1990s: Conspiracy on Paper

Conspiracy theories prospered in the 1990s, and, given their global scope, it should be no surprise that their ubiquity was global.  Certainly, the rise of on-line communication was a boon for the conspiratorially-minded; indeed, the Internet now looks like conspiracy’s natural habitat.  But even by the late 1990s, the Internet had only begun its path to global media conquest, and in Russia, it would become a truly popular phenomenon only in the 21st century.  In the first post-Soviet decade, conspiracy would have to content itself with the traditional media.   

Even here, though, there were important differences between conspiracy’s spread in Russia and the West.  To a far greater extent than in the United States or Europe, conspiracy in Russia thrived on the cool medium of print, rather than relying on the visceral appeal of film and television.  Michael Barkun argues that Americans had come to take conspiracy theories for granted, thanks to the continual migration of conspiratorial motifs from the world of esoteric pamphlets, zines,  websites, and pseudo-scholarly tracts to blockbuster movies and hit TV series (179-184). Chris Carter’s hit series The X-Files (and its darker cousin, the less successful, but more internally consistent, Millennium) relied on a constantly growing accumulation of rival conspirators and outlandish plots to keep its viewers coming back every week.[1] 

In post-Soviet Russia, conspiratorial explanations for current events sprang into life almost as though they were the product of some kind of instant intellectual parthenogenesis; as soon as Moscow apartment buildings started being the target of unexplained bombings, a popular theory held that the security services were actually behind the attacks in order to drum up popular outrage against terrorists. [2]  Yet conspiracy as entertainment was largely confined to novels. 

At least one of the reasons is economic, following the same logic that explained the greater presence of the domestic boevik (action story) in prose than in film or television:  print is quicker and cheaper.  This explanation becomes all the more compelling when we factor in the close ties between the boevik genre and the conspiratorial mode; the Manichaean nature of the boevik adventure plot is particularly conducive to the struggle against shadowy secret societies.   This is not to suggest that Russian audiences did not welcome conspiracy-oriented entertainment in other media.  The X-Files was a big hit in the Russian Federation, under the name “Secret Materials” (“Sekretnye materialy”) (the less successful The Pretender also had a loyal Russian following).  

But the local X-Files knock-offs that one might expect in a market-oriented entertainment culture could be found on the bookshelves, not the airwaves:  In 1999, Konstantin Maksimov began a new series of hardcover novels under the rubric “The Seven Seals of Mystery” (Sem’ pechatei tainy), which relate the adventures of various Russian secret service agencies in their fight against vampires, witches, and other occult threats.  The cover of each volume contains the phrase “secret materials,” which is arguably generic enough not to be considered a direct trademark infringement, but the interior advertising copy leaves little room for doubt:  “Konstantin Maksimov presents his new cycle The Seven Seals of Mystery—a domestic [otechestvennaia] version of the American Secret Materials” (Maksimov 286).  Sergei Lukianen’ko’s Night Watch series fills a similar niche (in this case, supernatural creatures are responsible for policing themselves and investigating paranormal crimes), but the first installment would only be adapted as a big-budget movie in 2004, after the Russian film industry had begun its recovery. 

Die, America, Die!

The sole exception of which I am aware was a short-lived pseudo-documentary series on ORT by journalist Aleksandr Gordon, entitled A Collection of Fallacies (Sobranie zabluzhdenii).[11]  If you can imagine The X-Files as a cross between poorly-dubbed 1950s Japanese monster movie and La Jétee, starring emotionless mannequins with all the sexual chemistry of a middle-aged Ken and Barbie as they discuss the latest email blast from your racist uncle, then you don’t have to bother watching A Collection of Fallacies.  Gordon, who began his broadcasting career in the United States, returned to Russian in the 1990s and attracted attention with a program claiming that the American moon landings were all an elaborate hoax (a familiar trope among American conspiracy circles) (Golovanov). 

