Chapter 10: Lies


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.
(Joubert, p.38; 1904)


Soviet propaganda excelled in mixing lies with an
element of truth. Students were often sent to help
gather potatoes in the autumn; but the figures for
the size of the harvest were nearly always false, which
helped to contribute to shortages in the USSR.

No-one seems to be able to say for sure why it is that Russians tell so many bare-faced lies; but there is no denying that they do, from top to bottom in society. When Russian troops invaded Crimea in February 2014, President Vladimir Putin denied any knowledge of the action, claiming that these troops in immaculate if unmarked military uniforms were simply local people who wanted to save Crimea from falling into American hands. A year later, in a television documentary marking Crimea again becoming a part of Russia (according to Moscow but not recognised by the United Nations), Putin gave an interview in the programme in which he openly said that after an all-night sitting in February 2014 he had given the order for Russian troops to seize Crimea.

In other words, Putin admitted that he had told a blatant lie a year earlier. Russian media, of course, did not come out and say that. This is partly because the media is now under the control of the Kremlin; but also because Russians are so used to lies that few people would even have been bothered that the President completely contradicted himself from one year to the next. The fighting in Ukraine has seen a constant stream of lies from Moscow. There is a mass of evidence that regular Russian forces have been fighting there, yet the Kremlin insists that it is just Russian soldiers on leave who have chosen to go to Eastern Ukraine (which begs the question, also unasked by Russian media, what kind of army is it that allows its soldiers to go and fight as mercenaries in another country when they are on leave?)

A protest on the streets of Moscow in August 2015 showed that not
everyone was indifferent to the Kremlin's lies about Ukraine

When some bold Russian journalists visited Pskov in the summer of 2014 where they had been told fresh soldiers’ graves had appeared, there were instant denials that the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, based in Pskov, had been in Ukraine (and the journalists were attacked). Yet just a few days later, Putin issued a Presidential Decree awarding the 76th Guards Air Assault Division the Order of Suvorov, one of the Russian Federation’s highest military honours – and given only for distinguished conduct in battle.

But whilst the war in Ukraine and social media has given Russia the chance to spread lies more widely and in greater quantities, Russians’ notorious reputation for lying goes back a long way, even before the Revolution; witness the comment at the head of this section by Carl Joubert, based on his nine years living in Russia in the late nineteenth century. After the Revolution, the Soviet system had an amazing ability simply to deny what it didn’t like to acknowledge (for example, see the section on Sex to see denials of the existence of prostitution and sex before marriage), and some of these denials which were particularly absurd were turned into jokes (as will be seen in the final chapter, You’ll Die Laughing). But undoubtedly the lie became sharpened in Soviet times, and the distinction between vranyo and lozh is a highly significant one.

…the notorious custom of vranyo…A Russian friend explained vranyo this 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.”
(Shipler, p.21; 1983)

Vranyo is the more innocent of two distinct terms denoting the dissemination of untruths, its more serious equivalent being lozh. To impute vranyo involves little more than the affectionate charge of possessing a lively imagination: vryote, “You’re having me on.” But to accuse someone of lozh is harsh: lzhosh, “You bloody liar!” …
  Indeed, vranyo’s continuing late twentieth century vogue may well derive from its function of enlivening the drabness of modernity, since the official doctrine that totalitarian Russian life is somehow more exhilarating than life elsewhere is itself so extreme an example of creative fantasy.
(Hingley, pp.77-79; 1978)

One could also throw into the mix obman, “deception”, another common way of not telling the truth. Or simply talking for a long time but actually saying nothing (a common trick with Western politicians, too). When Bill Browder was trying to find out information about the Sidanco oil company to consider whether it was worth investing, he hit a brick wall when he finally had a meeting with a representative of the company.

The best way for Russians to deal with direct questions was to talk pointlessly for hours and essentially filibuster the issue. Most people are too polite to keep pushing in this kind of situation and they often forget the question they asked in the first place. With a good Russian dissembler, you have to be incredibly focused to have even a chance of finding out what you need.
(Browder, p.143; 2015)

Robert Kaiser, both quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn and adding his own conclusion highlights the problem for society when the distinction between truth and lies becomes blurred.

But the lie is more than a means of coping with life’s embarrassments. In the contemporary Soviet Union, in Solzhenitsyn’s bitter but indisputably accurate phrase, “the lie has become not simply a moral category, but a pillar of the state”. It is a harsh judgement, but there is no way around it …
  When lies are accepted as readily as the truth – and that is just what happens in the Soviet Union – then the distinction between them inevitably begins to disappear.
(Kaiser, pp.235-236; 1976)

The idea that “lies are accepted as readily as the truth” has once again become the case – not only in Russia but, thanks to the information explosion brought on by social media, worldwide. It was very telling that the Oxford English Dictionary declared in November 2016 that the word of the year was “post-truth”. There is much talk of “fake news”; and also of a term which came into English from Russian: “disinformation”. “Information” and “misinformation” (the accidental reporting in good faith of something which is not accurate or true) are English words, and the Russian информация (informatsiya) comes from Latin via English. But “DISinformation”, the deliberate spreading of false information and lies, has come into English from the Russian word дезинформация (dezinformatsiya).

