Soviet Union

V.I. Lenin, Psychedelic Mushroom

Friday A/V Club: A prank from the final days of the Soviet Union

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Seven months before the USSR dissolved, a Soviet TV show called The Fifth Wheel aired an unusual episode. The host, Sergei Sholokhov, began by declaring that the program would "shed new light" on the revolution that had brought the Bolsheviks to power. His guest, the writer and musician Sergei Kurekhin, then started spinning an elaborate theory. "I have indisputable evidence," he said, "that the October Revolution was the brainchild of people who'd been taking hallucinating mushrooms for years, and in the long run, mushrooms replaced their personalities, and they turned into mushrooms. So, I just want to say that Lenin was a mushroom. Furthermore, he was not just a mushroom, but also a radio wave."

The allegedly indisputable evidence then followed. Viewers were told, for example, that Lenin's name spelled backward is a word for "a famous French dish made of mushrooms." And a diagram purportedly showed that the flay agaric mushroom is structurally identical to Lenin's car.

Needless to say, the show was a joke. But it was not identified as a joke, and Soviet TV shows were not known for joking about Lenin. "Millions of television viewers found themselves at a loss," the Russian-born, Berkeley-based anthropologist Alexei Yurchak recounts in a 2011 paper for the Slavic Review. "When the program ended, the studio was overwhelmed with phone calls from viewers—some wanting an explanation, some protesting, and some laughing." Sholokhov has claimed that many Russians believed the report was true, though (as Yurchak notes) he has an incentive to exaggerate the extent that his show fooled people. But regardless of whether the prank actually convinced many viewers, it certainly confused a lot of them.

Many moments in Kurekhin's argument will sound familiar to anyone who's gone browsing in occultist bookstores or in supermarket checkout lanes. He invoked Carlos Castaneda, a New Age mainstay. If you've seen people make a big deal of the fact that both the Mayans and the Egyptians built pyramids, you might feel a little déjà vu when Kurekhin goes on about the "frescoes in one of the main Mexican temples" that depict "a certain event from the history of Mexico, which appeared to be very similar to the October Revolution." The very idea that Lenin was a mushroom resembles one of the more bizarre speculative notions of the '70s—John Allegro's theory that Jesus was a mushroom. (Or, if you want to get technical, that the early Christians cooked up the concept of "Jesus Christ" to conceal an esoteric mushroom cult.) The New Age was having a bit of a moment at this point in Russian history, and it's certainly possible that Kurekhin was spoofing it at the same time that he was spoofing Communism, mass media, and the habit of reflexively believing anyone playing the role of an expert and speaking in an authoritative manner.

The whole program is on YouTube but, alas, it isn't subtitled. So if you don't speak Russian, you'll have to settle for the truncated version embedded in two parts below. It is apparently drawn from a half-hour edit that Sholokhov started selling in 1996, but it seems to have been sliced down even further. It also includes at least one scene, in which the two Sergeis break character and start laughing, that Yurchak says was not part of the original broadcast. Oh, well. It's better than nothing, and it's still pretty funny.

Here is part one:

And here is part two:

It would be fun to stop there, maybe with a joke about Kurekhin being a pioneer of that Russian "fake news" we keep hearing so much about. But there's a more sour sequel to the story that I ought to mention too.

Kurekhin died in 1996. (Naturally, there are Andy Kaufman–style theories that he faked his death.) But before that, he took up with Aleksandr Dugin, a co-founder of the National Bolshevik Party—a part-fascist, part-communist group that wallowed in the half-ironic posturing that's found in certain quarters of the alt-right today. "In the fall of 1995," Yurchak notes, Kurekhin "convinced Dugin to move from Moscow to St. Petersburg and to run for a seat in the Duma. He promised to help Dugin in organizing his election campaign, participated with him in several meetings with prospective voters, and organized" a pro-Dugin concert.

As Yurchak points out, some of Kurekhin's contemporaries believed that these activities were yet another deadpan joke and that he was actually ridiculing Dugin. I'm not at all convinced that they're right: Dugin is something of a prankster figure himself, and it's not hard to imagine Kurekhin deciding that they had something in common. Either way, Kurekhin doesn't just have a famous piece of fake news under his belt—he was an early adopter of ironic fascism too. The man may be 23 years dead, but this is his world; the rest of us are just mushrooms growing in it.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)