Little made sense. Amid a swirl of confusion and panic, rumors of mutant creatures — giant mosquitos, three-headed birds, spineless hedgehogs — made the rounds. People spoke of children with yellow fluid for blood and secret camps where they were putting the sick. Some claimed cucumbers and vodka could cure the illness.
What had caused it all? Witnesses said they’d seen an otherworldly light floating in the sky before the accident. Many blamed foreign spies and saboteurs. Others whispered that the government itself had been behind what happened. All anyone knew was that there was no point in looking to newspapers, television, or radio for answers; they were never going to give people the truth.
Thirty-four years ago, this is how Soviet citizens reacted as the Chernobyl disaster unfurled before them, irreparably tainting their faith in the system that had caused it.
Though no single factor broke the Soviet Union apart, Chernobyl was arguably its first big fracture. The scope of official lies, incompetence, and callousness it laid bare shocked the country. Afraid of stoking panic, the government publicly played down the disaster and dragged its feet on evacuating the closest city, Pripyat. It went ahead with the annual May Day rally in Kiev, insisting its people bring their kids to project a sense of normality, only for changing winds to blanket the city with radiation. Residents later learned that party bureaucrats had already flown their children out of harm’s way.
It had, as then president Mikhail Gorbachev later wrote, shown “the system as we know it could no longer continue.” The secrets, cover-up, and other government measures meant to maintain the people’s faith in a supposedly infallible system ironically sped up its fall. Within six years, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
In the face of official silence and deceit, people turned to rumor and speculation. Forced to reckon with ideas that were equal parts unthinkable and incomprehensible — an irradiated dead zone that would last generations, an apocalyptic disaster caused by simple human error — the fantastical was suddenly not out of the question. And, eager to distract from its own failures, the government heaped blame on the West for both causing the crisis and sowing panic and confusion in its wake.
“The vocabulary of the Cold War was revitalized,” writes Anastasiya Astapova, a research fellow at the University of Tartu. “The disaster was too contradictory for the idea imposed by Soviet propaganda about Communist stability.”
All of this is worth examining today, as large numbers of Americans descend into conspiratorial thinking in the middle of another apocalyptic crisis shaking their own faith in their system and institutions.
This year has already seen an explosion in the popularity of QAnon, the bizarre theory that Donald Trump and other right-wing officials are secretly battling a cabal of liberal and cannibalistic pedophiles. At least twenty-three Q adherents were on the ballot in November. Talking to voters in the Milwaukee suburbs this September, Time correspondent Charlotte Alter found at least one in five expressing some kind of conspiratorial belief, from pedophilic elites holding an iron grip on the US political system to COVID-19 being a hoax. As the West Coast burned to cinders, rumors swirled in small-town Oregon that antifa arsonists were to blame, riling some to take up arms and follow an innocent couple taking photographs.
The rise of this current crop of conspiracy theories is typically thought of as a collective madness particular to the Right. QAnon is, after all, explicitly aligned with Trump, and there is a long history of conspiratorial thinking in US conservatism, from McCarthyism and the Birchers to birtherism and the fear of Sharia.
If only that was the case. QAnon’s appeal is not limited to the political right, thanks partly to the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, which revealed there really was an elite network of rich and powerful people abusing underage teens. And it was Democratic politicians who first floated the specter of shadowy anti-authority extremists directing domestic events, with Minnesota governor Tim Walz and Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey baselessly blaming “white supremacists, members of organized crime, out-of-state instigators, and possibly even foreign actors” for the protests and rioting that followed May’s police murder of George Floyd.
In fact, the most influential conspiracy theory of the past four years was the liberal mirror image of QAnon: the belief that Donald Trump was being influenced, and even controlled, by Russian president Vladimir Putin, variations on which included the idea that he had been recruited by the KGB around the same time that Chernobyl happened.
Like QAnon, these conspiracies saw Americans breathlessly waiting for every new “drop” of information, internet sleuths spending hours obsessing over new clues and developments, talk of secret indictments and other unproven claims, and wild charges of sexual debauchery: a “golden shower” party with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel, in this case. Unlike QAnon, this belief was advanced on mainstream cable news shows and in some of the most prestigious liberal publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and New York magazine — the information sources most widely trusted by liberals and loathed by conservatives. What causes such conspiratorial thinking to take hold of a society? Experts point to a loss of trust in institutions, a sense of crisis, and a widespread disillusionment with political systems.
“Once we mistrust official or authoritative accounts of events, we become vulnerable to filling the resulting informational void with other opposing claims that we encounter when falling down the misinformation rabbit hole that is the Internet,” wrote Joe Pierre, health sciences clinical professor at UCLA. “With QAnon, the conspiracy theories are fundamentally rooted in mistrust of the U.S. government.”
“Conspiracy theories are born during times of turmoil and uncertainty,” writes Jim Kline, psychology professor at Northern Marianas College.
It’s no coincidence that both QAnon and Russiagate came out of the tumultuous 2016 presidential election — one riven with anti-elite fervor, widespread political disillusionment, and intense, often highly partisan popular dislike of both candidates. And neither is their obsession with sexual deviance.
Eighteenth-century France was going through its own epochal crisis when Marie Antoinette was beset by a flood of lurid rumors and pornography alleging that she was squandering precious tax dollars on orgies and other “disorderly pleasures” involving homosexuality and incest, with an ever-expanding cast of top political and religious officials. As Robert Darnton argued, the stories “attacked the legitimacy of the Bourbon monarchy at its very foundation.” Alleged sex with her son even made it onto the list of indictments at her trial after the revolution.
In fact, this kind of antiestablishment libel had started in an earlier, more familiar form. Decades before, rumors that children were being abducted off the streets of Paris, in some versions so that nobles and even the king could bathe in their blood, led to a series of anti-authority uprisings in the city in 1750. Like QAnon and Russiagate, this, too, was based on a kernel of truth: police really had started arresting large numbers of children as part of a crackdown on vagrants, who were driven to the city by a recent famine. But it came to mix with the rising anti-elite fervor of the day, “an important milestone on the road of antagonism which distanced the sovereign from his people throughout those years,” as historians Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel wrote.
We’re now coming upon a similar moment. Not only is popular regard for the country’s leadership scraping new lows, we’re also facing a set of what feel like unreal, incomprehensible crises that those officials seem impotent to do anything about, including climatic changes that threaten to one day unravel civilization itself.
Like Chernobyl, the pandemic, in particular, seems to have exposed the rot of the US system. Its political institutions have dropped the ball, serially failing to guarantee Americans the economic security so many other countries secured for their citizens. Deceit and misinformation have ruled at the highest levels, with Trump lying to the public about the danger of the virus, senators indulging in insider trading while offering their constituents reassurances that they contradicted to donors behind closed doors, and even public health authorities giving people inconsistent, sometimes false, information. Ordinary people have either lost everything or been forced to risk their lives to hold on to what they have, all while funding another colossal bailout for the country’s corporate elite, many of whom have only gotten richer during the crisis. All in what politicians insist, to an increasingly doubtful populace, is the greatest economic system in the world, in its greatest country.
Vast swaths of the public channel their rising panic into stories of a normal world subverted by alien forces — all the while dehumanizing the political elites they loathe.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the United States is taking its first steps on its last legs, as the Soviet Union and Ancien Régime did under similar conditions. But the American people are clearly in the mood for some form of radical overhaul, even if they don’t know exactly what quite yet.