'SO NOW what's the matter?' Sergei Gordeev, master wizard, sits impatiently behind a candle-lit desk in his pitch-black office. Two businessmen shuffle nervously in front of him. They have a problem. A small fortune in cash had been stolen from the safe of their flourishing new business. Instead of going to the police, they announced to office staff that they were off to consult Gordeev and rushed round to his office in the State Centre for Culture, a large, grey stone building in the heart of Moscow, to ask him where the money was. The next morning the frightened thieves returned all the cash before Gordeev could begin to weave his magic spells. That was a week ago. Now the men are back to establish the identity of the culprits. 'I can't see you now,' snaps Gordeev. 'I'm booked up all day.' A long queue of dejected-looking Russians line the corridor, awaiting their turn with the sorcerer. Finally he agrees to make a home visit for 210 greeni - Russian slang for American dollars - cash in advance. The fee might seem steep for a consultation with a wizard but the thousands of witches, sorcerers and enchantresses swamping the new Russia can ask almost any price from their credulous countrymen. After 75 years of scientific materialism, Russians remain deeply superstitious. At times of national crisis, they have always turned to the occult. The mystic Rasputin, who gained almost unlimited influence over the Tsarina after appearing to heal her son of haemophilia, ended up ruling Russia in Tsar Nicholas II's absence during World War I. More recently, Leonid Brezhnev kept a sorcerer in his entourage. Religious cults such as the White Brotherhood, which predicted the end of the world last November, attract a number of wandering souls. But the masses are drawn to the traditional folk magic of the koldun (pronounced kaldoon), literally a witch or warlock, but in the modern sense a parapsychologist who uses magic spells to help people - or harm them. Kolduns are ready to improve your sex life, exorcise devils, help infertile women, heal AIDS and find kidnapped relatives or stolen cars. Their 'magic' does sometimes work, apparently more through the powers of suggestion than the powers of darkness. Elik Fishmann, a Moscow scientist, suffered for years from lower back pain. 'I'd been to the hospital but they didn't known what was wrong and didn't want to. Then a colleague told me to go to a koldun who had cured his frostbitten finger, which the doctors had said would have to be amputated. I've never believed in that sort of thing and certainly never intended to try it, but by then I could scarcely walk. She simply placed one hand on my stomach and the other on my back and let her energy or something flow into me. God knows why it works but it does. I'm a new man.' Desperation contributes greatly to the success of the sorcerers. With their panaceas for all ills, they offer an alluring alternative in a society where health care is in crisis, suicides are at a record level, the police force is riddled with corruption and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Natasha Sviridova, a 14-year-old girl with appendicitis, was misdiagnosed with food poisoning three years ago and lay untreated until blood poisoning set in. Even then, the hospital did not have the drugs to cure her. Instead, the doctors allowed her terrified parents to bring a television set into the intensive-care unit where she lay dying so that she could watch a koldun healer, Alan Chumak. 'But by then it was too late for anything.' says her uncle bitterly. 'She died six days later.' Chumak and the healing hypnotist Anatoli Kashpirovsky achieved a rock star following through their top-rated national television shows, broadcast from stadiums bursting with (mostly female) fans. At their peak, almost everyone in Russia seemed to know someone who had been miraculously cured through watching television. But then, five years ago, Kashpirovsky persuaded two women to undergo major abdominal surgery without anaesthetic, having hypnotised them from several thousand kilometres away through a satellite link. One of the patients later admitted she had suffered excruciating pain. After this televised stunt his show was taken off the air. Chumak still appears most weekday evenings to 'charge' with healing properties water that viewers obediently place in front of their television sets. Kashpirovsky is a darkly handsome man who dresses in black and does not bother to get out of his limousine when adoring fans throw themselves in front of its wheels. He has recently returned to public life, running successfully for parliament as a candidate for Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic party. A five-minute party political broadcast showed him pacing about backstage, preparing for a seance with thousands of fans. Following the triumph of the Liberal Democrats, Kashpirovsky was accused by a rival party leader, Konstanin Borovoi, of using mass hypnotism to compel his audience to vote for him. A psychologist called Vladislav Orlov quickly put forward his services to de-programme voters for 100 million roubles (about HK$400,000) but has not yet been taken up on the offer. It would not surprise Russians if their next president was a koldun. As journalist Alexander Volkov put it: 'In America every family has an analyst. In Russia they have a koldun.' Apart from a telephone service similar to the Samaritans, Russians with emotional problems have virtually nowhere to turn, except to folk medicine. There is still a stigma attached to consulting a psychiatrist. Under communism all good citizens were mentally well-balanced: if you were ever treated by an analyst, you could never leave the country or be accepted for the most sought-after jobs. LARISS Meshkova, who lives in a two-roomed flat with her husband, five-year-old son and parents-in-law, suffered a nervous breakdown this year. She spent two weeks in bed and then decided to consult a koldun. 'I want her to tell me if we're going to move out,' she sighs. 