Conspiracy theories, like jokes, do not translate easily across cultures. Rooted in the anxieties of the place that spawned them, theories popular in one part of the world may never penetrate another. In Russia, a conspiracy theory focused on an American plot to gut Russian culture—known as the Dulles Doctrine or the Dulles Plan—is so well known it has its own meme. But as The New York Times notes, this theory “may seem obscure to Westerners.”
A former employee of the Internet Research Agency, one of the organizations indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, had to write an essay on the plan as part of his job application, the Times reports. In Russia, the Dulles Plan is “perhaps the most popular ‘indigenous’ post-Soviet conspiracy theory,” says Alexander Panchenko, a literary scholar at the the Russian Academy of Sciences, who’s studying the plan and its influence. The faux document at the heart of the conspiracy theory is supposed to lay out a strategy for undermining Russian power by sowing “chaos and confusion”—to defeat Russia by destroying its people from the inside.
The Dulles Plan first bubbled up in the early 1990s, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union. Attributed to Allen Dulles, the first civilian head of U.S. intelligence, and supposedly written in the 1940s, the plan explains in grandiose prose how America can defeat Russia by undermining the country’s foundational values.
The idea, according to the text, is to “hammer into the people’s consciousness the cult of sex, violence, sadism, and betrayal, in a word, immorality,” with the help of “our accomplices, helpers, and allies in Russia herself.” In this corrupted version of Russia, “Bureaucratic red-tape will be elevated to a virtue. Honesty and orderliness will be ridiculed as being of no use to anyone, an anachronism.” The whole country will be led into moral turpitude: “Rudeness and insolence, lies and deceit, drunkenness and drug-addiction, animal fear of everyone and everything, indecency, betrayal, nationalism, and strife between ethnic groups, and above all hatred for the Russian ethnos: we’ll cultivate all of that, quietly and skillfully.”
References to the Dulles Plan first surfaced in a pro-Communist newspaper, Narodnaja Pravda, in 1992 and soon started popping up across the Russian media. From its first appearances, it was twisted up with other conspiracy theories: one early article, by a religious leader in the Orthodox church, put the Dulles Plan alongside the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an explanation for Russia’s moral decline.
But soon researchers and reporters sussed out an earlier, fictional version of the plan, published in the novel The Eternal Call (Vechnyi Zov). One of the book’s villains, a Trotskyite and Nazi collaborator, lays out this vision of a plan to defeat Russia after World War II. The book, says Panchenko, has an anti-Semitic undercurrent, too, eliding Trotskyism and Judaism into an enemy force. The book’s author, Anatoly Ivanov, first wrote the passage in the early 1970s, but it didn’t pass through censors and into print until the 1980s.
Even after the Dulles Plan was traced to this fictional account, though, its popularity did not diminish. “This fake document has been more influential in shaping the Russian popular historical consciousness and memory of the Cold War than any of the reams of genuine archival documents that have been declassified in recent decades,” writes the University of Melbourne’s Julie Fedor, who specializes in modern Russian history. It’s a useful tool for explaining the changes that have transformed Russian culture in the post-Soviet era. In the Dulles Plan meme, the text reads “план даллеса не существует но действует”—“The Dulles Plan: Does not exist, still works.”
But not everyone believes the plan is fake, either. “Now, its supporters would discuss either Ivanov’s prophetic gift that allowed him somehow mystically learn about the intentions of Dulles or his contacts with certain KGB officers that shared with him their knowledge of the CIA secret plans,” says Panchenko.
Though supporters of the theory have sometimes hinted they could produce documents proving the connection, there’s no actual evidence of an American intelligence plot to undermine Russian culture. The power of the Dulles Plan comes from its worth as a catch-all explanation for any changes in Russia that are perceived as negative: If the culture is falling apart, don’t look at anyone in power in Russia. It’s obviously a CIA plot to rot the heart of Russia’s power.