Conspiracy Theories and the Fall of the USSR

By Matthew Beylinson
Photo: Leaders sign the agreement to dissolve the USSR (RIA Novosti).

How did factors from the Soviet and post-Soviet periods combine to create conspiracies, and how do these conspiracies live on in modern Russia?

It is a quiet night in Moscow as the city starts to settle down. The day is September 9, 1999, and recently, Russia has been rocked by a series of bombings orchestrated by Chechen terrorists. There is an air of confusion and anxiety about the recent bombing and the war in Chechnya. But up till now, the bombings had been happening far from Moscow, and when a bomb exploded in Moscow, there were relatively few deaths. Then, just after midnight, an explosion rings out across the Russian capital; a massive section of an apartment on Guryanova street has just been transformed into a pile of rubble within seconds. Officially, this horrific event (and the bombings before it) was blamed on Chechen terrorists, but even today not all Russians believe this narrative. There is a popular theory that the cause of the attack was the successor to the KGB, the FSB, which organized a bombing campaign under the orders of Vladimir Putin. This attack led to the second Chechen war, which served as a massive boon to Putin’s political career (Ortmann and Heathershaw 2012).

The apartment bombings, which predated the second Chechen war, were just one of many conspiracies floating around Russia in the 1990s. This was a period of extreme social, political, and economic change, surrounded by an atmosphere of nearly complete confusion. Because of these factors, nearly every major event that occurred during this period was thought by some to be part of a conspiracy. But how did this prolific conspiratorial culture emerge, how did factors from the Soviet and post-Soviet periods combine to create conspiracies, and how do these conspiracies live on in modern Russia?

The conspiratorial culture of the ‘90s cannot be discussed without first going into the Soviet period and examining how conspiracies from before the fall helped develop ones after. There is no better place to start than one of the oldest roots of conspiracy theories in Russia, a fear of the West. This fear originated as a feeling of otherness—that the West is different from Russia—and dates back deep into the Tsarist Era (Diligensky and Chugrov 2000). However, Russian fears of Western agents plotting the downfall of the Russian state originated with the Russian revolution. It was a fear that was not irrational, as the Allied powers (which included many powerful Western states) intervened in the revolution on the side of the White Army to put down the Bolsheviks (Baldwin 1969).

But the Bolsheviks won, and they would later establish the Soviet Union. This event was therefore framed as an attack on the Soviet system by a foreign capitalist foe, the West. Khrushchev captures the sentiment in a 1959 speech, where he said, “Remember that in the hard times after the October Revolution, US Troops… landed on Soviet soil to help the White Guards fight our Soviet system. And they were not the only ones to land… Your armed intervention in Russia was the most unpleasant thing that ever occurred in the relations between our two countries…” (Diligensky and Chugrov 2000). The Soviet people, including their leadership, developed a distrust of the West after this event, which expanded into a fear that the next invasion was imminent.

This fear existed among all strata of Soviet society, from the General Secretary to lowly workers in remote republics, and it saw a reemergence after the fall of the USSR. However, what was previously a fear had now become a conspiracy. As the USSR was falling, many were confused as to how this could be possible; it was easy to come up with a simple reason that the West again had intervened, and this time succeeded. The most famous of these conspiracy theories was that of the “Dulles Plan.” The theory maintained that the CIA, under director Allen Dulles, had infiltrated the Soviet Union. The infiltrators would then spread confusion, government infighting, and general social unrest for the sake of ultimately destroying Russian culture and the USSR as a whole (Scheie 2019). This theory was primarily spread by former Soviet officials and by members of the new Russian Federation government. They wanted to explain the collapse of the USSR in such a way that removed all blame from the Russian government; only malicious outside interference could have caused the collapse.

Along with its roots in a fear of the West, the Dulles Plan theory also has roots in another concept important to understanding Russian conspiracy culture, the existence of powerful state security apparatuses. State security apparatuses have existed in Russia since before the Soviet period. Due to their long history, they have established themselves as permanent fixtures in Russian society. This has led to their inclusion in several conspiracy theories. It has also led to these agencies creating conspiracy theories to keep justifying their existence.

Regarding the Dulles Plan, it uses fear of the West to create a necessity for agencies such as the KGB to exist. If there is an impending attack from the West that seeks to destroy Russian culture using hidden operatives, then there is only one response that makes sense: support the KGB. In writing about the role of state security agencies in the spread of the Dulles Plan conspiracy, Scheie writes, “this has created a high dependence on security services in order to preserve the Russian way of life” (2019). This dependency carried on into and past the Yeltsin years when the KGB was revived as the FSK/FSB. They adopted the mindset that only they could defend Russia against its usual hidden enemies.