'Life has become very stressful. With kolduns we find peace.' Doctors in Russia are notorious for their appalling bedside manner, even in the new private clinics. Lyuba Lagutina, an editor in a publishing house, was at her wit's end a couple of years ago with her five-month-old baby, Filip. 'He cried day and night until he developed a hernia. I asked the doctor what a hernia was and why he had it, but she yelled: 'Haven't I got enough to do without reading you a thesis on something you'd never understand?' She just told me they would have to operate. Another doctor found me crying in the corridor and recommended a babushka said to have special powers. The babushka whispered some spells over him and assured me he'd be fine. I can't tell you how relieved I was. When we got home he slept for 15 hours and the hernia slowly went away.' Under Soviet rule, village babushkas were the only kind of koldun available to most people, but they faced - and often served - a two-year prison sentence if caught. Because of continuing economic decline, they are still the best most people can afford. They will take anything from a box of chocolates to a couple of thousand roubles in payment. But with the advent of democracy, they are now outnumbered by hordes of self-styled kolduns in private practice all over Russia. They have brought out best-selling books, organised courses in witchcraft and carry out mass seances in sport stadiums. No experience or training is required. Their advertisements appear everywhere. Moscow's daily swap-sheet, Iz Ruk V Ruki, features columns upon columns of kolduns advertising under the medical services section. 'Koldun with international reputation,' runs one typical ad. 'Lifts all spells, relieves depression and stress. Protection from curses. Help in business. Spells for success. Healing exorcism. Love spells. Member of the secret lodge of kolduns. Tatiana Sergeevna, tel: 362 64 76.' Gordeev, who also advertises in Iz Ruk V Ruki ('individual consultations with renowned Moscow koldun in the State Centre for Culture, not far from the Kremlin'), is unimpressed by such competitors. 'There are a lot of unprofessional kolduns about. If they work out of their flat instead of an office it means they're charlatans. They claim to have degrees in wizardry. Pfah! Rubbish.' His own particular claim to fame is an astral chart in Moscow's evening paper marking areas of positive and negative energy. His visitor's card proclaims in English: 'Sergei Gordeev, A Russian Professional Wizard'. Flipping it over, he points to the large purple stamp on the back: 'Charged with positive energy in the magic laboratory of S.V. Gordeev'. A new law aimed at curbing the number of kolduns requires all would-be wizards and witches to undergo a test devised by the Ministry of Health. If they pass they will be issued with a certificate entitling them to practice legally. Gordeev scoffs at the notion of measuring magic powers. 'They don't realise this is an intricate art. Witchcraft has been in existence for 20,000 years, its secrets handed down between generations.' If Gordeev caters largely to a business clientele, Yuri Longo's speciality is witchcraft as show business. He studied at drama school and has become famous for bringing corpses back to 'life' and flaying semi-naked women with chains. 'Chains soak up evil energy,' he says. 'It was a tradition in Russian villages to whip naked women with chains until they wept. It was a form of exorcism.' He is also a frequent guest on the Saturday paranormal chat show Third Eye. He came to the attention of a shocked public four years ago through a short television documentary showing him in wizard's robe and hood ('my uniform') prancing around an unclaimed corpse in a Moscow morgue. The body apparently responded to his energy by raising first one hand then the other and finally rising grotesquely off its slab. The performance won him instant adulation, in no way reduced when the 'corpse' gave an interview to Komsomolskaya Pravada newspaper admitting the whole thing had been a set-up. His claims to be able to walk on water, to levitate around his flat and to have made the mummified body of Lenin move ('he wobbled his head a bit') are swallowed with breathless admiration. Sitting in his musty flat, surrounded by purple and black walls hung with chains, brooms and crosses, Longo confirms all the press reports about him, except one: 'I don't take $250 a consultation; I never take more than $100. But I prefer presents. I see very few individuals, mostly government members.' He goes out of the room and returns with a bulletproof vest, signed, 'The Head of Government, Yeltsin'. 'In thanks,' Longo explains, 'for helping his men'. One client gave him the white Mercedes he drives around town. Longo's magic is based on a muddle of the occult, Christian rites and pagan folklore. 'Black magic brings quicker results,' says Alexander Cha, one of Russia's most popular kolduns and a practitioner of white magic. 'Our technique is similar, but they appeal to the Devil and we to the earth and sky. Sometimes we need the forces of aggression for more effective magic. Only five per cent of people who go to kolduns want black magic.' The traditional belief in the evil eye persists: mothers still dislike strangers looking into a pram to admire a baby. But curses can always be removed by a friendly koldun. In one of his books for apprentice sorcerers, Longo recommends attaching a safety-pin to clothing close to your heart to deflect curses. The next time you sense an evil person behind you waiting to cast a spell, you are advised to turn around, look him in the eye, point to the ground and say, 'Evil spirit, return to the earth from whence you came!' LYENA Andreeva and Seriozha Kisilyov, accountants by profession and kolduns by calling, are more typical of the grassroots witch. The pleasant, chain-smoking young pair receive clients in Andreeva's tiny bedsit on the outskirts of Moscow, decorated with posters of horses and a guitar hanging by the door. Slim, blonde and attractive in her jeans, Andreeva is not your stereotypical witch. She deals only in love spells, while Kisilyov diagnoses a curse with divining rods and removes it. They charge $236 a session and Andreeva, who has more clients, sees about 50 people a month. She earns more as a witch than she did as an accountant. She learnt the business from a folk healer and from books, 'I worked out my own spells. First I tried them out on my friends. They seemed to work, so then I branched out.' The phone rings constantly with inquiries. 