a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

Allan Chumak

by Tomas Matza

The hands of Allan Chumak by <a href='' target='_blank'>Micaël Reynaud</a>
The hands of Allan Chumak by Micaël Reynaud

Witness the wonders of Allan Chumak, the white-haired media phenom of the late-Soviet age, who promised to heal from a distance using only his hands, and the television broadcast. The large amber-shaded glasses. The unbroken gaze. Here he is, sitting inside the television box, which is now inside youtube inside your computer, inside your very own home.

To watch Chumak—and I mean really watch him, without interruption or preconception and until the end—is to enter into his world. You have to believe, lest you be left outside—a belief whose compensation is a pleasant sensation, the twilight feeling of sleepy-awakeness, a combination of TV-initiated alpha-waves and gentle hypnosis.

Chumak began appearing on Soviet state television during the late-1980s—the time of “Gorby,” perestroika, socialism with a human face. He was allotted a small, though by no means nondescript, corner of the morning program 120 minutes, at 7:15 am, when people all across the Soviet Union would tune in for some distance healing. Describing the source of his powers, Chumak would describe a magical moment when, at the age of 42, a torrent of energy pummeled his body like a waterfall and the world was revealed to him as a “fantastic diversity of energo-informational interaction.” Since that time, Chumak has been able to focus this “energy” through his hands for the purpose of healing.

Watch it again.

There is a certain reliable regularity at work in his programs. First there is the greeting and a brief explanation of the malady du jour—in this case allergy and respiratory disorders. Then there is a discussion of etiology—always for Chumak a disruption of “the harmony of every process in the organism.” Then the proposed resolution, a recalibration through his reiki-like hand movements. The cure takes place right then and there. A sympathetic current of sorts, perhaps aided, back then, by the static electricity gathering on the convex curve of the screen. There is an excess of force, too, though, and viewers are invited, with a mysterious half-smile, to place jars of water or cream (“whatever you like”) next to the television to be “charged” (zariazhennyi; also loaded) (:30). Finally, the recommended pose: “You ought to be free and comfortable…. Place your hands on your lap, arms down, and close your eyes. Only pay attention to those feelings that appear during the session.”

This posture of blindness and relaxation is the posture of faithful submission. It is an embodiment of vulnerability and trust, of innocence and expectation—a posture from which it would be extremely difficult to mount a defense were someone to punch you in the gut.

So much of what we might imagine about time and place—the late Empire moment—has been conjured from out of the smoke and mirrors of capitalist triumph. At the risk of falling prey to a post-Cold War imaginary, twenty-five years hence I imagine all those Soviet bodies in their apartments, stilled before the television. Perhaps it is no coincidence that so many found themselves in this position while living in the twilight of empire. It was the 1980s, after all, and the smell of the end of history was there like a dying animal. Or so it has become: imaginings must be taken, like a shot of bad tequila, with many grains of salt. Others, of course, experienced it very differently—as a chaotic and hopeful time in the Soviet Union. A time of exciting revelation that followed decades of so-called “stagnation” under Brezhnev. Gorbachev had introduced reforms to both the media environment, known as glasnost (literally transparency; openness), and to Soviet institutions (perestroika). People were again able to read more widely; opinions critical of Soviet life became more widely circulated. These new openings brought what anthropologists have documented, retrospectively, as sudden “break of consciousness” (perelom soznaniia) and “strong shock” (sil’neishii shok). Many new cultural forms emerged at this time, but among the most curious was the rise in mass-mediated “extrasensory” healers sent out live via the state broadcasting channel to the entire Soviet Union. Chumak is not alone. There is also Kashpirovsky’s televised hypnotism.

Watch it again.

Chumak was inside your home long before you clicked the link above. Consider, for instance, a resonance with a viral strain of American spirituality wrought of the fascination with national collectivity, media technologies, and gods. There is a dream here, utterly familiar. A voice that can only imagine itself in terms of everything or nothing, with little in between. Think, for example, of Whitman penning the following lines in 1855, five years prior to the Civil War:

I SING the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.

These and other alignments of spiritual uptick and political-economy suggest that Chumak speaks to a history redolent with spirit, technology, and empire, a history shared by Cold War adversaries, a history of mutual collapse.

I cannot help but watch Chumak. His wordlessness. The opening and closing of his jaw. The motion of his head, moving side-to-side, nodding, but bent on being still. He is intentional about not making sound, and so there are sounds of silence—lip smacking, throat clearing, the just-detectable sound of breathing. A knocking in the studio and a door closes—the lifting of the veil for a moment, reminding us the there are others there in studio, behind camera—a whole crew, perhaps, involved in this production.

The viewer is not a viewer. In asking us to close our eyes, Chumak has asked us to shuffle the sensorium. He has turned the clock back on modernity’s forward march of the gaze. TV is here meant to be experienced through the ears, on the skin, by the nose, and finally in the viscera. As I close my eyes now, I can recollect hearing my own 1980s television—its sound that is no sound: that high-pitched squeal of household appliances that only reach the ear from another room. I can feel the dancing dust on the screen under my fingers and the hair standing up on my arm. I cringe with anticipation at the crackling that gathers under the finger until the electrical shock! And I can smell it—that distinctive combination of household particle and arcing electricity. Don’t stand so close to the television!—not just an admonishment to protect the eyes, but also, perhaps, a warning born of suspicion of the industrial everyday. The TV was to deadly electrification as the microwave was to nuclear warhead.

Watch it again.

A typology of Chumak’s hand movements:

1. Fine-tuning: Tweaking the miniscule mechanics. Smaller movements are required.

2. Stroking: While holding one hand still, the other moves outward, as if petting a cat.

3. Gathering up and drawing out: An invisible sphere is constituted with both hands. Once constituted, one hand periodically pulls some threads out of it.

4. Tending to the sphere: The hands pack and repack the sphere.

5. The sign of the cross: Reminiscent of the Christian rite, the right hand draws a plus sign (usually several times vertical followed by several times horizontal).

6. Straightening up: Again, smoothing that which has been conjured.

7. Equalization and balance: The hands move as the hands of a scale, seeking equilibrium.

8. Silence: The hands punctuate action with inaction. Resting in midair, the hands await further instruction.

There has always been an interesting convergence between faith, media and power. Yet here it is not just very much like, but in fact asserted, the mundane gesture, captured by electricity and projected through a TV tube can carry with it an unseen “energy”—an energy with a power to cure from afar, bypassing the gaze. A metaphysics of morning television. An energy that is not an effort. An energy that doesn’t make a sound. An energy that comes as much, if not more so, from within as without. In this way, Chumak becomes the channel for your soul—your soul channel.

Watch it once more. When I turn the youtube transmission up, I hear two tracks now—the hiss of television, and what could be the bleeping of digital information.

Can I still place a jar of cream next to my computer monitor to charge it up? Was the TV the necessary medium for distance healing? Or does it have to do with the experience of late Empire and the failure of our language to articulate the decline? Or maybe it was some combination of naïve fascination with the television, only just making its way into the households of the world as an everyday object? We can’t know, and the ingredients of spiritual experience of this type seem scattered like electrons in search of a screen.

On youtube, a certain “achalkov” keys in his own riposte to Chumak’s session: “Awesome! After this session my mobile telephone was charged!”