Today’s article touches on a very unusual topic.
Some time after I published the Coronavirus and disinformation warfare piece in February, a US based analyst and writer reached out to me and offered to expand my knowledge of the Russian disinformation methods. An online Q&A conversation that followed lay the foundations for this interview.
Michael Hotchkiss is an independent researcher who has had several papers published, related to the idea that Russia uses Nostradamus prophecies for information warfare purposes.
He also has a ‘dark arts criticism’ blog: n01r.com.
Mike has an unusual perspective and his OSINT arsenal consists of a combination of digital tools like Google Trends and webometrics with the traditional study of written materials.
Some paragraphs will contain a link to outside resources to support the matters discussed within.
I personally did not think I would ever be discussing OSINT and Nostradamus on the same page, but this I guess is the sign of the times we live in.
Hello Mike. First things first, who are you and what’s your background?
My background might be coincidentally useful for studying disinformation. First, I think it is helpful that from an early age, I grew up around a school of art called Surrealism which is political and psychological. Since I’ve studied it as an adult, I’ve come to understand Surrealism as having historical roots in communism and anti-fascism. Of course I didn’t know it at the time, but propaganda and art can have very similar applications.
At university, I studied criminal justice and social psychology, including the psychology of influence.
I think this prior experience gave me an investigative focus, as well as experience with applied influence techniques which have made me resistant to nation-state narratives. Despite my training in the area, although I never got into military or police work as a career, it has continued to interest me.
To some extent, based on my background I think I approach this problem with the mindset of both an artist and a policeman. I see disinformation as primarily a war in art and politics which most people are oblivious to, and which you can expose with a little creativity and forensic science.
I guess you could say I have created a collage of information with my research. I am trying to paint a picture with facts rather than feelings – the real, vs the surreal.
How did you develop an interest in online research?
In my day job recruiting, I am constantly on the web, sorting through unstructured data, trying to find out what is “real”, working with Boolean terms, search operators, etc. Looking at metrics. In addition, experience with recruiting strategies like website ‘x-raying’ has been a good way to use a tool like Google to quickly get an idea of the kind of content on a given portal.
I’ve also taken a lot of statistics courses throughout my collegiate experiences and it was an area somewhat of strength in my studies. I think statistics are very important for understanding the world in an informational sense.
I am now self-studying in Computational Social Science (CSS) with the goal of improving these kinds of skills in using web data to expose disinformation.
Being able to quantify the effects of disinformation and the ways it interfaces with society seems to be one of the best ways for exposing and defeating it.
So to some extent I had to learn about webometrics (cybermetrics, informetrics, etc.) but I had a good start with an understanding of applied statistics. I am also usually working with fairly straight forward metrics like hit count estimates; or Google Trends data.
These kinds of approaches are fairly powerful and don’t require a lot of expertise. But I have found that it is good to collect the data over a period of time and normalize it and so the basic stats skills come in handy again there.
I think in the end, one of the biggest pieces of evidence I had to work with was the fact that Nostradamus was the #1 web search of all 2001 as the result of an apparent wave of conspiracy theories posted on the internet in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Reverse engineering why that might be required working with web metrics by default. Maybe this CSS stuff will help me move into ‘bigger data’ considerations about Nostradamus.
When did you first focus on the Russian disinformation efforts and why?
I honestly think I first started noticing some of my very smart friends take on strangely authoritarian positions related to Ron Paul’s version of Libertarianism in the late 2000s. In hindsight, it is now known that the 2008 Ron Paul campaign was one of the first political campaigns to benefit from a (Ukrainian) botnet and later in the 2012 campaign period, “money bombs” driven by RT (Russia Today).
By 2014, Ron Paul was endorsing Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
Informationally, Ron Paul is very close to the controversial figure Alex Jones. You could even say they are somewhat inextricably linked in terms of how Ron Paul was the first to give credibility to Alex Jones on his 1990s radio show.