In Collection, Gordon followed up with a fictional space program of his own:  Gordon played the part of the “Keeper of Eternity,” who watches over the history of Earth and studies it with the help of a female fellow agent.  Gordon combines a familiar perestroika-era preoccupation with the “blank spots” of history and a science fiction premise that actually allows the characters to realize the metaphor of perestroika’s “return of history”:  they travel through time.  Gordon’s interest in the science fictional aspects appears to be minimal—certainly, whoever was watching Collection of Errors was not tuning in for the special effects or the suspense.  The male and female aliens were given virtually no defining personal characteristics, thereby making them almost impossible to “ship” (the fan-fiction practice of imagining sexual relationships between uninvolved characters).  What is more, the director’s insistence on having them communicate with each other telepathically resulted in repeated, drawn-out scenes of the two of them simply looking at each other and walking while their dialogue is conducted exclusively in voice-overs.  It's television, but just barely. [3]

Though one could imagine a historical/science fiction docudrama that is not necessarily based on conspiracy, hidden plots, and secret agendas often provided the motivation for such time-traveling adventures.  Vasily Zvyagintsev’s science fiction epic Odysseus Leaves Ithaca (20 volumes and counting) is held together by the machinations of two alien “superintelligences” that have been manipulating human history (a truth that was allegorically reflected in, of all things, Daniil Andreev’s Roza mira (232)); it is up to the human protagonists to help them when warranted and foil them when necessary.  

Unlike Zvyagintsev’s characters, Gordon’s agents are tourists rather than action heroes, observing the tragedies of the past century rather than getting involved.  When conspiracy appears, it is not part of the aliens’ own agenda, but rather it is the object of their research and revelations.  The Spengleresque fifth episode, The Decline of America (Zakat Ameriki), which airedon May 25, 1999, follows a typical pattern of sophisticated conspiratorial discourse, in that it purports to expose both the “real” conspiracies that govern the world, and to warn about the proponents of specious conspiracy theories who threaten world peace.  As the agents traverse American geography and history, they become increasingly convinced that the US is on the verge of civil war.  Right-wing militia groups and white supremacists (the film cites The Turner Diaries) are preparing for armed combat, while Hassidic bankers have a stranglehold on the American financial markets.  The anti-Semitic calumny is all too common in conspiracy circles, though it is a bit surprising here in a show by a Jewish director.  In any case, Gordon’s narrative is both familiar (in that it touches on standard Russian conspiratorial tropes) and bracing for national pride (the Soviet Union may have collapsed, but the United States is about to have it worse).

 

This projection of national collapse onto the surviving superpower was quite common in Russian entertainment (recall Danila’s declaration to the French partygoer in Brother:  “Skoro vsei vashei Amerike—kirdyk” [“All that America of yours is gonna get it”]), even before the 1999 US-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia unleashed years of seething anti-American resentment.  In conspiratorial narratives, the U.S. was, more often than not, the source of the motherland’s woes, but only because it feared that Russia’s untapped potential and superior spiritual and intellectual resources could threaten American hegemony.  Positing America’s collapse could be a source of deep satisfaction in the face of the country’s unilateralism and self-congratulatory framing of the end of the Cold War as an American victory.  In addition, the portrayal of the US as a powderkeg served the self-replicating interests of conspiratorial discourse itself.  It facilitated the recombinations of Russian and American paranoid tropes into new, more intricate storylines, threatening to turn conspiracy into an abject double of the globalization it so often condemned: America gets The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in exchange for The Turner Diaries (while both have Germany to thank for exporting Mein Kampf). Moreover, national collapse becomes a phenomenon of almost infinite regression, facilitating the mixture of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic temporalities that characterized Russia in the wake of the USSR's dissolution.  Perversely, the globalization of conspiracy makes the end of the world a repeatable phenomenon of local proportions: it can happen here.. and here.. and here . . .

Next: Fight Fiercely, Harvard

Notes

1] By the last three seasons, the show seemed to be collapsing under the weight of its own inconsistent mythology, but the very omnivorousness of its explanatory mechanisms (alien plots are being faked by the US government; the aliens are making it look as though the government is falsifying alien activity; Mulder’s sister was first kidnapped by aliens, murdered by a serial killer, and then transformed into an angel) was consistent with its source material.  American UFOlogy has proven itself capable of incorporating virtually any conspiracy theory into its master narrative, going so far as to include subterranean lizard people and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Barkun 141-146).

[2] An FSB plot to sow panic with apartment bombings is the lynchpin to the plot of Aleksandr Prokhanov's prize-winning novel, Mister Hexogen (2002).  Though Prokhanov refers to the various political figures involved by nicknames rather than identifying them explicitly, the novel clearly argues that patriotic forces within the FSB used the bombings to propel Putin into power. 

[3] Gordon’s critics observed that the show’s primary aesthetic concern was to feature flattering shots of the author/director himself (Munipov, Lesko).