A Modern Fatal Witch Hunt

Terekhovo, Russia — There is really no mystery about what happened in this forgotten little village on the night of Feb. 22. Sasha Lebyodkin and his terrified nephew, Sergei Gretsov, went on a witch hunt. Armed with hammers and knives, they entered the house of the woman who they said had cast a spell on them and started swinging.

When they were done one woman was dead — the first murder here since the Revolution — and four of her five children were on their way to the hospital. The 22-year-old woman whose life they were after, Tanya Tarasova, suffered several hammer blows to the head, but survived.

Saying they were spooked by wild, half-human beasts and dogged by incantations that set their eyes on fire, the killers were not reluctant to admit what they had done. And with mysticism and sorcery a pervasive fact of modern Russian life, the other residents of this village on the border with Ukraine weren't a bit surprised.

"We went there to kill the entire family," the two men said in a joint statement the next day. "Because Tanya has used her black magick and sent ruination upon us."

So far the only legal proceeding to arise from the attack has come from Lebyodkin's wife, Larissa, who has sued Miss Tarasova, for "putting a hex on my husband and destroying him," she said. She has also requested that the police confiscate a book called Black Magick that was found in the house on the night of the attack.

"This would all be meaningless," said Gennadi Chekaldin, the police officer who has been given the unpleasant task of trying to "solve" the crime. "But you can't find anyone here to tell you that witchcraft wasn't involved in this killing. In fact, you can go anywhere in Russia these days and witchcraft is a daily part of life."

At times Russia seems governed as much by superstition as by democracy. One of Moscow's, and the nation's, most popular weekly television programs, "The Third Eye," whose engaging host is Mikhail Andreyev, the president of the Association of White magicians, is a straight, factual discussion of how sorcery and witchcraft can improve one's daily life. (Last week's show featured a lesson in how to "protect your house with the aid of an ordinary needle, and how to use a big tailor's needle to cast special spells.")

Major national newspapers advertise the services of clairvoyants, witches and warlocks every day. Well-trained doctors at respected hospitals see nothing unusual in recommending that their patients take a trip to a "babka," an old woman with the power to heal. Until late last year, Gen. Georgi Rogozin was in charge of a team of Kremlin staff astrologers whose sole job was to help guide President Boris Yeltsin in making decisions.

"We have had in this country a very long period of total absence of spiritual education, and people completely forget what religion really means," said the Rev. Alexander Bulekov, from the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, explaining the power of pagan beliefs for Russians. "People have lost their spiritual immunity to resist evil. They have become confused and they often have trouble knowing what is good and bad."

Asked if beliefs in witchcraft were more prevalent in remote, rural areas, Bulekov said no.

"We witness it far more often in the cities," he said. "In villages the old attitudes toward the church are still alive and immunity against evil is better preserved."

Still, the story of the Terekhovo witch hunt is a tale out of the Middle Ages. A web of lies, competing spells and dueling witches, it is a story that even people who have lived through it find hard to believe and harder to tell.

Tanya Tarasova was a young woman who kept to herself in a village of only 100 people. That was suspicion No. 1. She has a lazy eye, a common enough problem, but one often viewed as a sign of the demon to those devoted to pagan beliefs. She was remote — and most damning, often took long, solitary walks in the woods.

After she had a few dates with Sergei Gretsov, a local woodcutter, he started to have horrible visions. His mother said Miss Tarasova had put a curse on Sergei because he would not marry her.

"He would wake up in the night screaming and afraid," his mother, Galina Gretsov, said in an interview. "Every day it would get worse. He said he saw her face on the head of a beast with enormous horns. He would sweat and scream and beg me to look at the beast. Of course I never saw it. But Sergei was always a normal healthy boy. Until he met her."

Sergei sought the aid of his uncle, Sasha, who said he also came under Tanya's spell. Prompted by his wife, Larissa — a 36-year-old woman deeply anxious about her inability to have children — the three took the hour long bus ride to see Maria Pashenko, 70, the region's most respected babka.

"The young one told me he was haunted by a beast and that whenever he went to the forest the beast was there," Mrs. Pashenko said in an interview in which she abruptly pulled a large silver cross from her bed covers and began casting a "good" spell on the people in the room. "He said he wanted to get married but the evil eye was on him and that the beast had prevented him from going back near the girl."

Only one clear fact has emerged from the crimes: The lives of half a dozen people have been ruined over the belief in magick.

Miss Tarasova, interviewed in the hospital where she is recuperating from the attack, denies being a witch. She said she never wants to return to her village and she cannot understand why a young man she liked would try to kill her.

Her uncle, Stepan Kopilov, is 70. He has lived through the Bolsheviks and the hunger of farm collectivization. He has lived through the painful upheavals of Yeltsin's reform program — which have been felt with particular harshness in this agricultural region. But he has never seen anything as agonizing as this.

"These men killed my sister," he said, standing in the house where Tanya's mother, Raisa Tarasova, died. "They talk of black magick and horrible spells. She was a decent woman who worked every living day. These men are the ones who are evil."

The police do not know what to make of the crime. "We can't just tell everyone in this town that magick is nonsense," Chekaldin said, even though it is clear that he would like to. "But we have to bring justice." The two men who committed the crimes are now being held in the nearby city of Kursk, where they have been examined by psychiatrists, who have yet to issue a final report on them.

Mrs. Pashenko, the babka, swears that while she can recognize the "evil eye," she never uses it.

"I cast only good spells, I cure people and help them with my special waters," she said. "I never use the evil eye." She said she had nothing to do with the attack — although she acknowledges that the two men and Mrs. Lebyodkin came to her after it.

"Larissa was sitting here, and I asked what happened," she said, making it clear by her facial gestures that Mrs. Lebyodkin was in deep distress. "She was scared but she could not speak. I had to put her eyes and her nose and her mouth back in their right places. I used special waters. I asked what happened but nobody could speak. They just said nothing."

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