entrepreneurs, are not untypical. 'We would cross out all the candidates if we could be bothered to vote,' Andrei said. 'We pay the protection racket because we don't trust the police. We don't expect politicians to do anything for us. Our families depend on us and we must look after ourselves.'

(Photograph omitted)