False Messiah or Putin’s Pawn? The Strange Saga of Grigory Grabovoi

Sep 30, 2014 at 3:16 PM ET

The gunmen arrived at the school in two vehicles, survivors would later recall. It was a sunny morning on Sept. 1, 2004, and hundreds of people—parents, teachers and children—had gathered at School Number One in Beslan, North Ossetia, a small republic in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region. They were there to celebrate the start of the new school year, but instead encountered heavily armed men who quickly herded them into the gym. The gunmen’s demand: the withdrawal of Russian troops from the neighboring republic of Chechnya.

President Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB officer who had come to power largely as a result of his no-nonsense approach to the “Chechen problem,” was in no mood to negotiate. On day three of the siege, Russian security forces stormed the school, triggering a massive exchange of gunfire and multiple explosions. More than 300 people died in the process, more than half of them children. Many of those who survived were crippled for life. Even in a country long accustomed to brutal violence, the deaths shocked Russia. In many respects, both in terms of the national trauma and the subsequent security clampdown, the event was Russia’s very own 9/11.

But the horror wasn’t over for the bereaved parents of Beslan. Several months after the massacre, a savior in a bad suit appeared in town. On the surface, he didn’t look like much. In this video, which appeared in 2004, he resembles a rumpled pencil pusher more than the second coming of Christ. And when he clears his throat to speak, he sounds about as charismatic as a broken radiator on a cold night in Moscow: “Er, hello,” he says. “I, Grigory Grabovoi, born on Nov. 14, 1963, in the village of Bogara in the Chimkent region of Kazakhstan, announce that, I, Grigory Grabovoi, am the second coming of Jesus Christ.”

Several months after the siege, Grabovoi began making headlines in Russia. Not only was he claiming to be the messiah, but he also said he possessed psychic healing powers. These powers were so great, he said, that he was able to resurrect the 186 children who died in Beslan. But miracles, especially in Russia, rarely come for free. According to the reports at the time, Grabovoi and his “social and political organization”—Drugg—were demanding roughly $1,500 per corpse for their life restoring services.

On the surface, it may seem absurd that anyone took Grabovoi seriously. But in post-Soviet Russia, his rise isn’t as mind-boggling as it may initially seem. In the late 1980s, as the officially atheist Soviet Union began to implode, a centuries-old belief in the occult re-emerged, turning society on its head. In the twinkling of a red star, Russia transformed into a land that was mad for magic and mysticism. Town halls that once hosted Communist Party meetings now saw sorcerers with Ouija boards trying to conjure up Lenin’s spirit. State television broadcast “healing sessions” with Kremlin-approved “psychics.” Magical charms were on open sale in city markets. The state newspaper, Pravda, ran horoscopes.

This passion for the paranormal continued unabated after the Soviet collapse. According to a 2013 estimate, for example, Russians spend $30 billion every year on clairvoyants, urban witches and psychics. Therefore, it’s not very surprising that a number of bereaved mothers from Beslan—out of their minds with grief and seemingly willing to believe in anything and anyone—joined Grabovoi in Moscow months after the massacre for “healing sessions.” The women, all members of the Beslan Mothers advocacy group—a grassroots organization dedicated to finding out why so many people died when Russian security forces stormed the occupied school—were fervent supporters of the self-proclaimed savior.

“I believe in this miracle, and I know that it will come about,” the group’s founder, Susanna Dudiyeva, announced at a Drugg seminar in 2005. “My maternal instinct tells me this, my maternal faith.”

While the bereaved were willing to believe, for rational-minded Russians—and there were still many—Grabovoi couldn’t have done more to outrage his fellow countrymen. Public indignation, whipped up by the media, intensified, and Grabovoi was eventually arrested a year later after a sting operation carried out by a Moscow journalist. His sentence was 11 years behind bars on fraud charges—cut to eight after an appeal.

