Plots against Russia, An Interview with Eliot Borenstein

Excerpts from an interview with Eliot Borenstein (New York U) on his book, Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism (Cornell U Press, 2019), winner of the 2020 Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize, by Diana Dukhanova (College of the Holy Cross). The interview appeared on New Books Network, April 16, 2019.

Diana Dukhanova: In the preface to your book, you state the following: “This is an uncomfortable book to write. It is also the book that I’ve been preparing to write my entire adult life. Although there is no way I could have known it.” Could you talk about what you meant here and how this book represents, if I understand correctly, the culmination of your scholarly work so far?

Eliot Borenstein: Sure. When I said that it was what I’d been working on my entire adult life, part of it was an acknowledgement that I have an attraction to fringe phenomena and to news of the weird in my own life. I try to develop a kind of healthy distrust of that instinct of my own when it comes to my scholarly work in Russia, because I get concerned that I’m just chasing after something very strange. But it is also the case that since I was in Moscow during the last couple of years of my graduate work or writing my dissertation in 1992, 1993, I was there at this perfect time to start watching some of the most interesting phenomena of post-Soviet culture developed, which led to my second book.
But along the way, I kept reading fringe newspapers, reading the extreme, right-wing red-brown coalition newspapers from the 1990s, buying all of these very strange pamphlets and books and so on, and then eventually following these phenomena online and of course reading the popular fiction. And when I was working on my last book, Overkill, I had included a chapter called “Plots against Russia” about conspiracy and paranoia, and was advised that it didn’t really fit the book, which was fine with me. I really didn’t think I was going to be writing a conspiracy book for quite some time, largely because I was concerned that I might actually be distorting Russian reality or even Russia’s media reality, but enough time passed, and sadly I no longer had that concern.

DD: You’re very cautious to avoid simplistic, demonizing, or orientalizing views of Russia, which the study of these topics might suggest. You describe it as the dangers of exoticising the Other. Can you talk a bit more about how your caution around this issue informs your work and especially your research in this book?

EB: Well, for one thing, when I’m encountering a phenomenon, in this case related to conspiracy, that strikes me as particularly bizarre or hard to credit, I then go back and remind myself of something equally strange in my own native context here in the United States to get in the habit of reminding myself that that strangeness in an extreme thought and belief in things that one might think are impossible to believe in are hallmarks of most cultures. I’m trying to be very careful about that. And then also, to the extent that I can, gauge how prominent a particular phenomenon or idea is. That’s a problem because I don’t really engage in that kind of empirical research and I don’t go looking for statistics. I don’t particularly trust statistics in general and in Russia in particular. But I do try to keep in mind what’s out there that’s not strange and conspiratorial.

DD: And you talk about your work being more on the side of discourse, right?

EB: Absolutely. I feel like, for the past 20 years or so, I practically started every talk by saying that I’m not talking about real life or real people. I’m not doing surveys. In a sense the view that I have is not really a bird’s eye view. I have a kind of internet couch potato surfer view on things. That is, if you ask yourself what view you would get of a culture simply by consuming media and not necessarily by going out inside and talking to people, that’s the material that I’m looking at. And I’m aware that there’s a whole world outside of the internet, apparently, but that’s not a world that I’m actually studying.

DD: This connects to the process of assembling the research for this book, and the process that you’re using now for your next book, which started out as a blog. Can you talk a little bit about the development of this project and how it took its present form?

EB: The blog thing—even though it’s a public-facing thing, and I like to think that some people are reading it—is largely about setting up a device that disciplines me and makes me work. Because what I discovered when I started the All the Russias blog was 1) that I really, really liked doing it; and 2) that this was a format that works very well for me and seems really natural for me.

DD: Let’s get into some of the key terminology here. The first one, of course, is conspiracy and conspiratorial thinking. How do you define it? You’re very careful to specify that conspiratorial thought lies on a spectrum.

