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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When paranoia fights rationality

Karl Marx once described religion as the opiate of the people. Had he known more Russians, he might have added that paranoia is the opiate of the Russian intelligentsia.

The reason is the same. For the less educated, and for the elite, there is always a need to find explanations for the irrational. Intellectuals, especially, need relief from the pain of not knowing better than anyone else what will happen next.

The Bolsheviks made paranoia the national frame of mind and the Cold War kept it alive. But Lenin and Stalin were not the first Russian politicians to be obsessed with conspiracies, and they will not be the last. Not while the country is racked with unpredictable upheavals.

If today's changes are the work of the "hidden hand of the market", as Russia's new economists explain, little wonder most people think the explanation is part of the plot - that the hidden hand belongs to a conspiracy of mafiosi whose only connection with the Chicago school of economics was the one attended by Al Capone.

In times like these it's prudent to take precautions against the possibility that someone is plotting against you.

For Russians this is as normal as removing the windscreen-wiper blades when parking the car. Just because no one else in the world does this it doesn't make it abnormal in Russia.

It also makes good tactics for the Russian media to give their readers as much information as possible on the latest plots. In Moscow paranoia sells newspapers better than sex.

A Moscow opinion poll taken early this month shows why. Muscovites were asked whether they think Russian society "is threatened by a Bolshevik-fascist conspiracy", and 42 percent answered yes; 37 percent said no;

and 21 percent said they didn't know.

In a city the size of Moscow, that makes a potential audience of 5 million who want to hear more about the Bolshevik-fascist conspiracy because they suspect it is true; and 2. 5 million who want to hear more before they make up their minds.

Even those 4. 5 million Muscovites who regard the Bolshevik-fascist conspiracy as nonsense may continue to read about it for the same reasons as Londoners who say they don't like the nude pictures in the paper check page three to see if they still feel that way.

The weekly Moscow News took the Bolshevik-fascist conspiracy poll as

solid evidence of the conspiracy itself, and devoted half an issue to satisfying the taste of readers who believe it.

But the magazine and the poll might just as well have asked Muscovites whether they feel threatened by the Hidden Hand, the Mafia, the Jewish-Masonic Conspiracy, the Right-Left, the Red-Browns, the KGB or the government tax inspector. The answer is likely to be the same majority in agreement, and a similar proportion of skeptics and doubters,

The paranoid style of thinking isn't susceptible to rational argument,

except to persuade its adherents to substitute one conspiracy for another.

Consequently, it can only backfire on the Russian government if it airs its own conspiracy theories or tries taking the alleged conspirators to court.

The claim by the presidential press office that a drunk-driving accident on July 16 that involved Sergei Shakhrai, the president's legal adviser, was an assassination attempt reveals how high the paranoia has risen in government, and that there is little to stop it from flourishing inside the Kremlin wall.

The current Constitutional Court

case against the Communist Party, and the threatened prosecution of Alexander Sterligov, leader of nationalist group Sobor, aren't likely to satisfy those who believe in conspiracy theories because the courts will not be able to convict on the available evidence. But the process does make conspiracy thinking more respectable, and stimulates popularity for the causes the government is putting in the dock.

There is nothing like persecution to make paranoia reasonable - and nothing fires the popularity of width craft like a public burning.