Two Books on Conspiracy Theories in Russia and the Post-Soviet World
Revealing Schemes: The Politics of Conspiracy in Russia and the Post-Soviet Region
By Scott Radnitz
Oxford University Press, 2021, 264 pp
In democracies and autocracies alike, declining trust in politics and politicians has allowed conspiracy theories to move from the margins of society to the center of politics. The study of this phenomenon is a growing field, but so far, it focuses mostly on Western countries—the United States, in particular, provides a striking example of what is happening. The way it is playing out in the post-Soviet world, however, remains largely unexplored.
Radnitz applies political science methods to an extensive comparative study of the political use of conspiracy theories in post-Soviet states (excluding the Baltics). He points out that the resort to “conspiracism” cannot be fully explained by either historical patterns or the character of the political regime. Incumbent politicians’ propensity for making conspiracy claims changes over time and may rise in response to political developments. Drawing on a database of conspiracy claims originating in post-Soviet countries from 1995 to 2014, Radnitz identifies the immediate circumstances—domestic political competition or destabilizing events such as terrorist attacks, protests, riots, or assassinations—that tend to motivate leaders to rely on the rhetoric of conspiracism. Of the countries examined, the increasingly authoritarian Russia stands out for its volume of conspiracy claims, mostly involving American or Western interventions, many of them centered on the disruptive events in Ukraine during the 2004–5 Orange Revolution and the 2013–14 Euromaidan protests. Ukraine itself, with its competitive and turbulent politics, is second to Russia in the overall volume of conspiracy claims. Using surveys and focus groups, Radnitz concludes that even among people who are generally receptive to conspiracy theories, the essential cynicism of those theories tends to deepen public suspicion of the very officials who endorse them.
Yablokov and Chatterje-Doody limit their study to one purveyor of conspiracy theories: the English-language service of the Russian state-owned television network RT. They trace its transformation from a source for stories about Russia to an aggressive “ministry of information defense” waging war on Western mainstream media, with conspiracy theories as its primary weapon. The authors describe RT’s methods based on an episode-by-episode examination of several RT shows, including one hosted by Jesse Ventura, a retired wrestler and former governor of Minnesota with a long track record as a conspiracy theorist. RT generally refrains from producing its own outlandish allegations and opts instead for planting doubts about mainstream reports and interpretations, whether by unashamedly taking one side or by participating in the “booming conspiracy culture in the United States.” The authors acknowledge, however, that when it comes to RT’s attempts to counter grave allegations of Russia’s wrongdoings, such as the government’s involvement in the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the channel’s tactics are not necessarily effective with foreign audiences.