The whole idea of 9/11 false flags is very close to the Alex Jones group as well. Based on my research, I am convinced that the False Flag theory of 9/11 is strategically enabled Russian disinformation scheme. This is also a big part of where anti-federal, pro-gold and pro-bitcoin sentiment seems to enter into American culture.
Later, I read Ion Pacepa and Ron Rychlak’s book ‘Disinformation’ and that is when Nostradamus clicked for me that it had to be a disinformation campaign based on how it often virally aided Russian geopolitics. I also learned the definition of what disinformation was by reading the book.
Pacepa and Rychlak did not examine Nostradamus at all, but they did approach the allegations made by the late Alexander Litvinenko that top Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri was a Russian agent.
That book was about Soviet efforts to make Pope Pius XII appear as a Nazi-sympathizer in the post WWII era. I don’t agree with all of the conclusions from the book, but credible professors do give credence to Pacepa’s claims about what he personally did as a Communist agent.
So how did you OSINT the Nostradamus conspiracies and using what sources?
Based on the above literature, I looked into the history of Russian active measures revealed in the Mitrokhin archive and assets identified in the Vassiliev notebooks and found that many of the known active measures exposed by these archives lined up with Nostradamus conspiracy theories related to the British author Erika Cheetham.
Ideas like those that Nostradamus predicted the assassination of John F. Kennedy for example echo the idea that CIA killed John F. Kennedy. This kind of agreement seems to support the idea of the past use of Nostradamus in Soviet disinformation.
Looking into the origin of the 2001 Nostradamus hoaxes, there were similar elements of probable Soviet disinformation behind them which linked the whole story to networks close to the Cambridge Five spy ring. There were also likely aspects of Baba Vanga prophecies worked into them. When I found all of this out, I was more or less sure that there was a Russian attribution.
Then, looking at Google Trends since 2001, there have been many instances where interest in Nostradamus spiked up. It seems in most cases there is a Russian military or disinformational aspect to the environment which creates these conspiracies.
Even the 2001 hoax that ‘4000 Jews Stayed Home’ on 9/11 started with Syrian state media – where it spread to Russia’s Pravda. In 2005 it was still appearing in Syrian Ministry of Information-sponsored copies of ‘The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion’ (itself a turn of the 19th century forgery linked to Russian information operations and radicalization of Tsarist anti-Semites).
I figured I’d need to write something for a journal which was peer reviewed if anyone would take the idea about Nostradamus seriously. So I did.
How does the whole Nostradamus narrative fit into the 21st century digital media?
I think it is interesting because it seems to play to some extent to both the narratives of left wing conspiracy theorists and right wing conspiracy theorists. Take for example, the Notre Dame fire of 2019.
Note first that Nostradamus is actually a Latinization of the name Nostredame which was derived from Notre Dame.
In many cases, it seems that the most popular interpreters of the prophecies have a left-wing political mentality. Such people like Vogue Australia astrologer Jessica Adams seems to have viewed it as reflective of the decline of the Catholic Church and Western Civilization in general. She has a politically left interpretation of a ‘real’ Nostradamus prophecy. However, her viral interpretation also included apparent support for figures like Julian Assange, clearly favorable to a Russian geopolitical agenda.
On the other hand, you have extreme far right figures who interpret falsified prophecies of Nostradamus which spread in places like 4 Chan as referring specifically to the apocalypse. These kinds of ‘made up’ Nostradamus prophecies – such as which also accompanied the 9/11 attacks or the 2015 ISIS terror attacks – seem to frequently entertain some kind of equation of Muslims with a ‘Third Antichrist’ foretold by Nostradamus. At best, this is a very tenuous interpretation of Nostradamus.
I think in general if you will explore Nostradamus, you will find people applying both actual writings of Nostradamus and made up ones he didn’t write. Usually, I think you can associate the historical ones with left wing groups and the made up ones with right wing groups – or what seems often like left wing figures provoking right wing beliefs and prejudices for reflexive purposes.
