The Truth Shall Not Set You Free

Of course, there are obvious political realities that made twentieth-century Russia a breeding ground for conspiracy.  The Soviet regime operated according to a conspiratorial epistemology: information was a rare commodity to be hoarded and rationed at the top.  The paucity of reliable information, and the nakedly partisan nature in which information was presented, not only facilitated skepticism about official pronouncements, but also left a knowledge vacuum easily filled by speculation and rumor.  

Here we must recall the dynamics of glasnost and chernukha (pessimism, naturalism, and muckraking) discussed in my previous book, Overkill: while the policies of glasnost purported to fill in the “blank pages” of history, these pages had never been truly blank.  The facts had been known or suspected, or speculation had filled in the gaps.  Glasnost functioned on the boundaries of revelation and confirmation, since what was brought to light was never entirely unknown.  Rather, it is the fundamentally melodramatic ritual of exposure (razoblachenie) that endowed the disclosure with meaning and power.  It is not that the truth could “set you free;” the truth itself was set free, released from the confines of conspiratorial epistemology. 


Yet glasnost, rather than sounding conspiracy’s death knell, gave it a new lease on life.  The exposure of the hidden truth may have meant the end of specific secrets, but it ultimately confirmed the prevalence of secrecy and the validity of conspiratorial epistemology (“Who knows what else they’re keeping from us?”).  This is particularly understandable given the pendulum swings of Soviet-era reforms, dating back to Khrushchev:  partial truths were doled out during the Thaw, only to be elaborated under Gorbachev, but the slow, multi-step process of revelation was not conducive to the believe that the “whole truth” had been disclosed. Hence the rise of chernukha and the obsession with the repetition of no-longer new secrets, the ritualistic airing of familiar dirty laundry:  like pornography, both chernukha and conspiracy trade in the revelation of what we have already seen before, but must not be exposed in polite company.

If post-Soviet pornography sold sex and nationalist ideology in a single, attractive package, conspiratorial narratives made the ideology itself the object of consumption and commodification. The crossover between conspiracy and pornography in post-Soviet Russia was quite pronounced: the evil-doers condemned by conspiracy were often shown engaged in the “perversions” showcased in porn. In Russian pornography, the nationalistic message could pass unnoticed by the consumer whose primary motivation was erotic, but what is it that conspiracy sells?  What keeps the consumers coming back for more? Conspiracy thrives in the world of entertainment, yet the available variations to the conspiratorial plot are only slightly greater in number than those than can be found in “men’s magazines” and sex videos. 

Clearly, something very important is being replicated and confirmed, and, at least in the post-Soviet case, the source of appeal seems to be the paranoid framework itself.  As the examples discussed below will show, conspiracy offers an easily comprehensible and productive alternative to the nightmare vision of bespredel (total chaos).  Bespredel accentuates the pessimism and negativity featured in the chernukha of the perestroika era and strips away all hope that the world could ever make sense.   Conspiracy and bespredel are two diametrically opposed world views based on largely the same data.  Where bespredel presents a Hobbesian view of the world, deprived of any higher purpose and prey to unending chaos, conspiracy provides “teleological warmth” and the reassuring image of history’s guiding hand.  If no one is responsible for the terrible state of the world, then there is no one to blame and no one to fight.  The presence of actual enemies—evil plotters dedicating their lives to ruining all that is good—represents a fundamentally optimistic vision, facilitating stories of heroism, rescue, and power (hence the affinity between conspiracy and the boevik).  Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the Elders of Zion, the Harvard Project, and the sinister Masons not only help make sense of the world, but they leave room for hope.


Next: The 1990s: Conspiracy on Paper