The only thing that united the discursive landscape of Russian in the 1990s was the common perception that Russia had reached a truly terrible state of affairs. It is this cultural logic of pessimism to which I devoted most of my pervious book, Overkill: Russia was the train wreck that compelled all eyes to stare at it. To the extent that a common Russia narrative existed, it was one of downfall. But the culture had not developed a unifying story to tell itself about the ruins of the USSR.
Yet this lack of a metanarrative, while lamentable to so many, was also intellectually and artistically liberating. From the outside, the collapse of the allegorical imperative looks very much like what Westerners expect when discussing liberalism and pluralism: various new or revived narratives were competing for primacy in a market of ideas that was so open as to be practically devastated. By no means did life have to be meaningless, but, in a strange, implicit cross between the Protestant ethic and French existentialism, if you wanted meaning, you had to work it out for yourself. Those who expressed anxiety over the lack of an Idea reflected a deep discomfort with this state of affairs: it was not enough for people to find meaning for themselves; meaning was only meaningful if it was for everybody.
Hence one of the developments that, with the benefit of hindsight, proved to be crucial for the subsequent emergency of Putinist Russia: the states’s growing intolerance of religious pluralism. The collapse of the USSR did not immediately lead to a wide-scale embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Instead, missionaries for a whole range of Protestant denominations and new religious movements (NRMs, more commonly called “cults” in English and “sects” in Russian), competed for post-Soviet hearts and minds. A series of panics about so-called “destructive” or “totalitarian” sects (particularly the Great White Brotherhood of Maria Devi Khristos in 1994 and Aum Shinrikyo, a group that had been very active in Russia before its 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system), exacerbated by the sensationalist media and active opposition on the part of representatives of the ROC, would justify increasingly harsh strictures on “foreign” religious activity. In 1997, the Duma passed the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which officially recognized Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism as traditional religions, and required all other religious organizations to go through a registration process that became increasingly onerous over the years.
Falling far short of an official establishment of the ROC as a state church, the Law nonetheless represented a significant narrowing of the religious field. By the same token, it was in the 1990s that a variety of relatively secular Russia narratives would compete with each other, particularly the various conspiracy theories that are the subject of the next chapter. All of them treated the ideological fluidity of the 1990s as a problem to be solved. As we shall see, each offered its own allegorical reading of Russia’s history and fate, and each either predicted or advocated the resolution of the country’s cultural crisis through the institution of a strong, centralized leadership with a single ideology. While these trends were visible enough in the 1990s, they are simply obvious in 2015, thanks to the retrospective narrative that began in Putin’s first term: the 1990s have become the terrible time of troubles from which only Putin could save Russia.
Next Monday: Ten Years That Shook the World