A Gulf of Disbelief

When Nikolai Khrushchev visited the United States for twelve days in 1959 he refused to believe what he was seeing. The vast choice of tacky consumer products available in a typical US supermarket, he thought, was entirely a put-up job – smoke and mirrors. There simply couldn’t be so many different things available to ordinary citizens. This reminds me of a soprano I once knew slightly in the 1980s. She’d escaped from Romania to sing in the United Kingdom (and to obtain British Citizenship as a singing asylum seeker). On her first visit to a well-stocked Woolworth’s she cried – not so much, I suppose, with joy at what she’d found there, though she did buy a pair of multi-coloured slippers with bright pink pom-poms, as for the miserable paucity of choice available to the family she’d left behind, and for all the other indignities of living in a ruthlessly misruled nation that she had escaped and in which they still languished.

kruschev

That it would have taken implausibly extraordinary efforts to deceive Khrushchev so extravagantly counted for nothing. The almost impossible was easy enough to believe because the Soviet Union would have stopped at nothing to deceive a visiting President, Prime Minister or Monarch.

Blunt denial, lying, and deception, have characterised Russia’s response to the West ever since. Take the allegations in yesterday’s WADA report into doping at the Sochi (and other) Olympics. If they are to be believed, which, probably, they should be, the FSB and the Russian Sports Ministry colluded in massive deception, substituting clean urine samples for contaminated ones. The scale of their operation was vast – agents pretending to be plumbers passing samples through a wall separating the testing laboratory from the FSB building next door. They also employed special methods for opening ‘sealed’ test tubes but these, it turns out, were not quite clever enough because they left tiny scratch marks invisible to the naked eye, but detected by WADA.

Smoke and mirrors

doping

Some Russian media have dismissed the WADA report as part of an organised conspiracy against Russia. But even  if they know the allegations to be true, those involved will simply believe they were unlucky to get caught, and that the rest of the world must be doing exactly the same kinds of things, only doing them better, and getting away with it. That is their mind-set – all governments deceive their people and each other. If no one can prove it, then they’re just doing it vey well indeed.

From the Russian point of view, truth and moral principle are irrelevant, because the assumption is that every government must share their point of view and their methods, whatever they might say. I am sure the President Putin sincerely believes that, whatever assertions there might be to the contrary, the so-called independent judiciaries and media of Western states MUST be, in reality, tools of the state.

The report into the murder of the ex-FSB agent Litvinenko in London MUST be a fabrication. Well, of course, they also know it to be correct, but they could never believe that the truth was independently arrived at. The allegation that Russian troops have been assisting the rebels in Eastern Ukraine MUST be false, just as there was no advance guard in Crimea before the referendum on its absorption into Russia (well, actually, they later admitted that the ‘little green men’ were theirs, but it was certainly a false allegation for a while). And the suggestion that the rebels in Eastern Ukraine shot down a Malaysian passenger jet using rockets supplied by Russia, MUST be false. Carefully fabricated photographs showed, beyond a shadow of doubt, that a Ukrainian jet shot the ill-fated Malaysian jet down from the air.

Somewhere in the Kremlin, Putin’s henchmen will be smarting at the fact that they’ve been caught out doping their athletes, but you can be sure that they will simply be smarting at the fact they lost at a game that everyone else plays, but which they believe they’re generally best at. Perhaps I am a victim of Western ideology and too credulous in believing that by and large we’re not dupes of our Western governments in the way Russian citizens are of theirs.

A Russian Abroad

There’s a joke going around the twittersphere about Vladimir Putin. He was asked to fill in a visa form when he recently visited Greece:

Name: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin

Nationality: Russian

Occupation: Not this time

Russians abroad are a dangerous breed if recent events in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and France are any guide (though I only mean this in the vaguest possible way, and I’m fond of several Russians who are exceptions to this crude generalisation). In Crimea they were ‘little green men’, and in Eastern Ukraine they are ‘volunteers’.

