Dr Ilya Yabokov is a Lecturer in Russian Studies at the University of Leeds, author of Fortress Russia: Conspiracy theories in the post-Soviet World, and co-organiser of the Russian Readings seminar series on contemporary social developments in Russia. He talked to Reframing Russia’s Precious Chatterje-Doody about how conspiracy theories can help us understand how people engage with politics beyond their control, and how political and social elites try to manipulate this to their own advantage…
Reframing Russia: People tend to think of conspiracy theories as a pretty niche interest that’s only relevant if you have a particular mindset. But your scholarly work really engages with the idea. So what are the benefits of taking conspiracy theories seriously?
Ilya Yablokov: We tend to think about conspiracy theories as showing a paranoid mentality and something that has no relation to reality, real politics, real issues. On the contrary, conspiracy theories provide us a way to explore current social and political issues, but from another angle. They help us better understand crises that take place in the outside world. Crises that are being considered and reconsidered by people, the common man if you like. So, ordinary people try to reconcile themselves with these big issues and crises by viewing them as a kind of a plot. This means that conspiracy theories are not just problematic, but they’re a method people use to engage with current issues.
RR: So what was it that first brought you around to this topic of study?
IY: It’s a very long story! I first got into conspiracy theories back in 2005, and that was very unexpected, a very surprising track for me. First, I studied work on American conspiracy theories because of the availability of literature on the topic and facilities to conduct the research. In fact, American conspiracy theories were studied for decades from the early 20th Century, but in Russia because of problems in the study of arts and humanities, there was just no academic work on the topic. They were actually very popular in Russia in the 1990s, but nobody was investigating them from the academic angle, because of the stigma surrounding conspiracy theories. It was a completely unexplored topic, so I took this as a challenge and published the first book on that.
RR: It’s funny that you mention that the topic was previously so under-explored, because since your book came out earlier this year, it has generated quite a stir. It’s not just the rave reviews from academics, even the public talks you’ve given about the book have been selling out. Obviously, the wider subject is really topical right now: the book basically gives an account of how Russia’s political elite uses conspiracy theories. Could you tell us a bit more about how they do this?
IY: In short, conspiracy theories are a tool for public mobilisation. First, they help to visually create, through various media sources, help to create this image, this image of the majority, the idea that there is a majority of people who support the regime and stand against foreign plots – the general public. Second, conspiracy theories delegitimise opponents, and legitimise the projects of current regime. This has been done for the last 30 years, since the end of the Soviet period, and my book looks at the period since 1991. The third way the current regime uses conspiracy theories is to try and create, temporarily, a certain national cohesion, to create a community of people united by certain ideas – in that case foreign plots against Russia.
RR: I know that conspiracy theories are just one element of your current work. What else are you involved in at the moment?
IY: I’m one of the organisers of the Russian Readings public seminar series at the University of Leeds, and that’s keeping me really busy. We’ve already hosted an event on how journalists can deal with the post-truth age and the major shift in their profession: media going digital. We’re gonna have two more events in March and May next year where we are going to discuss how the media can survive in the digital era (not because of political challenges, but because of financial issues – this is a big problem for all media in the world of how to survive in digital age if they don’t have state sponsorship to pay their bills). The third event will be about ethics in current journalism; how to approach this issue of ethics.
I’ve got a few interesting research projects coming up shortly as well. I have a couple of special issues which should be all finished up: both are about news production in Russia and Central-Eastern Europe. Then I am going to be working on an article about liberal conspiracy theories in Russia; it’s not just the Kremlin or national patriots who use conspiracy theories – I think it’s much wider… it’s a more fruitful project to look at how so-called intelligentsia or liberal opposition think about conspiracy theories. Actually, I’ve been contemplating this project for a while. And then, you have to look at the role of conspiracy theories not just domestically, but internationally. Of course, that’s what we’re working on at the minute for our new book together on conspiracy theories and international broadcasting.
After that, I think, I shall embark upon a big and challenging project about intellectuals and power in post-Soviet Russia. This will include the analysis of the role that various intellectuals play in empowering the political regime in Russia. This will not only include academics, or political technologists like Gleb Pavlovsky (I talk about it briefly in my book), this will also include media elites and writers/musicians/artists. It’s a kind of sociology of elites – and we’ll be seeing how we can expand the concept of adekvatnost that I worked on with Elizabeth Schimpfössl from media elites to elites in general – intellectual and cultural elites. We’ll be working on the nature of political regimes – the Russian regime and authoritarian regimes in general – using this idea of adekvatnost.
RR: It sounds like you have a really busy period ahead! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today and best of luck with all your exciting new projects.
Ilya Yablokov’s latest book, Fortress Russia: Conspiracy theories in the post-Soviet World, is out now.