Why should people in Russia (or, more precisely, the media narrative about people in Russia) lend credence to models of mind control, and to what extent is such a belief particular to Russia? Why so much mentalizing about the mental incapacity to resist outside influence? Ironically, theories of the vulnerable mind appear accurate to the extent that they spread and repeated: the more verbiage there is about mind control, and the more the “mind control” meme gets assimilated by the broader public, the more minds are actually influenced by a set of verbal inputs. Which leads to a somewhat paradoxical formulation: one does not have to believe in brainwashing to believe that people are being “brainwashed” into believing in brainwashing, “zombified” into believers in zombification.
The brainwashing/zombification narrative works because it posits the vulnerability of others while reinforcing a sense of one’s own strong, inviolate self: I am not zombified, because I can see how zombification has worked on others. The reader who comes to believe in zombification has undergone the sort of conversion experience demanded by tendentious fictions, particularly by utopias: they believe themselves to have forsaken the darkness of Plato’s cave for the light of truth. But as the idea of zombification becomes normalized, and therefore an almost universally available weapon in everyone’s rhetorical arsenal, the resulting allegory of the cave begins to resemble Escher’s famous drawing of the hands drawing themselves: in this instance, no one can agree as to which side is the cave and which side is the light.
Allow me to present an admittedly schematic overview of the development of the brainwashing/zombification paradigm and its relationship to Russia, starting with Marxist-Leninist thought and ending with a Putinist absence of thought.
First, Marxism shares a belief in the malleability of human nature in general (and the individual human subject in particular) with the broader utopian tradition. The New World must be inhabited by New People who will be formed by the social processes of developing socialism. Moreover, Marx famously transforms the idea of “coming to consciousness” into something on the order of a law of history: changing the world starts with changing people’s minds. This is a proposition that Bolshevism would reverse: first socialist conditions must be established by a vanguard party on behalf of the people, and then the people will, by living in these conditions and being brought to class consciousness, turn their own minds into the proper subjects of a new socialist order.
The Marxist subject is not a closed-off, integral self. Nor are the Leninist and Stalinist selves, despite their roots in Marxist heresies. Thus we see the emphasis on education, re-education, reforging, and education through labor that starts in the 1920s and takes on its most famous form in the works of Makarenko. The post-Soviet scholarship on Soviet subjectivity, while overturning so many key elements of Cold War historiography, only reinforces this sense of the malleable subject (albeit a subject who might actively choose to appropriate the dominant discourses in order to create a better self).
By the time the term “brainwashing” comes into currency in the West (in the aftermath of the Korean War), it is not only a response to Chinese “thought reform” and the experience of prisoners in Communist Asia; it is an idea that appropriates the Marxist malleable self for decidedly un-Marxist purposes. What if the Communists really can change people’s minds? What if they are trying to change our minds right now? If the Soviet leadership views artistic production as a way of creating better citizens of communism (here we recall Stalin’s famous description of writers as “engineers of human souls"), then perhaps our own cultural productions have been coopted by propaganda meant to subvert and transform us. The brainwashing narrative is the demonic inversion of Marxism’s optimistic take on human malleability; this essential ingredient of utopian thought becomes the foundation for a dystopian nightmare.