PUBLISHED: 2 May 2022
Moscow’s claims of what it might do to the UK, in retaliation for our support of Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invader, get more blood-curdling by the day.
Last week one of Russian state TV’s most popular programmes showed a map of Europe, and in how short a time various cities could, allegedly, be demolished by Moscow’s hypersonic nuclear missile, Sarmat, when fired from the western-most Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
Alexei Zhuravlev exclaimed: ‘One Sarmat and that’s it — the British Isles are no more.’ Another angry presenter on the programme boasted it would take one of these missiles ‘202 seconds to hit London‘ from Kaliningrad. In fact, there is no missile launch site in Kaliningrad, or anywhere near it. And last week the Pentagon‘s press secretary, John Kirby, said that the earlier test launch of Sarmat ‘was not deemed to be a threat to the United States or its allies’.
Make of that what you will; but it seemed that the Pentagon, not known for its relaxed attitude to Russian military capabilities, was saying that Moscow’s latest threat was empty (while terrifying). Indeed, the performance of the Russian military to date, in its invasion of Ukraine, has been startling only in its primitiveness.
The same Russian state TV had claimed, just before the invasion, that Kyiv would fall ‘within 11 minutes’. This, or something like it, may have been what President Vladimir Putin himself believed, having been promised that by his military commanders.
That is what happens in a country where deception is the governing principle of communication, from top to bottom. Flattering fantasies come to be believed, and the truth is never acceptable: it would be more than someone’s job is worth to tell it.
This sort of thing is not unknown in the West — British Prime Ministers and American Presidents are frequently told what their advisers think they want to hear. But ours are societies with a querulously independent press and a firm tradition of legal protection for the rights of the individual against the state. Russia has never had that.
And last week the Pentagon’s press secretary, John Kirby, said that the earlier test launch of Sarmat ‘was not deemed to be a threat to the United States or its allies’.
As a result, its leaders can get away with any lie, however outrageous, in part because of the undoubtedly intense patriotism of the typical Russian, who equates this with faith in the ruler — and always has.Among the more risible such lies recently propagated on Russian state television was the claim, just before the invasion of Ukraine (you know, the invasion which in February Putin repeatedly told visiting Western leaders would never happen), that the British Royal Family had been pushing the idea of ‘a war with Ukraine’, in order to deflect attention from the travails of Prince Andrew — and that this somehow determined the behaviour of the British government.
When telling the Russian people this, Dmitry Kiselyov, known as ‘Putin’s mouthpiece’, almost certainly didn’t believe it himself. But that is the point. As the former Moscow bureau chief of the Financial Times, Charles Clover, explained some years ago: ‘Putin has correctly surmised that lies unite rather than divide Russia’s political class. The greater and more obvious the lie, the more his subjects demonstrate their loyalty by accepting it, and the more they participate in the great sacral mystery of Kremlin power.’
The most grotesque lies are as much designed to demonise the Kremlin’s enemies, as to boost the mystical power of the country’s ruler. Thus the Ukrainian government of President Volodymyr Zelensky has been described — again on Russian state television — as one comprising (variously), Nazis, drug addicts, Satan-worshippers, and Masonic sodomites.
This approach is not just that of attention-seeking TV presenters. Major General Igor Konashenkov, the chief spokesman for the Russian military, in one of his recent briefings, insisted that the Ukrainians had been supplied by the U.S. military with a troupe of migratory birds trained to fly to Russia, where our feathered friends would drop ‘bioweapons’.
This is a distant echo of Operation Infektion, the KGB disinformation campaign to propagate the idea that the CIA created the AIDS virus as part of a biological weapons project. It was designed to stir up popular anger at U.S. military bases during the cold war, portrayed by the KGB as the cause of AIDS outbreaks in local populations.
The monstrous lie was successfully spread across the world by the KGB, and may well have contributed to the refusal of the Moscow-trained South African President Thabo Mbeki to accept the true cause of the virus that was killing millions of his countrymen. The consequence was appalling.
It is obviously significant that Putin was a KGB officer. As the émigré Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin wrote at the outset of the Ukraine invasion, described by the Kremlin as ‘a special operation’: ‘For Putin, life itself has always been a special operation. From the black order of the KGB, he learned not only contempt for ‘normal people’, but also its main principle: not a single word of truth.’
But it would be wrong to see the culture of ‘not a single word of truth’ as peculiar to the KGB, or as a legacy of the period of Communist rule. It goes much deeper and further back than that.
One of the most remarkable books on the subject was Astolphe de Custine’s Letters From Russia. This was the result of a stay in this vast country by that French aristocrat in 1839.
De Custine went there as a sympathiser with the idea of a nation under the firm rule of a Tsar: not surprisingly, since both his father and grandfather had been guillotined in the wake of the French Revolution. Yet he discovered, to his shock, what the effects were of Tsarist autocratic rule on the character of the Russian people.
De Custine encountered a liberal Russian prince, who informed him: ‘It has led to a degeneration of language in Russia to the point where speech is now considered merely a trap: our government feeds on lies, because truth frightens the tyrant as it does the slave.’
And de Custine himself concluded, at the end of his journey: ‘Russians of every class conspire together with wonderful mutual understanding to ensure the triumph of duplicity in their country. They have a dexterity in lying and a natural talent for falsehood, the success of which repels my sincerity as much as it strikes terror in my heart.’ He returned to France a convert to the merits of constitutional government.
Perhaps the best recent book touching on this phenomenon is Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia To Confront The West, published in 2018. The author, Keir Giles, worked in Moscow during the 1990s, and is now a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme.
Giles observed: ‘The English word ‘lie’ does not convey the wide range of modalities of Russian deception . . . When reviewing an early draft of this book, a Russian academic suggested avoiding the word ‘lie’ altogether, as its emotive nature in English was not appropriate for describing a shared conspiracy in avoiding the truth as a survival mechanism.’
I gained some sense of this when, in the 1970s, my paternal grandfather’s first cousin Lev visited the UK for a scientific conference: he was a very senior figure at what was then Leningrad University, and was able to see his British relatives without a KGB minder. Lev was astounded to observe the chaos of the ‘winter of discontent’ under the then Labour government.
His astonishment was because he had read about bodies going unburied, and so on, in Pravda, then the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union — and had therefore assumed it was not true. But this unexpected discovery did not alter his profound cynicism about the deceitfulness of the rulers of his country.
Few have more cause for such absolute lack of faith in the Kremlin’s word than the Ukrainian people and their government. For this reason, I cannot imagine the war being concluded soon, or ever, with a formal agreement between the two sides. Kyiv knows better than to take Putin’s word for anything, including the time of day. The lies will never stop.