When you ask a Russian of my generation or older about conspiracy theories, Kirov is the name that wanders into his mind as readily as the name Kennedy springs to yours. Thirty years and an ocean separate these deaths, whose aim, in both cases, was not so much the elimination of a political rival as an act of terror directed against the population at large. From the assassination of Kirov in 1934, Stalin moved on to the famous show trials of the 1930’s. I shall not presume to decide for my American readers what public spectacles their own ruling elite has moved on to since 1963. All I want is to drop a few hints in the direction of a general typology of state terror.
The assassination of JFK and the absurd explanations that came in its wake were part and parcel of the same ritual murder.
The point was not to hide the fact that the President was not killed by a crazed loner, and yet leave the general population no alternative except to say that this was indeed the case. The object of the exercise is less the demonstration of plausibility for a given story and more the show of muscle that is above such vulgar issues as plausibility, opportunity, or even motive. All we need to do is to say that burial at sea is a Muslim custom, and our citizens will repeat this absurd fabrication without so much as a reference to Wikipedia.
It may be that Bin Laden was a bad man. Certainly, as a man, Kirov was in no way different from those who killed him, perhaps worse, as Trotsky was no better than Stalin, or Lenin no better than Trotsky. As for JFK, had I been an American in the 1960’s, it is quite likely that I would have cheered the hands unknown that had dispatched the pro-Soviet pinup to kingdom come. And, as it is widely believed that Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana fell on the same altar, far be it from me to criticize the Moloch of conspiracy that took the lives of these two crazed women.
And yet, as I say, the point is not who, but why. And hence these acts of nascent totalitarianism occupy my mind as though the victims were my own kith and kin.
I was late in filing this column because a few days before the deadline I had published on snob.ru, a Russian website where I write weekly, an article comparing Dominique Strauss-Kahn—head of the IMF arrested in New York in May for sexual misconduct on the accusation of a hotel maid who is an illegal immigrant—with the above cited victims of past executions. The article generated several hundred comments in the first few hours of publication, to all of which I had to respond.
DSK’s arrest was the perfect opportunity for me to develop my views on the uses of ritual murder—in this case, character assassination—to totalitarianism in the making. Like Russia’s own Khodorkovsky, DSK is a Jew. Therefore, in my column I was defending a Jew from being railroaded, and nobody but nobody could attack me for its allegedly racialist bias. Now, I hardly need to explain to the American reader why “you just can’t” talk about conspiracies in the West, especially in bon chic, bon genre America; it simply isn’t done, and that’s the long and the short of it. In Russia, it’s a lot worse; “you just can’t” talk about them because the very word conspiracy in Russian leaves no doubt in anybody’s mind that what you’re raving about is the universal Jewish plot of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion kind.
And here, as luck would have it, was a Jewish victim of a conspiracy—as unmistakably Jewish as the soi-disant Russian oligarchs, as unmistakably a victim as the sweet Lady Di, and as unmistakably a conspiracy as the one that had claimed JFK. My article had appeared on a Thursday. Because part of the intention of those who had conspired against DSK was to create a flagrantly absurdist case—yet have him publicly destroyed despite its overt implausibility—by Sunday I managed to convince most readers to accept my view of conspiracy theories. They are what we have, I argued, since we are no longer allowed to have history.
The suggestion that a short man of 62 used to sedentary activity forced a six-foot-tall African woman accustomed to manual labor to yield to his advances within a 28-minute window of opportunity was ridiculous enough. That the man in question, a leading candidate in the French presidential election, allegedly did so in a suite numbered “2806”—the date of the primaries in that election—turned the ridiculous into farce.
Anyway, thank goodness DSK is a Jew. Otherwise I would have had to field irate readers’ comments about numerology in Kabbalah.