Voices from Russia

Friday, 21 December 2012

Buckwheat Will Save Us All: Doomsday, Russian Style

Fr Vladislav Provotorov. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 1985

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Fr Vladislav Provotorov



Contrary to what the Russian media tells you… about crystal skulls, the planet Nibiru, and Buddhist oracles speaking to NASA… the vast majority of Russians didn’t believe the end of the world would come on or around 21 December. Then, again, you never know. According to a nationwide poll released Wednesday, 9 percent of Russians believed it “likely” that doomsday would strike this Friday, as foretold by some interpretations of a Mayan calendar, while 33 percent more considered it unlikely, but not impossible. A tour guide at a Moscow museum-cum-Apocalypse shelter told RIA-Novosti when asked about the end of the world, “I don’t believe in it, no, but a shadow of a doubt lingers, you know. What if?” The guide, a college instructor, asked not to be identified to avoid embarrassment. A few people went as far as to take actual precautions, but sporadic examples of doomsday preparedness have been surfacing among all the country’s social classes… from urbanite bohemians to villagers in snowy backwaters. Some sought shelter, some stockpiled food and other necessities… all of them seemingly tapping into the historical memory of a country where nearly every generation of the past hundred years was hammered by some calamity. Whether from early-Soviet famines, or the privations of two world wars, or the consumer shortages before and after the demise of the USSR, Russians know better than most that a little hoarding can go a long way.

Bunkers to Fill

Bunker 42, a dim chilly labyrinth with sloping floors, lies 65 metres (214 feet) below the surface of downtown Moscow. Its winding corridors bring to mind 3D shooters, and their metal-plated walls could induce claustrophobia in a Tolkien dwarf. The space, with four separate cavernous rooms, was built in the early 1950s, at the onset of the Cold War, as a nuclear bomb shelter for the top brass of the Soviet Air Force. Abandoned for years after the Soviet collapse and snapped up by a private entrepreneur in the early aughts, it now houses a museum loaded with Soviet memorabilia and rents out event space. On Friday, it also doubled as a doomsday refuge, but visitors did not find bags of flour stacked against the wall. Instead, they were invited to pay 30,000 roubles (970 USD. 735 Euros. 600 UK Pounds) for entry to a 12-hour party that promises to not only keep them safe from the Apocalypse, but also provide food, entertainment, and TV coverage. These preparations for the end times offered a wry show for wealthy fun lovers. That’s another lesson Russians have learned well… faced with fatal threats, sometimes, all that you can do is laugh, relax, and have a good time. A Bunker employee, who asked not to be identified because management wanted to keep the event’s details under wraps, said, “But we’ve got no lack of nut jobs trying to book rooms”. Izvestia claimed last month that companies offering bunker-installation services reported a surge in interest from people checking on shelter construction costs (starting price, 500,000 roubles (16,200 USD. 12,275 Euros. 10,000 UK Pounds). However, the paper said that very few actually shelled out the money.

Booze & Buckwheat

In a nation with an average monthly salary of 900 USD (27,800 Roubles. 680 Euros. 560 UK Pounds), people can’t afford to spend too much on doomsday avoidance. However, concerned citizens did what they can. Back in October, in the Siberian city of Tomsk, a wedding planner started selling Apocalypse survival kits comprising buckwheat kasha, candles, notepad and pencil, some vodka, basic medicines, rope, and soap (soaped rope doesn’t chafe the neck, so goes the popular belief). The kit, priced at 890 roubles (29 USD. 22 Euros. 18 UK Pounds), was marketed as a hipster joke; a “lite” version on offer in Moscow included only the rope and soap. Naturally, everyone is free to customise their own kits, and some Russians seemed intent on doing just that… a number of stores throughout the nation reported fast dwindling stocks of matches, candles, salt, and buckwheat kasha, Russia’s staple food for perilous times. Media reports seemed to fuel the hoarding. In Omutninsk, a town of 25,000 in northern Russia, hundreds of locals stormed the shops for food and candles after a local newspaper plugged a hole on its pages with a reprinted story about the impending doomsday. Nearby towns, which don’t get the paper, reported no such craze.

This and several other cases of stockpiling mania were recounted to no end in the media, grossly exaggerating the number of serious doom-mongers. Only 3 percent of Russians admitted stocking up on foodstuffs and other necessities ahead of 21 December, according to this week’s survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM, which had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. Another 1 percent said they prayed to God ahead of the doomsday, whilst 75 percent said they did nothing. The reasons for inaction included “there’s no point”, although the pollster didn’t specify how many people gave that answer (fatalism is reputed to be a typical Russian trait). The assortment of coping strategies is broad… hoard, party, give in. When stories of survival… in war, famine, economic upheaval… have reached so many generations of Russian ears, you can’t blame people for taking precautions. Even though President Putin personally laughed away doomsday rumours on the eve of the dreaded 21 December, Russian history teaches that, in the end, you never know.

22 December 2012 (MSK)

Aleksei Yeremenko





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