Why Conspiracy Theories Take Hold in Russia

by Eliot Borenstein


All it takes is an hour or two of Russian state television to learn that someone is plotting against Russia.   Watch for a few more hours, and you’ll find that everyone is plotting against Russia.  Watch for a few more days, and the truth comes out:  Russia is plotting against Russia.
 
Thanks to the increasingly baroque explanations of “what really happened” to Flight MH17, the Western media have turned their attention to a feature of post-Soviet Russia that is all too familiar to those of us who’ve been paying attention:  Russia has become a world leader in the production of conspiracy theories.  
 
Until now, Russian conspiracy theories have been for domestic consumption (no network of pipelines exports them to Europe and beyond).  This is to be expected; while that tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion continues to be a world-wide hit, Russia’s more recent forays into paranoid fear-mongering  (centered on post-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine) are a tough sell on the global market. Conspiracies, like riddles, depend on the audience’s familiarity with the objects in question.  People who haven’t even heard of alien abductions can’t be expected to obsess over anal probes.  
 
But now Russian conspiracy is ready for prime time, or at least for late night. The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe gave a delightful synthesis of Russian MH17 counternarratives  when she appeared on The Colbert Report.  MH17, it turns out, is actually the original missing Malaysian airliner, which had been captured by the Americans, spirited away to the Netherlands, filled up with corpses, and then flown out over Donetsk, whereupon the pilots parachuted to safety before the on-board explosives brought the plane down. To Colbert’s audience, this sounded less like a theory than like a punchline, Ioffe’s gracious gift to her famously funny host. 
 
Russia did not become Conspiracy Central overnight.  But rather than blame the “Russian mentality” (whatever that is), we should recall how information had been handled by the country’s authorities in the last half of twentieth century. The Brezhnev era was marked by any number of shortages of this or that consumer good, but what was truly in short supply was information.  The state media and government famously restricted access to news and cultural production.  Though the USSR’s official ideology was, of course, communist, its approach to information was decidedly mercantilist: information was a scarce resource to be conserved, if not hoarded, and the State jealously guarded its stash of information like a dragon sitting on its treasure trove of gold. 
 
But the absence of gold encourages the development of alternative currencies.  The paucity of reliable information, and the nakedly partisan nature in which information was presented, not only facilitated skepticism about official pronouncements, but also left a knowledge vacuum easily filled by speculation and rumor (far from hard currency, but it was all that people had). Again, the effects of information deprivation went far beyond the national boundaries; in the West, Kremlinology thrived on a paranoid, conspiratorial mindset that combed over every word in Pravda and every movement in a state funeral for something on which to construct an often shaky hypothesis.
 
Cataloguing the conspiracy theories that thrived on the margins of official Soviet culture would take an entire book, so I’ll just provide a brief taste here:  Grigory Klimov’s “Harvard Project,” which argued that  Russia has been under siege for decades by a cabal of genetically defective Jews and homosexuals, plotting the country’s downfall from behind the ivy-covered walls of America’s most famous university; and the “Dulles Plan,” which calls for using all of America’s “material strength” to “turn people into idiots,” while the country’s enemies “switch out [Russia’s] values for false ones and make them believe in these false values“
 
By the 1980s, Gorbachev’s perestroika inadvertently opened the conspiratorial floodgates. Before glasnost, the facts had been known or suspected, or speculation had filled in the gaps.  The exposure of the hidden truth may have meant the end of specific secrets, but it ultimately confirmed the prevalence of secrecy and the validity of conspiratorial thought (“Who knows what else they’re keeping from us?”).  In the torrent of revelations and scandal that made up the nightly news after the collapse of the USSR, the rule of thumb was: the more horrible the story, the more likely it is to be true. 
 
The brilliance of Putinism lies in the regime’s management of the public’s habitual cynicism by appropriating the tools of conspiracy-mongering. Putin’s team has coopted the language of conspiracy and falsification so thoroughly that all attempts to ascertain any objective truth collapse into false equivalencies.  As the 2012 protest movement captured video after video of suspicious election activity, police brutality, and corruption (i.e., uncovering a state conspiracy to claim power through unlawful means), state television responded with charges that the falsification itself had been falsified.
Here I should note the contrast between the way conspiratorial accusations are typically handled in the US, and the way they are handled in Putin’s Russia.  In the States, the guiding principle is not to engage, because engaging simply feeds the beast (hence the long months before Obama’s final, anti-climactic release of his long-form birth certificate). The Kremlin’s response is to engage at all costs, because feeding the beast is in the regime’s best interest. 
 
So we should not be so surprised that so many absurd stories about MH 17 are reported and repeated throughout the country. The dismissal of any unpleasant accusation as a “provocation” by the enemy has been a reflex of the state media for at least a decade.  The truth, by its nature, can never be simple. 
 
