October 2012

The Politics of Conspiracy Theory in the Post-Soviet Space

Stefanie Ortmann and John Heathershaw, “Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet Space”

Despite the ubiquity of conspiracy theories in the former Soviet Union, there is an almost total lack of systematic research on the issue. The relative absence of writing about conspiracy theories in Russia and the former Soviet Union is noteworthy as, since the Tsarist era, conspiracy theories have found fertile ground across the Russian empire and indeed the Soviet Union, and they continue to abound in the post-Soviet space. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that anyone recently doing social science or humanities research on the region will have come across conspiracy theories as a form of historical analysis or artistic expression, as has recently been explored with regard to the novels of Andrei Pelevin. The phenomenon seems to operate in fictional and nonfictional accounts both on the level of popular narratives and, in the case of Russia and some regional governments, in the official discourses of state power. Some of the reasons for the rise in popularity of conspiracy theories in the post-Soviet era will be explored below. In fact, this introductory article serves a dual purpose: both to discuss the theoretical implications of analyzing conspiracy theories in the post-Soviet space and to sketch out a research agenda for what is a largely unexplored field. The latter demands that we attend to questions of what might be specific and especially significant about conspiracy theories in the post-Soviet space, and how the post-Soviet type adds to the emergence of a field of conspiracy theory studies which seeks to understand this apparently increasingly prominent feature of the post-modern world.

Marlène Laruelle, “Conspiracy and Alternate History in Russia: A Nationalist Equation for Success?”

In the post-Cold War period conspiracy theories have become more fashionable, both as an element for explaining international affairs and as one for rewriting history. In this latter aspect, they comprise part of a particularly broad genre, called alternate history. Each of these plural histories of Russia has its own proper focus, in terms of its periods of predilection, of its way of formulating the components of identity (religion, race, culture, state, and so on), and of designation of the enemy. However, nearly all of them use the conspirological framework and its presupposed secret manipulation to articulate the dramaturgy of the nation in logical terms. After a contextualization of the broad domain of alternate history, this article enquires into the modes of nationalist types of alternate history and its multiple conspiracies, and looks in detail at one of its “textbook cases,” so-called New Chronology. The principal hypothesis defended here is that the conjunction between conspiracy theory and the rewriting of history makes up one of the main instruments for disseminating nationalist theories in today Russia, theories based on a kind of post-modern, paranoid cultural imaginary.

Richard Sawka, “Conspiracy Narratives as a Mode of Engagement in International Politics: The Case of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War”

With the decline in traditional forms of structured ideological contestation in the post-Cold War era, the role of conspiracy theories as a form of political discourse has been accentuated. The burgeoning literature on the subjects reflects the declining symbolic efficiency of the metanarratives of modernity. There is a long tradition of conspiracy theories in Russia, which has been intensified in recent years as a result of the tribulations following the collapse of communism. Cognate forms of conspiracy narratives represent broader social constructions of reality, and structure representations of national identity. In the Russo-Georgian War of August 2008 various conspiracy narratives have taken the place of mythic representations, and the conflict on the battlefield has been accompanied by the clash of several major narratives. A similar process was firmly at work in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. In the case of the Caucasus, three main conspiracy theories, with endless subplots and details, have shaped narratives of events: A Russian version, a Georgian one, and a dominant Western one. The three intersect at various points, but differ in both detail and substance. The three reflect central paradigms of contemporary international politics, and thus the war has exposed the deeper substrata of geopolitical visions and a nascent revival of bloc politics.

John Heathershaw, “Of National Fathers and Russian Elder Brothers: Conspiracy Theories and Political Ideas in Post-Soviet Central Asia”

While conspiracy theories have begun to receive attention in Russian studies, they have barely been studied with regard to the Central Asian republics. However, as in the case of Russia, scholarship on the region since independence from the USSR suggests these states and societies remain profoundly shaped by the Soviet experience. Logic dictates that Central Asian conspiracy theories might also be considered post-Soviet in both form and content. This paper provides a preliminary investigation of the Central Asian conspiracy theory through a pilot survey of the conspiracy theories of contemporary Central Asia and a detailed study of two examples from Tajikistan. It finds that key ideas of patriarchy and the hegemonic role of the Russian “elder brother” are distinct features of conspiracy theorizing in Central Asia. Secondarily, a variety of other internal and external themes are deployed including the threat of Islamism, aggressive neighbors, the role of organized crime and the machinations of the state security services. Via the concept of performance, the paper argues that national patriarchy and Russian hegemony are constitutive in the geopolitical making of Central Asia as a familial and post-Soviet space. As such, it is no surprise that national defender narratives and anticipation of Russian intervention are overdetermined in public discourse and government policies.


Ronald D. LeBlanc, “Dostoevsky and the Trial of Nastasia Kairova: Carnal Love, Crimes of Passion, and Spiritual Redemption”

The commentaries on newly instituted jury trials in Russia that Dostoevsky provided in his Diary of a Writer during the 1870s has attracted scholarly attention mainly for the legal and moral issues he addresses in them. His commentary on two jury trials in particular--those of Kroneberg and Kornilova (both of which involve violence toward children)--has attracted most of this scholarly attention. The present article examines Dostoevsky’s commentary on a different trial, that of Nastasia Kairova, an actress who attacked the estranged wife of her lover with a razor in an outburst of jealous passion. Rather than examine Dostoevsky’s commentary on the Kairova case as an example of his views on moral, legal, criminal, and/or judicial issues, however, I will be exploring it against the background of the author’s views on female sexuality. More specifically, I will be focusing upon how Dostoevsky’s conceptualization of carnal desire as a violent and destructive passion shapes his understanding not only of sex and love, but also of justice and mercy. It thus influences in a very fundamental way his view of the role that love--maternal and conjugal as opposed to romantic and sexual--should play in helping to establish the moral structure of a life, a family, and a society. Dostoevsky believed that Kairova’s crime of passion was triggered by the unbridling of her carnal lusts, by the unleashing of a dangerous and destructive appetite for power, aggression, and domination that he linked closely with sexual desire. As we will see, Kairova’s unruly carnal lusts, in Dostoevsky’s opinion, not only led to her violent crime of passion; they also stood in the way of her moral regeneration and spiritual redemption.

Ilya Kliger, “Resurgent Forms in Ivan Goncharov and Alexander Veselovsky: Toward a Historical Poetics of Tragic Realism”

The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, I would like to summon historical poetics, as delineated by Alexander Veselovsky in particular, in order to shed light on the function of some oddly atavistic but crucial sections of Ivan Goncharov’s last novel, The Precipice (Obryv, 1869). The sections, I will argue, have been unjustifiably dismissed by generations of critics as simply falling short of Goncharov’s realist best. An approach informed by the methodology of historical poetics, however, allows us to read them as key to the formation of Goncharov’s particular brand of “tragic realism,” a paradoxical but exigent and fruitful hybrid, born of the formal and thematic contradictions of the late realist novel. In the second part of this article, I reverse the direction of the inquiry to suggest some ways in which The Precipice, read through the prism of historical poetics, can reveal the symbolic-affective stakes of Veselovsky’s own project. This will involve having historical poetics interrogate itself--an undertaking Veselovsky would perhaps have been open to and one that allows us to appreciate significant historically rooted parallels between these roughly contemporary projects: the methodology and the novel.


One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
44 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times
KU Today