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  • As Above, So BelowAstrology and the Fate of Soviet Scientism
  • Joseph Kellner (bio)

An idea must come first, a fantasy, a fairy tale. These are followed by precise calculation. And ultimately, the execution sits as a crown atop the idea.

—Konstantin Tsiolkovskii

The astrologer Mikhail Borisovich Levin was among the last in the Soviet Union to hear of the August 1991 coup. As that committee of hard-liners clung desperately to the center in Moscow, Levin was thousands of miles away from the capital and several miles above it, hiking in the Pamir Mountains of Uzbekistan with a small group of acolytes. The news reached him via a forester with a shortwave radio. Although Levin does not claim to have foreseen the coup, he recalls locating it on the astronomical tables he carried in his bag and assuring his companions that it would quickly collapse: "Everything was fairly clear at that point. I would put it this way: the beginning of the 1990s, from the cosmic perspective, was a point of great cultural rupture … it's predictable. It's a particular cycle. Practically the entire 72 years from revolution to dissolution could be calculated."1 [End Page 783]

At this great cultural rupture, Levin found his cosmic perspective in high demand. Parallel to his respectable scientific career, he had pursued astrology in underground circles since the early 1970s. Now he was working full-time as rector of the Moscow Academy of Astrology, where thousands of astrologers would train through the 1990s and up to the present day. He was also a fixture in the newspapers, on the radio, and on the television, confidently sharing his astrological insights with an eager public.

Before 1988, the Soviet public was granted practically no access to astrological texts or horoscopes. Yet one study of belief in Russia, conducted in 1990, showed that 49 percent of respondents believed that the stars influenced their lives, including 32 percent of self-identifying atheists.2 Another study, conducted a year later, found a majority of Russians with some belief in astrology (far fewer believed in God) and, moreover, that this belief correlated to higher levels of education (although this trend reversed among those holding advanced degrees). Among college graduates, 57 percent believed.3 These levels persisted through the 1990s: a study conducted in 1999 showed that 42 percent believed astrologers' predictions.4

By 1992 syndicated astrology prognoses appeared on the major Soviet television channels, and by 1993 syndicated horoscopes were run even in Kommersant, Russia's premier business newspaper.5 Less esteemed newspapers—that is, those with far greater readership—had been running astrology columns since the press was liberalized in 1990.6 In addition to printed and televised horoscopes, professional astrologers offered private consultations, though only some of these professionals had been trained and certified at formal astrology schools like Levin's. They competed with a cottage industry of dilettantes, at least some of whom read disaster in every natal chart and charged liberally for deliverance.7 [End Page 784]

This article locates Soviet astrology's cultural origins and explains its extraordinary visibility in that country's last years, during which it became shorthand for a much larger cultural transformation. On the one hand, astrology's utility in a time of crisis is self-evident. The promises and plans on which Soviet people had built their lives had rapidly eroded, and astrology, claiming knowledge of both the present and the future, would naturally provide succor to some. The discipline was a map and a compass for those who were disoriented.8 On the other hand, all variety of orientations were on offer. Yet astrology stands out as a true mass phenomenon, ubiquitous in the press and attracting high levels of interest from broad segments of the population.9 Moreover, its origins seem obscure. There was only a fragmented domestic tradition in pre-Soviet Russia and none to speak of in the USSR, and no foreign or international groups were invested in its success at the time of the collapse.10 When it did appear in media outlets across the country, it appeared as a supernova, sudden and brilliant, from a patch of sky long assumed to...