Out of a Death Cult
Hey. Sorry for the long silence. My schedule has fallen apart under the weight of the day-to-day. Work, gas leaks, plumbing issues, a foreign country’s bureaucracy, intricacies of human connection, existential fatigue, a scorpion in the kitchen sink—juggling all this makes it hard to carve out enough time and attention to get any of my recent ideas to a publishable stage.
This post is my attempt to get out this ditch. I’ll try to tie some of my unfinished ideas together into a version of Psychopolitica’s future—a project I like to re-invent periodically—and then to get back to my normal weekly rhythm starting next Monday.
I have given up on writing a Russia/Ukraine op-ed for the NYT—I’m too close to the topic, my feelings on it too raw and my thoughts too hopeless and lacking conclusion.
I explained the decision in one of my drafts:
The paper’s editors understandably want a sustained original argument, and I am not sure developing one is appropriate in my situation. I’ve been managing, barely, to put words to my experiences here in PsyPol, but I can’t seem to bring myself up to formulating and sharing opinions.
If “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” as Theodor Adorno (a German) pronounced, what should I think about writing op-eds after Bucha?
This is from a post that was supposed to be titled Russia’s Psychotic Break and whose draft got discarded when it reached 3,000 words. In it, I tried to explore alternative ways to talk about the war and adjacent issues: the spiritual degradation of Russia, the breakdown of its social reality, the vanishing of the future as a domain of planning and dreaming.
None of them worked, but one metaphor has become a seed of a new idea I’ve been lately intrigued by.
Post-Soviet Russia was like a troubled, quirky young woman—with her demons, a tendency towards unhealthy relationships, addictions, self-harm and violent outbursts—who still endeared some of us with her soulful late-night conversations, her dark sense of humor, her natural beauty. But her condition has been getting steadily worse—a dynamic supported by her abusive, gaslighting husband—and finally resulted in a violent psychotic break.
Now, 7 months in1, she’s still not understanding her situation. She’s killed people—killing them still—including her offsprings. She’s got hostages which are starting to show signs of unrest. She’s tired, her behavior is getting more erratic, and her thoughts more confused. The police has surrounded the compound and is tightening the circle day after day.
Is she the cause of all this? Or can she still re-cast herself as the first victim of her maniac partner?
Would that be a betrayal?
Can she rebel? Can she escape?
And if she does, what fate awaits her? Jail? Death?
Sometimes this all gets too much, and her mind starts to drift into strangely comforting fantasies about the worst-case scenario: if there really is no way out, or if she’s in too deep to pursue it, maybe she’ll stick it out till the end and blow the place up just when the SWAT team comes to the door. Not a bad way to go. Better than Jonestown.
I’m no expert in counter-terrorist operations. My intuitive opinion is it’s worth trying a negotiation led by a trained psychologist, whose initial goal would be to agree to a ceasefire and get as many people out of the perpetrator’s immediate control; so that during this ceasefire, further negotiations could be carried out in parallel to preparations for a tactical entry, an engineered uprising, or whatever else is the ultimate goal. But I do understand there’s a school of thought—of which Putin is one representative—that sees negotiations with terrorists as unacceptable.
In this extended metaphor, I am the woman’s son, watching the stand-off on live TV in a hotel nearby. Sometimes I tell myself this isn’t productive and put it on mute. Sometimes I take a nap. Sometimes, on the verge of sleep, I day-dream of ways to rehabilitate my mom if she survives.
This was supposed to be a segue to a non-realistic, fantastical vision for Russia’s transition to a post-Putin future, written by the fictional leader of the Psychedelic Party of Russia, Solomon Divanov (more on the character later).
It included such notions as “a psychedelic tribunal”—a series of televised mushroom-fueled therapy sessions for Putin and other agents of the regime, which would lay their psychology bare in front of a nation complicit in their war crimes, and which would build towards establishing the Putin Doesn’t Exist mythologeme (1, 2) as the main piece of state propaganda for the transitional period: the nation would need to accept that the small man wearing hidden high heels was nothing more than its own reflection or shadow, and from this, a planned mental health revolution would stem…
Stuff like that.
This idea has been evolving until it became a premise for a serialized epistolary novel of sorts, to be published on Substack.
