The Protocols of the Elders of Tartu

Why does melodrama, with its Manichaean world view,  fit so easily with Russian conspiratorial thought?  One obvious, if partial, explanation is the binarism that has long been thought to be central to Russian culture itself. [1]  As Yuri Lotman and Boris Uspensky argue, one of the defining characteristics distinguishing Russian culture from that of Western Europe is “its essential polarity, a polarity expressed in the binary nature of its structure” (Lotman and Uspenskii 31).   Unlike Western Catholicism, whose definition of the afterlife included the possibility of purgatory, Russian Orthodoxy saw no middle ground between salvation and damnation.  These divergent views of life after death have serious ramifications for the two religions’ notions of behavior:  the Catholic (and, subsequently, Protestant) world posited a neutral behavior zone, neither holy nor unholy, where the Russian medieval system saw only the sacred and the profane (Lotman and Uspenskii 31-32). In Brooks’ terms, the Orthodox worldview operated according to melodrama’s law of the excluded middle. 

As a result, Russian culture of the medieval period (and later) viewed the world in terms of stark contrasts, such as Russia vs. the West, or Christianity vs. Paganism.  One can also argue that for more than two centuries, Russian culture has searched for ways to overcome binarism (the tripartite Hegelian synthesis, the perennial talks of a “Third Way”), but otherwiseRussian culture is binary by default.  As Boris Gasparov points out in his introduction to an English-language collection of Tartu School essays on semiotics, it is easy to find counter-examples to Lotman’s and Uspensky’s arguments (Gasparov 27), but the binary model is compelling, at least as a place to start.  Even if their model does not explain all of Russian culture (and Lotman and Uspenskii only claim validity through the eighteenth century), it clearly applies to an important part of it, or at least to the way Russian cultural discourse has traditionally been constituted. [2]

From David Mazucchelli's Asterios Polyp

From David Mazucchelli's Asterios Polyp

As one might expect, this emphasis on binarism cuts both ways:  Lotman and Uspensky’s text is both a model of Russian binary thought and an example of it, given that the argument is predicated on the very binary oppositions that are the object of analysis (in particular, Russia vs. the West). [3]   One can take this connection further: the semiotic discipline that produces this binary model is itself so thoroughly indebted to binarism that it is predisposed to see dichotomies.  Derrida’s critique of structuralism identifies this insistence on duality as a defining feature of Western thought, and here the term “Western" would presumably include rather than exclude Russia.  But if one historicizes Soviet semiotics, looking at it as not simply the product of “Western” thought writ large, but as a theory with strong roots in its more immediate political and cultural environment, then semiotics can become the object of cultural analysis rather than exclusively its subject.  Semiotics, for all its richness and heuristic productivity, proves to be a key example of a longstanding Russian cultural predilection for systems theories and modeling, including not just formalism and structuralism, but the metaphysical systems constructed by Silver Age philosophers and poets, Bogdanov’s tectology, Vernadsky’s noosphere, and Lev Gumilev’s ethnogenesis. 

This emphasis on systems fits in with one of the other major intellectual trends of the post-Stalin era: the ITR discourse as analyzed by Mark Lipovetsky. Though ITR stands for "“(inzhenerno-tekhnicheskii rabotnik, engineer/technical employee”, the term’s scope is far broader, applying to the discourse of the technical intelligentsia as a whole.  Lipovetsky uncovers the essentialism at the ITR’s core, an essentialism he attributes not just to the “scientific mind,” but to an inverted version of Soviet ideology’s preoccupation with “the progress of mankind” and “the Soviet people” (Lipovetsky, “The Poetics of ITR Discourse,” 116)  If semiotics was of interest only to a relatively small group of specialists, ITR discourse spread throughout the entire intelligentsia, as well as shaping (and being shaped by) important segments of mass culture (particular the science fiction of the Strugatsky Brothers).

This predilection for theorizing, whether rooted in ITR discourse or  semiotic notions of binaries,  leads not only to explanatory models of the world, but to the modeling of such models in Russian fiction, largely by featuring characters who are themselves obsessive theorizers.  The obvious example here is Dostoevsky, who, if he did not invent this particular motif, developed it more than anyone before him (cf. Raskolnikov, Ippolit, Ivan Karamazov). Since Dostoevsky, Russian authors have populated their novels with theorists of all stripes, from Olesha’s Ivan Babichev to the homegrown philosophers parodied by Pelevin in The Buddha’s Little Finger (published in the original as Chapaev i Pustota).  Contemporary popular fiction also reflects a theorizing tendency, from the prolonged explanations of human nature in Viktor Dotsenko’s Mad Dog series of action/adventure potboilers to offhand comments about personality types in the first volume of Vasily Zvyagintsev’sOdysseus Leaves Ithaca (Odissei pokidaet Itaku). When viewed in this context, semiotics not only exemplifies Russian cultural binarism (to extend Gasparov’s argument beyond the Lotman and Uspensky essay), it also serves as both an example and metasystem for a cultural tendency towards the construction of, and search for, systems.

If one can generalize about the tendency of human mental processes to look for patterns where they may not exist (pattern recognition), Russian culture backs up this tendency with the weight of literary, philosophical, and scientific authority. Granted, there is a circularity to this argument that either renders it spurious or makes it into the kind of closed system that conspiracists find so appealing: semiotics, the system of systems, functions as the ur-conspiracy that is usually behind multiple layers of plots in paranoid fictions (in this case, a cabal of old men in Tartu, many with suspiciously Jewish surnames). By no means do I intend to make any argument about anything as dubious as “national character,” nor do I wish to argue that Russian culture is somehow inherently paranoid; rather, the point is that Russian culture can and has provided a comfortable backdrop for conspiratorial thought. 

On Monday: The Truth Shall Not Set You Free


[1] As Helena Goscilo notes, “[t]he notorious binarism of Russian culture ideally conforms to the requisite conditions for the enactment of melodrama” (Goscilo, “Playing Dead” 287).

[2] Cf. Gasparov: “It is far more important, in my opinion, to consider the theory's accuracy in re-creating the traditional outlook of Russian culture on the West through the language of semiotics” (27).

[3] Again, Gasparov makes this very argument when introducing Lotman and Uspenskii’s work to the English-reading public: “Paradoxically, the very model they construct in the course of the analysis reflects a cultural bias no less than the material it seeks to explain. This binary model is in fact not so much a metatext--a description or interpretation--as it is a text of Russian culture; it does not interpret and explain so much as it spontaneously reflects the deep structure of the Russian cultural consciousness” (28).