For years, Eliot Borenstein’s previous book, Overkill: sex and violence in contemporary Russian popular culture, has been my go-to recommendation for colleagues and Russocurious friends who want to learn more about the dominant narratives of modern-day Russia. For readers expecting something between Dostoyevsky and Kissinger, Borenstein’s writing is a welcome shock: rather than the macho fatalism that defines so much writing about Russia today, Borenstein’s witty prose describes a varied, vibrant nation divided and united by its popular culture. Overkill has its lugubrious moments to be sure, but the ethos behind the project, a desire to understand the ideas and images that people choose to spend time with, is always energizing.
In his new book, Plots Against Russia: conspiracy and fantasy after socialism, Borenstein moves away from the popular and into the fringe – although, as Borenstein explains in the book’s introduction, many of the narratives that had been esoteric when he started examining them have since gained mainstream acceptance. (I vividly remember, at a language exchange at a trendy Moscow pub sometime in 2016, a young man striking up a conversation asking: “Did you know Michelle Obama is transgender?”) Of course, the turn to the conspiratorial is not uniquely Russian; as Borenstein acknowledges, and is plainly visible, in the West, conspiracy theories have become a part of everyday political discourse as well.
Borenstein begins his book with a smear of theory. He opens with Lacan before dropping by Plato, Popper, Pidgen, Hofsteder, Dentith, Keely, Dennett, Baron-Cohen, and, finally, Dawkins. Like an undergraduate course convener preparing his students for their final essay, Borenstein presents a palette of ideas with which the reader can paint their own impressions of the tropes and narratives described later in the book. Borenstein returns to theory here and there throughout the subsequent chapters, but, thankfully, these digressions are brief.
The Soviet policy of secrecy was conducive to all manner of conspiratorial thinking, although these theories rarely made it past kitchen walls. When the USSR collapsed in the 1990s, Russia’s newly-formed free presses were eager to publish anything that would sell, including bizarre, conspiratorial novels and monographs. More importantly, the death of the unifying Soviet vision had left Russia without an ideology or coherent self-image; consequently, the free market for ideas was open for business. This was the decade of cult activity and pyramid schemes, amplified across 11 time zones by hit-seeking TV news programmes. It was also an important decade for writers like Grigorii Klimov and Sergei Norka (the latter likely a pseudonym for a collective), whose novels depicted plots by the CIA and the Jews to overthrow the Russian government and purge the Russian people.
The last few chapters of Borenstein’s book are structured thematically, according to the conspiratorial narratives (plots) that recur most often in Russian discourse. At the centre is Russophobia, the belief that the world (especially the United States) hates Russia irrationally, the same way the Nazis hated the Jews. Like all other conspiracy theories, Russophobia provides a degree of comfort to the theorist, as it implies structure over chaos, a sense of order in an unwieldy world. The NATO bombing of Serbia, post-Crimea sanctions, and Russia’s exclusion from world sporting events represent not a series of unrelated misfortunes and miscalculations, but the systematic persecution of the Russian people. Moreover, as a victim-focused conspiracy, Russophobia grants Russians a sense of importance. Just as Americans insist that their forces deployed in the Middle East are targeted because “they hate our freedom”, Russians who adopt a Russophobic stance believe they are worthy of being hated: because of their Orthodoxy, because of their morality, because of their resistance to American hegemonic domination. Borenstein astutely observes that:
Mitt Romney was roundly mocked for declaring Russia his country’s number one geopolitcal adversary, while Barack Obama dismissed the Russian Federation as a regional power. On the face of things, Romey’s declaration would fit best with Russian domestic narratives about Russophobia, but it was Obama whom the Russian media so openly loathed. […] [B]eing discounted or ignored is conspiratorial kryptonite: all of the Russia narratives we’ve seen depend on the country’s importance, if not centrality, to the face of the world. Imagining oneself the victim of a conspiracy is a projection of self-love onto the persecutor. Victims of conspiracy matter.
Borenstein also addresses several other prominent conspiracy theories in Russia, such as the dual threats of PC culture and homosexuality. He briefly visits the conflict in Eastern Ukraine (and remarks on its frustratingly euphemistic name) and identifies a veritable tidal wave of Ukraine-based conspiracies, most of which have nothing to do with each other but many of which form a collective, if incoherent, effort to discredit Ukraine’s claims to national sovereignty.
One of Borenstein’s key findings is the centrality of anti-Semitism in Russian discourse. Of course, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the world’s most iconic anti-Semitic texts, came out of Russia over a century ago, but many of its core ideas are repeated by Klimov, Norka, and others. On the other hand, Eliot argues that the narrative of Russophobia is modeled after anti-Semitism (as opposed to, for example, homophobia) suggesting a degree of awareness of the problem of anti-Semitism in Russian consciousness.
Early in his book, Borenstein makes the claim that “Conspiracy belongs first to art, then to ideology.” Indeed, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was “lifted”, in the author’s words, from French satire and German fiction, while Russophobia and the dangers of PC culture were prominent components of Russian dystopian fiction before they entered political conversation. Borenstein’s claim of art as a source of conspiracy is compelling, but it sometimes leads him down unusual paths; he spends a great deal of time explaining liberpank, an obscure genre of dystopian fiction, and allocates almost no space to web forums or Telegram channels. It’s a pity, because I would very much like to know what Borenstein thinks about the conspiratorial tropes, memes, and kopipizdy of the Russian web. Hopefully, he’ll write about them soon.
Eliot Borenstein’s Plots Against Russia: conspiracy and fantasy after socialism was published in 2019 by Cornell University Press. It is available on Amazon. Borenstein also blogged about conspiracy theories in Russia at plotsagainstrussia.org.
Louis Train holds a master’s degree in international relations from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (МГИМО) and a master’s in international security studies from the University of Reading. He does research on Russian foreign policy, diplomacy, and the intersection between culture and international relations. Tweet him at @LouisTrain.