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GORNO-ALTAYSK, Russia (Reuters) - Russia's first election for a supreme shaman has provoked uproar in the community of magical healers who are revered by Siberian tribes for their ability to mediate with the spiritual world.
The organizers of the Internet vote say a top shaman would serve in a similar way to the Orthodox Patriarch or Supreme Mufti and help raise the profile of Russia's ethnic tribes after their wretched treatment at the hands of the Soviet authorities.
But in the wilds of eastern Siberia where many people have depended on the wisdom of shamans for thousands of years, there is anger at the elections.
"Shamanism is not a religion, it's a unique phenomenon. To unite us would be very difficult," said Akai Kynov, a shaman in the Altai Republic, some 3,000 km (1,900 miles) east of Moscow.
Kynov, 45, performs rituals in the Altai mountains clad in white and crowned by an immense snow lynx fur hat. He has chaired an informal group of local shamans for a decade and says choosing a supreme shaman could create chaos.
"Everyone will not start beating their drums with joy if they elect a chief," he told Reuters. "The majority will probably slam their fists on the table in protest."
Over 230 shamans from Russia's 11 time zones are competing for the top spot, which will be decided by November. Nominations closed last Friday.
Natives to Russia are not the only ones who hold the elections in contempt.
"This election is a bureaucratic nightmare," said Jonathan Horwitz, a U.S.-born shamanic practitioner and counselor who works at a grassroots shamanic organization in Denmark.
"Traditionally the spirits choose the shaman... voting for it seems misguided on the one hand and absurd on the other."
Rimma Yerkinova, who works in the Altai republic's state museum and has studied shamanism for many years, said attempting to choose a chief shaman was simply "delirium" as they have existed peacefully for centuries without the practice.
The elections are the brainchild of 34-year old Shonchulai Khovyenmei, who belongs to the Akh Khaskha, or White Bone, tribe in the Siberian region of Tuva.
"We are doing this because we want people to know we are not bad, not evil," she said, brushing back her thick black hair, which frames her raised cheekbones and stretches to her waist.
Khovyenmei says her grandmother, who died two years ago, was a shaman but did not pass on "her gift" to her.
"We have been on this land for a thousand years and it is sacred to us... These elections are a form of democracy now that the USSR (Soviet Union) has broken up."
Shamans in Russia are experiencing a post-Communist revival after repression at the hands of the Soviet authorities.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin actively tried to destroy shamanism in the 1930s by having the Soviet secret police pack them off to brutal labor camps, or kill them.
Tales still circulate of shamans escaping persecution by turning into animals.
"These elections are proof that the (shamanic) situation in Russia needs to be urgently addressed," 40-year-old candidate Olard Dikson told Reuters Television in Moscow.
Dikson, who has written many books on shamanism since he "was received" as one on the Pacific peninsula of Kamchatka, believes unity across Russia will encourage spirituality.
Shamans play an important role in many cultures from Peru to South Korea, mediating between the human and spiritual worlds and acting as messengers, healers and magicians.
When contacting spirits, shamans don elaborate costumes of feathers and dangling metallic dolls and attach elongated masks.
In Siberia, students consult them for guidance on their futures. Two years ago, the Moscow football team took shaman Bronislav Vinogradsky with them to the UEFA tournament.
One popular theory is that the word 'shaman' originates from the Siberian Tungusic people, meaning 'he or she who knows'.
Siberian shamanism, its roots entrenched in animism, is thought to be linked to Iranian Zoroastrianism, Japanese Shinto and Indian Tantric Buddhism. Researchers say there are around four million people east of the Ural mountains who are from non-Slav tribes, many of whom use shamans.
Many of the shamans on the list come from families with a long tradition of shamanism and perform unique rituals.
Valentin Khagdayev from the Ust-Orda Buryat region near Lake Baikal is the fifth generation of shamans in his family and has a cleft thumb on his right hand, which he says represents the sixth finger of a shaman.
The east Siberian Buryatia Republic's Vera Taglasova specializes in curing women and children of illnesses, and says she started seeing visions when she was nine years old.
The elections require candidates be from Russia and currently living in the country. Shamans from the United States, Canada and Ukraine were turned down.
Reporting by Natalya Sokhareva in Gorno-Altaysk and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow, editing by Paul Casciato