And that’s when things got really confusing. In late 2008, as the Kazakh-born messiah was reportedly painting religious icons in prison, his followers began a campaign to have their leader recognized as a prisoner of conscience. Grabovoi had been jailed, Drugg declared, because he had announced his intention to run for president. “One of my first acts will be to ban death,” Grabovoi had promised. Whereas Putin was merely offering voters the rebirth of the Russian empire, Grabovoi was proposing the resurrection of family members and friends. And the Russian president, if you believe Grabovoi’s supporters, had their savior silenced because he was spooked.

But not everyone believed Grabovoi was a threat to Putin. In fact, some of Russia’s finest investigative journalists suspected—and published reports—claiming the very opposite, that Grabovoi had been a willing Kremlin pawn, a perfect distraction for those seeking answers to some very inconvenient questions about what happened at Beslan. The opposition-friendly Novaya Gazeta newspaper alleged that Putin’s permission had been sought before Grabovoi’s arrest, such was his measure of protection.

Today, 10 years after the massacre, Grabovoi’s strange rise and fall remains one of the most complex and poignant stories to emerge from Putin’s Russia. Since his early release from prison in 2010, almost no one has seen or heard from the man who appeared out of nowhere and tried to heal a nation. Dozens of questions remain, and over the years, I’ve tried to find the answers to as many as I could.

Several years ago, while Grabovoi was serving his sentence, I arranged to meet journalist Vladimir Vorsobin, the man whose sting operation had almost single-handedly put an end to the cult leader’s activities. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like for the 30-something journalist to know that he had been responsible for putting the leader of one of Russia’s biggest and most influential sects behind bars. Was he worried about revenge attacks, crazed cult members crawling around his flat at night, pouring acid in his face on the metro or poisoning his tea at his favorite café?

“At first, yes, I was freaked out,” Vorsobin said as we stood and chatted in central Moscow, just a short walk away from the Kremlin. “But then, you know, I realized that the rank and file who follow Grabovoi’s teachings, they are basically kind at heart.”

“They are all very educated,” he went on. “But like a lot of people in Russia, they are looking for something.”

We sat down on a bench and continued to talk.

“Before I started,” Vladimir recalled, “I spoke to lawyers who told me that it was impossible to convict Grabovoi. He had, they said, everything covered legally so that nothing could be traced back to him. On top of this, he was guarded by some guys who used to work in the ninth—that’s the KGB unit that was responsible for protecting the Soviet leadership.”

Undeterred, Vorsobin set about laying a trap.

“I went to see them, and asked them to resurrect a fictional stepbrother. They told me it would cost 1,000 euros. They had an office in the center, a secretary, a bookkeeping department, as well as stamps, documents, the lot.”

“They even gave me a receipt!” he said, laughing and shaking his head. “I went to pay the money at a branch of Sberbank [a Russian state-run bank]. After I had paid up, they told me to go to the Cosmos hotel in north Moscow one evening, around 11 p.m. There were around 40 or 50 people there, including some of the Mothers of Beslan. You can imagine the turnover—50 people at 1,000 euros once or twice a week. They had minimal expenses as well. They just took a room and saw everyone there.”

Vorsobin sat in line until the crack of dawn, and as the sun came up over a rocket-shaped monument to Soviet cosmonauts, he was finally ushered in to see Grabovoi. The guru, Vorsobin recalled, looked shattered. “But then again, what do you expect? He’d been resurrecting people all night.”

Finding himself in the presence of the “messiah,” Vorsobin turned on his concealed recorder and asked Grabovoi to resurrect his nonexistent stepbrother. Even for an exhausted Grabovoi, this was apparently a simple task, something accomplished with the wave of his hand.

“‘OK, it’s done,’ he told me,” Vorsobin recalled, still incredulous, years later. “He didn’t even glance up! He then said my stepbrother was living somewhere to the south of St. Petersburg.”

Even though he had gone to the hotel with the intention of setting up Grabovoi, Vorsobin couldn’t help but feel as if he had been cheated—“1,000 euros for less than two minutes!”—and he asked if he could have a chat to go with his miracle.

“How can you do all this? Are you God?” he asked, getting in the big question first.

“Yes, I am Lord God,” Grabovoi replied.

“Do you know everything?”

“Yes, I see all.”

“Nice one,” Vorsobin said, and left.

