Nobody Expects the Russian Inquisition

Several months before the fanfare that greeted the 2004 publication of Philip Roth’s foray into counterfactual history, The Plot against America, the Russian weekly Book Review [Книжное обозрение] touted the third installment in a series of novels by the authors who write under the collective name “Sergei Norka”: "Заговор против России" (The Plot against Russia).  One does not have to share the paranoid and persecuted worldview of either novel’s characters to find the similar titles remarkable, though not, in and of themselves, suspicious. At most, such synchronicity (another essentially paranoid concept, substituting a sense of cosmic balance for the evildoer’s guiding hand) suggests that, by the early years of the 21st century, both Russia and America had conspiracy on the brain. 

Yet beyond the near-identical titles, the two books have little in common: while some reviewers noted the timeliness of Roth’s releasing a book about a fascist, 1940s America in the age of the repressive Patriot Act, The Plot against America, with its anti-Semitic pogroms fostered by a pro-Nazi Lindbergh administration, partakes of a very familiar American fictional tradition. [1] Though comparisons have been made to the anti-authoritarian cautionary tale, a la Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, The Plot against America looks backwards rather than forwards, essentially a mainstreaming ofthe extremely popular subgenre of science fiction called “alternate history.”   Roth’s plot is thus safely confined to the past rather than looming over our present: it can happen here, but it didn’t. Fifth-column plots against America are a staple of Christian Identity and militia fiction, but they are largely alien to the mainstream book market (although Anne Coulter’s accusation that all liberals are guilty of treason does come close).  Conspiracy-minded television shows such as 24 bend over backwards in the attempt to attribute terrorist threats to anyone but the usual suspects, engaging in a game of infinite regression that manages to deflect the show’s animus from the standard demonology it initially invokes. [2]  In Russia, conspiratorial storytelling is both more old-fashioned and more mainstream. 

Norka’s The Plot against Russia stays on familiar territory. The book’s cover, featuring a rather predatory-looking eagle against the backdrop of the Kremlin and the American flag, is a handy condensation of current Russian conspiratorial mythologies:  all it lacks is a Star of David and/or an Islamic terrorist to turn this increasingly familiar picture into a comprehensive panorama of Russian chauvinist demonology. The novel’s blurb makes its political agenda clear.

  1.  The CIA has developed a secret project for the collapse of the USSR, sucking Russia into a spiral of debt and instituting external control of the country.  The essence of the project becomes known to a small group within the Soviet leadership.  This secret organization tries to outfox the Americans, but the situation gets out of control.  The only ones who can save Russia, which has now turned into a criminal state, is the Russian Underground Resistance . . . 

 If the plot summary, combining the chaos of post-Soviet Russia with the intrigues of Cold War spy novels, sounds a shade retro,  it is because Norka has proven particularly adept at seizing on contemporary trends in nostalgia and anti-Americanism while weaving them seamlessly into a century-old tradition of Russian national-chauvinist parables, a lineage that dates back to Sergei Nilus’ forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion and is reinforced by Klimov’s xenophobic novels. 

Though the book was completed four years into the twenty-first century, it can nonetheless serve as a compendium of 1990s conspiratorial thinking, which has survived the turn of the century largely intact.  In the last years of the 1990s, the Norka group began publishing op-ed pieces in the Russian press, eventually establishing a website to host their recent work.  But their largest project has been the series of short novels that culminated in the omnibus edition The Plot against Russia

The Plot contains the Norka group's previous two books, The Inquisitor and its prequel, Wretched Rus (here renamed "The Harvard Project"), in chronological order, followed by a new, third part entitled The Law of Vengeance ("Zakon vozdaniia"). In a book touted as new, made up mostly of reprints,  The Plot against Russia provides the shock of the old.   Even in the trilogy's final form, The Inquisitor remains the heart of the story; the events it recounts are largely retold from a different point of view in the final segment, while Wretched Rus/"The Harvard Project" merely projects the plot back into earlier Soviet history.  The Inquistor is about the rise of the "Dark Horse" ("Temnaia loshchadka"), a man who appears virtually out of nowhere and is elected president of Russia, whereupon he wins a referendum granting him dictatorial powers in order to halt the waves of crime and corruption that have crippled the country. 

