Just one year after Maria Devi’s end-of the world roadshow was canceled by the authorities, 1994 saw an equally emblematic failed apocalypse: the culmination of a nationwide media blitz that resulted in millions of Russian citizens investing in the country's largest pyramid scheme to date, Sergei Mavrodi's MMM. Through soap-opera-style, serialized commercials about ordinary people investing their hard-earned rubles in this magical company (former excavator operator Lenya Golubkov, the lonely, middle-aged Marina Sergeevna, "которая никому не верит" ("who trusts no one"), the elderly pensioners with only the dregs of a life savings), MMM was making its initial investors (or "partners," as they were called) very rich, but threatened to bankrupt the gullible stakeholders who arrived late in the game. Like tragedies, pyramid schemes have a foregone conclusion: they are the chronicle of a swindling foretold. For the gullible and desperate "partners," however, the pyramid was to be a positive, joyful apocalypse: some of them would be among the elect, the "saved," who would become rich on other people's savings. The government and the media saw things differently: the crash of the MMM pyramid would have consequences even worse than the further impoverishment of Russian citizens. They warned that it would lead to a total collapse of the Russian banking system (as we know, that would take another three years to happen). Special forces troops were sent in to arrest Mavrodi, the rather unimpressive little mummy entombed in the pyramid's base. The government would claim success in averting catastrophe, while Mavrodi's followers claimed to be the victims not of MMM, but of the government itself, for interfering.
MMM has had a long and twisted sequel, but for my purposes, it is yet another example of a phenomenon that I believed characterized media and culture in the Nineties, and that fueled growing apocalypticism. One of the great dangers bandied about in the early 90s, for good reason, was the possibility of hyperinflation--an economic catastrophe in which money is worth less than the paper it's printed on. Russia dodged this particular bullet, but indulged in endless rhetoric about hyperinflation. This rhetoric of hyperinflation was, like Maria Devi's apocalyptic screeds and Mavrodi's enthusiasm for his monetary scam, infectious: the discussion of the phenomenon starts to look just like the phenomenon discussed. The rhetoric of hyperinflation becomes the hyperinflation of rhetoric.
Like formerly valuable rubles on the verge of worthlessness, truth claims about catastrophe could only escalate if their authors wanted them noticed and considered. Catastrophe in the 1990s reproduced itself memetically, as both bits of information (the message) and a style of packaging the information (the metamessage). Thus it makes sense that each of these two apocalyptic events has had a sequel, and that, like most sequels, they are far less momentous. Mavrodi revived his MMM campaign as MMM-2011, to much less fanfare, while Maria Devi has changed her name to Julia Preobrazhenskaya and found a comfortable home as an Internet phenomenon: we have seen the second coming, and it is the messiah as LOLcats. [I’ve sent her a friend request on Facebook, but have yet to receive a response.] In the current Russian media environment, with strict controls on television and a free-for-all on the net, the end of the world will not be televised, but it will be hosted and mirrored on secure servers.
Next: Flirting with Disaster