The West’s plot, in this case, took the form of journalists and media criticizing Russia’s government. This plot is presented in very conspiratorial-sounding language, which can be seen in a quote from Vasilii Stavitskii, an FSB public relations official. He writes, “Someone very ‘wise’ in the West has skillfully used a campaign in order to devastate the power structures… The impression is created that someone very ‘wise’ again wishes through the hands of journalists to suffocate the new democratic state.” The FSB uses the fears of the past to create new conspiracies which help them maintain their position of power and slander members of the opposition. The Western infiltrators have returned, this time as journalists and critics of the regime.

Yet, while the FSB attempts to take a heroic stance as the saviors of Russia, their emergence came at a time of extreme government distrust (Soldatov and Borgan, 2010). This distrust, along with the FSB’s increasingly brutal nature and the massive amount of former KGB/FSB in government, led to conspiracies emerging about the agency. Consider, for instance, the aforementioned conspiracy theory floating around about the apartment bombings. At its basics, this theory combines elements of a general distrust in what the government says is happening, a sense of the FSB becoming increasingly more brutal, and the suspicious amount of former KGB/FSB agents getting key government positions. The production of conspiracies was not and is not just something done by the government and its supporters—the opposition is also involved in this culture of conspiracy theories.

Another key factor from the Soviet period and before that was unfortunately revived in ‘90s conspiracy theories is anti-Semitism. Russia has a long and troubled history of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The most infamous case of this is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a conspiracy theory alleging that a cabal of Jews was seeking to secretly control the world. The theory originated in Russia and was created by the Okhrana, the secret police of Imperial Russia, in the early 20th century (Anti-Defamation League, A Hoax of Hate: The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion). This troubled past remerged with the collapse of the USSR as the near-total social disorder led to old anti-Semitic biases being sown into new conspiracy theories. There was a prevalent theory that the oligarchs who emerged at this time were all Jewish. It was key to this theory that by being Jewish, they had to become oligarchs (Ortmann and Heathershaw 2012).

During the ‘90s, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories also took the form of “alternate” history. Nationalist writers such as Aleksandr Prokhanov, Sergei Kurginian, Vadim Kozhinov, Igor Shafarevich, and Sergei Kara-Murza, who wrote texts claiming that Jews had threatened Russia throughout history, achieved peak popularity in the ‘90s (Laruelle, 2012). One subject often covered was the Medieval Khazar kingdom—a Jewish kingdom on the shores of the Caspian Sea which often conflicted with the Kievan Rus, often considered the predecessor of Russia (Laruelle, 2012). The goal of their incorrect readings of history was to paint Jews as an ancient, eternal enemy of the Russian people. 

When these glaringly false histories were combined with theories of an Oligarchic class composed solely of Jews, an impression was created that Jews are not the same as orthodox Russians: they have always been enemies and outsiders, and now they have massive political and social power. The complexities of the post-Soviet period were simplified in terms of evil, wealthy Jews, and good, simple Russians.

One of these more modern elements that contributed to this culture of conspiracies was simply the confusion of the times. It was hard for many Russians to believe that the Soviet Union went from being a global superpower to not even existing in a matter of years. The states left behind after the collapse were shadows of the former geopolitical colossus. The various political events that preceded the sudden downfall of the USSR were thus re-examined with a conspiratorial perspective.

Events such as the August Coup and Gorbachev’s liberalizing policies were explained in terms of a conspiracy. The theory was that a Western plan to destroy the USSR and plunder its wealth had reached its ultimate goal. Gorbachev would use his liberalizing reforms to rouse liberals in Russia into becoming a pro-Western fifth column to topple both communism and the state (Yablokov 2018) This attempt was resisted by hardliners in the communist government and the KGB (Soldatov and Borgan 2010) which, of course, was positioned as the only force that could stop Western infiltrators. It is clear to see the pre-Soviet elements of conspiracy here, such as the nobility of the state security apparatus and an overall fear of Western infiltration.

Lack of information was not the issue; it was an overabundance of information that caused confusion. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was an influx of information into Russia propelled by new sources of media, like the internet and international news. A broad variety of contradictory information was now offered to the average Russian without the presence of Soviet-style censorship. This created an environment where average people did not know who to believe or which source to trust, thus creating a breeding ground for conspiracy theories to emerge (Ortmann and Heathershaw 2012).

The processes of globalization and Westernization also contributed to the creation of conspiracy theories. Russia very suddenly transitioned from a mostly closed-off, communist state into a quasi-liberal, capitalist state. With the political and economic changes of globalization also came the social changes, which took the form of Westernization. What made these changes a root of conspiratorial thought was their suddenness and their lack of efficacy.

