Boris Ratnikov looks the part of a retired KGB general. The septuagenarian, having served both the Soviet and Russian states, fits an expected mold: flagging jowls, small-bore eyes, clipped speech. Much like the current iteration of the Kremlin, Ratnikov boasts an image of stern resolve and state-centric piety.
Push past the lapels, though, and Ratnikov morphs from a Brezhnev blue-blood to something closer to a kook, a crank, a Rasputin minus the heinous facial hair. According to the former KGB general, as the USSR reached the height of the Cold War, the regime enlisted the country’s supernaturals, its Leninist X-Men, to the Soviet cause. “Almost all the people with supernatural powers were controlled by the KGB,” Ratnikov said. “You can’t even imagine the war of brains that unfolded in the first half of the last century. I’m hardly exaggerating when I say that sometimes there were astral battles.” Following the USSR’s collapse, enemies who would “practice magic” were sought by the “hundreds of millions” to fight via “remote influence [for] the psyche of our country.” As the years wound, Ratnikov came to be known as the Kremlin’s Merlin, one of the few able to access the “single information field” extant—one of the few to see that “the war in Kosovo… was considered only a first step to establish control over Russia.”
As Russia struggled in the ’90s, Ratnikov says he used his telepathic prowess to prevent a border war with China, to stave off the handover of the Kurile Islands to Japan, and to prevent foreign psychics from accessing President Boris Yeltsin’s pickled brain. (Ratnikov also warned about the rise of “psychotronic weapons,” more menacing than nuclear arms, which would be “used to take over the minds of millions, making them zombies.”) But when NATO threatened a bombing campaign against Russia’s traditional Serbian ally, Ratnikov realized he and his team needed to add to their arsenal. As such, a few weeks before the bombing began in earnest, Georgy Rogozin, a deputy to the former head of presidential security—a man who claimed to resuscitate souls of the dead, no less—studied a photo of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and fell into a deep, hypnotic sleep. While riding the parapsychological waves, Rogozin, according to Ratnikov, communed with Albright’s consciousness. “By tuning in on her image, our specialists were able to glean [information],” Ratnikov said. “We found a pathological hatred of Slavs. [Albright] resented the fact that Russia has the world’s largest reserves of minerals. In her opinion, the future of Russian reserves should not be disposed to a single country but all of humanity under the supervision, of course, of the United States.”
Why Rogozin didn’t bother to access, say, NATO’s bombing schematics, or the deepest secrets of Albright’s statecraft, Ratnikov didn’t say. But the Kremlin’s Merlin had come away with another fact just as perturbing: The U.S. wanted Siberia, and wouldn’t rest until it owned Russia’s grandest mineral deposits.
To be sure, Ratnikov wasn’t the only who tapped into the U.S.’s secret desires. “In the late ’90s there was a similar flurry of claims that [former National Security Advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski was an advocate of breaking up Russia,” Steve Sestanovich, the U.S.’s former ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union, told me. “In that case, of course, there was a little more to go on—some silly map-diagrams in one of his books.” Ratnikov, however, had something firmer: the thoughts of the secretary of state herself. Siberia would be Washington’s. The astral plane had spoken.
Of course, in the late ’90s, Ratnikov’s conspiracy was just the latest in the line of insanities coursing through Russia. Claims that the U.S. was secretly backing Chechen separatists, ideas that the CIA secretly manipulated oil prices to crash the Soviet economy, gurus claiming healing powers if you left jars of water on your television—all of it, part and parcel, swirled a reeling Russia, reinforcing the other surrounding inanities. Conspiracy as comfort. Mind-reading as a means to putting off responsibility for the situation, for understanding how a Soviet world could disappear overnight.
For most of the 21st century, such conspiracies—at least, those as baseless as Ratnikov’s allegations—remained a historical hiccup, as much a queer part of the ’90s as bread-lines or debt defaulted. Conspiracies never strayed too far from the official Kremlin line—see the various explanations for the Color Revolutions that rocked Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan—but those could generally be brushed off as geopoliticking, as empty rhetoric shared with a wink and a nudge. With the end of the ’90s, notions of mind-reading, astral planes, and psychotronic zombies fell to the side. Russia marched toward modernity, and while Ratnikov’s claims flared from time to time, they seemed to have lost what teeth it once knew.