'The man who just left wanted me to cast a love spell on his girlfriend. I swung my babushka's ring over the picture and told him she already loved him, but he still wanted me to go ahead.' If the ring swings anticlockwise it is a hopeless case. If clockwise, there is hope. If backwards and forwards, the subject is in love with you. She asks a client to bring a photograph of the intended 'victim' of the love spell and, having heated two needles with red thread in the flame of a church candle, she sticks them into the corners of the object's mouth. The client pulls the needles out through the photograph. Two metal divining rods are then used to suck the energy out of the picture and into the client. 'To curse someone, you put the needles through the eyes. I often get people ringing up asking me to cast a curse - usually on mothers-in-law - but I don't do that. One businessman offered me half a million roubles to curse a competitor.' About half of her clients are the wives of businessmen, expected to stay at home while their newly rich and powerful husbands are away on business trips - with plenty of opportunities for affairs. The Russian Orthodox church is greatly alarmed by the rise of witchcraft but has done little to prevent it. 'These people with supernatural powers always existed,' says Sergei Fritzch, a monk from the Pochacv monastery in Ukraine. 'But in the past people tended to turn to the church for help. In our monastery, for example, people flocked to our faith-healers and exorcists. But now the media is full of reports about what miracles these kolduns perform, what powers they have. Also, people think that if they pay a lot of money they must get a better return than from the church, where it's free. What they don't realise is that miracles come from both God and the Devil. Kolduns use the Devil's power and people are giving their souls to the Devil in return for physical healing.' Many Russians who believe in God see nothing strange about a parallel devotion to kolduns. Sixty-three-year-old Ksyenya Brago is a committed Christian but, like many in her church's congregation, is a great fan of the likes of Kashpirovsky and Longo. 'Our priest tells us it is all the work of the Devil but how are we supposed to tell who's who? Lots of kolduns believe in God and use prayers in their spells. I think it's sour grapes on the part of the church because kolduns are so popular.' Most kolduns incorporate prayers and church artefacts into their rites to salve their client's conscience. Irina Goncharova, a statuesquely beautiful koldun who prefers the title 'medium' or 'extra-sense', hangs icons throughout her plushly decorated office and assures visitors that a priest sanctified the place with holy water. She diagnoses illness by probing her client's aura with strangely crackling fingers. Gordeev claims his powers come through a voice. 'Maybe it's God, maybe the Devil. Maybe they're one and the same. I'm not afraid of the church but I'm not a devil worshipper either. I don't practice black magic or white magic. Call me a red wizard!' Even Longo, who is rumoured to use animal sacrifices in his magic rites, insists he uses a God-given gift. 'I have to know what black magic is, but I believe God is stronger than the Devil.' Cha is an unlikely satanic supporter. A jolly, roly-poly fellow with an infectious laugh, he is most famous for inducting his own clinical death on live television and for dispersing clouds by will-power. Like dozens of his Moscow colleagues he runs a course in witchcraft. At 6 pm on a dark evening, streams of men and women of all ages trudge through a snowy courtyard towards a large red-brick building: special school No 17. They file into the biology lab, filled, appropriately enough, with stuffed ravens, skulls and bat skeletons, and seat themselves self-consciously at the desks. In the front row sits 52-year-old Sergei Oksanov, a factory worker. 'At last our Government has seen that we should be allowed to do just what we want. I had my horoscope done a few years ago and it said I would be interested in the occult. I've been on three other witchcraft courses but they were rubbish - all they wanted was our money.' Do his work mates laugh at his interest? 'Not at all, the lads on the shop floor ask me all about it.' Cha bounces in and launches into an account of how black magic is aggressive and white magic defensive. A science graduate, he became interested in witchcraft when holding a prestigious job in the state planning committee. 'We were supposed to say how much money would be spent over a certain period and I found I was really good at it,' he says. He then discovered he also had a gift for extrasensory perception and went into business. Although he has done television appearances, which include bending metal through the power of thought and inducing viewers to do the same, he is not in favour of mass television sessions. 'I took part in Tema [Russia's equivalent of The Oprah Winfrey Show] and induced my clinical death for two minutes. The other kolduns saw my astral body rising above my body. It's a dangerous process but I had to do it twice because the presenter said he missed it the first time round. 'Most of the people who come to me are unhappy. A doctor is only interested in your body, but we are interested in you. We ask about your relationships, your parents, your grandparents. You may come feeling suicidal, but after a chat with me you leave a different person. It's often impossible to explain why you're always depressed or ill and we have a simple answer: you're cursed. We'll lift the curse and you'll feel better. And guess what? You really do.'