The popular daily Komsomolskaya Pravda published Vorsobin’s article, and it caused quite a stir. He then got a call from the prosecutor’s office asking him if he had documents to back up his story. But despite the Moscow police taking an interest in the case, they didn’t bring charges against Grabovoi. At least, not at first.

“Someone high-up didn’t want it to happen,” Vorsobin said. “A bit later, I wrote about how I had tried to have Grabovoi put away. After that, the cops called me out of the blue and said, ‘Don’t leave the city for the next five days or so.’”

The “someone high-up,” the police told Vorsobin, had experienced a change of heart, and the order had finally been given to arrest the guru. He was detained the next evening in the Cosmos hotel, and that night’s resurrection session was indefinitely postponed.

Before we parted, I asked Vorsobin what he thought of the accusations that the authorities had used Grabovoi to discredit the Mothers of Beslan group. Did he buy into them? Or were they just another conspiracy theory?

“After the Beslan terrorist act,” he told me, “the Mothers of Beslan were the highest moral authority in the land. They could have done whatever they liked with Putin. The whole country looked up to them. They started to seriously attack the authorities over the siege of the school and the botched rescue operation. That threat had to be neutralized.”

Vorsobin paused.

“Someone in power,” he added, “or at least this is how it seems to me, said to Grabovoi, ‘You want to resurrect people? Go ahead, but start with them.’”

Eager to probe further, I visited the offices of Novaya Gazeta, the investigative newspaper with journalists who are among the most respected in Russia. I had arranged to meet veteran reporter Yelena Milashina, whose articles had suggested the Kremlin had used Grabovoi for its own nefarious means. Milashina was wary when I first called her, telling me that if I was “interested in making out that Grabovoi was some kind of political prisoner,” then she wouldn’t waste her time. Eventually, I managed to convince her to talk.

We met at the paper’s drab yet bustling offices in central Moscow. Milashina looked and behaved exactly as I imagined an investigative journalist would in one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters. She chain-smoked and stared at me with intense concentration through her glasses. I wouldn’t call her unfriendly, but she certainly didn’t have time for small talk.

“Grabovoi wasn’t so interested in getting money from the Mothers of Beslan,” Milashina told me as we sat in the paper’s canteen sipping possibly the cheapest tea in Moscow, “but rather in involving the group’s leaders in the sect, to compromise and discredit them.”

In the months after the hostage crisis, there were allegations that the authorities had employed excessive force far too early, and that continuing negotiations could have saved scores of lives. It would later emerge that Russian security forces used flamethrowers, and possibly even napalm, during the “rescue” operation. There was more. There were troubling allegations, for example, that Mi-24 attack helicopters had been used to end the siege, and that Russian forces had shot 80 percent of the victims. There were also grounds to suspect that at least one of the terrorists had links to the Russian security services.

In 2005, after Putin had refused to sanction a parliamentary commission to look into the incident, the Mothers of Beslan started independently seeking answers to these questions and others, all of them highly inconvenient and potentially damaging for the Kremlin. The grieving mothers subsequently caused a storm of controversy when they accused Putin of incompetence over his handling of the Beslan attack, releasing footage that seemed to prove that the explosions that had triggered the end of the siege had been caused by grenades launched by federal forces.

Still, I wasn’t entirely convinced. Even if the group was a threat to the Russian authorities, how did the news that they had taken a chance on Grabovoi’s dubious powers harm their reputation? Surely the public must have realized that the Beslan women were being manipulated by a heartless fraudster? It just didn’t seem an effective way to discredit your enemies.

“It was very effective,” Milashina said. “The Mothers of Beslan were insisting that our special forces, and not the terrorists, caused the first explosions when they began their attack. But after their involvement with Grabovoi, they were immediately labeled ‘crazy.’ You should understand that they were seeking to take very high-up figures to court; we are talking here about Vladimir Putin and FSB generals.”

As Ella Kyesaeva, one of the Mothers of Beslan who failed to be persuaded by Grabovoi’s claims of otherworldly powers, stated in an interview with Russia’s Kommersant newspaper: “When our women went to Moscow and came back with the slogan, ‘Our children will be resurrected,’ everyone thought that we had all gone out of our minds. And that means that they just stopped listening to us completely. The authorities decided to neutralize us.”

