MOSCOW—Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 has already shined a spotlight on the Russian public’s somewhat, um, unique views. Russian media are running with conspiracy theories: that MH17 was shot down by NATO to spark a conflict with Russia, that MH17 wasn’t full of innocent civilians but week-old corpses, or that MH17 was shot down because it was mistaken for Vladimir Putin’s personal jet (as if anti-aircraft missiles weren’t aimed with radar but with a really large pair of binoculars). The only theory missing is the right one: that Russian-backed separatists accidentally shot down the plane when they mistook it for a Ukrainian military transport.
This may seem like the entertaining sideshow to a tragedy, but actually it’s just a window into a hugely dangerous problem. I recently moved to Moscow, and it’s hard to miss the extent to which Russian society exists in an alternate universe. Even well-educated, sophisticated people who have traveled widely in Europe and North America will frequently voice opinions that, in an American context, would place them alongside people wearing tinfoil hats. Russia is not living in the reality-based community.
One particularly easy and glaring example is Russian TV reporters, filing from Eastern Ukraine, who say they are reporting from the “Lugansk People’s Republic” or the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Regardless of your views on the worsening civil war in Ukraine, which is not a neat story of black and white or right and wrong, it is obvious that these republics are almost entirely fictitious and that their “territory” is largely confined to a handful of government buildings. Despite their extremely dubious claims to legitimacy, the non-existent states are treated with deadly earnestness by both the state media and large numbers of ordinary Russians. (Ukraine has been a problem for Russian media ever since protests there began at the end of 2013.)
On almost any other issue you can think of, Russian views differ radically from the consensus here in America. Russians have extremely different opinions about the conflict in Syria, viewing the war in that unlucky country not as a brave struggle for freedom but as a chaotic war of all against all. They have different views about the war in Libya, where they see the overthrow of Gaddafi not as a new beginning but as the start of chaos and disorder. They have different views about 9/11, with shockingly large numbers of Russians supporting “alternate” explanations of one of history’s most carefully studied and well-documented terrorist attacks. (I was recently asked what “theory” of the attacks I supported only to be told that it was “my opinion” after I noted that al-Qaeda was clearly and obviously responsible.) Even something as seemingly straightforward and non-political as a meteor strike attracted a range of bizarre theories and pseudo-scientific “explanations” like the onset of an alien invasion or the testing of a new American super weapon. These wacky ideas (“the aliens are attacking Siberia!” “The grand masons are responsible for 9/11!”) would be extremely funny if they didn’t represent such a tragic deficit of reason.
I’ve asked people about these notions. Particularly if they’re a bit bashful about the position they’re about to advocate, Russians will often highlight their country’s long track record of superstition and its history as a rural, peasant society. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard “we’re a superstitious people” as an explanation for some kind of seemingly nonsensical position. In contrast to Western Europe, Russia really did urbanize and become literate much later. This delayed development has left a lasting impression on popular consciousness and public attitudes.
But while there is clearly some truth to the idea that Russia’s unique cultural history renders it susceptible to conspiracies, explanations centered on the “Russian soul” strike me as a cop-out. Far more important than the legacy of peasant life or any kind of natural penchant for mysteriousness and inscrutability is the Soviet legacy of propaganda. The older generations here all grew up in an environment in which the government systematically manipulated information on a scale that is hard to fathom. Although you might expect that this would engender a healthy skepticism, it appears to have created an unhealthy over-reaction. Russians don’t just doubt the “official line.” Several expats here, like me, have observed that they seem to doubt everything.
Like many Americans, I used to think that these differences would recede with time, and that, as they traveled the world, got jobs, and got rich, Russians would eventually start to think more and more like us. After Ukraine and the Malaysia Airlines crash, I’m a lot less optimistic. Despite ditching communism and its call to world revolution, Russia appears to becoming more, not less, different from the United States. It doesn’t just have its own system; it now has its own facts.