Golubev on Borenstein, 'Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism'
Eliot Borenstein. Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. 306 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5017-3577-6.
Reviewed by Alexey Golubev (University of Houston) Published on H-Socialisms (February, 2021) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55391
Conspiracy and Fantasy in Russia Today
That the West and its paid “thugs” and “hirelings” were plotting against the first socialist state was never a conspiracy theory for Soviet leaders and society, but rather a firmly established fact. “Plot” and “plotters” were among the most popular words in public speeches and legal terminology during the Great Purge; they permeated the genres of Soviet political commentary and caricature during the Cold War; and conspiracies of every kind blossomed with Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. By the time the USSR collapsed and Russia emerged as an independent state in December 1991, several generations of its citizens had been thoroughly trained in conspiratorial thinking. This is where Eliot Borenstein’s new book starts: it examines the fantasy worlds produced in Russian fiction and political discourse in the past three decades when Russia’s fall from a superpower into an economic and political turmoil caused widespread social anxiety and insecurity. In response to this social and political cataclysm, many Russians turned to familiar conspiratorial explanations that placed the roots of their nation’s trials in the evil intentions of inherently hostile domestic and foreign forces.
Borenstein’s book is an inquiry into conspiratorial narratives and their role in political mobilization and cultural imagination in contemporary Russia. He tackles them at several different levels—their incorporation into politics; their particular manifestations (such as the perception of the LGBT+ movement as an assault on the Russian national body); their literary adaptations and reiterations; and their long-lasting effects on the cultural understanding of all political arguments as inherently biased and manipulative. Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism approaches conspiracies across domains and media (politics, journalism, film, fiction), genres (novels, documentaries, op-eds), and objects of conspiratorial thought (America, Jews, the LGBT+ movement, consumer capitalism).
Borenstein describes a corpus of conspiratorial narratives that permeate Russian culture and regulate or at least inform the production of political and cultural meanings in situations ranging from official statements in the State Duma through prime-time shows on popular TV channels to videogames. In a way, Russian conspiratorial narratives are like Uber: only a few drive it for a living, yet many rely on it as a regular means of transportation or at least use it occasionally, and even those who refuse or avoid using it cannot but notice its firmly established presence around us. It is the same with conspiracy theories: it is hard to imagine a sentient Russian citizen who, after the war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, has not heard allegations that its “genuine” driving force was western Ukrainian “fascists” backed by Western powers; agreeing or disagreeing with them comes as the second step. Karl Popper famously argued that conspiratorial narratives satisfy the public demand for easy explanations in an increasingly complex world. Borenstein’s analysis further advances this argument by showing that, in doing so, conspiracies create paranoid political cultures that treat “all information as propaganda” (p. 29).
Plots against Russia has many brilliant observations about Russian conspiracy cultures, and it is unsurprising that it received the 2020 Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize, a top award in the field of Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies sponsored by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies and the Stanford University Center for Russian and East European Studies. In the first three chapters, Borenstein examines how conspiratorial narratives define Russia as an imaginary object of desire by hostile forces, a common trope since the rise of modern nationalism with its tendency to feminize nations. In modern Russia, the current political establishment readily employs the apocalyptic tropes produced by mass media and popular culture to advance its anti-Western agenda. That this impetus comes from the media is one of the most compelling arguments of Plots against Russia: unlike the scholars who see a direct input from the Kremlin behind the spread of conspiracy theories in Russian society, Borenstein accentuates the priority of popular forms of political imagination over their centralized production. In this picture, Putin himself is just another consumer—rather than a direct producer—of conspiratorial narratives, their acolyte rather than a shrewd manipulator.
Borenstein’s monograph provides an in-depth analysis of the power of conspiratorial narratives to recruit audiences by providing them with easy explanations and a powerful yet elusive image of external and internal enemies, with the enemy acting as a shifting signifier that—depending on the circumstances—can refer to Jews, America, the LGBT+ movement, and so forth. Chapter 4, in particular, looks at how homophobia turned into an ideological weapon around 2013 with accusations that a “gay lobby” manipulates domestic and international politics, acting as a displacement of Russia’s growing confrontation with western European and North American political establishments. By rebranding Europe as “Gayropa,” Russian political commentators created a feeling of anxiety about the future of the Russian national body. This anxiety was simultaneously projected onto Ukraine as Russia’s “younger sister” and onto actual children: by claiming that both are endangered by “gender propaganda” (a term used in the Russian-language media to refer to feminist and LGBT+ activism), conspiratorial narratives mobilized their audiences as nationalist subjects.
