Fascism with a Human Face

While the proliferation of hardcore conspiratorial narratives cannot help but reinforce and intensify conspiratorial thinking, it is the more mainstream entertainments that naturalize and domesticate conspiracy, borrowing compelling or locally useful elements to advance the plot and pique interest.  When conspiracy “trickles down” into novels and films marketed as pure entertainment, the reader or viewer is not obligated to buy into an entire conspiratorial worldview; yet the boundaries between the extreme and the mainstream become harder to identify. Mark Lipovetsky identifies a trend in contemporary Russian culture he calls “Post-Sots”: the appropriation of the socialist realist aesthetic, apparently devoid of both Soviet ideology and Sots-Art irony (Lipovetsky).  At issue is a question of cultural memory:  can socialist realist art can be reinscribed in popular entertainment without threatening to smuggle in totalitarian content? 

The mainstreaming of conspiracy poses a similar problem: can the trappings of right-wing conspiratorial narrative be incorporated into popular entertainment as “good, clean fun,” or do history and ideology so haunt them that the books and films become “fascism with a human face”? The question itself verges on the conspiratorial, for one imagines a collusion between extremist ideologues and mass publishers (Vagarius, AST)  to bring fascism into the mainstream—“The Protocols of the Elders of Vagrius.”  Yet the answer is decidedly anti-conspiratorial, for it rejects simplicity in favor of complexity and contingency.

Conspiracy has long served as a toolbox full of useful plot devices that can be particularly effective in stories involving action, adventure, and crime.  Arguably any plot relying on mystery and disclosure has a clear affinity for conspiracy, although this is less the case in stories revolving around individual cases of murder committed by one felon.   In Russia, the genres that most frequently avail themselves of conspiratorial plots are science fiction, fantasy and the boevik (thriller/action story).  Authors of science fiction and fantasy have a wide range to work with when they imagine their villainous plotters:  from alien races (Zvyagintsev), to supernatural forces (Lukianenko) to top secret government agencies (Lukianenko again).  By no means do I wish to argue that their choice of villains is somehow neutral or unmarked; science fiction and fantasy lend themselves quite easily to allegory.  The rival supercivilizations using earth’s history as a battlefield in Ziavgintsev’s Odysseus Leaves Ithaca (a series conceived before the advent of perestroika) are inevitably reminiscent of the opposing superpowers during the Cold War, while in Lukianenko’s Specter (Spektr), the intergalactic network of stargates that threatens to unite alien civilizations too closely can be seen as a projection of globalization onto the cosmos as a whole. [1]

Moreover, the genres’ strong reliance on idealistic metaphysics (Daniil Andreev for Zvyagintsev, the reification of such concepts as “Art” and “Power” in Luk’ianenko’s Autumn Visits (Osennie vizity)) reinforces the Manichaeanapproach to good and evil that also characterizes conspiracy.  Nonetheless, the conventions of science fiction and fantasy allow for the creation of villainous groups that can be so far from ordinary earthly experience as to not resemble the “usual suspects” of conspiracy.  While the reliance on the notion of “evil races” in fantasy and space opera has chilling political implications,  it is easier for science fiction and fantasy to create a conspiratorial enemy who does not resemble the Jews, Masons, or the International Monetary Fund.  [2]  The boevik has fewer options, and on the whole, the authors of the boevik show little interest in exploring them.

 

Jews, Masons, and Mad Dogs

To see how the boevik  handles these issues, I turn to a series I discussed in Overkill: Viktor Dotsenko's Mad Dog novels, which  evolved over the course of decades, highlight an important cultural dynamic. [3] Just as Norka managed to repackage Klimov without the virulent anti-Semitism and homophobia, Dotsenko's work in the 1990s offered up tales of the struggle against evil secret societies as guilt-free entertainment even for liberals.  Mad Dog's first recurring villain was ex-KGB General Arkady Rasskazov, who first appeared in the third novel (Mad Dog's Return), in which he was revealed to be the secret mastermind behind the machinations described in Savely's previous adventure (Number Thirty Must Be Destroyed!). Rasskazov would continue to be prominent until the fifteenth novel, Mad Dog's Island, in which heis defeated by the scheming Shiroshi, but soon after Rasskazov's introduction to the Mad Dog mythos, he shared primacy of place in Savely's rogue's gallery with the Secret Order (Tainyi Orden).  Introduced in Dotsenko's fifth novel (Mad Dog's Gold), the Secret Order is an extremely hierarchical, ritualistic secret society divided into "Lodges" and led by the Great Master and his Magisterium.  The Secret Order is hell-bent on world domination, relying on financial manipulations, political infiltration, and the occasional murder in order to reach their goals.  Most of their leaders are of Russian descent, and even Rasskazov got his criminal start as a member of their organization.  Moreover, Russia is an important target of the Order because of its key role in world civilization.

 

A Trap for Mad dog (2002)

A Trap for Mad dog (2002)

The most remarkable feature of the Secret Order is that it is so completely generic.  In structure, form, and ritual, the Secret Order is clearly modeled on the Masons, who have long been one of the most hated groups in Russian conspiratorial circles, and who are usually equated with Jews (hence the popular term "zhidomason" ("Jewmason") as an umbrella term for the conniving enemies of Russia. But when Dotsenko introduces the Secret Order, he is still a "liberal" writer, inveighing against the Communists, praising Yeltsin, and calling for a strong Russia based on democratic principles.  The United States is more often an ally than an antagonist, and the occasionally stereotyped portrayals of individual Jews are mild in a cultural context that is highly tolerant of national and ethnic clichés.  With the Secret Order, Dotsenko manages to have it both ways:  he creates an organization with all the trappings associated with the villains of xenophobic fantasy, but stripped of the particular ethnic and religious context that would put his work in unwelcome company.

