Greetings from Tartaria!
In discussing Ghostland, his 2016 book about haunted places, Colin Dickey describes ghost stories as a “kind of elastic and malleable lens that you can fit over the world, to make sense of a bunch of different things.” The same could be said about the topic of his new Scribd Original, Land of Delusion, which takes a deep dive into the bizarre world of conspiracy theories. Dickey introduces us to Tartaria, a great empire that sprang from Russia and spread across the globe, only to be destroyed by evil schemers — the same dark powers behind Covid vaccines and our reliance on fossil fuels. Or so the theorists would have you believe.
In his fun yet unsettling story, Dickey examines the reasons why people turn to conspiracy theories, and makes the case that even the nuttiest beliefs can lead to dangerous political and cultural consequences. (This is proven by another Scribd Original, comedian Jesse Joyce’s Killing the Guys Who Killed the Guy Who Killed Lincoln, which you can learn more about here). Here he shares photos of supposed Tartarian buildings and architecture from his visits to two of the Tartarian Empire’s most famous sights, known to the unenlightened as the Chicago and San Francisco World’s Fairs.
My arrival in Chicago was not entirely auspicious. This extremely strange mural was painted on the wall above my bed. I suppose management figured this kind of imagery would be pleasant or relaxing to sleep under?
The next morning, I headed down to Jackson Park, on the city’s South Side, where the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was held. For some (rather fringe) conspiracy theorists, archival images of the Chicago Expo are considered proof positive there once existed a great civilization known as the Tartarian Empire. Not only was this supposed empire destroyed, but its existence was wiped from history books; old photographs are all that remain. The story of the World’s Fairs (in Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and elsewhere) was made up after the fact to explain these photographs of the erased Tartarian Empire.
The only building left from the Expo is the Palace of Fine Arts, which has largely been rebuilt and now houses the Museum of Science and Industry. As you can see, the building, with its reflecting lagoon in front, is still a sight to behold.
The centerpiece of the Chicago Expo’s grand court was Daniel Chester French’s majestic Statue of the Republic, which stood 65 feet tall. It was destroyed by fire in 1965 and a replica was eventually commissioned, though at a much reduced scale. Unlike its predecessor, this 24-foot statue no longer holds court over the beautiful White City; instead it stands rather ignominiously in a quiet traffic circle, overlooking construction workers, parked cars, and dumpsters.
One of the stranger things about conspiracy theories is the need to interpret obviously symbolic, aesthetic, or decorative designs as purely literal and functional. Proponents of the “ancient aliens” theories will scour Mayan and Aztec art for “proof” of telephones and spaceships, completely denying that earlier cultures could create imaginative art. Believers in the Tartarian Empire look at doors like this and conclude that the Tartarians must have been giants — literally.
Statues like this are often claimed by conspiracists to be life-size representations of the great Tartarians.
In the full interest of journalism, it was important to understand Chicago’s culture as well as I could, which is why I met a local friend in a dive bar in the Loop on my trip. While there, she goaded me into trying the local drink, Malört, whose advertising campaign should give an idea to the uninitiated how enjoyable it is. Amazingly, my local tour guide and I are still friends.
From Chicago on to San Francisco, site of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, another key piece of evidence for believers of the Tartarian conspiracy. Not much is left of the original Expo’s buildings, but one thing that’s survived is the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, which sits adjacent to City Hall. On two sides of the auditorium is an installation by Joseph Kosuth, connecting the various etymologies of the words “civic” and “auditorium” in a neon labyrinth that evoked, at least for me, the cinematic trope of the “conspiracy wall,” with gold neon tubing replacing the traditional red string.
The Palace of Fine Arts is the other main structure that still exists from the 1915 San Francisco Expo, though, as with the Museum of Science and Industry, it had to be more or less completely rebuilt (and retrofitted for earthquakes), since World’s Fair structures were never built to last. It’s since become a true icon for the city.
As part of my research, I had the good fortune to interview Annalee Newitz, whose book Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age explains in a clear and engaging way why former civilizations became untenable and were eventually abandoned. Newitz’s writing, and our conversation, was a great counterpoint to the fanciful, sometimes absurd conspiracies about Tartaria. We went to the remains of the Sutro Baths — a Victorian pleasure palace at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, whose destruction is often folded into the Tartarian myth. Here’s Annalee and me staring off into the future, wondering what’s in store…
In the recesses of Reddit and other online forums, ordinary people discuss extraordinary conspiracy theories that are increasingly becoming mainstream and affecting global politics. With both urgency and understanding, Dickey gets to the heart of what makes once-radical alternate histories appealing.
About the Author: Colin Dickey
Colin Dickey is a writer, speaker, and academic, and has made a career out of collecting unusual objects and hidden histories from all over the country. He’s the author of multiple books, including Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places and The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained. A regular contributor to the New Republic and Lapham’s Quarterly, he is also the co-editor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology. He has a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Southern California, and is a professor of English at National University. His next book, about secret societies in the United States, will be published in 2023 by Viking Press.