Ivan T, in conversation with Kevin Klose, puts forward the idea which we have already met (put forward by David Willis in the section Russians en masse in the chapter, National Characteristics) that Russians have Asiatic characteristics, which Ivan T feels helps to explain the innate ability to lie without compunction.

“…we are Asiatic in a way that you are not. In fact, while we think we look and act like Americans, we are completely different from you. As I understand our character, it is that we have the essential characteristics of Asians, which is the possibility of carrying two kinds of thoughts in one head. This makes it relatively simple for people to accept the idea that the rights set forth in our fundamental law [the Soviet Constitution] exist here as a lie. So we understand as well that the existence of freedom which the party claims to have achieved for us is a factual myth. Yet, we can quickly mouth the slogans that show freedom exists here, and in fact, in a certain way, we can believe this.” [Ivan T.]
(Klose, p.117; 1984)

As David Shipler indicates, telling the truth was not an essential part of the Soviet education system.
Truth telling is not the forte of Soviet education. In the structure of values the façade is more important than what stands behind it; a smooth, unbroken surface of acceptance comforts both teacher and pupil, political leader and citizen. To crack the veneer is to violate the basic ethic of hypocrisy and to embrace utter loneliness.
(Shipler, p.114; 1983)

Even though pupils in the USSR received a sound education in what is known in English as “the three R’s” (of Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic), a template had to be applied over the whole system of education, from kindergarten to university, of learning the pillars of the political system: the History of the Communist Party; Marxist-Leninist Philosophy; Political Economy; and Atheism. This produced the joke about the kindergarten teacher who is waxing lyrical about how wonderful life is in the Soviet Union, when she notices little Ivan at the back of the class starting to snivel and then sob. “Ivanushka,” she asks, “what’s the matter?” “I want to live in the Soviet Union!” wails the child.


In the 1930s Stalin was portrayed in Soviet propaganda
as 'the children's friend'. At the same time he was
sending millions of parents to their deaths
or to the labour camps.

People who wanted their children to grow up and be able to think for themselves stood on the horns of a dilemma, as Hedrick Smith points out: they could lie to their children, or teach them to lie in public.

[The son of a Soviet official had found a banned book on his parents’ bookshelves, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914. The father told Hedrick Smith:] “I have to choose between lying to my son about what we read and what we think or teaching him to lie,” said the man, in a moment of searing honesty. “I prefer to be honest with our son. I love him. He will never be happy because he will understand too much. But at least he will not grow up like a stupid ass.”
(Smith, The Russians, p.214; 1977)

The added absurdity here is the fact that Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 was a banned book. It is a great work of literature which helps to highlight the difficulties and chaos in Europe at a particularly crucial and soon to be terrible time in history. It was banned because of the author – who had upset the Soviet authorities by telling the truth about the Soviet labour camp system in which he had suffered unjustly. (See the quotation from Boris Kagarlitsky in Chapter 42, Freedom of Speech.)

The following quotations highlight the issue of “official lies”: lies told by the state-run media to put across an official view. It is a situation which Russia has returned to under Vladimir Putin. Laurens van der Post was shocked that someone could be sentenced to death in the 1960’s for making counterfeit money, while no action would be taken against someone broadcasting lies:

It has always seemed to me extraordinary that, in law, the counterfeiting of money should be a serious crime incurring heavy penalties (in Russia counterfeiters are shot) but that fabricating, inventing and falsifying news should go unpunished.
(van der Post, p.123; 1965)

The newspaper of the Communist Party, Pravda, could turn the truth on its head (doubly ironic, given that “pravda” means “truth”) and even publish letters which, in the era before the internet and e-mail, could not even have reached its offices by the time they were published:

Pravda eschews ambiguity … The Arabs are designated friends, so they can do nothing wrong. After they started the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Pravda reported the precise minute at which, it said, Israeli forces began the fighting. In the next few days, according to Pravda, the Israelis “fell back” into defensive positions – an unprecedented manoeuvre for an army supposedly attacking with the advantage of surprise, but that is what happened on the pages of Soviet newspapers.
(Kaiser, p.212; 1976)

