Russia is a lie

Putin and the postmodern

The greatest difficulty in dealing with Russia is this: Russia lies. This blanket assertion sounds like a slogan from the Cold War, and yet it's the only one that does justice to reality. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when I was writing my first newspaper articles, I always avoided journalistic short-cuts such as "Moscow wants" or "the Kremlin claims". When I would read in those days that "the Russians are invading Chechnya" I would think of my friends in Moscow and such formulations seemed about as accurate to me as Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire". Today not only do I write that the country of my birth has become an empire of lies, but that Russia itself is a lie.

The lies start with simple facts. At first it was claimed there weren't any Russian soldiers in Crimea, and then it was admitted that there were. At first it was claimed there weren't any Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine, and then it was admitted that there were, but only because they had crossed the border 'by accident' - no - actually they were 'on leave' - and they only wanted peace anyway. This may sound absurd, but it's strategy.

Lying is an especially effective policy instrument when it is not coupled with self-deception. The political lie is only a lie if the liar doesn't believe in it. As for Putin's lies, The only people who believe in them are his apologists and supporters at home and abroad. If you try to find a grain of truth in the Kremlin's web of lies you will become its useful idiot - as happened to a well-known Russia expert on German television. First she repeated Putin's lie that he hadn't sent any soldiers to Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Then she held on to that lie after Putin had admitted that the 'little green men' were indeed his soldiers. Moscow gladly rebuts its own lies as soon as they are no longer useful. The Kremlin doesn't care what that does to its stooges - they will anyway string together some kind of explanation.

The regime typically uses those lies that have been lurking in the darkest corners of Russian society. Old lies work better, for example the NATO lie. The NATO lie says that the 'aggression bloc' is encircling the Motherland ever tighter. Other lies are new inventions and are retold by Putin's friends in both East and West: that the Ukrainians are fascists, and that Russians must defend their homeland against fascists as in the days of the Second World War.

The friends of the Russian autocracy misunderstand the policy of lying. The Kremlin doesn't really aim at people believing its lies. Putin triumphs when other world leaders allow the lies to go unchallenged. Of course Putin knows that at least some politicians are wise to his ways. But to him the crucial thing is this: they don't call the fraud a fraud, nor the invasion an invasion, nor the hybrid war a war. The motives of its opponents are of secondary importance for the Kremlin, whether it's the fear of Russian nuclear weapons or the pacifism of their voters. Once the truth is absent the lie prevails.

"Live not by lies" this was the call of the dissidents of Real Socialism: Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1974 and Vaclav Havel four years later. These demands for truth turned into demands for power after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. These demands weren't welcomed by the young generation to which I belonged. We had grown up under postmodernism. What could people like Solzhenitsyn with his völkisch notion of Russianness, or Walesa with his Catholicism, have to say to us? This grandfatherly wisdom wasn't even worth deconstructing. It was the End of History and we were riding the wave of postmodernism into everlasting peace.

It was a brave new world of diversity and difference, freed from binding values in thinking and policy, emancipated from the dictates of universal human rights. We did not listen to Jürgen Habermas when he identified the postmodern critique of reason as a new wave of counter-Enlightenment. But it wasn't long until our liberating postmodernism encountered its political caricature in the media populism of a Berlusconi - as philosopher Maurizio Ferraris wrote in his Manifesto of New Realism - and then in Putin's propaganda state. Vladimir Putin is an even better postmodernist than his Italian mate. Putin's Russia lies because it genuinely and honestly believes that there is no such thing as truth. In the waning years of the Soviet Union neither people like Putin nor people like me believed in Communist slogans. But when Soviet ideology faded a search for a new "national idea" for the masses began straight away. The most recent of these ideas is the Orthodox Russian world. The chimera of Russian exceptionalism grew out of the remains of the Blood and Soil ideologies of the last century, and of course it is thoroughly a construct - as one used to say. Today I simply say - a lie. Putin's Russia is a lie. His subjects believe neither in God nor in blood and soil, but only in two letters, PR, public relations. This belief states that all people are for sale, from journalists to politicians, from Russians to Americans. No one tells the truth, and the only thing that counts is the English loanword known in Russian Newspeak as 'Pee-Ar'. This is the real truth of Russia, and the truth is to lie.