In 2007, a mechanic named Alexander Sibert told Russian President Vladimir Putin about Albright’s apparent thoughts. Putin waved off the notion: “Such ideas are a sort of political erotica. Perhaps they give somebody pleasure, but they are unlikely to lead to anything positive.” Putin did cater to notions that certain foreigners had designs—those who had “just lost it” in their “fevered brains”—on Russian wealth. But the specifics of Ratnikov’s visions faded into historical oddity.
And then, a few years ago, Putin was elected for a third term as president-cum-czar. And Ukraine’s population, dying by the dozen under European Union flags, ousted Putin’s favored son, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, for a second time. Crimea held a referendum as legitimate as anything this side of Pyongyang; Russian troops, those “little green men,” stormed through Ukraine’s south and east, making a mountain of rebellion out of a molehill of discontent; sanctions and collapsed oil prices cut a top-heavy Russian economy at its knees.
In the 18 months since Ukraine toppled its kleptocracy, Russia has morphed from an emerging market with a vocal opposition to a crumbling economy drowning in dictatorship. Like a schoolchild who forgot his homework, the Kremlin has cast about far and wide to assign blame for its ails. Fascists in Kiev. CIA operatives manipulating wayward Ukrainians. Collusion between Washington and Riyadh, bottoming oil prices. (Putin had never heard of the hydrocarbon backbones of Texas or North Dakota, apparently.)
All the while, Ratnikov’s visions came roaring back into official rhetoric. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin set the pace in 2012, noting that “Madame Albright wishes to direct the riches of Siberia. And Madame [Hillary] Clinton will be delighted.” Pravda, that stalwart Kremlin mouthpiece, soon followed suit, noting that Albright—“Russia’s foe”—is “credited with a desire to take Siberia away from Russia.” Late last year, Putin revisited the topic, tossing aside any disinterest he carried earlier: “We have heard it even from high-level officials that it is unfair that the whole of Siberia with its immense resources belongs to Russia in its entirety,” Putin snarled. “Why exactly is it unfair? So it is fair to snatch Texas from Mexico, but it is unfair that we are working on our own land—no, we have to share.”
Putin didn’t specify the “high-level officials” in question, but just a few weeks ago Nikolai Patrushev, Russia’s Security Council secretary and one of Putin’s closest confidantes, helped offer some clarification. In an interview with Kommersant, Patrushev claimed: “[The U.S.] would much rather that Russia did not exist at all. As a country… We possess great resources. The Americans believe that we control them illegally and undeservedly because, in their view, we do not use them as they ought to be used. You surely remember ex-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s claim that neither the Far East nor Siberia belong to Russia.”
To be fair, Patrushev is no stranger to cobbling conspiracy, whether in claiming the CIA provoked the Soviet Union’s disintegration, or that the Peace Corps helped spear Ukraine’s EuroMaidan movement. (As a former Peace Corps volunteer in the post-Soviet space, it’s no stretch to say we could barely organize a lesson-plan, let alone a revolution.) But Patrushev isn’t simply repeating worn-out conspiracy. The Kremlin is apparently no longer satisfied with random officials citing hypothetical fractures. No matter that a Russian crack-up remains one of Washington’s nightmares; Patrushev, one of the few who still maintains Putin’s ear, believes the U.S. is actively working toward the fragmentation of the Russian Federation.
“What is undoubtedly [Ratnikov’s] particularly lunatic take on the issue ought to be considered as the most extreme strand of a substantial body of opinion,” Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU and noted Russia commentator, told me. “I think it is possible to overplay the conspiracy line… but undoubtedly the current Russian regime—and Putin personally—does tend towards seeing plots and plans where none are truly to be found. In particular, they have a flatteringly exaggerated notion of the extent to which the West could develop, agree, and implement any subtle scheme against Russia. At present, let’s face it, you can’t go far wrong in Moscow by claiming there is some dark Western conspiracy against Russia.”
It’s one thing to say it, though. It’s another to believe it. “There are some people in Russia who say this sort of thing all the time—especially Patrushev—and it squares well enough with other completely absurd things he says that I think one should assume he believes it,” Sestanovich said. “[Russia’s] nationalist hysteria makes it possible to get away with saying just about anything. The internal checks come off.”