Conspiratorial narratives, through their authors and consumers, are very well aware that they exist in the state of a permanent discursive struggle, and in chapter 5 Borenstein examines the metaphor of “zombification,” a rhetorical tool that these narratives deploy against other audiences to strip them of subjectivity and the right to independent judgement. Unlike the original zombie metaphor that implies the work of forces outside of the individual's control, zombification is a process allegedly run by a manipulative force, turning people into mindless creatures. This logic, in turn, renders one’s opponent’s arguments as a priori having no value and sense—a situation that Borenstein examines, in particular, through the 2012 anti-Putin protests but which also characterizes the current political polarization in the United States (I wrote this review after the 2020 US presidential election but before Joe Biden was inaugurated, when my newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter were rife with conspiracy theories as never before—and I have previously lived in Russia). In chapter 6, Borenstein turns to the current conflict in Ukraine to explain how the conspiratorial rhetoric and mind-set fuel the mutual mistrust between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine supporters.
Borenstein’s approach—the construction of the research object from various contexts, or, in his own words, following “multiple rabbits spread throughout numerous interconnected warrens”—allows him to offer a general theory of conspiracy (p. 52). Since conspiratorial narratives examined in Plots against Russia are not limited to any particular medium, genre, or intellectual domain, Borenstein argues that they can be productively analyzed in terms of the Lacanian Real-Symbolic-Imaginary triad. Borenstein places conspiracy theories and most of their narratives in the domain of the Imaginary, going so far as to interpret the conspiratorial narratives about Russia as “symptoms of a disease of the Imaginary.” An exception is made for fictional narratives that, he argues, “oscillate between the Imaginary and the Symbolic, thereby reflecting the tension between ideology and artistry” (p. 20). Fiction thus occupies a higher position in this taxonomy of conspiratorial narratives, with political conspiracy theories drawing inspiration, imagery, and entire plots from it, which leads Borenstein to conclude that “conspiracy belongs first to art, then to ideology” (p. 41).
What is missing in this explanation is the connection between the Lacanian triad and the paranoid subject position, a key category of the book (discussed in chapter 1), which is expressed—in fact, which comes into the social being—through conspiratorial narratives. The difference between “serious” (nonfictional) and “playful” (fictional) narratives is not that the former belong only to the Imaginary, while the latter “oscillate” between the Imaginary and the Symbolic: all narratives cross this border as they have to follow the structure of language in order to be meaningful. However, since the Imaginary and the Symbolic are radically incommensurate, the narrative movement between them creates lack, a key category in Lacan’s works: the symbolic structure of the language is always inadequate to express imaginary desires (hence the idea of the objet petite a, an unattainable object of desire: no matter how many conspiracies a conspiracy theorist reveals, there are more to invent and uncover). The appeal of “serious” conspiracy theories is that they seek to address this lack through their explanations: to show how the world “really” works. For Borenstein it automatically turns their authors into impostors who falsely claim that they “have themselves bypassed the deceptions of the Imaginary and truly reached the Symbolic” (p. 20). For Lacan, however, paranoia was about confusing the Symbolic and the Real orders when the resulting disorder is resolved through a creation of delusions: a process so quintessential to human knowledge that, in a commentary on Écrits, Jacques-Alain Miller spoke of “the paranoiac subject of scientific civilization.” This is what makes “serious” conspiracy theories not only quintessentially paranoiac but also extremely popular: their narratives are easily recognizable, because paranoiac structures are embedded in the very process of knowing. A consistent application of Lacan’s theory would render paranoid reasoning as an inevitable byproduct of human knowledge rather than “a disease of the Imaginary.”
If we accept this Lacanian proposition, it puts into question the key argument of Plots against Russia that “conspiracy belongs first to art, then to ideology.” Borenstein argues that conspiratorial narratives are commonly emplotted as melodrama, a narrative form that is characterized by endless repetitions, a Manichean worldview, and a focus on revelation. However, these criteria also satisfy the definition of epic poetry: for example, before Elias Lönnrot, Kalevala existed as an unorganized and hence repetitive collection of Karelian folk songs with a Manichean worldview (Kalevala vs. Pohjola) and revelations of the antagonists’ evil plans that J. R. R. Tolkien developed to the extreme in his works about Middle Earth that were inspired by Kalevala and other European epic traditions. Neither is conspiracy strange to the comedy genre, as the famous 1960s trilogy of Fantômas movies directed by André Hunebelle suggests. The difference between conspiratorial and non-conspiratorial narratives seems to be not so much in the form, but rather in the political and epistemological aspects of writing. Media narratives definitely fuel conspiratorial forms of political imagination, but, perhaps, The Short Course of the History of the VKP(b) still lurks somewhere behind the freshly minted and ostensibly bad science fiction narratives of Comrade Stalin fighting against foreign and extraterrestrial conspiracies. The paranoid subject position in Russian culture has a complicated genealogy that is impossible to reduce solely to media narratives.
