Life as a Shaman

With the political change, the decay of the Soviet Union in 1991, the shamanism of Russia has also entered a new phase. Its practice is now basically free like that of any other religion (in Russia, shamanism is usually counted among the religions). The main focus is still Siberia (main areas Tuva, Buryatia, Yakutia, Khakassia and the Altai). Kolkhozes (collective farms) and sovkhozes (state-owned farms) no longer exist.

To the regret of the shamans, shamanism is not supported by any superior (international) organisation or religious community. The Russian Orthodox Church can count on generous state aid, as can be seen from its magnificent buildings (many churches have been newly erected). President Vladimir Putin never misses an opportunity to pour out his cornucopia on the dominant Moscow Patriarchate and thus secure its support. Buddhist temples and groups throughout Russia can also count on help.

Everyday life for shamans in Tuva

For Tuva’s shamans nothing like this happens – for the simple reason that there is no worldwide shamanic church. Every shaman has to see for himself where he stays –the “new freedom” can be reduced to this short formula. To put it casually, they can be glad not to be persecuted and imprisoned anymore or to be threatened by the deprivation of their civil rights and the loss of their properties, but they cannot count on special support.

Thus, the shamans have essentially three options:

  • They can organizes themselves as members of kind of a guild, as full time shamans and thus receive rights, but also obligations (1).
  • They can work independently exclusively as shamans (2).
  • They can work non-independently (i.e. have another bread and butter job) and practice on the side (3).

The largest and best describable group is now (1). Most of the shamans of Tuva are organized in several societies, the oldest and largest on is “Düngür” (“Drum”); it was founded by the shamanism researcher Prof. Mongush Borakhovich Kenin-Lopsan in 1991 – a step pointing into the future. According to Kenin-Lopsan, in April 2012 there were 1400 shamans registered in Tuva, 400 of them in “Düngür”.

Members of the groups (2) and (3) represent the so to speak “classical” situation of Tuva. Besides their daily work as shepherds, cattle breeders, blacksmiths, farm or factory workers, they put shamanic skills into the service of their families or clans – typical “sideline workers”.

Occasionally there were full-time (2) shamans who were widely known and travelled regularly, i.e. were “invited” – the Tuvan language has its own expression for this: “Chogdurgan cham”. To reward them generously was a matter of course, and it may have happened that there were well-off shamans. The prerequisite for prosperity, however, was rather the ability to hold together what had been acquired, and this art seems to have been mastered by only a few. In any case, enough songs have survived of shamans lamenting their own poverty or the stinginess of their patrons.

Shamanism in the city

In the 150,000-inhabitant city of Kysyl live “some” of the second and “several” of the third group, exact numbers are missing. There are workers, employees, teachers, craftsmen and representatives of other professions among them. Some do not call themselves shamans. Known in Kysyl is an engineer, who is considered a seer and excellent healer – but according to his own statements he is not a shaman. On the other hand, a teacher at the Polytechnic Institute is known: She owns a drum and a shaman costume, practices if needed, and makes a point of being considered as shaman. There are no difficulties with her employer.

The shamanic societies (legally they are associations) shape the change in the structure of shamanism in Tuva the most. They would have been unthinkable in Soviet times. An additional impulse undoubtedly came in 1993 from the American-Austrian FSS expedition led by Finnish ethnologist Heimo Lappalainen: here, Tuva’s shamans experienced first-hand how efficient cooperation in groups can be, especially since the proverbial saying beforehand was: “One shaman is strength, two shamans are strife”. Each member pays 3500 roubles (83€) from his income (on average 15 000 roubles, 360€) per month to Düngür, from which the running costs for the house (owned by the association) at Rabochaya 245 in Kysyl are paid, plus heating (coal), electricity, wood, pension contributes and the wages for the staff. This consists of a chairman (newly elected in 2011 Ak-ool Dorschu Monguschewitsch), a secretary and a janitor, who does repairs and has security duties. This is necessary in Tuva because the country is considered notoriously unsafe. Robberies and burglaries are common – everyone who can manage it has two, sometimes even three steel apartment doors with one to three locks each. Most apartment owners believe that security is something you simply have to afford.

The most important right of Düngür members is to be able to use the premises of the house for shamanic sessions – of course in agreement with colleagues and the secretariat. In the summer months it is usually no problem, because there is also work outside, but in the icy winter it can be tight. The only working room has often experienced rituals of five shamans at the same time, but has reached a limit with that. This is one of the main reasons why Düngür depends on outside help to expand and grow.

There is no separate pension as a shaman, but every Russian is entitled to an old-age pension – even if they have never been employed, which applies to many shepherds, fishermen and hunters. The minimum pension was 6,169 RUB (in 2011 this was 147 EUR), the official subsistence minimum was 6,788 RUB (151 EUR). Why not even the official minimum is paid is one of the inscrutable mysteries of the Russian system. An orphan can only count on 5,028 RUB – the state obviously assumes that he or she would not be able to live without the help of an adult anyway. One can live reasonably well on 15,000 RUB (average income 16,700 RUB). Higher employees with appropriate qualifications (teachers, professors, engineers) can expect about 25,000 RUB. Lawyers and judges earn four times that amount.

Shamanism and conventional medicine

The clientele of shamans includes all strata of the population, Tuvinians are more likely to be among them than Russians. But clients also come from Russia, Europe, Asia and the USA. One shaman says: “Essentially, it’s a matter of trust. Those who trust me come back”. Cooperation with doctors and hospitals works without prejudice. Doctors usually don’t mind shamans coming to the hospital – but it’s better to ask them first. Some doctors send sick people directly to shamans. There is regular cooperation with a psychiatric clinic. Directors occasionally invite shamans to “cleanse” the hospital.

If someone dies, a shaman is almost always called in Tuva – according to general opinion, they are the only ones who can talk to the soul of a deceased person; Buddhists and Christians generally think similarly. Conflicts between religions hardly ever occur; in Tuva, the principle is that anyone can get whatever they need from anywhere. The shaman is the professional interpreter in the conversation between the deceased and the surviving relatives; the shaman finds out what the deceased needs, who of the relatives he/she wants to “bring along” and what the family has to “pay” to be spared (usually an animal is sacrificed – this is the most “democratic” solution, as everybody gets something out of it). The tradition is that the shaman makes a ritual for the deceased on the 7th day, on the 49th day and on the death day in the 3rd year.

The ideas of the afterlife sound familiar. If someone has lived righteously, his soul goes to paradise (“Düwaaschan”). A woman who has given birth to at least five children, for example, has kind of a right to this: “She will be reborn in the land of her ancestors”, assures a shaman. “And if one was an evil person, then the soul goes to the land of Erlik, the lord of the underworld. Erlik, however, does not take everyone”. What that alternative is remains open, especially since Erlik sometimes grants hospitality to good people and torments of hell are not known. Fortunately, Tuvan folk mythology knows a myriad of heavens – the white, the blue, the red, the black, the nine heavens, the Kurbustu, the Chagar heaven, etc. – there should be something suitable for everyone – whether sinner or saint.


Paul Uccusic (1937-2013) was a journalist and founding director of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies Europe.

Aldynai Seden-Chuurak is professor of English at the state lyceum in Kysyl, the capital of the Republic of Tuva, and a certified interpreter for English, Russian and Tuvan.