MOSCOW, December 22 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti) – Contrary to what Russian media tell you – about crystal skulls, the planet Nibiru and Buddhist oracles speaking to NASA – the vast majority of Russians did not believe the end of the world would come on or around December 21.
Then again, you never know.
According to a nationwide poll released Wednesday, 9 percent of Russians believed it “likely” that doomsday would strike this Friday, as foretold by some interpretations of a Mayan calendar, while 33 percent more considered it unlikely, but not impossible.
“I don’t believe in it, no,” a tour guide at a Moscow museum-cum-Apocalypse shelter told RIA Novosti when asked about the end of the world.
“But a shadow of a doubt lingers, you know. What if?” said the guide, a college instructor who asked not to be identified to avoid embarrassment.
Few people went as far as to take actual precautions, but sporadic examples of doomsday preparedness have been surfacing among all the country’s social classes – from urbanite bohemians to villagers in snowy backwaters.
Some sought shelter, some stockpiled food and other necessities – all of them seemingly tapping into the historical memory of a country where nearly every generation of the past hundred years has been hammered by some calamity. Whether from early-Soviet famines, or the privations of two world wars, or the consumer shortages before and after the demise of the USSR, Russians know better than most that a little hoarding can go a long way.
Bunkers to Fill
Bunker 42, a dim, chilly labyrinth with sloping floors, lies 65 meters below the surface of downtown Moscow. Its winding corridors bring to mind 3D shooters, and their metal-plated walls could induce claustrophobia in a Tolkien dwarf.
The space, with four separate, cavernous rooms, was built in the early 1950s, at the onset of the Cold War, as a nuclear bomb shelter for the top brass of the Soviet Air Force. Abandoned for years after the Soviet collapse and snapped up by a private entrepreneur in the early aughts, it now houses a museum loaded with Soviet memorabilia and rents out event space.
On Friday it also doubled as a doomsday refuge. But visitors did not find bags of flour stacked against the wall.
Instead, they were invited to pay 30,000 rubles ($1,000) for entry to a 12-hour party that promises not only to keep them safe from the Apocalypse, but provide food, entertainment and TV coverage.
These preparations for the end times offered a wry show for wealthy fun lovers.
That’s another lesson Russians have learned well: Faced with fatal threats, sometimes all you can do is laugh, relax and have a good time.
“But we’ve got no lack of nut jobs trying to book rooms,” said a Bunker employee, who asked not to be identified because management wanted to keep the event’s details under wraps.
The Izvestia daily claimed last month that companies offering bunker-installation services reported a surge in interest from people checking on shelter construction costs (starting price 500,000 rubles, or $16,000). Very few actually shelled out the money, the paper said.
In a nation with an average monthly salary of $900, people can’t afford to spend too much on doomsday avoidance. But concerned citizens did what they can.
Back in October, in the Siberian city of Tomsk, a wedding planner started selling Apocalypse survival kits comprising buckwheat groats, candles, notepad and pencil, some vodka, basic medicines, rope and soap. (Soaped rope does not chafe the neck, so goes the popular belief.)
The kit, priced at 890 rubles ($29), was marketed as a hipster joke; a “lite” version on offer in Moscow included only the rope and soap.
Naturally, everyone is free to customize their own kits, and some Russians seemed intent on doing just that: A number of stores throughout the nation reported fast dwindling stocks of matches, candles, salt and buckwheat, Russia’s staple food for perilous times.
Media reports seemed to fuel the hoarding. In Omutninsk, a town of 25,000 in northern Russia, hundreds of locals stormed the shops for food and candles after a local newspaper plugged a hole on its pages with a reprinted story about the impending doomsday. Nearby towns, which do not get the paper, reported no such craze.
This and several other cases of stockpiling mania were recounted to no end in the media, grossly exaggerating the number of serious doom mongers. Only 3 percent of Russians admitted stocking up on foodstuffs and other necessities ahead of December 21, according to this week’s survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM, which had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
Another 1 percent said they were praying to God ahead of the doomsday, while 75 percent said they do nothing. The reasons for inaction included “there’s no point,” though the pollster did not specify how many people gave that answer. (Fatalism is also said to be a typical Russian trait.)
The assortment of coping strategies is broad – hoard, party, give in. When stories of survival – in war, famine, economic upheaval – have reached so many generations of Russian ears, you can’t blame people for taking precautions.
Because even though President Vladimir Putin personally laughed away doomsday rumors on the eve of the dreaded December 21, Russian history teaches that, in the end, you never know.