Huge Tracts of Land

The Russia narrative is conspiratorial in the sense that all narratives are:  the ordering of mere events (story) into a coherent set of connected motifs, trends, and patterns (plot) always suggests a guiding hand, whether that be the hand of God, the invisible hand of the market, the laws of history, or simply (and most commonly) the author’s concerted efforts to create a narrative that will makes sense to the reader or viewer. [1] Ironically, even the experimental cinema of Warhol or Resnais, or the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet, only remind the audience of the author’s guiding role through its demonstrative abdication.  In other words, we are back at the linguistic coincidence built into the English word “plot.” 

But it should be evident by now that I’m arguing for the Russia narrative as a special case of conspiratorial thought.  Again, it is not the only case, and the prominence of conspiracy in Russian culture is not unique.  No doubt one can argue for a conspiratorial basis to a variety of national cultures, with America being no exception (indeed, if there is anything that proves this, it is American exceptionalism). My hope is that the Russian case will prove useful for a general understanding of conspiracy, and that the application of conspiracy studies to postsocialist Russia will be equally productive.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, feature of the Russia narrative is that it places Russia squarely at the center of modern world history.  The only reason this might surprise Americans (and perhaps the French and Germans) is that they think this spot has already been occupied by none other than themselves.  It is in the nature of a great power (current, aspiring, or fading) to adopt such a world view, because history provides so much confirmation bias; presumably, it would require more effort for Lichtenstein to cast itself in a similar heroic role.  

But it is also worth noting the crucial role played here by geography.  Not by actual geography; I have no interest in making a claim about the role of the steppe or the forest in the formation of the Russian “national character” (or worse, the “Russian soul” or “Russian mentality”). [2] What is remarkable, though, is how many plotters behind the Russia narrative want to do precisely that.  Both Eurasianism and pochvenichesto (a kind of nationalism both metaphorically and etymologically rooted in the soil) elevate geography to ideology.  Berdyaev famously compares Russians and Jews as two competitors for messianic status as nations, but the two could not be more different when it comes to geography.  The Jewish diaspora (as opposed to Zionism) makes nationhood and the national idea portable (hence modern), while Russia has tended to look on emigration with skepticism, if not hostility. [3]   

Thus in the postmodern, postindustrial age of global capital and transnational cultures, the Russia narrative pushes in the opposite direction.  It implicitly fights the forces of deterritorialization with reterritorialization.  This is why the recent attempts by intellectuals associated with the Russian journal and website Snob to develop the category of the “global Russian” seem so radical; the global Russian (usually identified as such in English rather than Russian) lives “where s/he feels like” and can be comfortably Russian in virtually any part of the world. 

By contrast, the pull of the Motherland is more often cast in spiritual or metaphysical terms. This is such a truism that one need not look very hard to find abundant examples, but it is worth recalling an argument I previously developed in Overkill : again and again,  it is the Russian prostitute who demonstrates the superiority of Russia over the foreigners who abuse her (the heroine of Intergirl, almost literally driven to death by boredom in Sweden; the prostitute in Brother 2, whose spiritual superiority to the (mostly black) Americans who surround her is axiomatic, and the protagonist of Scherbakov’s series of “Nymphomaniac” action novels from the late 1990s, a prostitute whose sense of morality is so fine-tuned that living in the hypocritical West nearly kills her).  Most people throughout the world prefer to live in their country of origin, but in Russia, where the question of diaspora has been so vexed by multiple waves of emigration and historical restrictions on leaving the country, dissatisfaction with an adopted homeland traditionally taps in to national myths of soulfulness, sincerity, depth, and justice, as opposed to (Western) cynicism, superficiality, and proceduralism. 

Indeed, emigration itself , whether cast as betrayal or simple “brain drain,” so often features in the fantasy of anti-Russian conspiracy. Witness Putin’s July 2015 condemnation of Western foundations that “hook” children on “grants” to get them to leave home and work for the benefit of foreigners (who presumably cannot do without Russia as a source of intellectual as well as natural resources). The plot against Russia at the heart of the Russia narrative nearly always involves attacks on multiple levels of Russianness. Values and spirituality, economic and military power, and cultural autonomy are the abstract analogues to the more tangible realms of vulnerability:  natural resources, borders, and territorial integrity/sovereignty.  Since 2006, the Russian media and blogosphere have been claiming that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lamented the injustice of Russia’s share of the world’s oil and mineral wealth (Siberia should therefore be under international control).  This quote has no legitimate source.  Albright herself has denied saying any such thing, while Putin has managed to have it both ways (“I’m not familiar with this quote by Madame Albright, but I know that such thoughts wander through the minds of certain politicians”).  This fake citation is part of a perfect feedback loop, reinforcing both the rapaciousness of Americans (and particularly the Clinton administration, responsible for the bombings in Serbia) and the greatness of Russia itself.

Next: Punch-Drunk History


[1] Future obligatory note on the Intentional Fallacy.

[2] Future citation of Pesmen and Shnirelman.

[3] Future citation of Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century.