Plots against Russia is not the first work to address the question of a complicated relationship between fictional and nonfictional narratives in the production of conspiracy theories in Russia, and therefore it is all the more surprising that the book lacks a dialogue with scholars from Russia and other post-Soviet states who have previously studied conspiracy theories and related literary forms and genres. When Borenstein expresses in the preface his concern that it might look like orientalizing to study conspiracies in Russian fiction and media, he justifies the choice of this research subject by arguing that conspiracy theories have come to occupy a central place in Russian culture and thus warrant a thorough examination. It is by virtue of this very centrality of conspiracy theories in Russian culture that Russian scholars are just as fascinated with this phenomenon as Borenstein. Ilya Yablokov has written extensively on conspiracy theories in Russian political culture since the early 2010s, while their incorporation into mass culture has been addressed by Daria Slesareva, whose dissertation, “The Poetics of the Conspiracy Novel,” examines some of the same works as Plots against Russia, as well as by such prominent anthropologists and literary scholars as Aleksandr Panchenko, Konstantin Bogdanov, Sergei Shtyrkov, Zhanna Kormina, and some others. This scholarship represents important perspectives on the question of conspiracy cultures in Russia and is particularly attentive to their historical genealogies and global connections.
Plots against Russia is an important contribution to studies of contemporary Russian politics and culture, but its importance extends beyond the field of Russian studies. The book offers important insights into the work of conspiracy cultures and ideologies in the modern world in general, and it is particularly useful for our understanding of conspiracy thinking (or, rather, writing) in contemporary America, where Republican zealots regularly label the Democratic Party as an “internal enemy.” After all, it was written between 2014 and 2018, the period that saw a revival of both conspiracy theories and conspiracy revelations as hyperpopular genres in American mass media. As an American scholar writing about conspiracy theories at an time when conspiracies have become hugely important in American popular and intellectual culture alike, Borenstein is uniquely positioned to reveal, dissect, and explain the work of conspiratorial narratives. Yet this positionality also represents a risk of a metonymical slippage when “plots against Russia” become important primarily because they resonate with the American public concerns in the era of Donald Trump. This is where a dialogue with Russian scholars, with their very different perspectives and concerns, would be very helpful. For a book that became a foundational text in studies of conspiracies in Russian culture immediately after publication, it is very regrettable that no such dialogue is established in Plots against Russia.
Erratum: This review was revised on February 2, 2020, to correct the reviewer's affiliation from the University of Toronto to the University of Houston as well as the title of a work cited in the text from The Short Course of the VKP(b) to The Short Course of the History of the VKP(b). —Ed.
. Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2002), 166.
. Ilya Yablokov, Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 135–45.
. David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
. See, for example, Jacques Lacan, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason Since Freud,” in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge, 2001), 111–36.
. Lacan, Écrits, 251.
. Jacques Lacan, Seminar III: The Psychoses. 1955–1956 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 39–40; Jerry Aline Flieger, “The Listening Eye: Postmodernism, Paranoia, and the Hypervisible,” Diacritics 26, no. 1 (1996): 103–6.
. Vladimir Peremolotov, Zviozdnye voiny tovarishcha Stalina (Moscow: Eksmo, 2012). The cover image features Joseph Stalin piloting a futuristic combat spacecraft while smoking a pipe.
. See, e.g., a detailed analysis of the circulation of conspiratorial narratives between their producers, media, and consumers in chapter 1 of Serguei Oushakine, The Patriotism of Despair: Nation, War, and Loss in Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011), 15–78.
. Yablokov’s research produced multiple Russian-language articles and culminated in a recently published English-language monograph on this topic: Ilya Yablokov, Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).
. Daria Slesareva, “Poetika konspirologicheskogo romana” (PhD diss., Samara State University, 2014).
. A. A. Panchenko and K. A. Bogdanov, “Teorii zagovora, istoriia kul’tury i russkaia literature,” Russkaia literatura 4 (2015): 8–13, and “Teorii zagovora v sovremennoi Rossii,” special issue, Antropologicheskii forum 27 (2015): 89–202.
Citation: Alexey Golubev. Review of Borenstein, Eliot, Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55391This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.