MOSCOW, Russia — Bank robbers have threatened tellers with knives, shot their way into banks and tunnelled up into vaults. But one woman in southern Russia chose a more peaceful method: Police say Galina Korzhova hypnotised a bank teller into handing over tens of thousands of dollars in what is believed to be just one in a series of daring, if non-violent, bank robberies.
Galina Korzhova was arrested, said Anton Kornoukhov, a spokesman for police in the southern city of Volgograd, on suspicion of hypnotising a bank teller in the nearby town of Volzhky into giving her more than $80,000. She is suspected of having robbed up to 30 additional banks in what Russian media have called a "grand tour" around the country.
“She met the woman on the street, saying that she would remove curses and help cure sick relatives,” said Kornoukhov in a telephone interview.
Korzhova is accused of telling the bank employee, whose name has not been released, to put the money into a plastic bag and meet her outside the state bank Sberbank, on Communist Street in the small town. There, the case goes, the teller gave Korzhova the money.
The robber took off with 30,000 euros, $20,000 and the rest in rubles for a total of 2.6 million rubles or $81,000, police said.
The teller only realised what she had done a couple of hours later and told her bosses at the bank what had happened.
Strangely enough there is a well-known tale of a Sberbank teller being hypnotised on longtime Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s orders. Wolfgang Messing was a German Jew who escaped to the Soviet Union from the Nazi Germany after he predicted Adolf Hitler's regime would collapse. Messing was said to be Stalin’s personal psychic and claimed that he hypnotised a teller to hand over 100,000 rubles as an experiment on Stalin’s orders. The Soviet secret police later gave the money back — the teller had a heart attack when he heard how he had been tricked.
Police say that Korzhova is a "tsiganka," or Roma. Police, who are often criticized for racial profiling, say this type of crime is most often perpetrated by Roma who are traditionally involved in fortune telling and are often seen begging in Russia.
The Roma, or Gypsies, are nomadic people who live throughout Europe. Human rights groups say they are severely discriminated against in Russia and that police routinely assume their guilt and harass them.
Russian police say that hypnotism is not widespread but is not uncommon. It is usually limited to street crimes and does not reach the level of bank robbery.
In 2003, Yulia Shestakovich, an Olympic synchronised swimmer, said she was hypnotized on the streets of Moscow, after which she took two strange women to her flat and handed over cash and jewelry worth $19,000.
Shestakovich said at the time that she had no memory of what happened — a woman asked her the time and she woke up two hours later.
Another victim said that she was told that if she gave away all her money then a curse would be lifted from her.
“It happens a lot,” said Yevgeny Vishenkov, a former police investigator and deputy head of the Agency of Journalistic Investigations, saying he saw hypnotism used when he was working as a policeman in St. Petersburg in the 1980s. It happened “not only in Soviet times but before 1917,” in Czarist Russia, he said.
One of his colleagues was even hypnotised, recalled Vishenkov, after he arrested a man for possessing hashish.
After leaving his colleague to interrogate the subject, Vishenkov returned to find the suspect leaving after hypnotising the younger policeman, who had given back the hash and let him go. Vishenkov promptly arrested the man again and found the marijuana in his sock.
“We at first thought that he had bribed his way out but he had no money and he had hypnotised [the officer] by telling stories and singing songs,” said Vishenkov.
But Vyshenkov said he had one surefire method to keep himself from being hypnotised: “I tell them to shut their mouth.”