russian unorthodox: Preparing for the End of the World
Published: December 5, 2012 (Issue # 1738)
Thousands of Russians are preparing for a very special day during the last half of December. And they are looking for special deals and attractive offers to mark the occasion.
If you guessed New Year’s Eve, you’d be wrong. They are preparing for doomsday, December 21. That is the day on which the Mayan people of Central America calculated the world would come to an end.
Residents in the Siberian city of Tomsk, for instance, have been buying “emergency kits” designed specifically to enable Russian people to face the ultimate calamity. These packs are being distributed by the Marina Mendelson private wedding agency at the bargain price of 890 rubles ($28). They contain food items such as buckwheat and sprats, and, this being Russia, there is vodka — to soften the trauma of extinction, or maybe just lubricate that last party.
The kits also contain practical equipment like matches, candles, and a first aid kit. Judging by the contents, its creators expect the last day of human civilization to include, at the very least, a power outage.
According to the state-funded daily newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, several thousand packs were sold in less than a week. The wedding agency said it has been getting orders from far beyond Tomsk.
The Mayan doomsday kit seems to be a bit of light-hearted fun that got out of hand. Spokespeople for Marina Mandelson told the media that the packs were created as “a kind of comic relief idea.” But it seems that plenty of people have taken the apocalyptic prediction at face value.
In Moscow, dozens of people have apparently been buying vouchers, at 500 rubles ($16.20) apiece, that are supposed to grant absolution for their sins, guaranteed by a Roman Catholic church in Italy. In the Middle Ages the sale of indulgences was widespread. The main difference today is that they are sold on the Internet.
Normally that offer might cut little ice with Russian Orthodox believers, but it seems that on this occasion the potent brew of Mayan prophecy, god-fearing Russian Orthodoxy, and purported Roman Catholic endorsement has proved too much for some people to resist.
The Mayan calendar is no laughing matter for Andrei Gorshechnikov, a member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly. He sponsored a motion calling on St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko to ban discussion of the doomsday prophecy in the media. The appeal, supported by a group of Gorshechnikov’s fellow lawmakers, said, “Media attention to the doomsday according to the Mayan calendar is unhealthy and is provoking a climate of panic in society.”
Assembly member Alexei Kovalev did not support Gorshechnikov’s attempt to ban doomsday coverage, but he agreed that the Russian press had become hysterical about prophecy.
“Some of the publications on the subject that I have seen bordered on the delirious,” Kovalev said. “The reports took the Mayan calendar warning as a real danger, and even the major television channel couldn’t resist speculating on this juicy topic…
“I didn’t support the appeal for a media ban because I believe that this issue is not the governor’s business,” he added. “But I do agree that the level of superstition and the lack of education in Russian society is very dangerous and has to be dealt with one way or another.”
In Russia, websites have been set up to help people prepare for the end of the world. One of the most popular is www.calendarmaya.ru. It ridicules Gorshechnikov’s initiative and suggests, tongue-in-cheek, a ban on those chapters in the Bible that mention the apocalypse.
But just why are modern-day Russians so gullible? It seems that since the downfall of the Soviet Union, with its strong focus on science education, levels of ignorance and credulity have skyrocketed. According to a nationwide survey by the VTSIOM polling agency in 2012, one-third of Russians think the sun revolves around the Earth. About the same proportion of respondents are convinced that humankind is as old as the dinosaurs.
The results of the poll came as a shock to the country’s academic community. But it gets worse. According to various polls conducted over the past five years, 15 percent to 30 percent of Russians believe in aliens. And another VTSIOM survey this year said that 2 percent of Russians — around 3 million people — believe in the existence of zombies.
The current hysteria over the Mayan doomsday is surely a matter of shame for the Kremlin, with its ambitious Skolkovo Innovation Center and Russian Silicon Valley plans and its much-advertised focus on nanotechnology. Surely the government’s initiatives to rescue the Russian economy from dependence on oil and gas are doomed if so many people are so poorly educated that they believe in aliens or zombies or succumb to doomsday fever.
The whole episode provides more evidence, should we need it, that the nation that put the first man into space and has for years boasted the world’s best chess players is now drowning in superstition. Many people don’t trust the government, and many more apparently lack the reserves of skepticism and objectivity to shield them from hoaxers and tricksters.
That’s reason to worry that the crack of doom will indeed come soon — not for the world as a whole, but for Russia. Sometimes it seems that in our country, ignorance, superstition, and primitive beliefs are gaining a greater hold than common sense and education. And surely it is this softening of our brains, and not some cataclysm on Dec. 21, that contains the real seeds of national disaster.
This column first appeared on Transitions Online, an award-winning analytical online magazine covering Eastern Europe and CIS countries, available at www.tol.org.