Nor should we forget that conspiratorial explanations are powerful at least in part because, on rare occasions, they can turn out to be true.
 
In the Fall of 1986, when I was studying in Leningrad, a friend showed me a Soviet newspaper report that Ronald Reagan’s government was selling arms to Iran in order to fund the Contras, the right-wing rebels who were trying to overthrow Nicaragua’s socialist government. We both rolled our eyes.  That was the most ridiculous thing we had ever heard. 
 
Still, you had to hand it to those Soviet propagandists.  Every now and then, they displayed a real spark of imagination. 

13 responses to “Why Conspiracy Theories Take Hold in Russia”

  1. Erik_M says:

    Excellent post! I think you’re right to focus on the way scarce information shapes the habits of those who are stuck with it: even if they never watch Russian state television, people who’ve spent much of their lives in Russia or the USSR are often receptive to theories Americans wouldn’t consider (for better or worse).

    My rule of thumb is that Americans are afraid of appearing crazy by believing anything that could be labeled a conspiracy theory, while Russians are afraid of appearing naive by ruling anything out.

    • Eliot Borenstein says:

      Thanks, Erik! And your rule of thumb makes a great deal of sense.

    • Joe Hill says:

      There’s actually a simpler explanation, which is that nothing bad is ever the fault of Russians. Why did their empire collapse? Because evil Lenin tricked people into betraying their traditional leaders. Why did the Soviet Union collapse? Because Bush tricked Gorbachev into destroying it. Everything is always the fault of someone else- Jews, Masons, America, Georgians, Ukrainians, etc.

      Whereas countries like Germany and Japan faced total ruin and were forced to confront their previous values and identity so that they could rebuild and reintegrate themselves into the world, Russia never did this. They never had an explanation for what happened to their society and they didn’t understand the forces at work.

      • Mikhail Shvedov says:

        So Russians are just stupid. How very insightful and enlightened of you.

        • Joe Hill says:

          I’m sorry can you go ahead and read my post again and show me the part where I said that? I’m re-reading it myself and I can’t seem to find it. If you want to see people basically saying that Russians are stupid, look no further than Putin, Dugin, Mikhalkov, Markov, et al. These people clearly believe that Russians are stupid an need a strong father figure to tell them what to do. They need to make all the sacrifices while the ruling class lives it up in their Rublevka compounds.

          • Joe Hill says:

            Then again if you read that and the only thing you got from it is “Russians are stupid,” I can think of at least one Russian who is indeed stupid.

          • Mikhail Shvedov says:

            Judging by your other posts, it seems like you think a lot, if not all Russians, are gopniks, etc. So why bother living there?

          • Joe Hill says:

            Again, another strawman argument. The Kremlin and its media hacks promote this kind of culture. They do not promote critical thinking, tolerance for the sake of national unity and cohesion, or reason. They promote scapegoating and paranoia. Add to this a squandering of Russia’s resources and an inability to reign in their stealing so that the economy can develop more and you get a recipe for vatnik culture.

            Also your “love it or leave it”-like statement is ever so American. That’s what you Kremlin-defenders are like though- you’re basically American Tea Partiers. Millions of people would rather live somewhere else, but economic factors prevent that from happening. Unlike you, however, I would love to see Russia improved. Russian “patriots,” of course, have contempt for their people and see them as cattle.

          • Mikhail Shvedov says:

            “They never had an explanation for what happened to their society and they didn’t understand the forces at work.”
            “Everything is always the fault of someone else- Jews, Masons, America, Georgians, Ukrainians, etc.”
            Pretty generalized statements there. Gotta love your “simple explanation.”

          • Joe Hill says:

            I’m terribly sorry but these views are extremely popular here. Whose fault is that?

        • jwz says:

          Well, when you put it that way… yes, yes they are.

  2. Joe Hill says:

    Very good points here. I think one problem though is that in the past decade or so America took the wrong path in terms of policies towards Russia. Obama’s resent button was a good idea to start with, but rather than follow through it went in the exact opposite direction. America’s greatest leverage against Putin was(I say was because that ship has sailed for now) to point out all the cooperation between the US and Russia, as well as how US investment benefits Russians on a daily basis. Basically killing them with kindness. Because when Russians hear those facts, it subverts this claim that Russia and America are historical enemies(they have been either allied or on friendly terms far longer than they were ever opposed to one another).

    Unfortunately in the present climate I’m afraid things will get worse before they get better, and I’m living at the epicenter of it all.

  3. […] which for the vast majority of Russians is – not being hyperbolic here – the source of all civil political information. In February, the Moscow City Court convicted eight Bolotnaya defendants on charges […]

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