Cultural Contamination in Russia: reviewing Conspiracy Culture by Keith Livers6 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Russia
Conspiracy Culture: Post-Soviet Paranoia and the Russian Imagination by Keith Livers is part of a recent cast of plucky new texts that blur the boundaries between academia and popular culture from the University of Toronto Press.

Conspiracy Culture follows the release of Picturing the Page: Illustrated Children’s Literature and Reading under Lenin and Stalin (Megan Swift) and Devastation and Laughter: Satire, Power, and Culture in the Early Soviet State (Annie Gerin), fresh new research on Russia that examine every day people’s phenomena through the lens of counter-narrative. Certainly not in the same league as an arcane academic text, Conspiracy Culture reads like a primer, enjoyable and approachable, into some of the more controversial and fascinating cultural products to come out of post-Soviet Russia. Acknowledging that the scholarship on conspiracy theories is ever-changing, divisive, and confidential in nature, Livers presents a wonderfully cohesive narrative for why mind-blowing explanations prevail in an elitist society where individual agency, a sense of community, and financial opportunity grows out of reach for average people.  

In lieu of simply listing various conspiracies, which can be found through any quick Yandex search, unearthing dozens of meme-laden poorly-rendered html websites on how ominous forces like the New World Order, reptilians, or Jews are actually controlling the government, the four chapters in Livers’ book exclusively break down post-Soviet fiction and film and the “unique potential that these possess as a means of expressing broader cultural anxieties during periods of turmoil and transition.” An ongoing theme in contemporary Russian artefacts is the battle for cultural authenticity. While the West and Asia seemingly are so clearly identified, what is the Russian world mission? The fall of the Soviet Union left an ideological and power vacuum, resulting in a fear of the imminent danger of cultural contamination from foreign ideologies. Many of these films and novels that Livers explores offer sinister and metaphysical narratives that have become widely accepted by the Russian public.

Conspiracy through the lens of Russian literature and film

The first chapter examines the esoteric philosophies interwoven in Victor Pelevin’s postmodernist novels, which “[imagine] the true ‘puppet-masters’ behind the disappearance of selfhood in the era of consumer capitalism and the total ‘mediafication’ of reality.” Apocalypse looms in both Pelevin’s Generation P and Empire V, with vampires at the center of the story, alluding to the monster imagery used by Marx in describing the relationship between capitalism and individual laboring bodies. 

The second chapter explores Alexander Prokhanov’s novels. For American audiences, Prokhanov can be described as a Russian Andrew Breitbart, with his own radical-reactionary newspaper in tow; or a L. Ron Hubbard with a flair for right-wing activism. Prokhanov is an unwavering advocate of Russian messianism and the Russian imperial project, nostalgic for misguided early Soviet utopianism. He takes too literally the sixteenth century monk Filofei’s doctrine claiming Moscow as the Third Rome and the true center of Christianity. 

Although not a pioneer in Judeophobic motifs in Russian literature, Prokhanov’s deep state narrative of Jewish bankers somehow being in cahoots with Chechen bombers is surely an unoriginal fantasy. Prokhanov’s Mr. Hexogen and The Political Technologist include portrayals of Moscow as a Whore of Babylon, commentary on the spiritual disrepair in post-Soviet Russia. Moscow is a playground for the elites, where Prokhanov’s anxieties of debauchery, racial intermixing, and genetic engineering are played out. According to Livers’ analysis of Pelevin and Prokhanov’s works, both authors offer a society underground with control, or at least insight, into the secrets of the inner workings of the world.

Perhaps my favorite chapter is the third, Livers’ dive into Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch and Day Watch. Dubbed the Russian Anti-Matrix, Bekmambetov’s films feature epic slow motion fight scenes, strobe lights galore in an early 2000’s grunge-mosphere, and characters in leather jackets and sunglasses (can we even fight the man without these things?) Bekmambetov’s films depict a fantastical metanarrative of a millennia-old ideological battle between vampires – Light and Dark Ones. 

Unlike The Matrix, where the secret is unlocked by those ready to accept it, Night Watch and Day Watch features two groups in power, the quintessential need for balance, thrown out of orbit when a Light One accidentally kills a Dark One, with repercussions in ordinary citizens’ lives, though not enough for the public to inquire nor inspect further. Bekmambetov’s films parallel the Faustian bargain Russian citizens made with their “parasitic elites”, amidst the trauma of the two Chechen wars, default of 1998, collapse of the middle class, and terrorist bombings. Livers’ analysis of the occult symbolism interwoven in both films is intriguing, shedding light on how pagan rituals are still able to explain phenomena in post-industrial life. 

The final chapter details other contemporary conspiracies involving the West plotting to bring down Russia. One such conspiracy is the Dulles’ Plan, outlining how the US would destroy the Soviet Union by corrupting their cultural heritage and moral values. Another example is through Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” – foreign agents as part of a larger plot to seize territory, or at least, de-Christianize the Russian public. In truth, conspiracy theories offer a viable platform for groups left out of mainstream narratives in Russia, “bringing together communists, monarchists, Slavophiles, and members of other ideological currents marginalized within the liberal status quo”. As it stands – austerity measures, barely validated in highly-doctored explanations offered by the mainstream media just aren’t satisfying. If anything, Conspiracy Culture is a plea for transparency, because when fictional conspiracy theories offer a better explanation than the leaders in power do, xenophobia fills the gaps.

Keith Livers: the premiere scholar on conspiracy

Keith Livers is just the scholar to tell these stories of conspiracy in Russia. Livers is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Austin is the hotbed of InfoWars and Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist that edges on mass market appeal. Jones is widely known for his accusations of the US government in direct involvement in bombings, mass shootings, September 11 attacks, and 1969 moon landing. Just across town from Jones’ InfoWars, Livers’ courses are a much-needed open dialogue on conspiracy in both American and Russian artefacts. In 2012, Livers piloted his Conspiracy in Contemporary American and Russian Culture course, instructing with Phillip K. Dick’s Ubik, Don DeLillo’s Libra, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 39, Vladimir Sorokin and of course, Pelevin – all texts referenced in Conspiracy Culture. As of Fall 2020, the third iteration of his conspiracy course has been rolled out in distance learning, titled Paranoid Peoples: US and Russia. Livers is a model for what a critical reader, watcher, and thinker should embody. His courses encourage students to engage with numerous sources and his constructivist teaching style normalizes discussion with topics that are often difficult to grapple. 

In Conspiracy Culture, Livers brings his own culture into the narrative, sharing anecdotes that enrich this book and make it much more enjoyable than other film and literature reference texts. For anyone interested in the occult and mysterious in one of the most mysterious countries of all, I highly recommend this book.

Book details: Livers, Keith. Conspiracy Culture: Post-Soviet Paranoia and the Russian Imagination. University of Toronto Press, 2020. It is available to buy here.

Featured image: Paranoia / Amanda Sonesson
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