The stage would be set in the former United States, in a town taken over by an extremist mob-like wing of a psychedelic religion that had spread in the region shortly before the country’s collapse. Divanov, the guy in the hotel, would become an ex-member of a different stratum of the same movement—less powerful, but more sincere and creative. Surrounded by vials with psychedelic preparations, coffee mugs, rolling tobacco, an old-fashioned black phone with a heavy handset, and stacks of notebooks and loose pieces of paper, he’d be busy developing his own little worldview supported by an ecology of practices—something that could become a productive off-shoot of his native culture; maybe even something that can eventually enter back into that culture and heal parts of it.
His notes could include trip reports (based on mine own and those of PsyPol subscribers); an analysis of the cult’s structure (here, my long-standing interest in cults and my un-yet-articulated understanding of the Russian state would provide useful); recordings of conversations with his associates (based on the conversations I’ve been having with paying subscribers—two of these in production right now); journal entries—dreams, events, and ideas; and drafts of “a psychopolitical handbook” he’d be developing based on all this—a set of ideas and tools for understanding and changing reality. Each little snippet, accompanied by an illustration, could work as an issue of this newsletter.
The hotel TV, standing upside down on the floor and running on mute in the background, would at first show news from our reality: Zelensky’s advisor Oleksiy Arestovich talking about Russia as the Jungian shadow of the US, the owner of the Vagner mercenary group Evgeny Prigozhin recruiting convicts in Russian prisons, “Putin’s Rasputin” Alexander Dugin crying at his daughter’s funeral, claiming her first words were “our Russia” and “our empire”; news of Russian men going to war to escape their failing marriages; etc.
Eventually, the TV reality would depart from the one we inhabit and house the Psychedelic Party’s Divanov, pitching his program for Russia to different audiences, in the country’s streets and in rooms filled with cameras and microphones.
Divanov has popped up in my work several times over the last few years.
The first time was in 2016, when I needed a way to talk about a psychedelic experience I had recently had. I used it to make light of a then-recent news story on the Russia-EU sanctions war: a Russian customs officer was fined because he had run over two frozen geese with a bulldozer instead of destroying them with fire (as apparently was demanded by law). This argument about how to best destroy food in a country where millions struggle to put food on the table seemed absurd to me. I tried to imbue it with meaning by writing this parable:
“A young man on a soul-search—let’s call him Solomon Divanov—eats two tabs of LSD and starts chanting a Hebrew mantra of some kind or another; during the induced trance he feels like a god—an unseen, non-localized entity in temporary possession of a human body. The entity understands he has limited time to present his prophet with a list of commandments or a draft of a covenant—but, since this all has sprung up on him quite unexpectedly, can only muster a few mundane instructions like “Exercise,” “Meditate,” and “Don’t smoke.”
Soon, the experience passes. Divanov snickers to himself as he pins the unimpressive commandments above his desk. But a week passes, and he realizes he hasn’t smoked since.
The psychonaut invents a life hack based on this experience, an anti-procrastination technique: he starts spending an hour a day imagining he’s a demon who’s gained control of one S. Divanov as the first step of his conquer-the-world plan.
This simple mental exercise allows the young man to sort out many of his limitations having to do with laziness and anxiety. Suppose, as the host of the demon, Divanov doesn’t feel like doing a task—so what? The demon’s the one in control, and the host’s feelings are of little importance to him. Delegating decision-making to a fictional character gives a real boost to our hero’s will-power.
Divanov’s life’s on the rise. He shares the method with friends and acquaintances, some try it themselves and are very impressed. Seeing how well this is going, the man gradually starts devoting more time to this game: from an hour a day to two hours, to three… Until at one point he realizes the demon is real.
Now, most of Divanov’s life is devoted to serving this Life Hack. He becomes a personal growth coach for the young and successful, and he teaches them, playfully, to pretend to be magical characters.
The main thing, he says to the followers—office workers that feel slightly lost and young parents struggling with their middle-life crises—is to have real faith in the entity you are creating. One thing that can help is a ritual: even if it seems silly, try coming up with a daily one, be it praying, or chanting, or doing Tarot. It’s a way to let the subconsciousness out. The subconsciousness then will suggest the next step.