Altogether, it seems that Nostradamus influences political left and right groups in different ways. I would argue that there is often Russian influence on both sides of these modern instances, but it is subtly different.
Why do you think “the Nostradamus prophecies” are still relatively popular and still appeal to a significant audience? And who are the audience?
Mark Fenster wrote a very good book on conspiracy theories which touched on ideas like Nostradamus. He said that Nostradamus prophecies are a ‘popular eschatology’.
It is basically a kind of conspiracy theory.
However, there is something probably appealing and exciting about the apocalypse. It has entertainment value perhaps. Book series like the Left Behind novels are a testament to that. But it isn’t a new thing.
As long as there have been ideas about the end of the world, some subset of humanity seems to have been feeling they were living in that moment. It is also a little bit different though from the normal kind of conspiracy because many times, the people who believe in them actually want them to happen. For them, Jesus can’t return until the apocalypse happens.
Medieval doomsday prophecies related to ideas about the antichrist have been popular since before Nostradamus was selling them, in any case. But I do think that Nostradamus prophecies work because they are somewhat parasitic on the memetic ideas about apocalypse from The Book of Daniel or The Book of Revelation.
Western culture largely accepts such ideas so I think there was something of a template there for Nostradamus prophecy to work with. At least, that is how I’ve personally perceived Nostradamus prophecies– to be memetically similar to the Book of Revelation.
How is Russia using the Nostradamus prophecies and why?
Relating to the prior question, the far right in Russia and figures like Alexander Dugin seem to have been important in reinvigorating ideas about Nostradamus and the antichrist and injecting them into modern conspiracy theory.
But there is a long medieval tradition to ideas about the antichrist and apocalyptic prophecy, especially in a culturally primitive country like Russia.
I also think there may be two dimensions to this. The internal and the external dimension.
One question is why do Nostradamus prophecies seem to be so popular in Russia itself? If one looks at Google Hit Count Estimates (HCE) for search on the *.ru Top Level Domain (TLD) for Nostradamus (Cyrillic spelling), there seems to be many more instances than any other country I tested.
If you look at Russian news sites, they treat Nostradamus like a credible thing, unlike the West where it often is considered skeptically in media.
The recent coronavirus instances were much like what I had observed previously.
When Turkey shot down a Russian jet in 2015, it was reported to Russians that a “Greek Nostradamus” had foretold the restoration of Constantinople to Greece. This seemed to align with a classical Russian Orthodox mythology about Third Rome.
Although they were not talking about ‘the’ Nostradamus, the idea of Nostradamus as some kind of legitimate prophet is echoed in such narratives potentially to the benefit of Russian geopolitics.
Around the same time, Sputnik told its Turkish-language readers that Nostradamus had foretold ISIS.
Do you know of any other examples of Nostradamus-driven manipulation / disinformation?
Searching through open source CIA records, I found a reference to Nostradamus in a pre-perestroika Russian journal advocating for his predictive power in terms of “political murders” and “revolutions”.
One would think such a statement had to get past the censors in the tightly controlled media environment in the Soviet Union.
When Chernobyl happened, similarly most Ukrainians and Belarusians believed it had been predicted by Nostradamus and that it predicted the apocalypse.
Interestingly, Chernobyl had at one time been a settlement of Russian Orthodox Old Believers, and that the name Chernobyl translates to Russian apparently as ‘Wormwood’, evoking this memetic language from the Book of Revelation.
I can only assume that the state had somehow cultivated this idea that Nostradamus was legitimate for the purposes of consolidating authoritarian information control. It is probably the only way to explain the extreme interest.
On an external level, I think the idea of planting the idea that your opponent’s civilization is inevitably doomed has a powerful psychological warfare value. It could promote fear which reduces military effectiveness, or has value relative to reflexive control operations.
I think the idea has particular value to synergizing with the kinds of warfare campaigns which Russia has waged for example in Chechnya, and accompanied Putin’s rise to power.