The Dark Horse is only the public face of a larger conspiratorial organization that is dedicated to freeing Russia from the chaos caused by the West, its puppets, and evil forces within the former Soviet Union itself.  Eventually, this group, led by a man nicknamed "the Cardinal," establishes the Holy Russian Inquisition, which kidnaps criminals, steals their money, and surgically removes their eyes as an object lesson to others who would ruin the Motherland.

The Inquisitor makes Norka's debt to Klimov absolutely clear.  Halfway through the novel, the Cardinal explains to the narrator, a skeptical journalist who is slowly coming around to the Dark Horse's side, the theories behind his work.   First he takes out a photograph, telling the narrator: " This is our spiritual father, as it were.  Grigory Petrovich Klimov" (Inkvizitor  222).  The Cardinal briefly summaries Klimov's biography (including the Harvard Project), recapitulating Klimov's discussions of "Legionnaires," revolutions, and mind control while going into more detail about the genetics that "prove" Klimov correct (222-228). 

Norka performs two extremely important transformations when he brings Klimov into his fictional world.  First, he makes much tighter connections among the Harvard Project, the Legionnaires, and Soviet history.  Where Klimov insisted on the virtual identity of the Spanish Inquisition and the Great Terror, Norka prefers to emphasize cyclicity in the historical parallels he draws between the Terrorand the new Holy Inquisition of the 1990s. For Norka, both campaigns are the struggle of the forces of order against evil businessmen who are facilitating the flight of capital abroad:  the Terror was actually Stalin's way of stopping the NEPmen (the small-scale entrepreneurs who thrived in the liberal 1920s) from impoverishing the Soviet Union, while the Holy Inquisition is stopping the organized criminals who are continuing a process of capital flight begun with the late Soviet bureaucrats' funneling of the proverbial "Party's gold" to offshore bank accounts. 

Historically, this parallel is spurious, but it reflects the even more significant alteration that the Norka group has made to Klimov's "higher sociology."  Klimov's definition of the Terror as the latter-day Inquisition depends on his identification of the Jews as history's archvillains, but in the constituent parts of The Plot against Russia, the Jews are almost absent as a category. [3] Nor are homosexuals to blame for the collapse of any of the various incarnations of Russian statehood.  As radical as Norka's vision of a well-intentioned but murderous anti-criminal dictatorship may be, the regime of the Dark Horse shares little of the intense racism and sexual obsessions of its "spiritual father," Grigory Klimov.  Yes, the "Legionnaires" must be exterminated, or at least subdued, and no methods are too harsh in combating their evil influence on a benighted Russia, but the "Legionnaires" are no longer identified with any particular racial or sexual minority. 

The assertion of genetic predisposition to evil reeks of fascism, but it is a fascism that has become thoroughly deracinated.  The "Legionnaires" are predisposed to evil because of who they are, but most of them only commit evil deeds when social conditions allow it, or when foreign and domestic mind control campaigns bring out their terrible nature.  Norka's soft-pedaled Klimovism manages to have it both ways.  On the one hand, there is an entire class of people whose genes render them a threat, but on the other hand, such people only become enemies of the people when they actually start committing inhuman acts: evil is as evil does. The villains are not the Jews per se, but they fulfill many of the functions that Jews do in conspiratorial demonologies. 

And what is the nature of the "Legionnaires" evil acts?  Crime, corruption, and random, senseless violence.  In other words, bespredel. Now bespredel has an explanation, however far-fetched.  It is the result of genetic degeneration, combined with cynical mind-control orchestrated first by the Harvard Project, then by forces within the Kremlin who seized Harvard technology for their own ends.   All three parts of The Plot against Russia are interspersed with quotes that are purportedly drawnfrom the Russian press: reports of terrible violence, economic scandal, and overall decline.  These excerpts ground Norka's fiction in the world of bespredel with which the reader cannot help but be familiar, and pave the way for the protagonists' eventual acceptance of dictatorship and terror as the only remedy. As inso many ideological and utopian novels, the protagonists themselves are stand-ins for the implied reader, modeling a conversion experience that can be shared by anyone who turns the page. 