So long story short, these folks with a thirst for effective time management really do become portals for hellish entities of all kinds. A popular Moscow workshop starts to acquire characteristics of an occult society. The detail and the number of entities being summoned increase. And though most come up with non-threatening, one-dimensional characters, some turn to mythology as they look for inspiration. They successfully summon ancient deities to possess their bodies.
The movement grows and now has members among the big business and government. A lawmaker pushes through a new protocol for destroying food seized because of the sanctions: the imported meat can’t be just squashed, it has to be given to fire, after the person making the sacrifice pronounces a particular sequence of words… the spell is in Russian Bureaucratic instead of Latin, so as to not confuse the rank-and-file, but nevertheless, the formula is repeated aloud, and the lawmaker’s god gains strength…”
The story didn’t have an ending. The idea was that we were living it through.
A more recent incarnation of Solomon was called a Happy Prisoner: a fictional character serving a life sentence in a dreary high-security prison who discovers, through self-taught mystical techniques, his own imaginary nature. He’s not quite sure what this means intellectually—does he have an author separate from himself? does his make-believe world have a purpose?—but starts to feel a bit lighter.
He sticks to the practice and soon manages to rearrange the world—the prison—around him in such a way that he becomes freer and happier than most of us here in “reality.” The inmates respect him for a strange kind of integrity and for the ability to cast their lives in a light that makes them seem redeemable; the guards are a bit fearful of him and suspect he’s the warden’s agent or relative; and the warden appears to be altogether unaware of his existence.
Divanov’s next step is to try communicating with forces outside of his world: the readers and maybe the author.
This pitch is as far as I’ve gotten, so, with no guidance from Happy Prisoner, my own practice remains disappointingly rudderless.
The guy in the hotel would be somehow connected to these other versions of him. This agrees with the idea of a “fractal collectivity of the self”—something I have first thought of after smoking some DMT while standing in front of the mirror.
My hallucinatory, fantastically colored reflection was in constant flux. Age, facial features and general vibe kept changing, and yet all of these people I saw were myself. Our shared body was covered with shining letters of an unknown alphabet—something like a space suit made of language, or a sequence of protective spells tattooed on my soul.
In my post-trip notes, I referred to this entity in the mirror as “meta-Nikita.” I think it was the idea of me, the archetypal Nikita, of which I am but one instantiation.
This idea itself is but one instantiation of the idea of man.
Some traditions regard the idea of man an instantiation of the idea of God. (The story of Jesus argues that this idea can be expressed perfectly well through the seemingly flawed medium of a human.)
I think it’s important for one’s well-being to be aware of these non-visible entities—personified ideas—that one is connected to, and to establish a kind of harmony between them and one’s physical self.
I could make the hotel Divanov think this as well.
Perhaps he would use mirrors—and meditation, and writing, and plenty of drugs—to connect to other incarnations of his: the Prisoner, the Politician, the Cultist, the Priest.
Back in our world, I’ve been thinking of changes I’d like to make to the structure of the psychopolitical community here at Substack.
I turned paid subscriptions on in May of this year, with the promise that all revenue for 2022 would be sent to buy humanitarian aid for Ukraine. We did donate $2000 in August, and made another $1000 since then—I’ll wait until the end of the year to send everything at once, because, for reasons having to do with countries and borders, I have to go through an intermediary (thanks,).
Here’s an idea for 2023: we recast paid subs as membership fees for the fictional Psychopolitical System—what our community might have looked like, perhaps, in one of those other realities that Divanov makes entries to; and we use the money to compensate artists and writers that contribute to the project, like Jenna Cha who made the cover and illustrations for this issue.
As is already the case, you’ll be able skip the fee part and get access to the full version of Psychopolitica by contributing stories and images to the growing fictional world we’re creating—one that may now include a post-collapse US town, with a hotel on the outskirts, in which a drug user exiled from his cult is trying to redeem himself and the fallen world that originally spawned him.
I have other ideas for how to develop this vision further. We can discuss them: here in the comments; over email (I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org); in Substack’s newly unveiled chat space; or over Zoom—let me know if you’d like to chat.
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You can see this is an old draft, as we’re now approaching 9 months of the war.