Still, something still didn’t fit.

If Grabovoi had been used by the state to “neutralize” the mothers of the children killed at Beslan, then why, I asked Milashina, was he jailed on fraud charges? If he was working for the authorities, why had they then not looked out for their man?

“The entire situation with Grabovoi and Beslan was extremely serious. Even media outlets that didn’t usually pay attention to such things picked up on it. Public outrage was so great that the authorities had no choice but to act,” Milashina told me.

Did the Kremlin simply sacrifice Grabovoi after achieving its aims? After all, as Milashina pointed out, the authorities didn’t question or jail any other members of Drugg. Russia, of course, is awash in conspiracy theories. But after speaking to Milashina and Vorsobin, this particular possibility no longer seemed far-fetched.

Later, during my research into why some of the Mothers of Beslan believed in Grabovoi, I came across a book that Drugg published for its members to use at seminars. The Bible-sized tome entitled Resurrection and Eternal Life Are Our Reality From Henceforth! contains pages and pages of documents confirming Grabovoi’s “powers.”

Flicking through the pages, the names of the organizations and officials willing to testify caused me to do a double take. The post-Soviet need to believe in something, anything at all, had enabled Grabovoi to weave his wicked spell, but these testimonies played on another very engrained Russian trait—a deep respect for official documents, signed and stamped.

Some of the more impressive highlights were the Russian space flight center officials who stated that Grabovoi’s performances in tests designed to evaluate his powers proved that “psychics should be used to prevent and correct errors in aviation and space systems” and a contract with Uzbek National Airlines to protect flights carrying the country’s president. Professors at Rostov State University in southern Russia also had no qualms about verifying Grabovoi’s paranormal abilities.

“You have to remember when these documents were signed and stamped. We are talking about the late 1990s,” Roman Shleinov, the head of the investigation department at Novaya Gazeta, told me. “Things were extremely tough financially back then in Russia. It wouldn’t have cost much to buy this kind of proof.”

I knew what he meant. This period of almost total economic collapse led highly qualified professors and scientists to moonlight as taxi drivers. I had personally been driven across Moscow by more physicists and engineers than I could even recall.

“The Russian space flight center stuff doesn’t really surprise me,” Roman went on. “But when you see a professor at a state university testify that Grabovoi could influence events at a sub-molecular level…”

He shook his head.

But what about their professional reputations? Did they not care that by lending some official credence to Grabovoi’s bizarre claims, they risked destroying their professional standing?

“They didn’t give a damn about that!” Shleinov said. “Who knew what tomorrow would bring? Better to get paid today.”

The Grabovoi affair may seem like a one-off aberration, the meeting of the complex nature of Russian politics and the country’s fondness for the supernatural. But the concept of the physical resurrection of the dead through science was common in the early years of Bolshevik rule, inspired mainly by the ideas of Nikolai Fedorov, a 19th-century Moscow-based ascetic philosopher. Fedorov was convinced that the resurrection of the dead was scientifically possible, and that it was humanity’s moral duty to undertake this task. Mankind, the celibate thinker maintained, was the tool nature had chosen to resolve its greatest flaw, i.e., death. His ideas continued to thrive after his death.

As Russia marked the 10th anniversary of the Beslan massacre earlier this month, I attempted to contact Grabovoi. I wanted to ask him about the bizarre and unsettling events that unfolded after Beslan. I wanted to know how it felt to inspire such total belief, and if the experience had changed him. But when I called his lawyer, he would only confirm that the mystic from Kazakhstan—this would-be messiah in a rumpled suit—was living in Russia and undertaking “scientific research.”

In 2008, before he went to prison, I had also tried to interview Grabovoi. I reached out to him through Drugg, but he was reluctant to speak to me. And so, after Russian officials put him behind bars, I spent the next couple of years unsuccessfully trying to interview members of his Drugg organization. I became mildly obsessed with the group, stalking them online, scouring news reports for any mention of their activities. They had been holding demonstrations all across Russia in support of Grabovoi, but these events were infuriatingly reported on the Drugg website only after the fact.

