Russian society has a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories
In Russia, conspiracy theories have spread at a high state level. The best example is the conviction, widely held in Russia, of the existence of the so-called Dulles’ plan (to destroy the Soviet Union during the Cold War by secretly corrupting the cultural heritage and moral values of the Soviet nation). Conspiracy theories are so widely believed because people have learned from the Soviet era that official information cannot be trusted and the authorities never tell the truth. This phenomenon is explained for Diplomaatia by Aleksandr Panchenko, professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences and leading researcher at the Institute of Russian Literature (known as Pushkin House) in St Petersburg, who in the last three years has, with a grant from the Russian Science Foundation, studied conspiracy theories in the context of Russian cultural history.
Q: Why is it even necessary to study the effect conspiracy theories have on society and culture?
A: If you look at Russia today, you can see that conspiracy theories have political influence. For example, our politicians discuss in all seriousness the non-existent Dulles’ plan [Allen Dulles, US diplomat and Director of the CIA from 1953 to 1961] or the alleged words of Madeleine Albright [US Secretary of State, 1997–2001] that the US wants to seize Russia’s natural resources for itself. Without doubt, this will have an effect here as well. Even though we know only vaguely how decisions are made at the highest level in Russian politics, in the case of the annexation of Crimea, for example, conspiracy theories clearly played a certain role. The same applies, in my opinion, to the aggression in eastern Ukraine; they had a part in that as well. [Later, Panchenko clarified that he meant the understanding, widely held in Russia, that the Maidan revolution in 2014 was organised by the US and that power in the Ukraine had been seized by Bandera’s followers and fascists with American connivance.—J.P.] An important question is why have conspiracy theories started to fill the heads of people today. So this topic is relevant on both the academic and the socio-political level.
How do you explain this? Why have conspiracy theories started to “fill the heads of people today”, as you said? Is the saying “just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t watching you” less and less a laughing matter for people?
There are a lot of theories about that. One of them was proposed by well-known theorist Karl Popper, who was actually the first to introduce conspiracy theories into academic discussion. He thought it was related to the changing role of religion, the process of secularisation. Religion is forced out of the public space; religious figures and powerful gods are replaced with powerful individuals or groups with the power to change things. It’s like a new type of religion, which instead of “miracles” works with “secrets”. I support Popper in part, because we can see that religion has started to return into the public space. There is also the idea that the modern global society is a type of risk society where, due to the multitude of communications and the diversity of social factors and a very complex social life, people cannot control or predict what goes on around them. Figuratively speaking, people used to live in a village and knew what was going to happen today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, what threats lay ahead, etc. And even when really living in a city, it was all more or less clear to them.
But not anymore. People do not know what information to trust, what will happen to them tomorrow, what kind of forces these are that control the world they live in. As a result, they need some kind of psychological compensation for that. It would be something like a protective mechanism. One such mechanism, which is simple and does not take much intellectual effort, is the belief that the world is run by some shady and dangerous powers and everything happens according to the will of a few malicious people. This makes the world more predictable. It feels like we understand the meaning behind what is happening.
When you enter a bookstore in Russia, especially in some regions, the picture that one sees is, to put it bluntly, depressing—seeing which authors and topics are in the “Society” or “History” sections. There prevails what one can confidently call alternative history—all kinds of conspiracies against Russia; books on Russia’s special climatic role, for example. How do you see this? Is the interest in conspiracy theories in Russia greater than, for example, in America, against which these books are often directed? Or is this characteristic of both Russia and the US?
It is hard to estimate, of course, but conspirology is certainly widespread in America too. But in this case, the reasons are different. First, it is interesting that in Russia, conspiracies are directed outwards, with Russia seeking enemies abroad, but in America, conspiracy theories are largely directed inwards, against its own government, or the rich, or medical professionals, who have conspired against their own citizens. Second, the groups that are engaged in spreading and believing in conspiracy theories are completely different in Russia and America. In the US, people still actually trust social institutions. You may not trust particular individuals, but you trust the institution. But in Russia, there is a total mistrust of institutions. In America, you will find in bookstores more books that have been written by university professors who people trust. In post-Soviet Russia, there is a total lack of trust in official science. For many, conspirology and its branches such as alternative history, cryptolinguistics, and even the topic of extra-terrestrial life, replace official science. This total lack of trust towards all that is official—both institutions and science—is in my opinion one of the reasons why conspirology is so popular in modern Russia.
What is it related to? Is it because in Russia people have over the generations become accustomed to the notion that the authorities never tell the truth, or at least the whole truth?