A senior editor of the paper [Pravda] once admitted to me that some letters…are contrived by Pravda’s correspondents. This was evident after Alexander Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the country. The next day Soviet papers printed letters applauding the expulsion that were allegedly written by citizens living in remote cities – cities from which letters to Moscow take at least a week to arrive.
(Kaiser, p.214; 1976)


Public lectures were another way of getting a false version of the news over to the Soviet public:

The authorities also provide the general public with alternative sources of information, most commonly in the form of lectures …
  Lies and blatant errors of fact were common at the lectures I heard. “American bread now costs more than a dollar a loaf,” a lecturer said in Moscow in 1973. “Seventy five per cent of the means of mass communication in America are under the control, directly or indirectly, of Zionists and Jews,” said another. [US President] Lyndon Johnson’s visit to the Soviet Union – which he cancelled after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 – did not take place because “we could not agree to have President Johnson in the Soviet Union after he began the Vietnam War,” according to another lecturer.
(Kaiser, pp.224-227; 1976)

In the wake of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in April 1986, the paucity of information issued by the Soviet authorities led to speculation in the Western media. Some reports, such as there being thousands of deaths in the explosion or just after it, were wildly out and were strongly criticised by the USSR. But, as Martin Walker points out, people both inside and outside the Soviet Union were by now wary of “the lie”, especially when lives were at stake:

The Soviet system was paying the price not only for its secrecy over Chernobyl, but for the accumulated hostility and suspicions of generations. A society that had lied for days about the fate of the Korean airliner shot down in 1983, that had still not faced the truth about Stalin’s gross slaughters, was not going to be easily believed or trusted over Chernobyl.
(Walker, p.237; 1986)

A few years later I interviewed Alexander Yakovlev, who at the time of the accident at Chernobyl was the Politburo member responsible for ideology. In the course of the interview, I asked him about why there was such poor information given out about Chernobyl. “Because we in Moscow didn’t have a clue about what was going on, either!” he exclaimed.

And, as if to illustrate that old habits die hard, Peter Pomerantsev found that in the twenty-first century Russian TV from its base at Ostankino in northern Moscow could turn out lie after lie until his head was spinning:

…the lies are told so often on Ostankino that after a while you find yourself nodding because it’s hard to get your head around the idea that they are lying quite so much and quite so brazenly and all the time and at some level you feel that if Ostankino can lie so much and get away with it doesn’t that mean they have real power, a power to define what is true and what isn’t, and wouldn’t you do better just to nod anyway?
(Pomerantsev, pp.271-272; 2015)

Even when dealing with foreigners who are better informed, as the Russians know, they have an amazing ability to argue with a straight face that black is white.

Soviet officials will blandly deny to an American legal delegation that the Soviet Union imposes the death penalty (though the Soviet press occasionally reports executions); contend to Congressmen that emigration by Jews and others is completely free; insist that the Soviet labour camps have an excellent medical system (after the death of a well-known political prisoner operated on for an ulcer by another prisoner because no professional medical care was available); and make other claims that immediately cause a foreigner to raise a sceptical eyebrow.
(Smith, The Russians, pp.31-32; 1977)

…I wondered why Russians who are forced into contact with foreigners in an official capacity always deal with any questions that seem to display a too zealous spirit of inquiry, or even to imply the smallest criticism of either the regime or their way of life, by answering them in a manner that is so manifestly untrue that the questioners feel it to be an affront to their intelligence and end up being as irritated as the Russians already are by having had to make up their untruths on the spur of the moment, knowing that they are feeble and totally unconvincing. This predilection for outrageous lies is not a product of communism. It even antedates the rule of the tsars. Its origins are hidden somewhere in the mists of antiquity and are probably found in the innate love of secrecy inherent in the Slavonic soul.
(Newby, p.155; 1980)

Once at the Berlin restaurant in Moscow, some friends of ours recognised the band playing the Lara theme from Doctor Zhivago, strictly verboten. After a few minutes, one of them asked the band to play it again.
  “We didn’t play that song,” said the combo’s leader.
  “Oh, yes,” my friend insisted. “I heard it myself and so did my friends. We recognised it.”
  “No, you must have been mistaken. We didn’t play it and so you didn’t hear it!” The reply was spoken in that frozen Soviet voice that is less a denial of the actual truth than a rejection of an inconvenient one.
(Smith, The Russians, p.220; 1977)

Perhaps Eric Newby is right that it has something to do with, “the innate love of secrecy inherent in the Slavonic soul”; why else? But it is disarming when something happens like asking the band to play again a tune they’ve just played and being told that they didn’t play it. One begins to doubt one’s own senses.

But sometimes Russians will rely on foreigners to tell them the truth – and they will believe what the foreigner tells them.