And then, just as I was losing hope, I got lucky.

One afternoon several years ago, as I made my way home to my central Moscow apartment, I saw them. They were gathered near the Kropotkinskaya metro station, incongruously in between a Soviet-era statue of Friedrich Engels and the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, the home of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The demonstrators held signs bearing phrases including “Salvation from the global crisis lies in the technology of Grigory Grabovoi” and “The trial of Grigory Grabovoi made a mockery of the Russian people and human rights!”

There were around 10 protesters, most of them women. I didn’t know why there were so few in attendance, but I was glad to have a chance to speak to the rank and file.

I first approached the women holding the “salvation” and the “mockery” signs. They looked friendly enough, if a little spaced out, creepy and pale, but I didn’t let that deter me.

“Why do you want to see Grabovoi freed?” I asked.

“We believe in his teachings,” one of the women responded, smiling.

Now, believe me, I had searched for wisdom in Grabovoi’s dense and tedious writings. And found none. Actually, I hadn’t really discovered anything that even made sense. His material was filled with sentences that weaved in and out of sanity, and logic as solid as mist. I failed to see how anyone could even have understood enough to figure out what exactly he was saying, let alone be impressed enough to join up, but I let that pass.

“He was tried unfairly,” said another woman.

But what about the money he took to resurrect a person who didn’t exist?

“That was a lie,” the second woman said.

This was the ideal opportunity for a classic “no, it wasn’t,” “yes, it was” row with Moscow cultists, but I just wasn’t up for it.

Instead, I changed tack.

“So can he resurrect people?”

That was what I really wanted to know. Did they actually believe that Grabovoi could, as he had claimed on many occasions, bring the dead back to life? Could he make putrid flesh dance again and rotten eyes see once more?

“He scientifically explains the process of resurrection as described in the Bible,” the second woman said. “Only God can resurrect people,” she went on, as if explaining things to a cretin. “But Grabovoi teaches people how to use their powers to resurrect their dead bodies.”

There were so many contradictions in her answer that I was momentarily struck dumb. How could I respond to something so clearly lacking in logic?

“See you in 50 years!” said an elderly demonstrator as I headed off home.

In 50 years?

“The world is changing!” he explained.

He shot me a smile of genuine joy, and then he was gone.

The image of the smiling Grabovoi follower stayed with me. For all Grabovoi’s cynical manipulation, the elderly man who had promised to see me in 50 years had been genuinely happy. Brainwashed and confused maybe, but happy nevertheless. In a land where the average pensioner is among the unhappiest people on earth, this in itself was an achievement.

As I came to the end of my investigation into the Grabovoi affair, I re-examined again the testimonies of miracles in Grabovoi’s “Resurrection and Eternal Life Is Our Reality From Henceforth!”

In one of the accounts, a witness speaks of how he has been “catching glimpses out of the corner of his eye” of a relative that Grabovoi has undertaken to bring back to life. “But when I turn my head, there is no one there.”

His experience mirrors that of the nation. In a sense, Russia and the Russians have long been “catching glimpses” of a better day, brief moments of collective hope quickly deflated by the realization that their optimism was unfounded. This ability to believe passionately, for a short time at least, in the promises of charismatic figures is a very Russian trait. From the heroic workers who labored in Stalin’s mines to hasten the dawn of communism to the perestroika-era crowds who supported Yeltsin in his struggle against Kremlin hard-liners, the Russians have always been ready to invest everything in the quest for a brighter day. But, invariably, their hopes have never lasted long, and the line between love and hate is so small here as to be barely discernible.

Grabovoi, with his Fedorov-inspired notions of immortality, had offered yet another utopian dream to his followers. And, like millions of Russians before them, they had bought, uncritically and passionately, into his vision.

I couldn’t begrudge Grabovoi’s elderly believer his smiles.

Marc Bennetts is the author of Kicking the Kremlin (Russia’s New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin), published by Oneworld Publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @marcbennetts1.