And what points to those findings, in your opinion?
It is well documented that Russia has radicalized Muslims against Jews in particular since the time of the Cold War. There is for example good evidence that Russia has enabled ISIS in Syria as much as it has stirred right wing resentment in Europe to the ideas of open societies.
When Russia bombed Syrian civilians and they migrated to Europe and encountered hate (such as in Hungary in 2015, at the very time Nostradamus interest spiked there) this seems to be a good example.
One really needs to ask why Russia enables far right extremists opposed to globalism, feeds them conspiracy theories, and then drives migrants into their societies which justifies the beliefs Russia has cultivated for them. It is quite clear that the Russian disinformation and politics coalesces around this manipulation of right wing opinion using such provocations.
I think Nostradamus works well for this anti-Muslim aspect – via an association of a Muslim with the-so-called ‘Third Antichrist’ of Nostradamus. But the whole matter also has seemingly strong historical anti-Catholic applications as well. One could look to the visit of Pope Francis to North Macedonia in May 2019 as a strong example.
Also I guess it is worth pointing out when we talk about a ‘Third Antichrist’ that in the popular consciousness the first and second antichrists associated in popular opinion with Nostradamus are Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, whose common denominator is their failed invasions of Russia.
What are the 3 most significant events of the 21st century that you noticed got coupled with the Nostradamus prophecies?
For me in a global impact perspective, definitely the September 11, 2001 attacks would be first.
Then, the Notre Dame fire, then the Coronavirus.
I feel pretty strongly that these conspiracy beliefs can be linked to Russia.
Subjectively though, if we were to look at Google Trends, there would seem to be a large indication that the transition of Catholic Popes has resulted in large spikes in Nostradamus interest. This too, seems to echo with 20th century conspiracy theories.
You can find press reports about Pope John Paul I and Nostradamus as well. While I can’t conclusively blame Russia for such papal conspiracy theories, I think it is pretty likely.
In May 2019, a month after the Notre Dame fire, there were such prophecies about Pope Francis when he visited to North Macedonia and Bulgaria. These were easily traceable to Russian-friendly outlets.
I’d add that, for other people, events like the 2010 death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, the 2014 invasion of Crimea, the Syrian Migrant Crisis in 2015, or even the 2016 US Presidential election might have been the most significant Nostradamus experience they had.
Once again, all these are revealed by Google Trends and correspond fairly well to Russian informational and military campaigns.
Can you imagine the Russian state without their disinformation apparatus? And can their relationship with the West ever be normal, without underlying hostilities and agendas?
Honestly, it is hard to imagine Russia without disinformation. The idea of Russia is kind of a mythology unto itself. I personally feel it doesn’t really exist. Russia is an empire, but the real nation is Muscovy. This once again potentially relates to the Orthodox Christian culture of Russia and the idea of Muscovy as “The Third Rome”.
This is an apocalyptic idea which emerged in 16th century Russia from the work of a monk named Filofei in the time of Ivan III. This idea sees Muscovy (Moscow) as the successor to worldwide Christendom after the imagined “falls” of first Italian Rome, and then Constantinople. The legend specifically states that there would not be a Fourth Rome, implying apocalypse should Third Rome fall.
One of the areas I feel strongly about is the idea of some kind of ‘leadership cult’ around the kind of governance practiced by the grandson of Ivan III, Ivan the Terrible. Ivan IV was the first to create a Russian political police (the Oprichniki) and he led by a reign of terror. Although Ivan III flirted with the idea of the title Tsar (which is derived from ‘Caesar’ and was the word for ‘King’ in Slavonic bibles), it was Ivan IV who was crowned “Tsar of all the Russias”.
Beyond this, Ivan IV’s strong man leadership style basically reappropriated legends about the historical figure of Dracula (Vlad Tepes) who had been the subject of one of Russia’s first novels : “The Tale of Dracula” – and around the time of the Third Rome myth.