They not only believe that the authorities don’t tell the whole truth—this is the case in America, too, for many people—the Russian public is also suspicious of everyone and everything connected to the institutions. This concerns not only the authorities, but everyone who is in some position of power—a university professor, an official, anyone; they are not trusted.
So everyone who is not connected to the state is automatically trustworthy and their handling of history, for example, seems more accurate than that of a professor?
Well, this is also related to the belief that if someone is not related to the authorities they must therefore be being persecuted; they cannot state their opinion, etc. This, however, indicates to people that they must be telling the truth.
In the Soviet Union, this was actually often the case.
Of course, this opinion is related to the Soviet era. One of the reasons behind the ideological downfall of the Soviet Union was the revelation that the historical truth was not actually what was being told. This even brought people out onto the streets. The alternative publications at the time said that everything written, shown and told to us was a lie—this had a huge impact. The final years of the Soviet Union taught people not to trust official texts.
And so people learned to search for the truth in alternative history?
The most famous conspiracy theory in today’s Russia is probably the Dulles’ plan. I can still understand that ordinary people believe in it. This is not a problem in itself, but it is also believed, or at least apparently believed, by politicians and public figures, who talk about it seriously. In this situation, what can be done to prevent this myth from spreading?
We actually do not know whether they believe it or not. But this is a difficult question. If we talk about the story behind the Dulles’ plan, it is actually a rather short text that was drawn up by diplomat and later CIA Director Allen Dulles at the end of the 1940s, allegedly to morally and socially degrade the Soviet Union. Since 1992, it has been actively circulating [in Russia] and is very popular to this day, even among politicians. Of course, it is actually a forgery, taken from one of the novels by Soviet author Anatoli Ivanov. [Eternal Call, which in the mid-1970s was made into a famous TV series that ran for years on Soviet television. Ivanov was one of the most well-known patriotic Soviet writers during the Brezhnev era and the long-time chief editor of magazine Molodaya Gvardiya.—J.P.] He has a negative character in his novel—Lahnovski, a Trotskyist and a collaborator during World War II. In the novel, it is said that the Trotskyists have come up with a plan which they are certain will defeat Russia after the war. The subtext of Ivanov’s story was actually anti-Semitic, and in some ways it was like a Soviet adaptation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He wrote the novel in the first half of the 1970s, when such views were widespread among the [Russian] intelligentsia. Later, that text began to be used completely out of its original context as a conspirological narrative such as the Dulles’ plan.
To understand why it became so popular one has to understand why it was so appealing. And here, in my opinion, the conspiracy as such is not that important, but rather the fact that it is a very convenient instrument to explain everything. There have always been many problems in Russia, and as a citizen you begin to wonder why that is. The simplest way is to just say that it is a plot by the Americans, our enemies, that we can’t fight against. It is a well-known phenomenon in psychology: we talk about our problems but place the blame for them on somebody else; we find an external power that is responsible and liable. A politician or an official—who maybe even doesn’t believe in that plot—finds it convenient to say that all the problems in their region or field are due to the Dulles’ plan and things are actually not their fault at all.
How did the Dulles’ plan emerge in Russian politics after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
It began in 1992, when radical newspapers with communist views started to publish material about how everyone was planning to destroy Russia. This did not only involve Dulles. Words about Russia were also put into the mouths of Napoleon, Hitler, Kennedy and others. The Dulles’ plan emerged for a simple reason—it was a very convenient way to explain everything that was happening at the time. In the case of Dulles, it is also important that he was known to all Soviet people from the cult TV series Seventeen Moments of Spring, in which Soviet spy Isaev-Stierlitz fights attempts to reach a separate peace deal between the Allied powers and part of the Nazi administration. In the film, Dulles was the person who conducted negotiations with the Nazis on behalf of the Allies.
Another good example is Madeleine Albright and the words put in her mouth about Siberia. This was even referred to by president Putin. [In 2007, during his annual televised address to the people, a mechanic from Novosibirsk asked Putin what he thought about Albright’s line that Russia was unjustly the sole owner of the riches of Siberia. Putin answered that he was not aware of any such pronouncements by Albright, but “[knew] that such ideas roam around inside the heads of some politicians”. Albright has actually never said anything like this.—J.P.] Nikolai Patrushev, a former Director of the FSB and current Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, has repeatedly explained in interviews US hostility towards Russia with fabricated words attributed to Albright. They cannot not know that this is complete nonsense. Then why are they talking about it?
