Image by Anna Nemtsova. Russia, 2012.

To prepare for the approaching end of the world—a.k.a. the Mayan calendar’s doomsday on Dec. 21—Russian shoppers are clearing out the store shelves in the country’s far north and east, the first places that the apocalypse will supposedly hit. (That fateful moment is known to believers as the time when “the planet enters the Zero Stage,” a total blackout.) The end-timers are buying vodka, of course. They’re also stocking up on matches and candles, which have been going for three to four times the normal rate and have practically disappeared from stores in the cities of Chita and Krasnoyarsk. Even skeptics are stocking up on a few extra kilos of buckwheat, pasta, oatmeal, rice, and salt “for the black day.”

Authorities, meanwhile, are trying to calm the public paranoia. Last week, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev felt the need to reject the Mayan cosmology. “I do not believe in the end of the world,” he emphasized. “At least, not this year.” And earlier this month Russia’s minister of Emergency Situations, Vladimir Puchkov, assured Russians that there was no reason to panic. He had, he promised “access to methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth” and could say with certainty that the end doesn’t appear to be nigh. But apparently, the promises of officials are not comforting to everybody. Almost one third of Russia’s population is still concerned about the dire predictions, according to a report from the social polling firm the Levada Center.

Members of Parliament blame the media for creating a sense of panic. Last month, officials addressed a letter to the directors of all the state-run channels, asking them to cancel the end-of-world coverage. The fearmongering of such a “pseudo-scientific phenomenon” was causing real health problems for many Russians, they said. The channels ignored the deputies, and one outlet even aired a show called "Apocalypse: Unfriendly Universe" several times a week. The author of the letter, Mikhail Degtiarev, complained about the program on a talk show, and predicted that the media itself would cause social collapse before the end of the year. “Instead of talking about how to clear snow—which I thought would be the topic under discussion—this popular but irresponsible TV channel dedicated the show to the same insane end-of-the-world [nonsense],” he complained. “My theory is that affirmations turn to reality. I would not be surprised to see a collapse this month, just because the theme has been distorting people’s psychology so often.”

Russian state television and the Internet have also taken to quoting a Tibetan lama—known as the “Oracle of Shambhala”—who allegedly predicted a two-week-long time of “complete darkness and silence” in an October address. State channels have also taken to airing daily shows devoted to the world’s worst disasters, and news websites are publishing helpful survival recommendations—among them, “move to a country house and make sure you have a stove, plenty of water, and firewood.” (Most people in Russia have country homes, called dachas, with underground storage for canned vegetables and fruit.) A popular website, which has a clock counting down the days, minutes, and seconds until Zero Stage, urges, “Do not wait, get prepared!” The site’s creators also provide a list of food items necessary for surviving the apocalypse.

Moscow businessman Valentin Sveridov, 45, decided not to wait for the first signs of the apocalypse before evacuating his wife and 7-year-old son from Moscow. He read on the Internet that the capital would be the most terrifying place to stay during the inevitable natural disasters. “Rivers of blood, hundreds of rotting dead bodies, and deadly epidemics,” he explained. Sveridov suggested that the family move to the home of his childhood friend Alexander, who has a nice dacha outside of St. Petersburg. They’re going to get out of Moscow for a few days, “just in case.”

This is not the first time that the two friends have helped each other survive. During the years of post-Perestroika inflation in 1993–96, when the two young entrepreneurs lost all the rubles in their savings accounts, they helped each other begin a new life. “Russians are made to survive,” Sveridov said, opening his car trunk to show off an extra can of gas stashed there. “We are used to living on the verge of apocalypse—they turn the electricity off almost every day in my home village in the far east.”

Project

After 20 years of fading industry, rampant corruption, and no clear ideology, Russia is now on the move. Its young people are finding new homes in—and out—of the country.

Recently

May 10, 2013 /
Amanda Ottaway
Russian journalist Anna Nemtsova describes Miel Fellowship as unique opportunity for reporting in her home country. And she's inspired by her visit with U.S. students.
February 18, 2013 /
Anna Nemtsova, Joshua Yaffa
Join the Pulitzer Center for another talks@pulitzer event, this time for a focus on Russia with journalists Joshua Yaffa and Anna Nemtsova. Nemtsova is the 2012 Persephone Miel fellow.