This is an uncomfortable book to write. It is also the book that I’ve been preparing to write for my entire adult life, although there is no way I could have known it.
The awkwardness stems from an awareness that my position in writing it is thoroughly compromised. The book you have in your hands (or, more likely, on your screens) is a study of paranoid, conspiratorial, and extremist trends in Russia’s media, film, and fiction since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Given the geopolitical climate during this book’s gestation (2014- on), I fear that it will be interpreted as simply an academic variation on the demonization of Vladimir Putin that has proved both inevitable and unproductive during Putin’s third term as president. In the off-chance that Plots against Russia should come to the attention of media types in the Russian Federation, accusations of “Russophobia” are as predictable as Russian election results (indeed, my inner “Kremlin troll” could compose the appropriate denunciation in seconds flat). It’s one thing for Richard Hofstadter to isolate a “paranoid style” in American politics in the 1960s—he was American, engaged in the sort of internal critique on which a healthy democracy should thrive. To make a similar argument about someone else’s culture is to invite accusations of bias and insensitivity.
During my three decades of studying Russian literature and culture, I’ve been acutely aware of the dangers of exoticizing the Other. In analyzing sexuality, gender, and mass culture, I’ve learned to question a tendency to be attracted to the bizarre, and to try to ground my focus on Russia’s fringe phenomena in a larger context that goes beyond the novelty factor. This becomes increasingly more challenging, in particular because of the role of new media in Russian (self-) presentation. The Internet has an insatiable appetite for just the sort of oddities that are something of a Russian national resource. Yet the world does not need the academic equivalent of the “Meanwhile, in Russia” meme.
But this book is also a capitulation to the reality of Russian mass culture in the aftermath of the seizure of Crimea. I have been studying and teaching conspiracy theory for years, yet was long reluctant to publish my writings on Russian conspiratorial thought out of the concern that I am taking marginal figures and texts too seriously. After all, how accurate would an examination of American media and culture be based on the writings of Lyndon LaRouche? But the last few years have seen most of the conspiratorial ideas (and their proponents) that I have been studying move from the margins to something resembling the center. Nearly all of it gets airtime on Russian state television (not to mention its ubiquity on the Russian Internet).
This sudden, unexpected relevance of fringe thought is disturbing, and not just for all the obvious reasons. It has been essential for me as a cultural studies scholar and literary critic to carve out a space that is intellectually significant, yet fundamentally irrelevant. The field of Soviet Studies thrived during the Cold War, thanks to abundant government funding and the constant appeal to “policy relevance.” That is, the justification for studying the Soviet Union (and even such ideologically distant phenomena as, say, the poetry of Alexander Pushkin) was always about gathering and creating knowledge about the enemy. This was extremely helpful when it came to arguing for grants and tenure lines, but it also threatened to reduce all culture to manifestations of Soviet ideology and the presumably malign intent of the men in the Kremlin. As the gloriously irrelevant Russian author Nikolai Gogol once wrote, in the conclusion of his absurd tale about two men named Ivan feuding over nothing of particular value, “It’s a dreary world we live in, gentlemen.”
Despite the ups and downs in Russian-American relations, one hopes that Kremlinology will have the decency to remain dead. It was always a hermeneutic endeavor of dubious worth, using the Soviet leadership as a screen for the projection of our own values and fears. It also, as we shall see, relied on paranoia as a fundamental interpretive strategy (“What does this Pravda editorial really mean?”) So, despite the fact that this book would pass the policy relevance test of a grant application with flying colors, I hope that it can be understood as the results of years of observation rather than a reflexive response to a regime that does look increasingly authoritarian and paranoid. Indeed, the one obviously politically relevant lesson to be gleaned here is that none of the ideological stances that have become so prominent in Putin’s third term is particularly new, nor can they simply be ascribed to a Putin propaganda brain trust. Even if a regime looks to outsiders as though it is lost in a world of fantasy, the leaders are nearly always building the fantasy on what they already have to work with, that is, on what the culture readily provides.
Which leads me to my final point: while I am viewing Russian culture and politics through the lens of fantasy, I am not arguing that a fantasy-inflected approach to the world is unique to contemporary Russia. All ideology is fantasy, and America is no stranger to fictionally-derived world views (as the past three decades of American Studies have shown). Every culture, and every cultural moment, produces its dominant myths, and some of these myths might even be true. But the fifteen-plus years of a political culture dominated by the same set of people (to the exclusion of virtually anyone who could be considered the loyal opposition), along with the first tumultuous post-Soviet decade that brought this culture into being, provide a precious opportunity to observe the interaction between apparently idle fantasies about a country’s past, present and future (the ideological fictions at stake here, many of which circulated as low-rent entertainment) and the lurching, stopping-and-starting attempts to articulate an explanatory myth (an ideological “just-so” story) about the country’s political destiny (from thebureaucratic fumblings towards a “national ideology" under Yeltsin through the ideological placeholder of “sovereign democracy” to whatever is being formed now). Moreover, all of this is happening in real time.
In other words, there is an argument to be made that narrative entertainments (“literary” fiction, bestsellers, films and television) can yield insight into the broader political culture. To those who greeted the decoupling of literature and ideology in the wake of the USSR, this is a mixed blessing. Thus the subject of my book in many ways recapitulates the evolution of the scholarly field that has produced it, an evolution that (in one of the many Marxist ironies haunting our supposedly post-Marxist world) is largely dialectical. The perceived menace of the Soviet Union lent Russian Studies significance, but threatened to reduce the field to pure utility. The collapse of the USSR released the field from its Cold War gilded cage, with great intellectual benefits, but also at real cost. If Russia was no longer considered an existential threat, Russian Studies itself was threatened with extinction. Now we are suddenly relevant again (however briefly); can we take advantage of this relevance without falling back into the traps of Cold War reductionism?
I certainly hope so. Wish me luck.