Conspiracy Theorists are the bane of the academic. After years of research, experimentation and peer-review, some random person on the internet appears and instantly disregards your work, choosing to accept a sinister cover-up instead. I’ve written before about how these conspiracy theories can often be actively damaging and dangerous, rather than simply laughable. But today, I’d like to look at the craziest conspiracy of all – the ‘New Chronology’.
The central beliefs of this conspiracy are (alarmingly) clear: nothing that happened before AD800 (and mostly AD1000) was real, and instead it all happened AFTER 1000. You read that correctly.
Championed by Russian mathematician Fomenko, the ‘New Chronology’ challenges the traditional chronology of events as taught in schools and universities. Building on earlier writings, Fomenko’s theory really begins to expand and become published in the early 1980s. In his own words, in 1997:
‘The purpose of scientific project, which we shortly call “new chronology”, is creation of reliable independent methods of dating of the ancient and medieval events. It is a difficult scientific problem, solution of which required use of thin methods of modern mathematics and vast computer calculations’ (http://chronologia.org/en/answers_bib_rus.html)
Sixteenth and seventeenth-century academics, in creating a standardised chronological history, are said to have (accidentally or maliciously) misinterpreted the date of past events. This supposedly needs correcting. Fomenko’s conspiracy is therefore slightly more complex than simply denying the existence of the events of an entire millennia (and this is perhaps why it has been accepted by so many under the guise of ‘rational science’). Those events that we think happened in the first millennium AD are, he suggests, misunderstandings of later medieval events – they occurred, but we misunderstand their context and occasion. What we know as ancient Rome existed, but in the medieval period. Jesus was crucified, but in Constantinople in the 12th century.
This is all complete rubbish, of course. Perhaps the easiest disproval of Fomenko’s nonsense is the existence of scientific archaeological methods of testing age, separate from literary texts. Dendrochronology (dating wood), Thermoluminescence and (most importantly) Carbon Dating all allow accurate exploration of the absolute date of artefacts and bodies. Take, for example, the recent re-evaluation of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Prittlewell Prince burial, who can now be dated convincingly AD 575-605.
What is remarkable about the ‘New Chronology’ conspiracy is not its sheer strangeness as much as the huge support it appears to have gained, especially in Russia. Halperin notes a survey suggesting up to 30% of the Russian population might be sympathetic to the ‘New Chronology’ (Halperin 2011, p.2). His book has apparently sold over a million copies.
In reality, this conspiracy seems largely to be based in a Soviet nationalism – eclipsing the past in order the emphasise the political power of 1980s Cold-War Russia. ‘Russia’ itself had been a relatively late entity to emerge – even if we classify the Rus as its starting point, this does not emerge until the ninth century. Why bother with history before?
Take, as an example, Fomenko’s treatment of the Mongolian empire. Transposed to the fourteenth century, the Mongolian empire had in fact been largely Russian, the so-called ‘Great Empire’ (Halperin 2011, p.6). Its successes and glory were, therefore, clear evidence of Soviet supremacy – a valuable tool in a period of Cold-War competition. The embarrassment caused by the conquest of the Mongols – simple horse-lords – is wiped out in one fell swoop.
Halperin explains the continued popularity of this demonstrably incorrect conspiracy among the population simply: it portrays ‘a more glorious virtual past for Russia than Russia’s real past, one in which Russia literally ruled almost the entire world’ (Halperin 2011, p.24). We are all guilty of emphasising a history that focuses on our own peoples, and white-washing past failures – there is still a substantial proportion of English society who are in favour of the Empire. The ‘New Chronology’ is simply a rather extreme version of this process.