Mischief Managed

If this introduction has made anything clear (an iffy prospect, I admit), it is that the conspiratorial landscape is both a mess and a minefield.  A straightforward map of this territory would be comforting, but misleading.  Instead, we have several paths to follow. First there is the movement of conspiracy from marginal political tracts and popular entertainment to the mainstream of political discourse. Closely tied to this phenomenon is the ever-shifting role of ideology in the post-Soviet era, from the discursive chaos of the 1990s through the empty structure of “sovereignty” in Putin’s first two terms, to the sudden rediscovery of ideology and commitment to a hastily constructed notion of conservative values after Putin’s return to the presidency. Ultimately, the story of ideology after the collapse of the Soviet Union is the story of conspiracy.  

The first chapter of this book ("Conspiracy as Information: The Afterlife of Bad Ideas")  looks at some of the most influential scholarly approaches to conspiracy theory, while also briefly dealing with the mother of all Russian conspiracy theories, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  I situate conspiratorial thought within the context of information theory and meme theory, connecting conspiracy to epistemological habits developed before and during the the Soviet Era. Along the way I propose my own model for understanding conspiracy, one that will be developed over the course of subsequent chapters. 

Chapter Two (“Secret Societies for Creative Anachronism”) continues this discussion, charting the progress of conspiracy from ideological tracts to fiction.  These texts include works that take conspiracy theory seriously (Norka’s The Inquisitor), books that use conspiracy as part of a larger philosophical or satirical point (Pelevin’s Homo Zapiens), and novels that satirize conspiracy without entirely rejecting it (Bykov’s Living Souls,and, to a lesser exert, Oleg Kashin’s Gorby-Dream).    

Chapter Three (“American Horror Story: Liberalism and the Dystopian Imagination”) turns to a new subgenre of Russian science fiction called “liberpunk,” which purveys visions of a nightmare future in which the values of liberalism and tolerance triumph. In addition to the genre’s contribution to the construction of “Political Correctness” as a clear and present danger to Russian life, liberpunk provides a useful lens for examining contemporary Russian  anti-americanism (a term I strongly dislike, but invoke here as a commonly understood placeholder). 

Chapter Four ("Russian Orc: The ‘Evil Empire’ Strikes Back”) further develops the theme of imaginative fiction and its relation to geopolitical fantasy.  Here I look at the ironic adoption of the name “Orcs” to describe Russians who reject and are rejected by Western culture.  The Orc phenomenon is rooted in a common misreading of Lord of the Rings, in which Sauron and Mordor are understood as stand-ins for the Soviet Union.  The philological inaccuracy is unimportant; what matters is how resonant this idea quickly became.  Thanksto creative rewritings and Tolkien  fan fiction (Perumov, Yeskov), and in no small part to Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric, the creative appropriation of modern fantasy’s best-known villains is a fascinating discursive strategy, one that, in turn, provides the ironic framework for Victor Pelevin’s novel S.N.U.F.F.

Chapter Five (“Flights of Fancy: The Malaysian Airliner as Rorschach Test’)  is dedicated to just one case study: the conspiracy theories involving the Malaysian jet that was shot down over rebel-held Ukrainian Territory in 2014. 

Chapter Six (“The Talking Dead: Articulating the ‘Zombified’ Subject under Putin’) considers one of the basic problems in contemporary Russian-Language political disagreements:  the constant undermining of the status of information itself, and the concomitant disregard of one’s opponents as dupes.  This is not a recapitulation of Peter Pomerantsev’s thesis in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.  To the contrary, Pomerantsev’s book is simply one more symptom of the overall problem.  This chapter traces the importation of the “brainwashing debate,” which started in the US in the 1950s and intensified in the 1970s, as it is assimilated in post-Soviet Russia.  The Russian equivalent of brainwashing is “zombification,” and it is almost always tied to the malign influence of television.  This chapter does not support zombification/brainwashing theory.  Instead, I analyze the way in which the constant accusations of “zombification” by actors on all points on the political spectrum serve to undermine the very idea of subjectivity and agency. 

Chapter Seven ("Words of Warcraft: Atrocity,  Fantasy and the Invention of Novorossiya”)  looks at the conflict in Ukraine and its relationship to imagined primordial communities.  Part of this chapter argues for an inherently conspiratorial element to nationalism, while the other treats the Ukrainian conflict in terms of more than a decade of Russian-language fantasy about Ukraine and its status as a battleground in the proverbial “clash of civilizations.” Among the phenomena examined are communities of war reenactors and Russian-language science fiction; one of the leaders of “Novorossiya” was previously best known for his pseudohistorical war games, while another had been writing potboilers about World War III on Ukrainian territory for years. 

From the breakdown of chapters, it should be evident that I am not aiming for a Grand Unified Theory of Russian Conspiracy Theories, nor am I trying to catalogue and examine all the major species and subspecies.  By tracing conspiracy and fantasy through a set of diverse phenomena, many of which are not obviously conspiratorial on the surface, I am working agains the inherently conspiratorial epistemology that insists on “always connecting,” and that would see all the manifestations of conspiracy thinking as part of a cultural master plan.  Instead of an overly coherent conspiratorial cultural system, I see the multiple, messy, and often unpredictable results of pervasive conspiratorial thinking. What starts out as ideological melodrama often ends up as theater of the absurd.  Contemporary Russian culture  is 150 million characters in search of a plot. 

Chapter One Begins: Conspiracy and Entropy