clock menu more-arrow no yes

Does Putin think the US wants to steal Siberia because psychic spies said so?

Is Putin reading your mind behind those sunglasses? Who can say?
Is Putin reading your mind behind those sunglasses? Who can say?
( DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images)

There are a lot of complicating factors in Russia's relationship with the United States. The legacy of the cold war. Geopolitical factors affecting the global oil markets.

Oh, and the fact that Russia's state-employed mind readers once stared at a photograph of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, read her thoughts, and concluded the US wanted to steal Siberia.

And now everyone is still dealing with the consequences.

The oddly prevalent theory that the US wants to steal Siberia

The claim that the US wants to steal Siberia pops up in Russian politicians' speeches and interviews with some frequency. The most prominent recent example was during a press conference last December, when Vladimir Putin launched into an elaborate metaphor about free bears chasing piglets in the woods:

Sometimes it occurs to me: perhaps our bear should sit back peacefully, stop chasing piglets around the taiga woods and just feed on berries and honey? Perhaps then they'll leave him alone? No they won't, because they will always want to put him on a chain. And as soon as they succeed in putting him on a chain, they will rip out his teeth and his claws. Today, that means the nuclear deterrent. As soon as this happens, God preserve us, the bear won't be needed and the taiga will immediately be grabbed. We have heard many times almost from officials that it's unfair that Siberia with its immeasurable wealth belongs entirely to Russia. Unfair, how do you like that? And grabbing Texas from Mexico was fair.

In case it's not obvious, the "bear" is Russia, and "chasing piglets" refers to Russia's habit of being aggressive to smaller neighboring countries. Putin was claiming that Russia can't stop that aggression, because that would empower those who want to "chain" the bear and "rip out his teeth and his claws" — strip Russia of its nuclear weapons.

And if that happens, Putin warns, the bear's forest will be stolen: the US will grab Siberia. You see, they have heard "many times" from "officials" that it is not fair for Russia to own all of Siberia's natural resources. (The officials in question are heavily implied to be American, hence the reference to "grabbing Texas from Mexico" in the 1840s, even though Texas was actually an independent country when it became part of the US.) In other words, Russia's adventures in countries like Ukraine are a way of deterring potential US attempts to snatch Siberia and steal its natural resources.

And that's only the latest example of a Russian official citing the Siberia theory — there are others. For instance, in October of last year, Nikolay Patrushev, the secretary of Russia's security council, claimed in an interview that "many American officials" - and Albright in particular - had asserted that it did not "serve the interests of all humanity" for Russia to control such a large territory. He claimed to have heard "assertions" that the distribution of natural resources was unfair, and other states should have free access to them.

And two years ago, deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin claimed that Madeleine Albright would be happy to see Putin defeated because she was was "dreaming of the riches of Siberia."

The origin of the theory: reading Madeleine Albright's mind?

But there is no evidence that any US official has ever said it was "unfair" for Russia to own Siberia. Rather, according to an investigation by the Moscow Times, the story traces back to efforts by Russian state intelligence to read Madeleine Albright's mind. In 2006, Boris Ratnikov, a retired major general from the Russian Secret Service, told Russian government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta that "his colleagues, who worked for the service's secret mind-reading division, read Albright's subconscious a few weeks before the beginning of the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999."

Ratnikov confirmed that story to the Moscow Times, saying that he hadn't been involved in the mind-reading operation directly, but had worked as an analyst on the data that his mind-reading colleagues produced. Apparently, the mind-reading process did not require any actual interaction with Albright, just a photograph of her. "By tuning in on her image, our specialists were able to glean these things," Ratnikov said.

Their conclusions? That Albright had a "pathological hatred of Slavs," and was "indignant that Russia held the world's largest reserves of natural resources." And thus the myth was born.

Too crazy to be true?

At first, that story sounds so crazy that it's tempting to believe it couldn't possibly be true. Surely the Russian government would not utilize the services of psychic intelligence agents? But while it is of course possible that Ratnikov made the whole thing up, this would hardly be the first time that a government relied on paranormal advice.

In fact, the US is no stranger to those methods either. The Reagan White House, for instance, reportedly relied on the services of an astrologer named Joan Quigley. According to former Reagan aide Donald Regan, "Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise."

And the US military reportedly uses "remote viewers" who gather foreign intelligence via ESP — a 2007 report claimed that they had predicted the 9/11 attacks back in 1986.

Why the Siberia theory is so appealing

The real question, then, is not where the Siberia theory came from, but why it is so appealing to the Russian politicians who cite it.

The most likely answer is that it fits with Putin's favorite political narrative, in which Russia is a powerful nation, the West is constantly threatening its territory and interests, and only resolute strength in the face of that aggression can protect the Russian people.

That narrative's appeal to ordinary Russians is twofold: it offers an opportunity to be proud of Russia's power and wealth as well as a way to blame the country's problems on outsiders. As Max Fisher wrote in December, since the fall of Soviet Union, and especially the economic catastrophes of the 1990s, there has been a sense of lost greatness and lost pride in Russia. The Siberia narrative presents a much more appealing vision of the country, in which Russia is a place so rich in natural resources that the US can barely keep its grimy mitts off of it.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.