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Hysteria over 'end of world'

By Ellen Barry | The New York Times | Updated: 2012-12-09 08:09

It is official: Russia's minister of emergency situations says he has access to "methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth," and that he can say with confidence that the world is not going to end on December 21, 2012.

That is when a 5,125-year cycle known as the Long Count in the Mayan calendar supposedly comes to a close.

Similar assurances have been issued by Russia's chief sanitary doctor, a top official of the Russian Orthodox Church, lawmakers from the State Duma and a former disc jockey from Siberia who recently placed first in the television show "Battle of the Psychics." One official has proposed prosecuting Russians who spread the rumor - starting on December 22.

Russia is not the only country to face end-of-the-world panics. In France, the authorities plan to bar access to Bugarach Mountain in the south to keep out a flood of visitors who believe it is a sacred place that will protect a lucky few from the end of the world. The patriarch of Ukraine's Orthodox Church recently issued a statement assuring the faithful that "doomsday is sure to come," but that it will be provoked by the moral decline of mankind, not the "so-called parade of planets or the end of the Mayan calendar."

But in Yucatan State in Mexico, which has a large Mayan population, end-of-days talk is taken lightly. Officials are planning a Mayan cultural festival on December 21 and, to show that all will be well after that, a follow-up in 2013.

Russians can be powerfully transported by emotions, as the Reverend Tikhon Irshenko witnessed during his visit to Prison Colony No. 10 in the village of Gornoye. The wardens said anxiety over the Mayan prophecy had been built up, and some inmates had broken out of the facility "because of their disturbing thoughts." Some of the women were sick, or having seizures, he said.

More common in Russia are reports about panicky buying. In Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buryatiya region, citizens have reportedly been hoarding food and candles to survive a period without light, following instructions from a Tibetan monk called the Oracle of Shambhala, who has been described on some Russian television broadcasts. A similar account appeared in a local newspaper in the factory town of Omutninsk, about 1,100 kilometers east of Moscow.

Viktoria Ushakova, the newspaper editor, said she ran the article as entertainment on the last page of her newspaper, in a section entitled "Relax." The ensuing panic lasted for a week and spread to nearby villages.

"You cannot endlessly speak about the end of the world, and I say this as a doctor," said Leonid Ogul, a member of Parliament's environment committee. "Some people are provoked to laughter, some to heart attackss."

Maria Eismont, a columnist for the newspaper Vedomosti, argued that the government's recent embrace of archaic religious conservatism set the stage for apocalyptic thinking. At the blasphemy trial against the punk protest band Pussy Riot last summer, she noted, the young band members were sentenced in part on the basis of writings by Orthodox clerics from the seventh and fourth centuries.

"It would be unfair to consider Omutninsk a unique site of flourishing mysticism," she wrote. "If Cossacks in operatic costumes march in downtown Moscow, and the State Duma is quite seriously considering introducing punishment for the violation of believers' feelings, then why shouldn't people living in a depressed town a thousand kilometers from Moscow not buy matches out of a fear of cosmic flares?"

The New York Times

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