The Inquisitor and the rest of Norka's fictional project are the most systematic incarnation of a fantasy I discussed in Overkill:  fighting criminal bespredel with state bespredel.  The revenge fantasy of crime fiction is transfigured into an ideology of systematic purification, as enacted in The Law of Vengeance, the only part of The Plot that had not been published before the 2004 omnibus edition.  Here the narrator is a successful businessman whose family is tortured and killed by thugs; the Inquisition not only facilitates his revenge on the men who wronged him, but gives him a new purpose as part of its special subsection devoted to the extermination of other such bespredel'shchiki.  No longer will lone gunmen avenge individual atrocities; now they will be an army of the righteous, restoring order to a disorderly world.

When the Norka group assembled The Plot against Russia from its three component parts, it did more than merely change their order and alter some titles.  In The Inquisitor, the excerpts from the press have specific dates (the first one is from the March 29, 1994 edition of Izvestiia) (Inkvizitor 3), but in The Plot against Russia, all specific dates are removed (now the citation is for "March 29, 199.." (Plot 275).  One reason for such changes presents itself immediately:  The Inquisitor takes place in the 1990s immediately after Yeltsin's departure, but by 2004, the events described in the novel have not yet happened. 

Another reason for the change is that the events actually have happened, but later, and not exactly as described.  The renewed interest in Norka in the early 21st century, and the Norka group's increased activity on the Russian op-ed pages, is that, ten years later, The Inquisitor basks in the glow of fulfilled prophecy. In the afterword to The Plot against Russia, the authors write that, in the past four years, they have been constantly bombarded with a single question:  "Is Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] the Dark Horse described in the novel?"  (749)  Their answer is a firm "no," and yet the contrast between Yeltsin and Putin, and the extent to which Putin himself seemed to come out of nowhere, lends The Inquisitor  a retroactive piquancy that it once lacked.  Putin's "dictatorship of the law," his clampdown on the media, selective prosecution of oligarchs who have incurred his wrath, and even the war on Chechnya are mild in comparison with the Dark Horse's regime, but a novel describing an unknown bureaucrat's rise to power thanks to the machinations of a secret cabal certainly takes on new relevance in the post-Yeltsin era. 

Next: Harvard: The Mutant Menace


[1] Though Roth has never been one for allegorical readings, he did add fuel to the fire with his offhand criticism of the Bush administration in his New York Times Book Review essay about The Plot against America  (Roth, "The Story Behind"). 

[2] These plot twists make the show more politically palatable at the same time that they add to the suspense.  In the first three season, a group of right-wing American terrorists turn out to be working for a Bosnian Serb, who in turn was apparently being manipulated by American oil interests.  These same plutocrats (who inexplicably disappear from the scene almost as soon as they are revealed) were also the masterminds of a plot manipulating Islamic fundamentalists (one of whom is a blonde American woman who initially looked as though she were going to be the naive dupe of her swarthy foreign fiance, when the situation was actually reversed). Subsequently a Mexican drug cartel trading in bioterrorist weapons was actually a front for a rogue British agent with an axe to grind. By the fourth seasons, the writers threw in the towels and simply made the villains Arabs.

[3] One of the few exceptions is an almost off-hand reference made by the Dark Horse in one ofhis first presidential speeches:  "Everything has to be paid for.  After crucifying Christ, the Jews ceased to exist as a nation and paid for their crime for two thousand years.  In what way, and for how long, must Russians pay for this?" (Inkvizitor 26). On the scale of Russian anti-Semitism, the "Christ-killers" calumny is so mild as to be almost unworthy of notice; it is quite possible that the Norka group assumed it was appealing to unimpeachable historical fact rather than deliberately reinforcing an anti-Jewish canard.