In Lille tonight, marauding gangs of Russian football hooligans, their techniques perfected at the feet of their British equivalents, are throwing tables, punches and letting off flares. I imagine that their team’s suspended expulsion from the Euros will be enforced forthwith and they will soon be making their way home to a heroes’ welcome as exciting as Lenin’s at the Finland Station in 1917.

It’s possible that the English may also be on their way home (I care no more about that, I’m afraid, than about the Russian’s return). My only fear is that Euroscepticism will be encouraged by English expulsion, making Brexit a dead cert next Thursday.

russian hooligans

But, considering the Russians for a moment, is their behaviour a surprise? A macho, belligerent, bare-chested manner is a mark of the true Russian these days, whether you’re President Putin or a thug in the streets of Lille and Nice.

No wonder, then, that back home they’re winning plaudits for their assertive behaviour, described by a Government official last week as ‘incorrect’ as if it infringes rules, but isn’t necessarily wrong.

‘I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting,’ Igor Lebedev, a nationalist MP and football official, wrote on Twitter. ‘Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!’

Is it any wonder that athletes, soldiers, ‘volunteers’, hooligans and politicians behave eccentrically when the tone of the Russian Government is nationalist, thuggish and exceptionalist? It’s okay if Russia doesn’t want to engage with the rest of the world in any sphere or at any level, but if Russia wants to trade, compete and cooperate with the rest of us it needs to show a little sensitivity – or would that be too ‘gay’?

 

The Chutzpah of Nyet – Putin and Denial

Hats off to the Russians for the sheer audacity of their denial.

  • No, they had no hand in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. The British Judicial Report is a ‘joke’, part of ‘an international political conspiracy’, an outrageous calumny. You can see the report here.
  • No, they had no hand in the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17
  • No, they are providing no assistance to separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine
  • No, they did not send little green men into Crimea in advance of their annexation (no, on second thoughts, as they admitted later, they did)

 

nyet.png

In totalitarian societies it is assertion that makes things true, and denial that makes them false, irrespective of the facts. Remember Orwell’s 1984. What was true yesterday may always have been false if denied tomorrow.

Russia isn’t (yet) a totalitarian society but it’s certainly not an open one. Official assertion and denial are all too often the bedrock of the ‘truth’ that’s peddled by state-dominated media.

When I briefly studied political philosophy, at a time when a generous ‘relativism’ ruled and the concept of ‘ideology’ was made much of, we were taught to consider that, depending on your point of view and values, the truth can seem very different. Facts themselves, or at least the language we use to describe them, are always a reflection of our attitudes, always a betrayal of bias. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, etc. One might as well say nothing for fear of self-incrimination.

But I think it’s true that the world really does look very different from Putin’s point of view. His background, his experience, his instincts, all tell him that the game he plays is no more and no less than the game all leaders and all governments play. He simply cannot conceive that the judiciary or the media in any state are not instruments of government. A judicial inquiry cannot be independent. It can only be ‘politicised’.

I choose to believe that this isn’t true. Indeed, I know it isn’t true. Whatever anyone might say about the corrosive effect of nearly six decades of life in liberal democracies (mainly in the UK), however often our ‘Western’ societies fall short, which they often do, however often conspiracy theorists ‘prove’ their points, and however often I might be mocked for my middle-class, bourgeois, self-interested complacency, I do believe that our media are very largely free, that our judiciary is very largely independent, and that our laws are applied consistently and fairly. I believe that we live in a very largely open society and that our democracy is real, or, at the very least, pretty impressive by international standards. I won’t be cynical about power and its way with the truth.

All ideologies are distorting, but some are more distorting than others.

The cruel killing of Alexander Litvinenko was very probably state-sponsored – Russian-sponsored, I mean. The circumstantial and direct evidence point fairly and squarely at both Lugovoi and Kovtun as the killers. What else could explain the appalling trail of dangerous radioactivity from aeroplane to hotel room, from football stadium to teapot.

Denial might be impressive, but will gain Russia nothing. As the Ruble sinks and Russia recedes into further isolation, who will benefit? Putin, perhaps, and his coterie? I don’t see how. Certainly not the Russian people.