Wish though the West may, Patrushev’s—and Rogozin’s, and Putin’s—comments don’t arise in a vacuum. Conspiracy, grand and ubiquitous, has taken root under Putin; recent polling attests to as much. For instance, 28 percent of Russians, per the Levada Center, believe the Soviet Union collapsed not through a gerontocracy and tottering economics, but through foreign conspiracy. A 2014 poll struck an even more concerning note, showing that nearly half of Russians believe a supranational government, a secret cabal, pulls the strings beyond the Russian Federation’s borders. “In recent years, there has been a proliferation of conspiracy theories in Russia,” a study in The Russian Review recently found.” And in Russia especially, conspiracy theories “operate… in the official discourses of state power.” As such, and given the phantom-limb syndrome still coursing a post-empire Russia, the idea that Siberia would be the next to break off strikes a broad, conspiratorial chord.
Those fears aren’t necessarily without merit—although any concerns about Western involvement remain laughable. Siberia, after all, “has seen an uptick in nationalism” recently, Quartz’s Bradley Jardine found last month. The nationalism, the push for autonomy, stems as much from the Crimean precedent as it does from Siberia’s status as a quasi-colony within Russia. The region provides some 90 percent of Russian natural gas and more than 70 percent of Russia’s oil, supplying Moscow with far more material wealth than it sees in tax returns. With 77 percent of Russia’s total land mass, and with a grand total of 3.1 people per square kilometer, Siberia stands a world apart, as much an idea as a known entity. “There is a distinct and understandable discomfort in Moscow about the extent to which so much of its wealth is on the other side of the Urals, in thinly-populated, sometimes-unruly, and geographically and even psychologically distant lands,” Galeotti said.
Over the past few years, the desires of the Kremlin and local leaders have only grown more strained. Tensions boiled over last August, when Moscow banned the “March for the Federalization of Siberia” in Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city. In keeping with its trend of throttling any internal separatist sentiment, authorities arrested numerous organizers and imposed a media blackout. Moscow even threatened to block BBC’s Russian service for its coverage.
While the Kremlin has helped smother those calling for Siberian autonomy, its media outlets have had no problem slamming anyone commenting on the push. Responding to Jardine’s analysis, Sputnik cited his “histrionic tone” and “headache-inducing semantics.” Screeds aside, Siberia looks set to carry an even greater burden in propping Moscow’s wilting economic model, seeing even less return on investment than prior.
All the while, the Kremlin and its advisers continue to sound the alarm about the stealth desires inside Washington. “[Patrushev] in fact speaks the truth,” Sergei Markov, an adviser to the Kremlin, wrote a few weeks ago. “It’s clear that the desire of the aggressive part of the Anglosphere’s political class is to inflict the strategic defeat of Russia and take control of its natural resources. … Is there anyone that doubts that they have been coveting Siberia with its oil, gas, and rockets? No, everyone knows it.” No matter that this covetousness, this envy, strings back to an acid-trip analysis from psychics in the mid-’90s. No matter that Ratnikov isn’t actually a trained telepath, a poor man’s Miss Cleo. Why bother letting the facts get in the way of a good geopolitical conspiracy?
But these conspiracies carry implications, and fall-out. And figuring out the line between laughing off the loons and realizing that Kremlin officials have jumped down the rabbit-hole, tin-foil hat and all, is a thin one. Just as Washington and Brussels have experienced elsewhere during the Ukraine crisis, dealing with a Kremlin that lives in another world—myths as fact, rumor as reality—presents a challenge heretofore untested. And it’s a challenge that shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.
Cooperation wanes. Consilience vanishes. Even opportunities for dialog, just a good-faith back-and-forth, falters, disintegrated under the Kremlin’s insistences on the words of mind-readers and misanthropes. “When Patrushev says something like this in Russia, does it discredit him?” asks Sestanovich. “Does it create a storm of tut-tutting and claims that this is one gaffe too many? Does anybody even disagree? We don’t expect that anymore. The reason is, we have gotten used to the idea that Russia is experiencing a different kind of national political consciousness.
“Dealing with Russia these days, we all just cross to the other side of the street when we see them coming,” he continued. “And it’s not so much fear—it’s that we increasingly discover that dialogue is pointless and exhausting. This is sad, but it’s where we are.”