EB: Yes. That’s a really complicated one because there is a large body of conspiracy scholarship, starting roughly around the post-World war II era. It’s large, but it’s manageable to read basically all of it. What you see as a certain set of trends, a certain set of controversies that you really have to skirt around. And one of the big ones is the connection between conspiracy and paranoia. And conspiracy here being a bunch of people or entities working together to do something in secret and that presumably is not something that you would want. People point out that surprise birthday parties are conspiracies, but no one calls them that because people don’t tend to be upset by a surprise like this. I think this connection is an easy one to make because paranoia, if you set aside its most extreme clinical version, is a tendency to over-interpret, to make too many connections, and to assume that nothing is random. But the birth of all this, the primal scene of all of this is Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay and book, On the Paranoid Style, a lecture he delivered on the day that Kennedy was shot, actually. This essay, which was hugely influential in fact, and has gotten a real revival in the Trump age for, I think, obvious reasons, talks about how there is a paranoid style in politics and American politics in particular that comes around rather cyclically, and how understanding the paranoid style could help you to understand what’s going on with the politics.

This is an argument he made in Harper’s, originally. It is one of those arguments that immediately makes sense—you don’t need to be a scholar to follow it—which is exactly the sort of argument that scholars then immediately want to take apart, in part because it looms so large, and in part because, quite rightly, a lot of scholars felt that this connection between conspiracy and paranoia pathologizes people who believe in conspiracy theories and defines them as essentially mentally ill. I can certainly see why there’s been a hygienic impulse to separate the two, but I argue that there’s no reason to separate conspiracy and paranoia that carefully as long as you realize that you are using the word paranoid in no way as a medical or psychiatric diagnosis, but in what I’m calling a mode, like irony, or a point of view that you could have or not your entire life. That distinction between a long-term paranoia and what I call the paranoid subject position is the theoretical contribution that I’m hoping other scholars of conspiracy end up noticing.

DD: Could you say a little bit more about the paranoid subject?

EB: I start off, first of all, with the notion that our entire worlds are constructed by narrative. It makes psychological sense to be constantly constructing a narrative because narrative is about taking a bunch of things that might not seem connected and seeing how they’re connected so that everything is part of one big story. Paranoia certainly fits in with that quite well. When I’m talking about a paranoid subject position of conspiracy, I argue that in fact, it is fiction about paranoia and stories about conspiracy that condition us to be able to imagine conspiracy as something that’s really possible. So the very fact that you can watch an hour of, say, The X-Files and for the course of that hour suspend disbelief and live in a kind of epistemological mindset in which aliens and conspiracies are possible, and then, in the next hour, you’ll watch something else that’s not possible suggests that we are always able to adopt a conspiratorial mindset when it’s necessary or when it’s useful or handy, and then dispose of it a minute later. There’s no need to diagnose someone as paranoid. There’s no need to see every manifestation of conspiratorial thought as a symptom of a complete conspiratorial worldview, that in fact we all adopt conspiratorial modes and drop them back and forth over the course of our day. And that’s what makes it possible for some to believe in conspiracy in a much more committed and sustainable fashion. But again, I think one of the mistakes that intellectuals make—and people talk about this a lot lately, particularly with regard to politics—is thinking of everything in terms of rationality. And then when you see a breakdown of rational explanation, you show how something is not working. But this is really a matter of affect, emotion, and habits of thought. And the fact that you can be conspiratorial for a little while and not be conspiratorial right afterward just seems to me very human and discursive.

DD: What is it about post-Soviet Russia that makes the conspiratorial subject position one that is so often taken up?

EB: That is a great question. And I would say that it’s part of a longer process that has made Russia and the Soviet Union of the past several decades a great hope for conspiracy theory. Again, I’m saying that not to suggest that other places are not; certainly, the United States is a great breeding ground of conspiracy theory. But I’m coming out of different sources and for different reasons, at least initially. In the post Stalin era, conspiratorial thought was enabled by the general lack of reliable information in the Soviet Union, and the widespread assumption that you’re not being told everything. And in fact, every time there is a revelation of some past crime that is finally doled out, instead of letting you know, finally, the truth, it just reminds you of these other things being kept from you. So the restriction on information in late Soviet times facilitated conspiratorial thought. Then with Glasnost, with the opening up of the flood gates, that did a couple of things: it reinforced the idea that this information is being held from you, and it also made actual conspiratorial tracts, novels, and films available for mass consumption. By the time you get to the post-Soviet era, you have these longstanding habits of conspiratorial thought, but you have it in an informational ecosystem that is almost the opposite of the one you had in late Soviet times, and much more like the informational ecosystem that facilitates conspiracy here in the United States. There’s so much information out there, so many competing sources and narratives, that each one relativizes the other and makes it possible to pick and choose or assume that they’re all wrong.

DD: That feeds into Russia’s perceived role of a world leader on the vanguard of traditional values.

