When Mikhail Gorbachev called for “glasnost” in 1986, he clearly had no idea what he was getting into. Unless you subscribe to the no-longer-entirely-marginal theory that he was an agent of the CIA whose job was to destroy the USSR—in that case, job well done. The distinction between these approaches says a great deal about conspiracy’s appeal: five years of chaos and uncontrolled collapse becomes an evil agenda successfully implemented by traitors. Empirically, the result may be one and the same, but conspiracy at least provides an enemy as an almost life-affirming alternative to nihilism.
If Gorbachev’s own words are to be believed, he saw glasnost as a means for mobilizing the masses towards positive change. His 1987 manifesto Perestroika (which became an international bestseller despite its soporific contents) indicated that glasnost would help people “to participate in the restructuring effort consciously” (75). What he got instead was one of the most prolonged outpourings of negativity ever seen. And conspiracy was a perfect fit.
After all, one of the defining features of the cultural landscape under Gorbachev was the seemingly endless series of revelations about the falsification of history and the whitewashing of the regime’s crimes. It’s one thing to hear someone talk about a cover-up, which is a standard component of conspiratorial thinking (as with the alleged aliens in Roswell), but it’s an entirely different matter for the government itself not only to validate the cover-up story, but to be actively involved in exposing its predecessors’ crimes. For all intents and purposes, perestroika proved that conspiracy was real.
For a conspiracy to be compelling, it must have a specific, presumably nefarious purpose. Again, surprise parties function like conspiracies, but there’s a good reason we don’t put the two in the same category. Certainly a wide range of conspiratorial ideas gained an audience during and after glasnost, but the conspiratorial master trope was inevitably about the fate of the motherland. In the introduction, I talked about the “Russia narrative” (the self-reflexive story about Russia’s nature and its role in the world); the late 1980s show us that the most compelling Russian conspiracy theories are about this narrative’s end: plots against Russia. Decades after Stalin’s death, glasnost built apocalypse in one country, rather than socialism.
That conspiracy and apocalypse are linked is not at all surprising. As Stephen O’Leary puts it, "The discourses of conspiracy and apocalypse . . . are linked by a common function: each develops symbolic resources that enable societies to address and define the problem of evil.” (O’Leary, quoted in Barkun). But the localization of conspiracy and apocalypse in Russia is worth dwelling on.
As this post’s title suggests, all apocalypse is local—even with the resources of modern communications networks, the end of the entire world can only be experienced by synecdoche. For someone dying in an explosion, there is presumably no way to differentiate between a localized bomb and total planetary destruction. Our knowledge that the rest of the world goes on without us could be emotionally significant (as Samuel Scheffler argues in Death and the Afterlife), but it is unknowable in the moment. American contemporary apocalyptic fiction certainly plays with this dilemma: the heroes of Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy and the protagonists of The Walking Dead have no idea whether the plagues visited on them are global or restricted to North America. For all intents and purposes, the rest of the world may as well be gone, since there is no longer any way to communicate with it.
The Russian apocalypse, however, is different: it depends on the outside world’s continued existence as the source of evil. The Russian apocalypse is the inversion of the post-apocalyptic tales so popular now in North America: rather than effectively removing the rest of the world from the picture, the Russian apocalypse is the result of a global conspiracy to wipe the Motherland from the map.