Among the Conspiracy Theorists

Peter Pomerantsev

Twenty-five people died in Kiev last night.

Before it started, when the day was still bright and my main thoughts were about dealing with my feverish four-year-old twins over half-term, I sent a message to a friend who also writes about Russia (I’d put the twins in front of a cartoon).

‘Just had an odd thought,’ was the gist of what I wrote (it was in a social media shorthand). ‘But what if all the stuff the Kremlin has been doing the last few months – destroying the relatively free RIA Novosti, taking TV Rain off the airwaves, pressuring radio Ekho Moskvy, ramping up the anti-Americanism and traitor-hysteria – is not just a case of a general "turning the screws", not a reaction to social change, but actually active preparation for a huge operation in Ukraine. They want their informational bases covered. They’re planning something.’

‘Ummm. Maybe,’ my friend wrote.

‘I’m not one for conspiracies,' I thought later, as I sat in the doctor’s waiting-room (one of the twins might have scarlet fever). Since the latest crisis in Ukraine began there have been myriads: it’s all part of a US plot to destabilise a Moscow-Berlin-Paris axis; it’s Masons based at the Lviv Catholic University; it’s Putin demanding a blood oath from Yanukovich to kill protesters; it’s Polish-Swedish revenge for their defeat by Peter the Great. ‘Do people believe in conspiracy theories out of a sense of helplessness?’ I wondered. ‘Like astrology? I hope my friend doesn’t think I’m one of them.’

And then the attack on Maidan began, and the killing.

‘What does Yanukovich think he’s doing?’ I thought. Before this he had a way out, was negotiating down, could probably have toddled off into the distance a very rich man. Instead he was cutting off all his escape routes. The operation looked planned to make sure there were deaths. Deaths could only mean the crisis was reignited. Of course Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk were responding: rebels seizing the government buildings. Not one European leader could get through on Yanukovich’s phone. The rumour was they hadn’t been able to all day. He must have known this was going to happen. Or was he even in charge? This all looked like the methods of Viktor Medvedchuk, the Kremlin man in the Presidential Administration. And didn't Putin pledge Yanukovich another 2 billion just the other day?

And then more dots were joining up. In Kharkiv the mayor (a former gangster who makes Yanukovich look small-time) and governor had announced the formation of a ‘Ukrainian front’: 'Seventy years after [the Second World War] the Ukrainian front has appeared in Ukraine again and it will clear the Ukrainian earth of fascist evil spirits,' the governor said, chiming with Russian state TV. Meanwhile Surkov had been spotted in Crimea. Was he readying the locals for an independence push? The Night Wolves are back in Sevastopol, ready to ‘defend’ the city.

All this is just what Putin wants. A national stand-off in Ukraine which redraws the lines between ‘Holy Russia’ and ‘Fascist-Homosexual West’. Putin's press secretary has already called the violence an 'attempted coup'. Gennady Zyuganov, the head of the Russian Communists, has called on the south and east to form resistance groups. It could be that it’s not so much Ukraine joining the Eurasian Union that counts, it’s the journey towards it, keeping the Putin story moving onwards (it doesn’t really matter where to, it just has to keep on moving).

So was all this being prepared over the last months?

‘What do you do when one of the conspiracies might be right?’ I thought. It was late at night, the twins were up again with temperatures.

This morning the conspiracies are everywhere again. It’s Ukrainian oligarchs trying to pull Russia into a war in Ukraine! It’s Victoria Nuland! It’s Aries! Saturn! The Moon!

But now I'm joining in with them.

There are 25 dead. I’m on the phone with relatives and friends in Kiev.

Astrology, conspiracy theories: can they also be a form of lamentation, a way to deal with grief and start to mourn the dead?


  • 19 February 2014 at 3:17pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    What's a conspiracy theory - just any theory about a conspiracy (e.g. the 'Guy Fawkes was framed' theory), or does it have to be a theory about a weird and unbelievable conspiracy (e.g. the 'Bin Laden was framed' theory)? Semantic parsimony alone suggests that there must be some conspiracy theories (type A) which aren't conspiracy theories (type B).

    Not that it matters much here - I don't think "authoritarian leader exacerbates crisis so as to facilitate authoritarian solution" is a conspiracy theory in either sense of the word, sadly.

