According to official Russian sources, the Ukrainians are either killing their own people or staging highly realistic scenes of mass murder, with the sole aim of discrediting Russia’s invading forces.
Of course, nobody in their right mind, except perhaps the most dyed-in-the-wool ideologue or craven fellow traveller, believes any of this.
Applying David Hume’s test of miracles, we have three choices here: either the Russian Government is telling the truth and Russia’s enemies have over many years, from Grozny by way of Aleppo to Bucha, made a concerted effort to create elaborate, often murderous theatrical installations on a vast scale; or the Russian Government genuinely believes that this is happening even though it isn’t; or the Putin regime has malign intent, and is lying. Hmm…
I touched on the role of untruth in my previous piece on the Ukraine war. As I said in one of my earliest blogs (and forgive me for quoting myself), ‘if we’re to survive and thrive as a species, Truth, together with its siblings Fact, Evidence and Analysis, should be placed on a pedestal’.
Truth aligns with what is – the thing we call ‘reality’ – and untruth generally doesn’t. Untruth lives for itself, generating narratives that have only oblique traction on understanding or action. Language itself becomes devalued, decayed, even meaningless. That’s a kind of natural law that applies to any polity, but particularly the authoritarian or totalitarian.
In the context of Ukraine, much attention has been focused on whether President Putin is hearing the truth from his subordinates. In any event, Putin is an unreconstructed KGB man, and deceit is his thing, setting the tone that others follow.
Beyond the country’s leadership, untruth has a deeper, more corrosive effect on the fabric of Russian society. Its tentacles reach out through all strata, trumpeted by state-controlled media, repeated in the echo chambers of conversation, hemmed in by the criminalisation of truthful narratives. As in any society, people like the lies that confirm what they already believe, no matter how far-fetched. Ordinary Russians would rather believe that foreigners bomb themselves than that their soldiers are committing war crimes.
As one Russian commentator said of Ukraine: ‘Denazification is a set of measures aimed at the nazified mass of the population, which technically cannot be subjected to direct punishment as war criminals’. The meaning of this sentence of course collapses with any reasonable definition of the word ‘Nazi’ (i.e. an adherent to the tenets of National Socialism). It doesn’t mean ‘someone with a different point of view to the Putin regime’ or ‘someone not within the Russian sphere of influence’ (and on the question of the Azov Battalion, see here). Language thus subjugated to ideology exists only in the mind of the believer.
Back in the real world, though, lies beget more lies, which are then internalised and consolidated by those who propagate them and those who believe them, and then they come to form the currency of everyday discourse. Liars never know when to stop, because to do so would be to admit the sequence of lies that led to this point. They build an edifice of bigger and bigger lies, riven with structural faults, like a cowboy builder shoring up a supporting wall.
The cost we all pay for the lies of others and for those lies we choose to believe is immense, and civilisational in its impact. Self-reflection becomes impossible because the language of untruth is a broken mirror: you cannot reflect on that for which you have no reliable data. Acting on the basis of a lie has an unstable, ephemeral quality, a tragic equivalence to that trope of situation comedy in which untruths spiral into impossible situations.
The principal victim of a lying culture is, though, trust. This applies to pretty much anything Putin’s Russia says about anything, from what is happening on the ground in Ukraine to the content of negotiations to resolve the conflict, including future security guarantees. And yet trust within the in-group – the Russian populace – remains startlingly high, revealing how powerful and all-encompassing the culture of untruth has become.
Of course, it would be naive to think that endemic lying was solely the preserve of the Putin government. It’s the stock-in-trade of all dictators, autocrats and populists, and even in democracies we’ve priced in the extent to which politicians are economical with the truth, telling tales to win votes, promising the undeliverable, playing to base instincts on issues like immigration. The Trump Presidency set new standards in this regard. Here in London, the Johnson administration presides over a tin pot Orbánisation of British politics and culture, crossing the constitutional red-line of lying to Parliament, thus far without remorse or repercussion. Worldwide, truth-telling has its back against the wall, with all eyes now on the outcome of the presidential election in France.
How does any nation, any people, disentangle itself from untruth? A good starting point is individuals asking themselves whether they’re hearing more than one perspective on events. But people are busy, and digging out the range of views time-consuming (and, in a quasi dictatorship like Russia, near impossible to access). Russia’s dawning reality will embrace: economics, as people’s quality of life begins to slide amid sanctions (though the Putin government will try to blame the West); the human cost of war, as sons, fathers, brothers fail to return home from Putin’s Ukraine adventure (though a narrative of heroism in the fight against ‘Nazi-ism’ may well predominate); and personal testimony, as Russians allow themselves to hear the accounts of those who have lived through the brutality of the invasion (though confirmation bias might well neutralise misgivings). An uncertain outlook, then, though we need to stare that truth in the face to be able to deal with it.
If President Putin has done the world any kind of service through his reckless invasion of Ukraine, it is in alerting us to the danger that a culture of untruth represents. For those of us fortunate enough to live in liberal democracies, it’s a wake-up call. We’ve let it slide too long, and we need to re-establish the primacy of truth in all we think and do.
To put it back up on that pedestal, where it belongs.