At the end of February, just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his army to put its nuclear arsenal on high alert, the Russian newscaster Dmitry Kiselyov wondered aloud: “Why do we need a world if Russia is not in it?” This is a troubling question, but it's reasonable, at least for Russians. To bastardize Slavoj Zizek’s remarks on capitalism (or Fredric Jameson’s, depending on whom you ask): It is easier to imagine the end of the world than of a country. This is true even for old Russians like Kiselyov, who’ve already lived through the destruction of one civilization. Especially for old Russians, perhaps.
Although short memories and attention spans have caused the history of the socialist project’s collapse to begin and end with the Berlin Wall in the American mind, old Russians remember it all: the political chaos, the civil wars, the coups, the economic devastation wrought by breakneck privatization, the sudden multiple-years drop in life expectancy, the humiliation of a once-great power being led by a drunken Western puppet. These horrors led to Putin’s rise, and memories of them are what keep him in control and, yes, inform his revanchist escapades in the present. The idea that societies, once defeated, will simply go quietly into the night is a comfortable illusion too long entertained by the West and one that ought to have been shattered in Iraq or Afghanistan, long before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.
In 1996, in the introduction to his book Dreams of Oranges: An Eyewitness Account of the Fall of Communist East Germany, the Irish writer Desmond Fennell wrote: “This book recalls a section of the world, which, less than ten years ago, seemed to last forever, but which is now lodged in history and slipping out of memory. It makes one wonder what the future holds for our Post-Hiroshima, western world, shaped by US superpower, and likewise an attempt to create a post-western civilization. It still has twenty years left to go before it proves as long-lasting as the Soviet, Marxist-Leninist enterprise.”
Of course, the United States-led global order has lasted a bit longer than the Soviet enterprise. For how much longer is anybody’s guess, but with the nuclear threat, you’re more likely to see headlines pontificating on the end of the world than the end of America.
At the beginning of this century, at least for a subset of Americans, these ideas were the same. I must have been five the first time somebody told me the world was going to end. As the sun crept down below the pines, my father slugged red canisters of gasoline on the porch of our trailer, just in case it didn’t. Inside the trailer, a small box television blinkered images of people jumping out of buildings in a place called New York. I would hear it again when the streets of New Orleans were baptized by God’s vengeance and a couple of feet of salty gulf water. The End of Days was coming, and it would be the end of America, too. George W. Bush, like the rest of the good believers, would be raptured. The country, left in the hands of some godless Democrat, would be handed over to the Antichrist, just like every other government would. Later, the election of the cosmopolitan, slick-talking Barack Obama was a sign of the end, too, as was the rise of the Islamic State, North Korean nuclear test launches, and at least a half-dozen other events.
My grandfather, an electrician and a part-time Baptist preacher, kept a copy of John Hagee’s Jerusalem Countdown on his coffee table. Like many young American evangelicals, I was raised with the conviction that the end was coming, that we should be diligent in bearing witness to the signs and calling attention to them, however viciously we might be mocked by the secular and ungodly intellectual elite. To be ridiculed for the sake of Christ was as noble a Christian act as one could achieve in a country with little opportunity for actual martyrdom and for opportunities that would never really come because, of course, good Christians would be raptured before America turned into the type of place that persecuted Christians.
The end of civilization and the end of the world are more or less the same thing, at least as far as people think about it, which they often do. Post-apocalyptic literature deals with the end of societies, typically all of them at once, rather than the end of the human species. This is partly by necessity. Novels need characters, and cockroaches aren’t good storytellers. To imagine the world without human beings would be either too dull or terrifying to bother with, so we don’t. Instead, we tell ourselves there will always be survivors and, more often than not, that we will be among them.
Since the days of my Bush-era evangelical upbringing, I have seen its heels, the liberal intelligentsia, fall prey to too much of the same apocalyptic hysteria. Figures including Greta Thunberg become something like prophets or theologians, Hagee for people who went to college too long. I once heard a man compare her to Cassandra, the Trojan princess cursed by Apollo to foresee visions of destruction that no one would believe. He laid out the comparison with a building profundity in his voice like it was the most romantic notion in the world. I know the tone well. If he hadn’t been Jewish he would’ve made a good preacher on the revival circuit, a megachurch Baptist or maybe even a Pentecostal.
Despite its zeal and stylistic similarities, what makes the liberal, secular form of apocalyptic navel-gazing so different from every other kind is its nihilism — they don’t seem to think they will survive climate change. However futile it may be in the face of nuclear war, libertarian prepper types who are once again stocking up food and building bomb shelters in their suburban backyards are far more optimistic about the apocalypse than liberal climate catastrophists. The apotheosis of this particular anxiety is Don’t Look Up, a dark comedy film in which two astronomers embark on a media tour in a futile attempt to warn the world about an impending heavy-handed metaphor for climate change (asteroid strike). In the end, the astronomers, like everyone else besides a handful of space-jetting elites, are killed. They die like liberal saints, smug and heroic, martyrs on the hill of virtuous failure.
We are told that the only way to save civilization from climate doom is to end consumer society — as if any other kind exists anymore. Essentially, what has been proposed is revolutionary austerity, something much more severe than the dismantling of postwar social democracy under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and without the vote-catching fibs about how it would somehow all lead to a middle-class utopia. After observing the “hectic funeral of the GDR” (East Germany), Fennell wrote he was convinced that “western capitalism had lost its two-centuries-old antagonist, and for the foreseeable future the prospects are bleak for social idealism of any kind.” Perhaps this was true in East Germany, where the economic impacts of privatization were cushioned by reunification with a wealthy capitalist country and the introduction of consumerism. But farther East, where no such comforting factors existed, another form of social idealism was resurrected: nationalism. This led to genocide and war in the Balkans and relatively bloodless independence farther north, including in Ukraine, at least until now. Now, two nations stand at war, led by two men born and raised in the same country. Each empire is built on the ashes of the last, each ideology, each war. Nobody could have imagined that the end of the Soviet world might lead to the end of all of it, some three decades later. We can now.
River Page is a writer and essayist. Find his Substack, Chain Smoking to Babylon.