A former astrologer to the Kremlin now reads the political stars on YouTube
Mikhail Levin insists that he is not interested in politics, but there he was, in late January, staring at the camera from behind a laptop, telling 180,000 YouTube viewers what the stars had to say about Alexey Navalny’s future.
Addressing the Russian opposition leader’s January arrest on return to the country from Germany, where he had undergone months of medical care after a poisoning attempt, 71-year-old Levin showed a lunar calendar.
“At the moment of return, there was an amazing thing,” he said. “The poisoning was in August and it’s now January. The moon went through many cycles during that time, but the moment of poisoning is almost exactly opposite the moment of arrest. This means that this is the next step in the development of events, and everything is moving according to the stars.”
“All this change falls into the piggy bank and, when the time comes, it will be used for a revolution in the life of the country,” he added. “The same happened with Yeltsin.”
Levin became obsessed with astrology while studying mathematics at Moscow State University in the late 1960s, a period of relative openness to new ideas in the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, as the nation was teetering, officials working for Mikhail Gorbachev invited him to the Kremlin to forecast what lay ahead. In the early 1990s, after the fall of communism, he provided personalized horoscopes for Boris Yeltsin’s administration, until, he says, he cut ties with the Russian president during the first Chechen War as a matter of conscience.
Since then, Levin has mostly focused on growing the Moscow Academy of Astrology, which he established in 1990. However, one year ago, at the onset of the pandemic, he began providing regular prognostications on YouTube. From the meaning of Covid-19 to the vote to change the Russian constitution, his most popular divinations almost always focus on social and political issues.
As the coronavirus has upended life around the world, astrology has taken on a new life online. Apps like AstrologyZone and Sanctuary have created what, in 2020, Business Insider cited as a $2.2 billion global industry. On TikTok, influencers such as Maren Altman, who has more than a million followers, offer insights on everything from Covid-19 to financial markets and President Vladimir Putin’s next geopolitical moves.
During the pandemic, astrology may make people “feel less random, like there is some purpose to what’s happening to them,” said Omri Elisha, an associate professor of anthropology at Queens College, City University of New York. “It kind of situates their life experiences within a larger narrative, a story that’s unfolding in time.”
Mystical themes bookended both the collapse of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. Rasputin, the faith-healing monk who charmed Empress Alexandra, helped to bring about the fall of the Romanovs, while the search for answers during the nation’s sudden abandonment of Communism in the early 1990s led to a rapid growth in the popularity of esoteric thought. Pseudoscientists including Anatoly Kashpirovsky and Allan Chumak captivated TV audiences with alleged psychic healing performances and drew thousands of people to live appearances.
Levin, who had also become something of a media star, opened his Moscow Academy of Astrology in 1990. Two thousand people applied on the first day, according to a rector who worked at the school at the time.
“I think that people were disoriented on a mass scale and it was just at that time that a ton of people came to astrology,” said Joseph Kellner an assistant professor of history at the University of Georgia, who has sat in on classes at Levin’s academy and credited them with “a serious intellectual approach” to the subject.
Over the past two decades, in a period of relative stability under Putin during which the Russian Orthodox Church has grown in power, astrology’s popularity had been declining. A poll conducted by the government-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center in 2019 found that just 15% of people placed any stock in it — less than half of the 33% who did in 2000.
But Russia has been hit hard by the pandemic — in February, after initially downplaying the numbers, officials admitted that at least 162,000 people had died from the virus in 2020 — and Russian astrologists who have tried to make sense of it have attracted growing audiences.
One video by Angela Pearl — Russian-language YouTube’s most popular astrologer — analyzing how the lunar calendar can help explain Covid-19, has been viewed more than a million times.
Meanwhile, the popularity of TikTok in Russia has led to an explosion of astrology-related memes. The Russian-language hashtag #астрология (#astrology) has been viewed more than 1.5 billion times and #гороскоп (#horoscope) another 3 billion.
During a visit to Levin at his home office, he insisted on reading reporter Tatiana Torocheshnikova’s natal chart — the location of the stars at the precise time of a person’s birth, which astrologers use to conduct individual readings — before granting an interview.
“Ah, Virgo, I see,” he said, apparently surprised. “In general you should be brighter and more open, but you’re pretty reserved.”
Short, with a bald head and gray beard, Levin is thoughtful and speaks in measured tones. In 2012, following months of protests over a disputed parliamentary election, Levin predicted that Putin would be gone within two years. (He says he still “feels deeply” that Putin’s term in office is coming to an end and that “the stars can’t deceive us about this.”)
When asked about such errors, he defends himself and his fellow astrologers matter-of-factly. “On the one hand, people don’t believe us and, on the other, they want 100% accuracy. Just like scientists, I have the right to be wrong, and, if astrologers are wrong, it is much less dangerous than it would be for someone working on a nuclear bomb.”
But Levin says one thing is unmistakable — a change in his students and clients during the political and public health turmoil of the past year that reminds him of times past.
“In 1990 and 1991 all my clients would call and ask, what will happen to us,” he said, emphasizing the last word. “They didn’t ask what will happen to me — they asked about us. And now, all my clients ask, ‘What about our country?’ When will all this end?’”
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