  • 20 February 2014 at 1:16pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Here is a link to the Kyev Post
    Yesterday the president said that he would not order the clearance of Maidan but that was yesterday. Putin is the only person who can put a stop to the violence.

  • 20 February 2014 at 3:30pm
    Giuliano says:
    Conspiracy theory and mourning - an interesting topic. Have been thinking myself how mourning is so closely related to political discourse these days wondering whether there is material for some kind of global political economy of mourning. From Michael Rosen's thoughts on the Bedroom tax as a levy on the grief of the poor, to the Costa Coffin and Death Bonds, from the banning by the IOC of black armbands even to Kiselev's call to burning the hearts of gays, the Leningrad blockade reason for banning Dozhd' (what parallels if any- rather weak- with cenotaph crime of Gilmour). etc etc. I didn't get far thinking through about the links but I think there is a lot to considered regarding politics and mourning. trying to draw together certain threads):
    Time to (re)read Derrida's book on the Specters of Marx (on debt and mourning)

  • 20 February 2014 at 4:49pm
    JWA says:
    There is some very good writing in the LRB already on conspiracy theories (Sedley, Hitchens, Paul Foot). I'm sure someone made the point in one of them that believing in conspiracy theories is no more insane than believing that they're aren't any; wish I could find it as it was more elegantly phrased than that.

    Peter Pomersantev's words on mourning might also recall to Michael Wood's verdict on Oliver Stone's 'JFK' -

    "But JFK is not a movie about John F. Kennedy or the circumstances of his dying. It is not finally, in spite of its historical premise and its successful stabs at pieces of history, a historical movie at all. It is a grieving fantasy, an act of mourning for everything that might have been and wasn’t. What is killed in this movie is hope, youth, truth, change – the conspiracy succeeded beyond its or anyone’s wildest dreams."

    My thoughts are with the protesters, for the good it does.

  • 20 February 2014 at 9:35pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Is this a case of dueling conspiracy theories? The one being that evil anti-Russian forces in the decadent West are behind the demonstrators (“rioters”) aiming to destabilize the government. Its opponent being that somehow Putin and his minions are orchestrating the crackdown, pulling puppet strings attached to Yanukovich? Are both sets of ideas merely a rhetorical and “public-relations” masquerade to divert attention away from an old-fashioned power struggle (involving very substantial economic weapons) that will be bound to leave about half the population resentful and angry, no matter what the outcome? With its eastwardly expanded administrative boundaries and its influx of Russians during the glory days of the USSR (plus the ridiculous “gift” of the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine by Khrushchev – who played a very dark role in the region’s history during the 1930s), the present nation seems bound to be divided by a number of real demographic differences as well as by how its western and eastern halves feel about Russia and Russians. And, lest we all forget, Putinello is a truly dim and sinister soul, a man, who as Pomerantsev points out, must continue to move “forward” into the night so he doesn’t fall off the tightrope he’s on. Since his basic idea of “progress” toward the restoration of “Great Russia” is regressive, the situation looks less than promising and more like a “no clean exit” situation for the opposing forces.

    A little historical retrospection makes things look even gloomier. During the German invasion in 1941, Stalin, against the advice of his most able military advisers, chose to order a “to the last man defense” of Kiev, rather than let local commanders lead an organized withdrawal in order to preserve men and equipment. The results were disastrous – big armored encirclements (successful Blitzkrieg) and mass surrenders and imprisonment (these were among the million or two POWs who were left to die from exposure and starvation by the Germans during the ensuing winter). Stalin had General Soponis, a man who tried to lead an unauthorized “break-out” and withdrawal from the pocket, executed (rather than giving him a deserved commendation for sparing much-needed manpower). It’s interesting that this was the mirror–image of Hitler’s attitude and behavior toward Generals who withdrew to more defensible positions after being pummeled in front to of Moscow later that winter. The point of these old facts is that Putin seems to have developed a Stalinist mentality toward such “critical events” that might be handled in less drastic fashion, and with brighter prospects – in his dim and twisted little mind compromise is a very dirty word. If Yanukovich is his clone (or powerless with respect to Putin), then everyone is in for a nasty ride.