One of the most pressing, if not the most pressing, problems in contemporary politics is the problem of lies. Perhaps it is not so much a contemporary as a permanent problem, though that does not make any less urgent. But perhaps it is even more pressing now, due to the intellectual trends permeating our society, a pervasive skepticism of the very idea of truth, which refashions facts, and especially inconvenient ones, into opinions, the better to dismiss them. Or so argues ― compelling in my view ― the German writer and journalist Boris Schumatsky.
He makes his case in the context of Russia, but I’m afraid that while that country, and its leaders, are the most extreme example of this trend, they are not the only one. I don’t mean to equate others with Vladimir Putin. I don’t mean to deny the role of democratic institutions and media in checking the politicians’ tendency to lie. I will return to these points in a separate post. Still, I think that Mr. Schumatsky’s argument should at least serve as a warning to all of us.
If you can read German, you should read the original version on his website. If not, please have a look at my translation, which I am publishing below, with Mr. Schumatsky’s kind permission.
Russia Is a Lie: Putin and Postmodernism
The biggest difficulty in dealing with Russia is this: Russia lies. This blanket statement sounds like a Cold War slogan, and yet it is the only way to do justice to reality. When I wrote my first newspaper articles after the fall of the Soviet Union, I always avoided journalistic jargon such as “Moscow wants,” or “the Kremlin claims…” When I read that “the Russians invade Chechnya,” I had to think of my friends in Moscow, and that seemed to make about as much sense as Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech. Today, I do not only write that my native country is has become an Empire of Lies. Russia is itself a lie.
Lies begin with simple facts. First, there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea, and then there were. First there were none in eastern Ukraine, and then there were, but they had just run off there―no, they were on vacation there, and anyway they just want peace. It all sounds confusing, but it’s a strategy.
As a political instrument, a lie is especially effective when it doesn’t involve self-deception. A political lie is only a lie if the liar doesn’t himself believe in it. As for Putin’s lies, only his sympathizers and supporters, inside and outside Russia, believe them. If one tries to find even a kernel of truth in the Russian web of lies, one becomes a “useful idiot” of the Kremlin. A bit like a well-known Russia-connoisseur on German television. First she repeated Putin’s lie that he hadn’t sent any Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian Crimea. And then she still held on to this position, even after Putin admitted that there were his soldiers there after all. Moscow happily refutes its own lies, as soon as they are no longer useful. How its stooges deal with that, the Kremlin doesn’t care. It knows that they’ll make up some justification for themselves.
The regime mostly employs those lies which have long floated around in the darkest corners of the Russian society. Old lies work best, as for example the NATO-lie. It holds that the aggressive block is encircling the Motherland ever more narrowly. Other lies are newly-invented and told by Putin’s friends in the East and West: the Ukrainians are fascists, and Russians must, as in World War II, protect their homeland against the fascists.
The friends of the Russian autocracy misunderstand the politics of lying. The Kremlin doesn’t really aim at people believing its lies. Putin wins when other heads of government let the lies stand uncontradicted. Putin surely knows that at least some politicians see through him. But: they don’t call a con a con, nor an invasion an invasion, nor a hybrid war a war. Its opponents’ motives are secondary for the Kremlin, whether it’s their fear of Russian nuclear weapons, or the pacifism of their voters. When the truth is absent, the lie wins.
“Try to live in truth” was the appeal of the dissidents from Socialist realism, Aleksand Solzhenitsyn in 1974, and Václav Havel four years later. From their demand for truth there developed, after the breakup of the Soviet bloc, a claim to leadership, and that did not go down well with the then-young generation, which grew up bearing the marks of postmodernism, and which I belonged as well. What did Solzhenitsyn, with his folksy Russianness, or a Wałęsa with his Catholicism, have to tell us? This grandfatherly wisdom wasn’t even worth deconstructing. History was at an end, and we would ride the wave of postmodernism to eternal peace.
It was a brave new world of diversity and difference, freed from binding values in thought and politics, emancipated from the dictates of universal human rights. We paid no heed to Jürgen Habermas when he recognized, in the postmodern critique of reason, a new wave of the counter-enlightenment. Yet it did not take long before our liberating postmodernism found its distorted image in the media populism of a Berlusconi, as the philosopher Maurizio Ferraris writes in his Manifesto of New Realism, and then in Putin’s propaganda state. Vladimir Putin is an even better postmodernist than his Italian buddy. Putin’s Russia lies because it honestly and wholeheartedly believes that there is no truth anyway. In the late Soviet period, neither people like Putin nor people like I believed the communist slogans. As the Soviet ideology faded away, there began at the same time a search for a new “national idea” for the masses. The latest of these ideas is the Orthodox-religious Russian world. The chimera of Russia’s special way grew up on the dung heap of the blood-and-soil ideologies of the past century, and of course it is constructed through and through, as one would have said in the past. Today I will simply say “made up.” Putin’s Russia is a lie. His subjects actually believe neither in God nor in soil or blood, but only in the two letters PR, public relations [in English in the original]. This belief entails that anyone can be bought, from journalists to politicians, from Russians to Americans. Nobody tells the truth, and the only thing that counts is what in the contemporary Russian language is called “Pi-Ar.” That is Russia’s true truth, and this truth is a lie.
