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)



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.

Putin’s Pencil

There was much amusement at Vladimir Putin’s snapping of a pencil at his meeting with Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Petro Poroshenko in Minsk a few weeks ago. The four of them were negotiating a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine, and no doubt you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

putin pencil

I like to think that the pencil snapping meant that Putin wasn’t entirely getting his own way. Certainly it was remarkable, in that Putin doesn’t usually show his feelings. Dignity of office, I suppose, and the great weight of responsibility that he bears, do not permit the Russian President to smile, or do those endearing human things like engaging in folksy chit-chat about hiking with Angela, or simply being charmant like Francois, or twinkly like Petro.

But I think Putin’s interlocutors got off lightly. Meetings can be hazardous.

Just think about what happened when Vlad the Impaler, bent on consolidating his own power, invited a gaggle of regional nobility to a dinner party in 1456. Following the, no doubt, meaty meal, he had the old and infirm immediately murdered and marched the remaining guests 50 miles to a dilapidated castle. He put the surviving nobles to hard labour restoring it. Most died from maltreatment and exhaustion; and those who didn’t were impaled on spikes outside the castle when restorations were complete


And think of poor Alexander Litvinenko’s tea party at the Millenium Hotel in 2006. Invited to meet some former KGB colleagues (possibly they were friends of Mr Putin) he was poured a strong cup of Polonium tea, and died three weeks later.

Then there’s the early Reformation figure, Jan Hus. He was invited, on the promise of free passage, to a pow-wow in Constance, but was imprisoned, tried and burnt at the stake.

I think Angela, Francois and Petro got off quite lightly.