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Putin Versus a Vast Conspiracy

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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In a recent Washington Post column, Sergei Guriev, one of Russia's top economic thinkers, warned that President Vladimir Putin's regime was now exclusively focused on survival, and not on a vision for the country's long-term development. "The Russian regime no longer talks about the future," he wrote.

I suspect he's wrong about that. More likely, it's Guriev, in exile and now teaching economics at SciencesPo in Paris, who can't take seriously Russia's vision of the world because it seems so irrational to a Western intellectual.

To understand this mindset, consider what happened when the Economist published its forecast for 2015, which featured a densely populated illustration on its cover. Here it is:

Conspiracy theorists had a field day. The Vigilant Citizen website, which is devoted to ferreting out Illuminati and other occult symbols it says are hidden in plain sight, published a detailed analysis that was reposted on like-minded sites in a variety of languages. Here's a sample:

Right under the Pied Piper we see a young boy with dumbfounded look on his face. He is watching a game called “Panic”. The words “Federal Reserve” and “Chi” (which probably stands for China) are on top while the words “Green light!” and “sis!” (which probably stands for “Isis!” or “Crisis!”) are at the bottom. The little boy watches as this twisted game of Plinko unfolds the same way the clueless masses watch powerlessly while various events unfold on mass media. As the name of the game states, the ultimate goal is to cause Panic around the world as crises are almost randomly generated by those who control the game. And that’s on a magazine cover owned by the Rothschilds.

That was in January. This week, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia's most popular tabloid (with a print circulation of about 30 million and 20 million website visitors per month -- probably more than all the conspiracy sites in the world put together) published its own analysis of the Economist cover. It used an "expert," Igor Belous, from an obscure group called Institute of Scientific Research for the Third Millennium, to dissect the illustration. Among other things, he wrote that the presence of the U.S. magician David Blaine behind Putin's right shoulder was "a transparent hint that Russia should expect more 'magic tricks' like the story of the shot-down Boeing ... It's not for nothing that a helicopter bearing the inscription 'crop-o-dust' is circling in front of Putin." The Rothschilds -- a longtime staple of conspiracy theories about nefarious global government -- also figure prominently in Belous's text.

Komsomolskaya Pravda isn't an official Kremlin publication, nor is it a habitual publisher of alien abduction stories. Putin takes it, and its huge readership, seriously: Before the 2012 presidential election, he used it to publish an article outlining his social policy.

The publication's dip into paranoia reflects widespread views in Russia. Last autumn, a poll showed that 45 percent of Russians believe in the existence of a supranational government, described as "a certain organization that controls the authorities of many countries." That group supposedly includes wealthy individuals -- mostly from the West -- and Western politicians. When news came out that Guriev would be the only Russian invited  to this year's Bilderberg conference -- a semi-secretive confab that is held up as Exhibit A by conspiracy buffs -- the popular pro-Putin news site Lenta.ru featured the headline "Sergei Guriev joins the 'global government.'" 

Ivan Ilyin, a Russian philosopher Putin likes to quote, was also a firm believer in mirovaya zakulisa, or a "global behind-the-scenes establishment." In his 1950 work "What the Dismemberment of Russia Promises the World," Ilyin wrote: 

Let us immediately establish that the dismemberment of Russia being prepared by the mirovaya zakulisa has not the slightest  foundation, no spiritual or Realpolitik-related considerations behind it apart from revolutionary demagoguery, a mindless fear of a united Russia and an age-old hatred of the Russian monarchy and Eastern Orthodox religion.

Protecting Russia's unity is, of course, one of Putin's recurrent themes. It's an issue that resonates: According to a Levada Center poll, 28 percent or Russians, more than ever before, now believe that a foreign conspiracy destroyed the Soviet Union in 1991.

In line with this worldview, Russia's role in the world is to resist the "global government's" conspiracy. Its future, as Putin and his ideologists see it, consists in achieving a kind of reverse isolation of the West. While Western governments see themselves on the inside and Russia on the outside, a rogue dictatorship, Putin and his entourage are working on turning this image inside out. Putin recently called the G-7 a "hobby club" and said he preferred working "in broader formats" such as the G-20. Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, put it even more succinctly in a tweet last month: "The West keeps saying: 'The whole  world condemns Russia.' But the 30 to 35 countries of the Western alliance shouldn't equate themselves with the whole world."

The other part of Putin's vision for the future is rearmament, both military -- hence his recent promise to add 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles this year and to aim them "at those territories from which we are threatened" -- and spiritual. In an article in the daily Izvestia on Wednesday, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky wrote: "If the government doesn't feed and create its own culture, someone else will feed and create it. And then we'll end up feeding someone else's army."

It's understandable that none of this makes sense to a rational economist such as Guriev. Putin and his people are now far outside the realm of the conventional. They see themselves as warriors of light in a world suffocated by a Western conspiracy. To them, there is far more at stake than just the regime's survival. That's what makes them dangerous.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net