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Originally published Tuesday, February 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Hypnotism in Russia a street-crime weapon?

He was striking, with dark eyes, a long black ponytail and a stylish suit. He had a large, cheap ring that Olga couldn't stop looking at...

Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — He was striking, with dark eyes, a long black ponytail and a stylish suit. He had a large, cheap ring that Olga couldn't stop looking at as he waved his hand repeatedly in front of her face.

"He was talking gibberish," she recalled. That he had left his wallet in a taxi. That he was supposed to meet someone at Sheremetyevo Airport. That he couldn't remember where he lived.

Olga offered him the $250 in her purse for a taxi, but he said it wouldn't be enough. She found herself leading the man to her apartment. There, she opened her safe and counted out $500. "Can I have more?" he asked. "Can I have the 7,000 rubles in your purse?" Without replying, Olga emptied her wallet into his hands.

As they rode back down the elevator, Olga knew the man was a thief. She knew she should demand her money back before it was too late. But she couldn't open her mouth. "I was in a trance," she said later.

Almost immediately after he left, Olga broke into hysterical sobs and phoned a friend, who persuaded her to go to the police. There, detectives nodded knowingly. "Gypsy hypnosis," they said.

Across Moscow, a chestnut as old as crystal balls and gypsy curses makes regular appearances on the crime logs — hundreds of victims a year who say they were seduced out of their money in seemingly chance encounters with strangers. Many claim they were hypnotized by intense stares, mesmerizing babble and warnings of curses on their loved ones.

A tradition of concern

To some of Moscow's cynical detectives, their desks heaped with Mafia assassinations and billion-dollar business-fraud cases, the idea of street hypnosis has the whiff of mumbo-jumbo. Not so to many Russians reared on folk tales of vampires, witches — and, in the modern era, the hidden powers of the mind.

Czarina Alexandra fell famously under the influence of the allegedly hypnotic powers of the "mad monk," Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, in the early 20th century.

The late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had a personal psychic healer.

Former President Boris Yeltsin's staff included a security consultant hired to protect the former chief executive from "external psychophysical influence" after a mysterious antenna was found in his private office.

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In 2001, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill making it illegal to employ "electromagnetic, infrasound ... radiators" and other weapons of "psychotronic influence" with intent to cause harm.

For years, famous Russian chess masters have suggested that their games were impaired by hypnotists planted in the audience. Garry Kasparov has long credited Azerbaijani psychic Tofik Dadashev with helping him win the world chess championship in 1985 against fellow Russian Anatoly Karpov (who had his own psychologist trained in hypnotic techniques on hand).

A climate for mysticism

The attraction to mysticism has intensified in recent years, Russian sociologists say, because of the tough economic climate and pent-up interest released with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its long-standing prohibitions on dabbling in the occult practices.

"Many people now live on the verge of despair, given their economic situation, which humiliates them and destroys their families," said Yelena Bashkirova, head of the Bashkirova and Partners Independent Sociology Center in Moscow. "They are attracted to psychics, to magicians and witches ... out of fragility and desperation."

Police say the main perpetrators of such street fraud are Gypsies, long the victims of police profiling and widespread public discrimination.

"These are people who have honed their skills to perfection — they have been pulling these kinds of confidence tricks on people for centuries, for generations," Dadashev said.

Many Gypsies scoff at the notion of street hypnosis and accuse the police of unfairly maligning the entire community. "Gypsies have their own unique culture and traditions which, like the ones in all other nations, are based on good, not evil," said Nadezhda Demetr, a Gypsy who has a doctorate in gypsy studies. "Gypsy culture has nothing to do with cheating, thievery and confidence tricks."

But many investigators say they are certain that some suspension of logical thought is involved.

"Could a person operating with all of his faculties agree with a plan under which all of the money he saved during his entire life should be given to these people in the street?" said detective Valery Shkarupa, who has handled hundreds of "gypsy hypnosis" cases.

In Moscow, detectives process an estimated 300 to 400 reports a year of what they call gypsy hypnosis.

Some fraud experts refer to neuro-linguistic programming, a concept that holds that language patterns can put people into semihypnotic states, even in everyday situations. Victims occasionally come to their senses with no recollection of how they lost their money.

"In these cases, the victim would not be able to remember anything at all — a totally blank mind," said Alexei Skrypnikov, a retired police colonel and former psychology researcher at the Scientific Research Institute of the federal police.

"A certain person approached them, said, 'Do this, do that,' " Skrypnikov said. "I can absolutely say that people who are of totally sound mind, and not doped up, are being manipulated into handing over their money and valuables to people who vanish into thin air."

Skrypnikov said the techniques were simple, yet effective.

"The essence of the technique is, form replaces content. Our brain is built so it can process only so much information over a certain period of time. ... In cases where the flow of information is either too powerful and fast, or on the other hand, too slow ... the brain slows down, and the person's level of vigilance drops," he said.

Police have made scattered arrests among Russia's close-knit, secretive Gypsy community. Ethnic Russians are occasionally arrested as well.

But even when a perpetrator is clearly identified, it can be difficult to make a case, said Moscow Detective Andrei Kuznetsov.

"Even if we have a case where someone actually leaves something like a passport at the scene of a crime, we'll go back to their neighborhood, say, a gypsy village in the Vladimir region, and we will end up with a scene where the entire village, 300 people, men, women and children, will come to the town square and swear that, no, [the suspect] was home when the crime occurred, she was sick in bed, they all saw her there."

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