When brainwashing finds its way into Russian discourse as “zombification” after 1991, it is defined largely by the “cult” context. Its roots in Cold War anticommunism all but ignored, the discourse of “zombification” is one of many cases in which what is essentially an ongoing debate in the West is imported as one-sided received wisdom in the Russian Federation (“political correctness” being an even more important example). Thanks to the tireless work of Aleksandr Dvorkin, new religious movements are routinely termed “ totalitarian sects” and treated as zombification factories.
In an ironic and indirect fashion, Russian anxieties about cult zombification look to the same culprit as did Cold Warriors in their warnings about brainwashing: the KGB. When the first major cult panic hit the former USSR in 1992-1993, it centered around a movement called the Great White Brotherhood of Maria Devi Khristos. Maria Devi and her husband, Yuri Krivonogov, were routinely accused of manipulating their impressionable followers. But it was Krivonogov who became the main object of suspicion. His prior work in a KGB “post office box” (that is, a secret research facility whose name is always hidden) is assumed to have provided him with state-of-the-art mind control techniques. Even worse, he apparently worked in artificial intelligence, leading one commentator to speculate that his actual project had been “the transformation of natural, human intelligence into artificial intelligence.” (Lapikura)
Maria Devi Khristos brought zombification to the mainstream. First, because her followers hijacked longstanding means of spreading information in urban centers, plastering her image all over subway cars and trams. That is, at a time when Western-style advertising was both particularly novel and particularly annoying (television news announcers would inform viewers that there would be ads from, say, 17:40 to 17:43), when such advertising had already taken over the very same public physical and virtual spaces previously reserved for overt propaganda (signs, billboards, airtime), Maria Devi’s ubiquity highlighted the very idea of message as contagion. In addition, the bizarre garb and behavior of her followers, their willingness to leave their homes and their families, became legible only within the context of zombification (see Kathleen Taylor’s discussion of brainwashing as a default explanation for inexplicable fringe behavior).
The portrayal of the cultists as “zombies” was also one of the few points of commonality with Western capitalist zombie tropes, since the Brotherhood was terrifying precisely because they were alleged to be so numerous (the media took at face value their claims to 144,000 followers, a figure whose biblical provenance should have led to skepticism about its accuracy as census data). By 1993, when the movement was disbanded and its leaders arrested, the population had, for all intents and purposes, survived a postsocialist zombie uprising. And, like all survivors, they were wary of repeat attacks.