Several years ago a Russian woman who worked as a cook for a western diplomat in Moscow asked her mistress what had really happened to Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet cosmonaut. That very day Komarov had received a hero’s burial in the wall of the Kremlin after dying in a space accident – as the diplomat’s wife told the Russian woman.
  “Oh, it’s really true, then?” the cook asked. “We’d heard that he’d brought his spaceship down in America and defected.”
(Kaiser, p.251; 1976)

This story is merely the tip of the iceberg of a particular pack of Soviet lies and incompetence. In April 1967, Vladimir Komarov was chosen to be the sole pilot of Soyuz-1. The USSR already had a series of “firsts” in Space – first satellite, first animal, first man, first woman, first crew, first spacewalk – and wanted to create the first link-up in Space: Soyuz-2 would rendezvous with Soyuz-1, and one cosmonaut would transfer from 2 to 1 for the journey back to Earth. For the Politburo, the timing was crucial: to be close to Lenin’s birthday (on 22 April) and May Day, and in the year in which the Soviet Union celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

However, engineers warned the politicians that the new capsule wasn’t ready: tests had shown up 203 design faults. The politicians refused to listen. Komarov insisted on flying, because he was worried that if he refused the authorities would simply put the back-up cosmonaut in his place. The back-up was Yury Gagarin, the first man in Space and a national treasure. Komarov knew the risks, but did not want the country to lose Gagarin if something went wrong.

From the moment Soyuz-1 went into orbit, things started to go wrong when a solar panel malfunctioned. The launch of Soyuz-2 was postponed because of bad weather, and as more and more things went wrong on board Soyuz-1 it was agreed that Komarov should return to earth early, having coped admirably with all the problems which, as the engineers expected, had arisen. He couldn’t cope with the final problems, though. After returning through the Earth’s atmosphere, the braking parachute failed to open. The capsule hit the ground at a speed of 140km per hour. If the crash didn’t kill Komarov (which it probably did), the retro-rockets fired only after the capsule crashed, engulfing the spacecraft in flames. Nothing recognisably human was left of Komarov. It was some years before the truth of what had happened came out; hence the rumours among the populace that he may have defected.


This post-Soviet poster parodies the propaganda
posters of the Soviet era:
'ARE YOU TIRED of the System, of Cheating and Lies?
Then welcome to the ranks of the HOMELESS!'

Appropriately, the last quotation in this section involves the man known as “the conscience of the nation”, Andrei Sakharov. Smith met Sakharov on a number of occasions. Sakharov was one of the “fathers” of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, but in the late 1960’s began to criticise the system and became known as a dissident, for which he was hounded by the Soviet authorities. Once a person began to be attacked in the Soviet media, they quickly found that friends and colleagues would start to keep a distance from them, or even join in public criticism of them. Sakharov described this to Smith.

“There is an unbelievable cynicism among people,” he [Sakharov] remarked one evening. “The honest man makes the silent ones feel guilty for not having spoken out. They cannot understand how he had the courage to do what they could not bring themselves to do. So they feel impelled to speak out against him to protect their own consciences. In the second place, they feel that everyone everywhere is deceiving everyone else, based on their own experience. Homo Sovieticus is like the prostitute who believes that all women are whores because she is. Soviet man believes that the whole world is divided into parties and that every man is a member of one party or another, and there is no real honesty. No one stands for the truth. And if anyone says he is above Party and is trying to speak the truth alone, he is lying.”
(Smith, The Russians, p.549; 1977)

I saw the reaction of ordinary people to Sakharov’s human rights activities when I was living in Kiev in 1980. Sakharov protested about the invasion of Afghanistan at the end of December 1979, for which he was exiled to Gorky (now once again Nizhny Novgorod) and forbidden from going to Moscow. Gorky was a city which was closed to foreigners, so the idea was to make it impossible for him to speak to foreign journalists. The attitude of the Russians I was with when this was announced on the news showed no sympathy: “Serves him right – he’s a scientist; what does he know about human rights?!”

Sakharov was brought back from Gorky in 1986 by Mikhail Gorbachev; won a seat for the new Soviet parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies in March 1989; and died at the age of 68 in December of that year. There was an outpouring of public grief, and that was when he was labelled, “the conscience of the nation”. Nowadays it seems that Sakharov’s message has been lost, and the atmosphere he describes in this extract is returning.

See also: Chapter 2, Geography, Kaiser, “Geographers in the Soviet Union…”; Chapter 8, Sex, Skariatina, “This place used to be…” and Kaiser, “An American journalist and his wife…”; Chapter 9, Language, Kaiser, “Soviet ceremonies are one manifestation…”; Chapter 50, Foreigners, Siddiqi, Zhdanovshchina explicitly linked science with national identity…”

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