EB: That is a quite recent one, but it’s a variation on a longstanding conspiratorial nationalist trope that sees Russia as surrounded by enemies that want to destroy it. The traditional values thing works on multiple levels. For one, it can actually serve as a way for Russia to find allies in the world, but it can also justify why Russia should reasonably perceive of itself as a target, and why people hate Russia so much.

DD: Would you say that the rise and conspiratorial thinking in Putin’s third term is connected to this desire to reinforce Russia as a threat?

EB: I think that the Putin regime’s use of conspiratorial discourse is related to that. It’s remarkable how much of this stuff has gone from margin to center in the past several years. It was happening slowly over the first decade of the 21st century, but really kicked into high gear with Putin’s reelection. The embracing of a conspiratorial worldview is hugely useful politically. For years they had been talking about the need for a national idea. If you take together traditional values, the notion that Russia is under attack from all sides—that’s not an idea, but it is enough. Those things are enough of a national story to be a unifying fantasy, or at least I think that’s what the regime is hoping, and it does seem to work fairly well.

DD: Thinking about the roots of a lot of these conspiracies and key adversaries, anti-Semitism plays a large role, particularly the source text of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But it goes back much further. Could you talk a little bit about the role that anti-Semitism plays, as well as its limitations, in understanding Russian conspiratorial thinkers?

EB: Anti-Semitism is foundational to a lot of Western conspiratorial thought, going back in particular to The Protocols, which is a wonderful Russian plagiarized contribution to the world of conspiratorial lore. But there are obvious reasons why Jews would be a group that would be particularly useful for this kind of narrative. They are a group of people who can look sort of like you, but not entirely like you; a state within a state; a group of people who won’t eat with you and won’t eat the same foods as you; but are everywhere and therefore don’t have local loyalties. All of this is really well-established in the literature on anti-Semitism. It is particularly Jews, as boundary-crossing people, connected with the institutions of modernity that make them a great target for this kind of conspiratorial narrative, which is particularly well and stupidly embodied in The Protocols, which is just so badly written, it’s just lots of fun if it weren’t for the fact that it was so destructive. The master text of conspiracy for the 20th century and beyond is The Protocols. The result is that structurally, if a conspiracy has an international enemy, even if it’s not named the Jews, it is homologous to the role that Jews played in The Protocols.

DD: I wanted to transition to the idea of “gender ideology” featuring so prominently in conspiracy thinking. Can you talk a bit about why homosexuality is considered an attack Russian culture and values, and how it’s used to frame this inimical relationship with the West?

EB: I mean, the short answer is actually now homosexuality and Judaism for a lot of the conspiratorial world are the same thing. In terms of structural homologies, the LGBT people are in a sense the new Jews, the new internal enemies.

DD: In terms of the idea that America is trying to make Russia gay, there’s also this critique of liberalism, that over in America and the West, they have this liberal approach to politics that then creates these really harmful social trends. Can you talk a little bit more about this critique or fear of liberalism and particularly how it’s used by the current administration?

EB: The fate of liberalism in Russia has some parallels with what’s happened and been happening with liberalism in the United States and Western Europe. As we know, liberal can mean at least two things that don’t have to have very much to do with each other. One is liberalism as economic policy, which is the Washington consensus or neo-liberalism, Thatcher and Reagan, and it’s not a liberalism about procedural democracy or equality of rights. That liberalism also appears at the same time, but there’s no reason to expect any average or even well-educated person who’s being exposed to both these things at the same time to be able to distinguish between the two. And neither of them is popular. Economic liberalism led to the destitution of a huge portion of the population. And at the same time, you suddenly have this attention being paid to LGBT people, which a lot of people wouldn’t even think of as something to be concerned about, and this change in values really disturbs people. So you end up with this kind of liberal bogeyman that is bad on just about every front. Everything about the 1990s becomes associated with liberalism and whatever liberalism means. And one of the things that Putin and people around him did extremely successfully was use the 1990s as a reminder of how bad things can get and how bad things will be if you don’t let the leaders do what they’re doing, because the liberals will come back and ruin our culture and economy. […]

Listen to the full interview to hear Borenstein and Dukhanova discuss conspiratorial thinking and the weaponization of information in the conflict in Ukraine, the zombification metaphor, the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, and Donald Trump and the Mueller Report.

Diana Dukhanova is a Visiting Assistant professor of Russian at College of the Holy Cross. Eliot Borenstein is Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York U.