Flirting with Disaster

Though MMM and Maria Devi were the two most mediagenic pseudo catastrophes of the 1990s, they were not the only ones.  But the others never coalesced into a single, discrete story: anxieties about loose nukes and the post-Soviet brain drain played themselves out in news reports and op ed pieces about the black market trade in "red mercury," a secret Soviet nuclear compound that never actually existed.  This did not stop security forces from arresting people for trading in it, or, for that matter, criminals from selling something purported to be red mercury.  But, as is appropriate for a fictitious weapon, the drama of red mercury played itself out mostly in fiction.  Russia and Ukraine produced a forgettable 1995 film called Caution: Red Mercury  about a black market nuclear trade that reached all the way to the government, while, in the West, an equally obscure thriller by the same name appeared in 1997.   Red Mercury's most enduring afterlife (or, perhaps, half-life) is as a 2004 video game (available on Windows, XBox, and Steam).   Though it never quite caught on as a cause for mass panic (which, I realize, makes it sound like I'm disappointed--and I think disappointment is actually appropriate here), it did serve a convenient repository of post-Cold War nuclear fears: now atomic weaponry would not bring about a global apocalypse.  Instead it had become something closer to a viral contagion, in which the anxieties are as much about boundary crossings and purity as they are about survival.  Meanwhile, the actual Soviet nuclear catastrophe that heightened the sense of post-Soviet nuclear danger has become part of one of the most popular series of video games ever to come out of the former Soviet space:  the S.TA.L.K.E.R series of games, an immersive combination of first-person shooter and scavenger hunt that conflates the mysterious "zone" of Tarkovksy's film with the radioactive zone of exclusion surrounding Chernobyl.

What is important here is that these pseudo catastrophes played themselves out as a media phenomenon.  Indeed, it is particularly telling that the culture scales down its production of narrativized apocalyptic threats once it finally starts experiencing the serious catastrophes that had been expected since the late Gorbachev years.   There was no need for a story about fiscal collapse after the 1998 financial crisis: the failure of banks and businesses rendered these anxieties real, and thus obviated the need for them to be so thoroughly discursive.  Meanwhile, talk of out-and-out civil war in the Russian Federation was replaced with real war in Chechnya, the huge death toll and destruction of anything like ordinary life in the breakaway republic,  and the appalling acts of terrorism on the civilian population in Moscow, Petersburg, and Dagestan.   

If "real" catastrophes "cured" the mediated desire to produce discursive catastrophes, this may we'll have something to do with the way in which catastrophes are framed and experienced.  The topic simply begs for a comparative perspective, and so I'd like to bring in the profound insights of Marita Sturken, from her 2007 monograph, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero.  Sturken identifies a striking pattern in the American narrative of catastrophe and recovery, one that seems predicated on a kind of selective amnesia.  After each and every catastrophic event, we are told that America has "lost its innocence."  The term "innocence,' of course, is suggestive of at least two qualities: first, the lack of guilt, and second, the lack of (usually sexual) knowledge.  Clearly, it is the second aspect that is at stake here (since no discussion of American guilt is entertained in the immediate aftermath); America, then, undergoes a serial loss of innocence that defies logic but reinforces a particular American subject position that this narrative wants to maintain:  an America that, after engaging with the world, can retreat to a blissful state of knowing no evil.  It is a return to Eden made possible by a discursive bulimia:  we eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and then purge it before it can be digested. 


Sturken's approach to the American narrative of catastrophe and recovery is important for us precisely because of how irrelevant it is to the Russian context. The subject position posited by and for Russia is never one of innocence; quite the contrary, it assumes a resigned and melancholy experience, a kind of end-of-the-world-weariness.  Catastrophe is lamentable but familiar, and, indeed, to be expected. (Svetlana Alexievich even calls the first section of Second-Hand Time “The Consolation of Apocalypse”).   And, here, I believe, we have one of the discursive keys to the Putin regime:  Putinist rhetoric has never been about preventing the smaller, localized catastrophes that beset the country; instead, it is about fending off the greater cataclysm of total apocalypse.  Indeed, if critics from the far right (Alexander Prokhanov)  and the remaining liberal intellectuals (Masha Gessen)  are to be believed, Putin came to power on the crest of a catastrophe that was both real and manufactured: the series of apartment bombings in Moscow that served as a pretext to both a renewed war in Chechnya and the recreation of the security state.  The Putinist role is to respond to catastrophe, to show strength in the face of horror.  It is a rhetoric of reassurance (one that clearly works better when enemies can be blamed, as opposed to the sinking of the Kursk and the woefully mishandled response).   

Next: Death of a Nation