Much of the apocalypticism of the post-Soviet era can be traced to the dissolution of the Soviet Union as both apocalypse and anti-climax. The promise implied by an energetic Yeltsin gave way to a sclerotic, latter-day Brezhnev redux (albeit with much better special effects--Yeltsin's cringe-worthy twist couldn't have come about without the help of the best American cardiologists money could buy, and when Victor Pelevin closed out the Yeltsin era in his novel Поколение "П" [Babylon] with the casual revelation that the entire Kremlin leadership was generated by CGI, readers could be forgiven for idly wishing that their next president could be produced by Pixar (as it turns out, he was produced by Warner Brothers).
With the Soviet Union gone, the culture seemed to be searching for the next candidate for a threat to its successor state's very existence. The media, already sensationalistic, become sensation-seeking, and the better part of the 1990s is devoted to this quest for catastrophe. Much has been made of the trauma of the Soviet collapse, but the early post-Soviet preoccupation with the next big disaster suggests not just a postraumatic repetition compulsion, but perhaps even the possibility that the dismemberment of the Soviet Union was not traumatic enough.
The country moved from panic to panic: the coalition of Yeltsin opponents holed up in Russia's parliament building in 1993 was easily dispatched, never rising to the threat of civil war so often invoked by leaders and pundits. That same year, and partly inspired by the horrific end to the Waco stand-off with the Branch Dravidians in Texas, the Russian media and the Russian Orthodox Church discovered the danger of a so-called "totalitarian sect:" the Great White Brotherhood of Maria Devi Khristos (mentioned briefly in the Introduction). For two years, white-robed followers of the self-proclaimed female hypostasis of God and reincarnation of Jesus plastered her photo on walls and subway cars throughout the former Slavic republics of the USSR, and hawked their rather turgid literature on streetcorners and public markets. On two occasions I even saw the same Great White Sister harangue the audience at the Bolshoi Theater before she was pulled off-stage.
I have written extensively about Maria Devi before (and two decades later, probably remain her biggest fan), but I do want to highlight the aspects of this particular farce that speak to today's topic. A typically millenarian religious movement, the Great White Brotherhood published numerous pamphlets talking about the end of the world (which it had scheduled for November 24, 1993) and made references to the 144,000 who would be saved from death by fire. The various successor agencies to the KGB may have been competent in many areas (their ability to produce a false confession is still the envy of Guantanamo Bay), but they proved to be religiously illiterate. As a result, parents around Russia and its neighboring nations were told to watch out for the White Brothers, who would kidnap their children in preparation for the coming apocalypse. Moreover, they mistook the figure 144,000 (which comes straight from Revelation) for a realistic census of the Brotherhood's membership, rather than a wildly optimistic enrollment target. Add in the talk of fiery death, and the security agencies came to the conclusion that Maria Devi and her followers intended to set themselves on fire in downtown Kiev. The Brotherhood was forced to reschedule the end of the world for two weeks earlier, and all their leaders were swiftly arrested, saving three countries from a non-existent threat.
The story of Maria Devi Khristos is less her story (which was never properly understood) than it is the story of the media panic about her story. The Great White Brotherhood fiasco was not merely apocalyptic, but meta-apocalyptic. It turned the end-of-days scenario cobbled together by the group's leaders (Marina Tsvigun, a former Communist Youth League organizer, and Yuri Krivonogov, a washed-out computer scientist) into the threat of apocalypticism itself. Russia was on the verge of calamity precisely because of a group that was obsessed with the end of days, and yet the Brotherhood was only translating the free-floating anxieties about imminent catastrophe back into a garbled form of the religious discourse that spawned them. Moreover, the Brotherhood's insistent focus on the Slavic successors to the Soviet Union (Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) pointed back to the primal scene of post-Soviet apocalypticism: the dismantling of the USSR by just those three countries. The Brotherhood, and, even more, the media covering the Brotherhood, promised to follow up on this 1991 anticlimactic Armageddon with an apocalypse truly worthy of the name. But in fact, the story of Maria Devi closes the circle by fizzling out as undramatically as the USSR itself.
Next: Verbal Hyperinflation