There are scattered reports of unusual behavior from across Russia's nine time zones.
Inmates in a women's prison near the Chinese border are said to have experienced a "collective mass psychosis" so intense that their wardens summoned a priest to calm them. In a factory town east of Moscow, panicked citizens stripped shelves of matches, kerosene, sugar and candles. A huge Mayan-style archway is being built — out of ice — on Karl Marx Street in Chelyabinsk in the south.
For those not schooled in New Age prophecy, there are rumors the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012, when a 5,125-year cycle known as the Long Count in the Mayan calendar supposedly comes to a close. Russia, a nation with a penchant for mystical thinking, has taken notice.
Last week, Russia's government decided to put an end to the doomsday talk. Its minister of emergency situations said Friday that he had access to "methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth," and that he could say with confidence that the world was not going to end in December. He acknowledged, however, that Russians were still vulnerable to "blizzards, ice storms, tornadoes, floods, trouble with transportation and food supply, breakdowns in heat, electricity and water supply."
Similar assurances have been issued in recent days 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 proposed prosecuting Russians who spread the rumor — starting on Dec. 22.
"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. "Everyone has a different nervous system, and this kind of information affects them differently. Information acts subconsciously. Some people are provoked to laughter, some to heart attacks, and some — to some negative actions."
Russia is not the only country to face this problem.
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."
In Yucatan State in Mexico, which has a large Mayan population, most place little stock in end-of-days talk. Officials are planning a Mayan cultural festival on Dec. 21 and, to show that all will be well after that, a follow-up in 2013.
Russians, however, can be powerfully transported by emotions, as the Rev. Tikhon Irshenko witnessed during his visit to Prison Colony No. 10 in the village of Gornoye. In an interview with the Data news service, Father Tikhon said he was summoned to the prison in November. The wardens told him that anxiety over the Mayan prophecy had been building for two months, 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.
"Once, when the prisoners were standing in formation, one of them imagined that the earth yawned, and they were all stricken by fear and ran in all directions," the priest said. He lectured the inmates about the signs of the apocalypse according to the New Testament, he said, and after that "the populist statements about the end of the world were dispelled and the tension eased."
More common 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 700 miles east of Moscow.
Viktoria Ushakova, the editor in chief of the newspaper, told the Interfax news agency that she ran the article as entertainment on the last page of her newspaper, in a section entitled "Relax" that also includes crossword puzzles. The ensuing panic, accompanied by a barrage of calls from distraught readers, lasted for a week and a half and then spread to nearby villages.
"I checked myself today," she said. "There are no candles in all of Omutninsk."
Last week, lawmakers in Moscow took up the matter, addressing a letter to Russia's three main television stations asking them to stop airing material about the prophecy.
"You get the sense that the end of the world is a commercial project," Mikhail Degtyaryov told the newspaper Izvestiya. "Just look at how many swindlers are trying to make money on this affair, starting from the pseudo-magicians, ending with people selling groceries and other rations."
Though news outlets are likely to pay a price for this episode, 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?"
As the first three weeks of December melt away, Russians will approach the deadline with their characteristic mordant humor. An entrepreneur in the Siberian city of Tomsk, for example, has sold several thousand gag emergency kits, a cleverly packaged $29 parcel including sprats, vodka, buckwheat, matches, candles, a string and a piece of soap.
The motto on the package offers a classic Russian commentary on the end of the world: "It can't be worse."