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Putin’s Lies Follow a Russian Tradition

Integrity Initiative Op-Ed

The Kremlin lies. Repeatedly and seriously. This is the only conclusion which can be drawn if you accept the view of the British Government that the Russian state is behind the attack using a nerve agent on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yuliya. The Russian authorities have already put out at least 17 different versions of what happened. It may be difficult for people brought up in a liberal democracy to accept that the leadership of a large and important country can do this. But a look back at the way Russians have frequently not told the truth about things shows that this both follows an historical pattern and has frequently been the case in the twenty-first century.

There was a joke in Soviet times which ran:

A man went to see his doctor, and said, “Doctor, I’m clearly very sick!” “Why?” asked the doctor. “What are your symptoms?” “Well, my eyes see one thing, my ears hear something else, and my mouth says something different again!”

This was a parody of the reality of the one-party socialist system, under which there was no political freedom, the economy was poorly run and shortages of basic goods were all too common; but the ruling Communist Party kept telling people how good life was and those who openly questioned this were often punished by the state. So people spouted the slogans, despite knowing that they were nonsense.

But openly lying like this was not simply a product of the Soviet system. Pre-revolutionary visitors to Russia often picked up on the ability of Russian people to tell lies. Writing in 1904, Carl Joubert, who had lived in Russia for most of the last decade of the nineteenth century, said:

His [the Russian man] word is not his bond. He will lie to you on the smallest provocation; and his promises of today he will utterly repudiate tomorrow.

In his 1978 book, The Russian Mind, Ronald Hingley made a distinction between two types of lie, lozh’ and vranyo, suggesting that the former was stronger than the latter. Just a couple of years later, the American journalist, David Shipler, recounted that a Russian friend of his summed up vranyo in the following way:

You know I’m lying, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know, but I go ahead with a straight face, and you nod seriously and take notes.

More seriously the Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was persecuted and eventually exiled from Russia for telling the truth, especially about the system of prison camps full of political prisoners and others who were innocent of any crime, described the lie in the following way:

The lie has become not simply a moral category, but a pillar of the state.

It seems that this is still the case. In February 2014, armed “little green men” appeared on the streets of Crimea, and swiftly seized the peninsula from Ukraine. In a hastily-arranged “referendum”, on 16 March, the population of Crimea (at least, those who hadn’t been arrested or had fled) “voted” that Crimea become a part of Russia. Vladimir Putin denied that he had anything to do with the “little green men”, and had no idea who they were.

A year later, however, in a documentary shown on Russian television to mark the first anniversary of Crimea becoming Russian, Putin boasted that after an all-night session of the government he had given the order for Russian troops to seize Crimea. In other words, what he had said a year earlier had been a bare-faced lie.

This distinction seemed to escape the attention of Russian journalists, perhaps because they were already inured to Putin’s lies. In 2006, the Russian state murdered an opponent, Alexander Litvinenko, on the streets of London, using a rare radioactive substance, polonium. Traces of the substance were found everywhere that the two men who carried out the crime spent time: on the ‘plane which brought them over; in the hotel where they stayed; at the Emirates Stadium, where, having carried out their mission, they calmly went to watch a football match before flying back to Moscow.

Even when all of this evidence was presented, the Russian state – and Mr Putin personally – continued to lie about any involvement. And unlike the about-turn over the little green men, he still lies about it, even though the evidence is clear. As Shipler’s Russian friend said, “You know I’m lying, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know, but I go ahead with a straight face.”

Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, lying that it was Georgia which had attacked Russia, absurd though this sounds when one compares the respective sizes of each country. Not only does Russia still deny any attack on Georgia, but it is constantly moving its border further and further into Georgian territory.

After the little green Russian men took over Crimea, Putin ordered his troops into Eastern Ukraine and started a full-blown war against Ukraine. At least 10,000 Ukrainian citizens have died as a result; and yet the Kremlin continues to deny that Russia has any soldiers fighting in Ukraine – apart from some who may have gone there when on leave to support their pro-Russian Ukrainian brethren.

This is the theatre of the absurd. Firstly, which army allows its soldiers to go and fight as mercenaries when they are on leave? Secondly, these “vacationing soldiers” have taken with them military equipment – including tanks, artillery and armoured personnel carriers – which are clearly identifiable as Russian. The soldiers themselves have given the game away, with postings on social media of the “Hi, Mum, here I am in Ukraine” variety. And the Russian state has performed two functions: awarding medals not just to individuals but

collectively to regiments (presidential decrees are available online); and digging thousands of graves of Russian soldiers who have died fighting in Ukraine.

But the Kremlin still repeats the lie that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine.

These non-existent Russian troops committed a heinous crime in July 2014, when they shot down a civilian airliner of Malaysian Airways, apparently mistakenly thinking it was a Ukrainian Air Force transport ‘plane. All the evidence makes it clear that this was the action of Russian troops, using a Russian ground-to-air BUK missile; yet the Kremlin not only denies it but has invented at least five stories giving different false accounts of what happened.

So when Putin denies that the Russian state is responsible for the attack on a former Russian double-agent and his daughter, using a nerve agent which scientists have proven was made in Russia, there is only one logical conclusion possible: the Russian President is lying once again. Some national traditions, of course, are noble and to be respected. The Russian ability to lie continually, demonstrated so frequently and with such ease by Vladimir Putin, is neither noble, nor deserves respect. The international community needs to wake up to the reality of Putin’s regime; as history shows, appeasement of dictators doesn’t work.

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