Visiting Assistant Professor Dmitry Bykov made controversial claims concerning purported occultism amongst Russian secret service members during his April 2 talk that perturbed various professors present. 

Bykov is the first speaker of  UR’s “Scholars in Exile” program, which hosts academics and intellectuals driven from their home countries due to political persecution. Bykov is a man who wears many hats; his profile on  UR’s website calls him a “journalist, biographer, public intellectual, novelist, poet, media personality, [and] professor of literature.” Before teaching at UR, Bykov held teaching positions at Moscow State University, UCLA, and Princeton.

His page on UR’s website also explains why he is teaching in the United States and not in his native Russia. 

“In April 2019, as the result of his outspoken criticism of the Putin regime, Bykov was poisoned by the same Russian FSB operatives who a year later poisoned political opposition leader Alexei Navalny,” the website reads. He was exiled from the country in 2022.

“Being exiled in Russia is like winning a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize,” he said. “It means you’re a good writer.” 

To Bykov, the so-called “deep state” is a secret network of individuals who make important governmental decisions outside the public view. The members of Bykov’s supposed Russian deep state include the secret police, who have worked under various names throughout the history of Russia. 

In his talk, Bykov claimed the Russian deep state traced back 700 years to the origin of that secret police, which he said presided over Moscow while terrorizing political dissidents. This secret police had direct control of the government and used its power to keep tabs on Moscow’s populace and terrorize political dissidents, according to Bykov. 

Associate Professor Matthew Lenoe of the University’s History Department felt that Bykov lacked evidence to substantiate his bold claims and was imprecise in his use of language, such as the term “occult.” He believed he saw inconsistencies with Bykov’s theory, as such secret police could not have existed in fourteenth-century Moscow, which, in Lenoe’s words, “was a tiny principality without a government bureaucracy, much less a secret police.” 

Per his University profile, Lenoe has a PhD in Russian History from the University of Chicago and has taught at UR since 2006. Lenoe has published books on Stalin-era Russian history in both the Harvard and Yale University Presses. 

Bykov also claimed that Ivan the Terrible employed special operatives, called “oprichnina,” to surveil and torture potential political threats. Moreover, he claimed that these secret service members were also active occultists who believed in magic and attempted to conduct paranormal rituals. In contrast, Lenoe asserted that the “oprichnina” were not secret agents and magicians, but instead were fanatical warriors who swore blind loyalty to Ivan and openly pillaged the homes of noblemen whom Ivan suspected were traitorous.

In a subsequent interview, Bykov posited that high-ranking Russian officials, up to and including Vladimir Putin, subscribe to satanic ideals idealizing human suffering and hatred. Bykov went as far as to say the use of torture by clandestine Russian agencies is part of a greater agenda meant to promote suffering, which Bykov called “the natural state of the Russian citizen.”

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