These changes were part of Yeltsin’s program to rapidly transform the new Russia into a modern democracy; it was a plan known as shock therapy. The idea was for a rapid transition into a market economy that followed an equally fast change to democracy. Instead of a free market, though, Russia developed an inefficient economy in which private enterprises were controlled by a very small elite with ties to the government: the oligarchs. This economy was mired in Soviet-style inefficiency as unprofitable industries were propped up by the government due to their ties with the former Soviet system (Huygen 2012) This economic unrest was made worse by the new political freedoms allowed to the public, which allowed them to air their grievances publicly. (Huygen, 2012).

Then to make matters worse, economists from the West were some of the primary advisors of Yeltsin in implementing shock therapy. The Clinton administration and the International Monetary Fund, after some pushing from the US, loaned billions of dollars to Yeltsin’s government with little oversight. The goals of these loans were to continue Russia’s efforts of shock therapy. But the quality of life continued to plummet as both these loans and shock therapy accomplished little for the Russian people, save for the new class of oligarchs (Huygen 2012).

It was all this, along with an influx of Western culture and goods into Russia, that led to the growth of conspiracy theories. The forces of globalization and Westernization, along with the United States as a whole, were clumped under the title of the “New Order,” a term still used by Putin today. (Yablokov 2018) A prime example of a conspiracy based around the New Order is one perpetuated by Gennadii Zyuganov, the leader of the new Communist Party of the Russian Federation. He argued that 1991 was the start of the new world order composed of the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the American Council for International Relations, and the US government. This nefarious new order was working to ultimately destroy the Russian state in any capacity and to end Orthodox Christianity (Yablokov 2018). This theory presents the fears of cultural erosion via economic and political change held by many Russians.

It was not just the opposition like Zyuganov that used conspiracy theories. The Russian government in the ‘90s also did not shy away from spreading conspiracy theories for political gain. One such example is the sinking of the Kursk. The Kursk was a Russian nuclear submarine that sank in 2000 in an accident that claimed the lives of everyone on board. The Kremlin, however, refused to accept the fact that the submarine sank due to poor maintenance and mismanagement. Instead, they promulgated a theory that the Kursk collided with a NATO submarine that was sailing illegally in Russian waters (Ortmann and Heathershaw 2012). This theory was spread by the Russian government to throw the blame on the West for a horrible mistake to which they did not want to own up. Despite their plan, the Kremlin’s theory never really spread among Russians and was even openly mocked.

The conspiracy theories and the elements from which they were made were not just confined to the ‘90s and then lost to history; they are still very much alive in modern Russia. The difference is that, in 21st-century Russia, instead of being spread by opposition politicians or by ordinary citizens in conversation, conspiracies are spread by Russian state media (Yablokov 2018). The use of conspiracies by Russian politicians also has not disappeared after the ‘90s. In the 2007 and 2011-12 Parliamentary and Presidential elections, Russian political elites in United Russia, the ruling party, spread a conspiracy theory that there was again a Western plot to destroy Russia, this time through election interference (Yablokov 2018).

Modern anti-Western conspiracy theories nearly all agree that the only shield against the menace of the West is Putin, his party, and his government. In a 2007 speech, Boris Gryzlov, the chairman of United Russia, spoke of Western aggression against Russia and how Russia is surrounded by the West or Western-aligned states. He also spoke of “well-wishers,” a veiled term for Western agents inside Russia hoping to spread unrest. But in this difficult time, Gryzlov reveals the one shield against Russia’s foes: “Modern Russia is Putin. Russia without Putin is Russia without leadership, Russia without will. Russia, which can be divided and with which you can do whatever you want. Russia as prey.” (Gryzlov 2007). Putin has absorbed the role of the KGB and other state security agencies in Russian conspiratorial thought as shields against the West.

Putin and his political allies are men who have built their careers out of the conspiratorial culture of the ‘90s. As demonstrated, they use elements of conspiracy theories from this time to build support for themselves and their party. Yet it is not just elements of conspiracy theories that they use; they have crafted a zeitgeist of the ‘90s as a time of despair, confusion, chaos, and Western corruption. The so-called “tumultuous ‘90s” is a term modern politicians throw around as a tool against their enemies (Yablokov 2018). The implication is always that if someone other than a United Russia candidate is elected, then we will see a return to the “tumultuous ‘90s.” United Russia would have all Russians believe that the 1990s have never fully ended; they are right around the corner, ready to push the country into mayhem, and the only force that can stop them is Putin and his cronies.

Matthew Beylinson is a political science and classical civilizations double major from Staten Island, NY. He is in his junior year and hopes to attend law school and eventually work in international law or government. Outside of Happy Medium, Matthew is a member of the History Club, Rowing Club, and works as a bus driver for OCCT. He is fluent in Russian and specializes in Post-Soviet politics and the analysis of autocratic and totalitarian regimes.


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