In 1999, however, with the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia, the national mood changed drastically.  For years, the Russian media coverage of the wars of Yugoslav succession was virtually the mirror image of their presentation in the United States:  pro-Serb sentiment ran high, despite the fact that brotherhood among the Slavs had been largely forgotten throughout the Soviet period.  Moreover, the parallels between the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Soviet Union were easy to make, allowing many to see both Russia's and Yugoslavia's problems in terms of a clash of civilizations (Eastern Orthodox Christians versus the Islamic world).  Russian and Serb television organized a "space bridge" to unite the two peoples; leading Russian cultural figures declared their solidarity with Serbia, and the boy band "Na-Na" declared its intentions to perform in beleagured Belgrade. But most important of all was the opportunity to condemn an act of NATO "aggression."  After years of being lectured to by the United States about democracy, human rights, and reform, it was Russia's turn to accuse the Western allies of atrocities and arrogance. 

The NATO bombings were a turning point in popular culture and the discourse of Russian nationalism, releasing pent-up resentment against the remaining triumphalist superpower. They also inadvertently aided the mainstreaming of conspiracy.  The Mad Dog series, a multivolume serial narrative whose quick production had already allowed it to react rapidly to current events, embraced this new direction immediately. In early 2000, Vagrius published Dotsenko's twelfth Mad Dog novel, Mad Dog's Justice, which inaugurates Savely's association with Serbia and his blood-brotherhood with a Serb fighter.   Not only are the Kosovar Albanians depicted as a Yugoslav version of the Chechens, but both the Albanians and Chechens are part of an international Islamic terrorist organization headed by Osama Bin Laden.  The Kosovar Albanians despise Russians, while Chechens are involved in a plot to destroy Orthodox monasteries on ethnic Albanian territory (171).

Given the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that Americans are the target of particularly harsh invective in this novel.  What is far more startling is that the abrupt, but understandable, shift towards Russian nationalism and anti-Americanism is accompanied by undisguised anti-Semitism. Savely's counterpart, a colonel who "does not mince words," complains about "that Jewish bitch [Madeline] Albright." Meanwhile, the Secret Order counts on the support of a Moscow businessman who has established a charitable foundation called the "Association of the Jewish People," which pays journalists to make accusations of state anti-Semitism (122).  The businessman bears the Georgian name "Nuzgar Dzhanishvili," but, since his mother was Jewish, he is as well:  "Nuzgar himself sometimes admitted that he had a lot of negative features of the Jewish character.  He even looked like a classic Jew; only his noticeable Caucasian accent ruined everything" (121). The Secret Order works with Jews like Nuzgar because "it is a known fact that almost ninety percent of the leading bankers in the world are Jews" (122), which makes them useful.  From this point on, Jews are constantly causing trouble in Savely's world, working with the International Monetary Fund to ruin Russia. [4] In Mad Dog's Kremlin Case (231),Yeltsin nearly falls victim to a "Doctor's Plot", masterminded by a cabal of oligarchs whose Jewish roots are emphasized at every turn (one of them is even the grandson of a Hassidic rabbi) (273). In Mad Dog's Island, the fifteenth book, Jews are also responsible for the anti-Russian policies of George Bush's administration (even Condoleeza Rice's fictional stand-in, the "mulatto" "Condoleeza Gatti," is Jewish on her father's side) (104). [5] Out of the blue, Savely's beloved Roza suddenly decides to change her name to "Julia," because she is so tired of explaining to everyone that, despite her name, she is Russian, not Jewish (Sled 20).

At the same time that the United States and the Jews become Russia's enemy, one of Mad Dog's oldest enemies reveals its true nature.  Without any fanfare, Mad Dog's Justice adds one more word to the Secret Order's name.  From now on, the organization is called the "Secret Order of Masons," or, for simplicity's sake, just "the Masons."  It is as though the conspiratorial form had simply been waiting for its traditional content.  For Dotsenko, at least, conspiracy ultimately discovers old answers to new questions.

Perhaps an inverted case can be made for Shafarevich:  the mere fact that he is focusing on the Jews as a minority (a “Lesser People”) puts them in a position familiar from the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion:  that of the conspiratorial cabal. Shafarevich’s case is complicated because Russophobia, while devoted to the proposition that Russia is the constant target of hatred from internal and external enemies, does not precisely constitute a conspiratorial text.  No one in Russophobia is hiding what they are doing; any reluctance to talk about the “true” role of Jews is the result of self-censorship based on the “myth” of anti-Semitism. Here it is the anti-Semitic content that pushes Russophobia closer to the world of conspiracy.  If Dotsenko possibly alluded to Jews by invoking conspiratorial structures, Shafarevich gestures towards conspiracy by invoking the harmful role played by Jews. 

Chapter Two ends on Tuesday

Notes

[1] In addition,  the name of theliterally soulless “Aranki," who have created a technocratic, but uninspiring society,  suggests a bilingual orthographic pun on “Yankee” (to English speakers, the Russian letter pronounced “ya” looks like a backwards “R”). 

[2]This is a topic I’ll be exploring in more detail in Chapter Four (“Russian Orc: The Empire Strikes Back). 

[3]According to the Vagrius website, the first Mad Dog novel was published in 1989 (http://vagrius.ru/authors/dotzenko.shtml, last accessed August 1, 2005).

 [4] The head of Russia's presidential administration in the thirteenth novel is a man named Levinson, who is connected to both the IMF and the Secret Order (Kremlevskoe delo, 26).

 [5]Like Rice', Gatti studied with Joseph Korbel, the father of "our beloved Madeline Albright."  As Savely says upon hearing this piece of information:  "An interesting picture is being painted here!" (Ostrov 104).