The CIA's interest in magic is fully shared by the KGB, but since the Kremlin is not likely to publish the relevant information, as the CIA did last week, we have to reconstruct it ourselves from a number of clues that have become available over the years.
The CIA became interested in the subject during the cold war, when the study of Soviet brainwashing techniques led it to sponsor research into telepathy and other aspects of parapsychology. Adm. Stansfield Turner, the Director of the CIA, said last week that the secret U.S. project, named MKULTRA, was terminated 12 years ago. But what of the KGB?
When the KGB expelled Robert Toth of the Los Angeles Times from Moscow in June, it accused him of trying to obtain a scientific paper on Soviet work on "psi particles" that purported to explain such phenomena as telepathy. "This material is secret," said a KGB document, "and it shows the kind of work done in some scientific institutes of our state."
This statement has been received somewhat skeptically in the West, but for once the KGB is right. Secret work on parapsychology is indeed being carried out in the Soviet Union. A conference held by the University of Kazakhstan, for instance, discussed the relationship between lasers and telekinesis (the movement of an object apparently without the application of material force). Five of the papers presented to the conference on this subject have been identified in the Soviet scientific press as having been pulished in 1972, but they are not available abroad, since they are presumably regarded as state secrets.
In 1973, the Soviet journal Problems of Philosophy published a nine-page analysis of the claims of parapsychology by four Soviet scientists who concluded that "evidently, some of the socalled parapsychological phenomena really do occur," and recommended that the study of the subject should continue in Soviet scientific establishments. In 1975 the entry on parapsychology in the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia confirmed that such studies were in fact under way in "appropriate" Soviet scientific institutions, including those that deal with psychological, physiological and biophysical research.
One reason so little is known in the West about Soviet work in this area is that the KGB regards it as its own preserve. A Jewish emigre from the Soviet Union, Dr. August Stern, has described recently the work he did in a Siberian laboratory that was looking for the "psiparticle." As reported by Flora Lewis in The New York Times, the experiments involved applying electric shocks to newborn kittnes to see whether their mothers, three floors above, reacted through some mental connection. He worked for two years and found nothing. By the time he left the Soviet Union in 1974, he was told that the only work being done on parapsychology was continuing under KGB auspices.
Another reason we know so little about the Soviet work may be that there is not much in it that is worth knowing. For years telepathy and parapsychology were officially frowned upon in the Soviet Union as bourgeois "pseudosciences." It was only in the late '50s that Soviet researchers were able to obtain official backing for their work by pointing to reports that the U.S. Navy was looking into the possibilities of telepathy as a means of communication for nuclear submarines.
Leonid Vasilyev, who had conducted similar experiments in Leningrad in the '30s, was promptly "rehabilitated" and allowed to publish several books on telepathy.
A number of scientific institutions and societies were encouraged to set up their own research groups, which have occasionally been mentioned in the Soviet press. One of the Soviet Union's leading stage magicians, Volf Messing, a lapsed rabbi, was allowed to publish a book in which he claimed to have supernatural powers. Charlatans proliferated. Komsomolskaya Pravda reported, with a straight face, a telepathic experiment in which images were transmitted over a distance of 2,000 miles, between Moscow and Novosibirsk.
When the credentials of the experimenter, Karl Nikolayev, were questioned by skeptics, another Moscow paper promptly sprang to his defense by reporting that his grandfather had been one of Russia's first Marxists. He was obviously trustworthy, because his father was a Communist Party member. "Unlike Volf Messing," said Moskovskaya Pravda, "Karl did not have to go to a religious school."
That was not quite fair to Messing, without whose help Soviet parapsychology probably would not be where it is today. Fame came to him at the beginning of the last year, when his mindreading tricks had a huge success with theater audiences. His income was commensurate with his success. He made millions of rubles and was able to buy two aircraft for the Red Army out of his earnings. In his book, published in Moscow in 1966, he recounts a meeting with Stalin, who was apparently so impressed by his talents that he had them investigated by the secret police.
Since Messing survived to tell the tale, he must have convinced the secret police that he had something to teach them. The KGB's more recent interest in scientific phenomena bordering on the occult must owe something to this master magician, who would certainly have been available to teach the Soviet secret police some of the dirty tricks that John Mulholland, the New York magician, taught to the CIA.
Admiral Turner says that project MK-ULTRA included the study of "aspects of magicians' art useful in covert operations." Mulholland, according to one of this associates, had been asked by the CIA to report on the claims of yet another magician who said that he could transmit telepathic messages over long distances. The only difference between the CIA and the KGB is that the first has given up its efferts, and the other is continuing them.