The professor Frank Kampfer (deceased) had postulated that the same person who created the Third Rome mythology (Filofei) was actually the same person who had originally brought The Tale of Dracula to Russia – under the name he may have held prior to entering monastery: Fyodor Kuritsyn.
All of this would be kind of poetic if it is true.
But beyond that, Ivan IV did definitely become equated with the Dracula legends. Whereas the original Dracula stories had an anti-Muslim twist apparently relative to the wars over Constantinople, Ivan IV seemed to reappropriate them to Russian enemies.
For example, Muslims who did not remove their hats and had them nailed to their head by Dracula were replaced by French Catholics or Jews in the Ivan IV retellings. Ivan IV apparently also became associated with impalements.
The stories had a darkly humorous language which made them popular and apparently popularized the idea of Ivan IV as an “evil wise” leader. This seems to have been a kind of cultural propaganda.
I also think it is interesting that Ivan IV was very interested in court magicians of the type Nostradamus seems to have been around the same contemporary time.
It is fascinating to think that in his unknown travels for a number of years in the East (where he supposedly honed his divination skills after allegorically fleeing a Catholic inquisition in France) that Nostradamus might have gone to Russia.
He only returned to France in 1547, the same year Ivan IV was crowned Tsar. But even if he didn’t go to Russia, it is very easy to compare Nostradamus to people like John Dee, or Elaiseus Bomelius (Bomel), who at times were of great interest to the Tsar along with other astrologer-physician types.
The irony of the Christian aspect behind all of this Tsarist apocalypticism seems to be some kind of core fascination with the antichrist. I think it is up to the person to ask if Ivan the Terrible’s leadership makes him a Christ or an antichrist. While I might prefer the latter as a westerner, Russians may argue Ivan the Terrible’s strength made him a strong leader and even a “Christian” one.
But in this sense, I think the very DNA of Russia is based on dark myths and medieval leadership propaganda related to ideas about the antichrist and until it reverts to some kind of post-empire as Muscovy, Russia is always going to play these games. The nation is somewhat inextricable from its own legends.
I don’t know how Russian nationalist myths could be defeated without the reversion of Russia to “Muscovy”.
It’s kind of the same question today. Is Putin a good guy or a bad guy? I think it all comes down to this idea of the dualism of the Russian leader as evidenced by the history of ‘antichrist’ mythology in Russia.
And to be clear, the idea of a contrast like this isn’t my idea. Groups like the Old Believers in Russia (who Alexander Dugin identifies with) literally believe the Russian leader since 1666 (when there was a Church schism over reforms) has been an incarnation of the antichrist.
Aside from interfering with the national elections, what is the most significant Russian threat vector?
I think it might be the mistaken view that disinformation is somehow separate from the Russian military apparatus. I think disinformation is highly integrated with the so-called hybrid warfare activities of Russia.
It would be mistaken to think these conspiracies don’t serve a very long term strategic goal. Russia has very advanced nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons capabilities.
Many of their weapons claims could be disinformation and lies, but you can never be sure.
Thanks a lot for your insights Mike. Is there anything else you would like to add or share?
I feel strongly that if you look back at the history of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and the effects it had on the migration and persecution of Russian Jews, it seems very similar to the kind of information warfare waged on Muslims today using Nostradamus.
If Ion Pacepa is to be believed, then he was partly responsible for spreading The Protocols in Muslim lands during the modern era of the Cold War, inflaming anti-Semitism there. The idea that the extremists and migration issues are both inflamed by Russia and that Russia also architects the hatred towards the migrants themselves in the countries they arrive in seems to be a Russian information strategy repeated over time.
This is not to say I don’t think radicalized groups are not a risk who intend to do us harm. I do believe that they pose a significant risk to society. But I also believe that cultivating such extremes and watching polarized societies cling to their respective biases serves the Russian objective.
Russia likes to play both sides of issues, and this one seems no different.