Russian model Ruslana Korshunova backstage (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/WireImage)
Artillery Row

The destiny of cult thinking

Dark similarities with the Soviet moral void are already on the rise

On 28 June 2008, just days before her 21st birthday, Russian model Ruslana Korshunova was found dead outside her Manhattan residence. Police stated that there were no signs of a struggle in her apartment and concluded that Korshunova’s death was suicide. The following year, her close friend and fellow model Anastasia Drozdova jumped to her death from the top of a building in Kiev. 

In his memoirs, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia, journalist Peter Pomerantsev details the mysterious suicides of the two models. Both women had attended Rose of the World, a controversial Moscow-based organisation offering “training for personality development”. This organisation is modelled after Lifespring — the controversial methods of which were the subject of multiple lawsuits for mental damage in the US during the 1980s.

Lifespring claimed to show participants new means of dealing with life’s challenges and that following the organisation’s guidelines would transform their lives. Some individuals complained that they were harangued, embarrassed and humiliated by the “trainers”. Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, took the course in the 1980s and was left confused and troubled by exercises which involved stripping, asking fellow participants sexual questions, and making fun of fat people’s bodies. When Thomas began the process of breaking away, she received “constant phone calls” to pressure her to stay with the group and ended up relocating to another part of the US to escape the calls. Other allegations of abuse include an asthmatic being told that her condition was psychological and subsequently dying from an asthma attack, and a man who could not swim being made to jump into a river and drowning. 

The material world, and the individual’s experience of it, are all that matters

In the book, Pomeranstev interviews Elena Obukhova, a former model turned psychologist, who describes how the life-changing opportunity of being scouted as a model can completely remove individuals from their identity. “No one cares about your personality. You become a picture … And before you know it you’ve lost the ability to talk normally, laugh naturally”. These young women, removed from their families, homes and nations, thrust into a world of champagne, cocaine and debauchery, turn to “psychological training” groups such as Rose of the World in order to reclaim their lost sense of purpose and identity. Once the intense and bizarre course is complete, they are on their own again, no longer fitting into the world they came from and too psychologically damaged to continue life as normal. They are vulnerable to suicidal thoughts.

Former Soviet states crowd the lists for the highest suicide rates among young people. As Emile Durkheim noted, suicide viruses occur at civilisational breaks, when the parents have no value systems to pass on to their children. Thus, there is no deep-seated tradition to fall back upon when they are under emotional stress. 

Now the Western world is heading in the same direction. Our culture has become atheistic and materialistic at its core, in much the same way as the Soviet Union’s was. The material world, and the individual’s experience of it, are all that matters. In the Soviet Union, the state was meant to replace religion but was essentially unstable. Now, we find that religious, national, familial and gender identities are seen as obstacles to the ultimate liberation of the individual as conceptualised by Mill. An individual’s duties towards their community, nation and family tie them down. They are therefore barriers which must be destroyed in the promotion of individual freedom. 

Solzhenitsyn warned us that by the late 20th century the West had already transformed itself into a cousin of the Soviet Union and thus — whether fixated on Enlightenment liberalism or Marxist social egalitarianism — is doomed to tread a similar path to ruin. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was not precipitated by new ways of thinking, but rather by the decline of material conditions and the incapability of the state to keep power. It eventually succumbed to the stresses and natural contradictions between a perverse ideology and rational government. We are reaching a similar inflection point in the West. 

We have experienced decades of continuous economic and social decline. At the root of this are ideological choices made by a self-serving elite insensitive to the real-world consequences of their decisions: open borders, economic rootlessness and social/sexual liberation. Further expansions of the welfare state and concomitant rises in tax are shoring up the problems created by such thoughtless liberalism. 

Instead of a nuanced and unique personality, individuals now self-assign labels

The phenomenon of anti-majoritarian progressivism has taken hold. Whilst the social fruits of our heedless cultural deracination have already made themselves known in the epidemic of mental health problems among the Western youth, the political and economic crises of the 2020s are similarly redolent of the late Soviet Union. 

It’s not hard to draw parallels between the aforementioned Russian models’ desperate search for an identity and the ongoing issue of (mainly) Generation Z and Millennials, raised by the internet, questioning their “gender identity”. The concept was popularised in the 1960s by John Money but has gained tremendous traction in the Internet Age, with forums dedicated to the subject and widespread discourse across social media. 

Instead of developing a nuanced and unique personality, individuals now self-assign labels. Although these labels appear on the surface to have discrete definitions, new gender identities, which seem nonsensical to outsiders — like “agender” and “gender-fluid” — are formed constantly. This shapeshifting leads to despair; various studies highlight the high rates of depression and self-harm among young people and adults with gender dysphoria.

It has become something of a cliche to refer to “wokism” as a new religion. Nonetheless, as with groups like Rose of the World, the ideological narrative of the New Left not only provides an identity (however tenuous) for individuals, but also purports to provide the grounding of reordering society and the economy along moral principles. Equity of outcome as a correction to structural oppression — practised in the form of affirmative action since the 1960s in major Western countries — provides a compelling vision of the future in much the same way that The Communist Manifesto did in the late 19th century. It promises higher living standards at the cost of an entitled and oppressive elite, with white men as the substitute for the owners of capital.

The replacement of the moral void with “wokism” is a process which has already begun. Already the fruits of this mode of thinking are apparent — we are witnessing a widespread rise in mental illness for teenagers and the resurgence of violent crime. It’s tempting to think that being able to see these crises boiling ahead will push us in the right direction: striving to create more humane and rational systems under which to live. As in the cases of the poor Russian models, though, despair can be too powerful to escape.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover