Waiting for the End of the World

The marriage of apocalypse and conspiracy in Russia is largely a late- and post-Soviet affair, though the two had been flirting for years.  Since the last days of the Russian Empire,  apocalyptic fervor has been a recurring phenomenon, one that that, while sometimes invoking conspiracy, did not entirely rely on it.   At the end of the nineteenth century, we find an increasingly decrepit Russian empire whose educated population was convinced that their way of life is coming to an end.  Subsequently, Russia joined the rest of Europe in experiencing the First World War as the death knell for the old world, but with a crucial ideological twist provided by the October Revolution of 1917. Leninist Russian revolutionaries inherited a Marxist teleology that looked surprising like that of Christianity:  a golden age (primitive communism), profane history (feudalism and capitalism), eventually leading to socialism and the promised heaven on earth called communism. 

Thus Soviet culture was teleological through-and-through, with any sacrifices and suffering in the present justified by the promised advent of the Radiant Future. This was, perhaps, conspiratorial, at least as a function of the all-encompassing planning that was the basis of the Soviet economy.  One might imagine the Elders of Zion turning green with envy, if the common cause made by anti-communism and anti-Semitism hadn’t already equated Bolshevism with the forces of International Jewry.  But the communist teleology was too much of an open secret to be truly conspiratorial: everyone was supposed to be working for the end of the world as they new it.  

Interestingly, this incessantly optimistic teleology generally removed the apocalypse from the realm of threat (the works of the early Soviet writer Andrei Platonov being a noteworthy exception). The occasional dissident or emigre would dabble in the negative eschatology that is more familiar to the West (as Fridrich Gorenshtein did in Psalom, a 1975 novel whose rather sympathetic protagonist is the Antichrist), but official Soviet culture had little use for cataclysm.  At least, for a future cataclysm; as I have argued elsewhere, the films and novels about the Great Patriotic War after the defeat of Nazi Germany functioned as something of a safety valve, providing the one arena in which violence and brutality could be safely depicted (if only as part of a foundational myth). 

Even Soviet science fiction flirted with catastrophe much less than did its Anglo-American counterparts; the main exception to this rule is Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 art-house post-apocalyptic Stalker,  based on the Strugatsky Brothers  1972 novel Roadside Picnic and even this is an example of post-apocalyptic disaster that takes on a distinctly local scale.   It is fitting that we have to wait until just before the onset of Perestroika, the period intended as an optimistic rebirth that ended up heralding an abrupt demise, for a Soviet end-of-the-world film: Konstantin Lopukhansky's 1986 Pis'ma mertvogo cheloveka (Letters of a Dead Man was a rare Soviet glimpse into a worldwide post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland.

Letters of a dead man--another feel-good soviet movie

Letters of a dead man--another feel-good soviet movie

Perestroika inaugurated a new Soviet temporality, in which the previous two decades get characterized as Stagnation (zastoi), that is, time that functions as anti-time.  Technically, time does pass (the calendar moves forward, Brezhnev loses another coronary artery, Brezhnev gets another medal, do not pass "Go," do not collect another 200 rubles), but it does not progress.  By contrast, Perestroika  was part of a trinity of Gorbachev-era buzz words, including the famous "glasnost'"  and the now-forgotten "uskorenie"  (speeding up).  Time was supposed to accelerate.   Though Perestroika ends up being as ideologically distant from Stalinism as possible, with the benefit of hindsight, its temporality looks rather like that of the Thirties:  the fast-paced period between 1986 and 1991 is something of a Five-Year Lack of Plan.  

Wake me when it's over, ok?

Wake me when it's over, ok?

The pace of change during those five years was staggering, especially by contrast to the previous twenty.  And it was Perestroika that intensified the latent strains of apocalypticism that already characterized Soviet culture:  suddenly, the news went from all good (record-setting harvests, fabulously productive widget factories) to all bad (an earthquake in Armenia, nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, and rumors of coups and takeovers popping up at regular intervals).  But it came to an end with a Keystone Cops coup attempt and the aforementioned December meeting that signed away the Soviet Union as if it were the unwanted issue of a no-fault divorce.

Yet, in one of the many great ironies of glasnost,  this same five-year period was also the beginning of a golden age for conspiracy in Russia: now conspiracy could be openly discussed. 

Next: All Apocalypse Is Local