The Kremlin drags the world into its geopolitical game, and this game is ruled by political postmodernism. Each player has his own truth, or even truths, which he freely adjusts according to need. For only one thing matters: who is strong enough, to impose his truth on his opponent? Vladimir Putin and his faithful know the rules of this game not from philosophical texts; they have learned them in the street.
“A lie told by bullies,” that’s what Ernest Hemingway called fascism. The key difference between Putinism and Hitler’s fascism is that fascists and National-socialists largely believed their own lies. The Putinist, by contrast, believes in one thing only: lying as a life principle. If, like Vladimir Putin or I, one grew up in a Soviet city, one learned that in elementary school already. One is surrounded by a group of bullies: “you’ve ratted on me to the teacher,” says one of them, though that’s the first time one even sees him. If one says, “that’s not true,” one is beaten up right away. If one apologizes, is first mocked, and then pummelled.
A victim’s whine coupled with a clenched fist is not an unknown pose. Putin’s Russia jumps into the ring like a superpower, even as it complains about Western machinations. The Kremlin is fully aware of the weaknesses of the Russian state, economy, and military. But in a street fight, one hides one’s weaknesses. The enemy must think that you are strong. The enemy must wet his pants. He must believe that, if challenges your lie, he’ll get punched in the face double quick. He can de-escalate, which is what politicians everywhere in the world try to do with Putin. He can appeal for peace, but as a result, the bully also cries “Peace!” before throwing his punch.
If the person who is being attacked does not defend himself from the lie in the first place, he won’t defend himself against the violence either. He’ll be beaten up, and indeed the attacker has already won the moment his victim did not call him a liar.
Needless to say, Russia is not just a nation of violent brutes who unscrupulously shoot down passenger aircraft. Needless to say, there is also another Russia, and not just one either. Yet all the diversity of Russia has been sent off to internal or external exile. Until the mirage dissolves, the millions of potato farmers or math teachers, bank clerks or copy-editors have no more political impact than someone who, like me, has left Russia. There is only one voice to be heard now in Russia, the voice of the collective Putin, and it reduces everyone else to silence.
Today’s political language is no longer suitable to the collapse of the conventional order in Europe and the world. The old slogans about the aggressive American imperialism only obscure the circumstances of the war for the “Russian world.” Similarly, the analytical framework of post-colonialism is inadequate to the murders of the “Islamic State.” We have no concepts for that yet. But as a start, one could, all the postmodern doubts notwithstanding, again call a war a war, and lies, lies.
It’s the same with Russia’s lies as with the heating at my place in Berlin once upon a time. I used to live in a building with coal stoves, and the residents, one after the other, would install their own gas heating, at their own expense. One neighbour saw in that a “threat to his basic principles.” In an as-yet un-gentrified Kreuzberg, one spoke that way about rent increases. He kept on dragging two buckets of coal every day up to his tile stove. He stopped saying hello to us. The more neighbours joined the club of the modernizers, the fiercer he became. Just like Putin, who initially had himself wanted to join NATO. But our cold-resistant neighbour did not break the wall into my apartment; did not occupy my kitchen with the gas heater, and did not cry, like Putin about Ukraine, “You are endangering my existential interests!”
“There are no facts, only interpretations.” This saying of Nietzsche’s, so beloved by postmodernists, has now showed its true meaning, which Ferraris explains as follows: “The reason of the strongest is always the best.” This is, paradoxically, the exact opposite of what people like Michel Foucault actually wanted to achieve. For when power is always dictating terms, the power alone is real. The present conflict with post-modern thought about the idea of reality is no coincidence. Speculative realism wants to think reality as independent from our perception, while the nuovo realismo distances itself from the political implications of postmodernism: “That of which the postmodernists dreamt, the populists made real,” says Ferraris.
Of course it wasn’t philosophy that produced Berlusconis or Putins all over the world. But the rejection of their politics of lies also requires us to revise our postmodern habits. Postmodernism’s plural concept of truth has been shot down in Ukraine. Putin forces us to turn back to reality. Realpolitik is being displaced by the real, by the old-fashioned adventure of naming things. We no longer have the luxury of relative truths and devalued values. In Russia the lie has won yet again, and yet again only a simple, black-and-white language can do justice to this tragedy. Here is how Solzhenitsyn put it: “Violence can only be concealed by lies, and lies can only be upheld through violence.”