Catastrophe of the Week

“By the way, why do you always connect what’s happening to the Antichrist?”

“You mean you still don’t understand that the Bible is encrypted sociology?”

Sergei Norka.  The Inquisitor, 279

In the year 2000, New Line Cinema came out with a relatively novel schlock horror film about a bunch of teenagers who cheated Death, and Death's relentless attempts to get back at them.  It was called Final Destination,  and it ended with the refreshing temerity of killing off its entire no-star cast (in increasingly baroque and bloody fashion). The title, the plot, and the body count turned out to be a challenge to sequel-happy Hollywood:  try to make a series out of that.  Three years later, the movie was followed by Final Destination 2 then, in 2006,  Final Destination 3 then The Final Destination 4  in 2009, and, in 2011, Final Destination 5  (not to mention nine prose novels and a comic book miniseries). The word "final" turns out to be less the ordinal designation of a position in a sequence than simply a brand promising endless, iterative finality. 

If only there were truth in advertisting...

If only there were truth in advertisting...

 Now imagine the Soviet Union as a Hollywood blockbuster, complete with heroes , villains, and, of course, romance. The movie ends with the destruction of the entire country.  Granted, it happens off-stage, as in a Greek drama (the final blow comes when three leaders meet to sign documents in the middle of nowhere),  but still, there is a finality to the story. If you're the director, what do you do for an encore? 

As it happens, you do it again.  And again.  History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as franchise. We're all familiar with stories about the end of the world:  predictions of impending doom are an ironic constant of the last two millennia, while our own country's proliferation of doomsday cults, moral panics, and, of course, movies that lovingly blow up all our national monuments suggests that America is anything but immune.   But Russia after the dismantling of the Soviet Union has the dubious honor of being perhaps the only country in the world that is both pre- and post-apocalyptic at the same time.   

The title of this section comes from a television program that ran on Russia's national TV6 channel from 1994 to 2002:  Катастрофы недели (Catastrophes of the Week)  was one of many Yeltsin-era television programs devoted to bad news.  Most of the others were daily updates about terrible, and occasionally comical, crimes committed in the capital and elsewhere, with all the loving detail of CSI but none of the special effects, and none of the comfort that comes from knowing that you're only watching fiction.  "Catastrophes of the Week" widened the scope of post-Soviet bad news, covering all the juicy calamities to afflict the entire world over the previous seven days.  As the capstone to the daily programs that seemed designed to make sure Russians knew that they were living in dangerous times, "Catastrophes of the Week" was in many ways the distillation of a post-Soviet apocalyptic sensibility: it is not enough that bad things happen, but they must also be transformed into discourse (narrative news and sensationalist video), and, most important, assimilated into the viewer's consciousness.  Intentionally or not, the Russian media and culture industry after 1991 devoted a great deal of energy and airtime  to "miserytainment," heightening the already pervasive sense of imminent collapse. 

 The years since the USSR ceased to exist show an evolving relationship to cataclysm: from roughly 1991-1998, apocalyptic narratives were primarily found in the realm of "news" (a word I use in quotes), of journalism (a word I probably should use in quotes, but don't), and the equivalent of the op-ed.  In Lacanian terms, these are narratives that purport to be about the Real, but whose drama play out far more effectively in the Symbolic (if not the Imaginary).  A slew of actual disasters (the 1998 financial collapse and several acts of spectacular terrorism), followed by an eventual economic upswing thanks to high oil prices, see the apocalypse move back into the textual (and, by extension, audiovisual) realm that spawned it, temporarily returning to metaphysical rather than explicitly political questions.  Soon, however, the specter of collapse (and, indeed, the specter of a time when all people could think about was collapse) would be invoked by Putin and his proxies as the raison d'être for his particular type of regime. 

Of course, post-Soviet Russia did not introduce apocalypticism to the Russian world.  It takes little expertise or erudition to note that eschatology (the preoccupation with the end of days) has deep roots in Russian culture.  The country's conversion to Christianity in 988 brought with it a Christian teleology, framing profane history between the perfection of Eden at the beginning and the Second Coming of Christ at the end.  In a very real sense, Christianity brings the apocalypse to Russia, at least in the sense that "apocalypse" was originally understood.  The word "apocalypse" of course literally means "revelation," but it has come to stand for the events described in Christianity's most famous Revelation: the last book of the New Testament.  The Revelation of John sets a crucial pattern for much of the Christian world:  the precondition to the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the salvation of believers is cataclysm.  Only after the near-total triumph of the forces of evil will Christ return to redeem the world.  

Medieval Russia would not be alone in seeing signs of impending apocalypse everywhere, but it would have the misfortune of suffering actual events that looked dangerously close to Armageddon.  When the Mongols invaded Russia in the early thirteenth century, it looked to many  like the end of the world.  By the same token, when the invasion proved to be merely history (that is, one terrible event among many), it colored Russian conceptions of what the Apocalypse would look like. With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes obvious to even the most eschatologically-minded Russians that the Mongol Invasion and the Tatar Yoke were not the Apocalypse, since both good and bad people lived to tell the tale, and the Second Coming did not follow.  At best, it was a dress rehearsal for the Apocalypse (dress was casual, dismembering was optional). It also established a messianic pattern for Russia's role in the world, since it led to the national myth that Russia somehow stopped the Mongols from conquering Europe.  Russia sacrificed itself, becoming the Christ of nations. 

A purely Christian apocalypse has its villainy baked in: the enemies are Satan, the Antichrist, and our own sin.  But once we move from that framework, we encounter that classic Russian conspiratorial question: who is to blame? 

 Next:  Waiting for the End of the World