Again, I cannot confirm whether they know it is nonsense, or not. The story of the origin of Albright’s words is quite interesting and goes back to the final years of the Soviet Union. The KGB and GRU [Committee for State Security of the Soviet Union and the Main Intelligence Agency of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, respectively] tried to enlist people with the power of extrasensory perception and parapsychologists, and even had units dealing with this. This continued during the time of Boris Yeltsin [first president of the Russian Federation]. The Albright story emerged exactly in that context. People with extrasensory perception who worked in the Yeltsin-era FSO [Federal Protective Service] claimed that they were capable of invading the brains of Western politicians and allegedly read Albright’s “thoughts” on how the natural resources of Siberia should be taken and that Russia was their illegitimate sole owner. After a while, it began to circulate that Albright had actually said that.
[In Russia’s quality media, the source or introducer of Albright’s “quote” is generally considered to be FSO Major-General Boris Ratnikov, who in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta in December 2006 talked about the testing of a “psychotronic weapon” by Russian special services. Among other things, he talked about the “scanning” of Albright’s brain with this weapon, during which “a pathologic hatred of Slavs” and “irritation at the fact that Russia possesses the world’s largest useful deposit of natural resources” was discovered.—J.P.]
It seems to me that this story rather shows that they [Russia’s top leadership] have a poor grasp of how politics works in America and the West in general, and how [their] politicians think. Secondly, it seems to me that it is easier for them and their constituents to believe in a conspiracy than the actual state of things. But maybe they just knowingly take advantage of it, at least in domestic politics—although, for Russian domestic and foreign policy, it is destructive in both cases.
It can be seen that the belief in conspiracy theories prevalent in Russian society is closely related to anti-Western feeling. Most of those theories attempt to prove the insidious machinations of the West.
There was also a time when the opposite was the case: Russia entrusted the West with a great deal of hope and expectations in the early 1990s. It is interesting that those expectations were just as irrational and utopian as the current aggressive attitude towards the West. Exactly the opposite.
In addition to the contrivances about Dulles and Albright, can you point to another more colourful conspiracy theory popular in Russia?
In the 2000s, a popular theory was going round in Russian Orthodox circles according to which individual VAT identification numbers and social security numbers had to be abandoned, going as far as that passports with electronic chips should also be abandoned and goods with barcodes should not be purchased.
Where did such an idea come from?
Those ideas did actually not originate in Russia at all—they spread in the US during the 1970s among the so-called new Christian right and it was related to the expected end of the world. This fear was tied to the onslaught of new technology and international organisations that were related to be seen as the coming of the Antichrist. The European Union, which was established at the time, was especially feared. It was at the time of the emergence of legends about the construction of a supercomputer known as The Beast that takes over all of mankind by assigning barcodes to everything, with a barcode lasered onto people’s skin. Almost 30 years later, that idea was brought to Russia with the Old Believers, and it became very popular among Orthodox Christians. To this day, there are orthodox people in Russia who refuse an individual VAT identification number, a passport, or electronic cards in general, because they fear that they would be lorded over by a supercomputer. They see it as the Antichrist’s attempt to subject all human society to his rule. This is still a popular topic in Russia.
Conspiracy theories often emerge around the murders and unnatural deaths of famous people. The most classic case is the assassination of JFK and the theories that started to circulate around it. There is no such famous murder in Russia around which conspiracy theories have emerged; perhaps the assassination of Sergey Kirov, former leader of the communist party in Leningrad, would count. In addition, Stalin’s own tendency to see conspiracies everywhere could be pointed to as one reason for his repressions. How big a role did the fact that Stalin was himself a believer of conspiracy theories play in his repressions?
There are, of course, many factors to Stalin’s repressions. But one motive for them was indeed conspirology, because who was arrested and killed? The public was told that the people who were arrested and killed were secret public enemies, preparing conspiracies and political assassinations. The murder of Kirov in 1934 was one of the starting points of mass repression. Stalin took advantage of it, because what followed were allegations against many people that they were planning the assassination of some Soviet leader.
All in all, do conspiracy theories and their spread play a big role in Russian society today? Can these fabricated theories influence public opinion?
Right now, yes.
What role do they play in Russian society?
On an individual level, these theories make the world more predictable. On a collective level, this creates a certain illusion of unity. If you have an enemy, you can define him and can interpret most of what’s happening around you in the context of the behaviour of that enemy. This enables you to unite against the enemy and his actions. You could say that the wider spread of conspiracy theories creates social solidarity. It would be better, of course, if this kind of solidarity did not exist. It is possible that, in time, people will be disappointed in these theories when a new wave of public trust emerges—although social processes in Russia are quite hard to predict.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.