The Kremlin forces its geopolitical game onto the world, and this game is governed by the rules of political postmodernism. Each player has his own truth, or even several, that he can freely adjust according to need. Because only one thing matters: who is strong enough to impose his truth on his opponent. Putin actually has nothing against NATO, he had initially wanted to join it himself. Now he only claims the right to do the same as all big players of geopolitics in his opinion do, the right to betray and murder. Vladimir Putin and his followers didn't encounter these rules by reading philosophical texts. They learned them on the streets.

"A lie told by bullies" that's what Ernest Hemingway once called Fascism. The decisive difference between Putinism and Nazism is that the fascists and national-socialists believed to a large extent in their lies. The Putinist only believes in one thing: lying as a way of life. Whoever grew up, like Vladimir Putin or I, in a large Soviet city learned this already at primary school. You get surrounded by a group of bullies. One of them says: "you ratted me out to the teacher", although it's the first time you see him. If you say "that's not true" you get beaten up immediately. If you apologise you will first be mocked. And then beaten.

Cries of victimhood coupled with a clenched fist is not an unknown gesture. Putin's Russia, which jumps into the ring like a world power, complains about Western intrigues. The Kremlin is well aware of the weaknesses of the Russian state, its economy and its military. But in a street-fight one hides one's weaknesses. Your opponent should think you are strong. Your opponent should piss his pants. He should believe that if he doubts your lie you'll punch his teeth out. He can de-escalate, as politicians the world over have been trying with Putin. He can call out: 'Peace!' - with the effect that you will also shout 'Peace!' - and then strike.

If the victim doesn't defend himself against the lies he also won't defend himself against the violence. He will be beaten up, and the attacker has already won from the moment that his victim didn't call him a liar.

Needless to say Russia isn't a nation of thugs who ruthlessly shoot down passenger planes. Needless to say there is another Russia - more than one in fact. But the diversity of Russia has been banished into internal and external exile. As long as the illusion holds, the millions of potato farmers, mathematics teachers, bank cashiers or publishing editors can achieve just as little politically as those who, like me, have left Russia. Only one voice is now heard in Russia. It is the voice of the collective Putin which leaves you speechless.

Contemporary political language can no longer adequately describe the decomposition of normative systems in Europe and in the World. The old slogans about aggressive American imperialism shed no light on the circumstances of the war for the 'Russian World'. Nor are the explanatory devices of postcolonialism able to account for the murders of 'Islamic State'. There aren't any available concepts. But to begin with we could, all postmodern doubts aside, revert to calling a war a war and a lie a lie.

Russia's lies are like the situation I had with my neighbours in Berlin. I lived in a building with coal heaters. The other tenants gradually switched, at their own expense, to gas heaters. However one neighbour saw this as "a threat to his livelihood". In the as yet ungentrified district of Kreuzberg this was the preferred way to discuss rental increases. This neighbour continued to bring in his two daily buckets of coal for his four tile stoves. He stopped saying hello. His mood darkened as more and more neighbours joined the club of the modernisers.

Putin behaves just the same. But my cold-proof neighbour, however, never broke through my apartment wall, nor occupied my kitchen, and never cried as Putin did over Ukraine: "You are threatening my existential interests!"

"There are no facts, only interpretations". This line of Nietzsche, so beloved of postmodernists, has found its true meaning today - a meaning that Ferraris expresses in the words of Jean de la Fontaine: "The reason of the strongest is always the best".

Paradoxically this is exactly what people like Michel Foucault were trying to avoid: because if might always makes right, then only might is real. It's no coincidence that the struggle in postmodernist thought revolves around the concept of the real. Speculative Realism splits reality from our perception of it, while Nuovo Realismo sets itself apart from the political implications of postmodernism: "What the postmodernists had dreamed about, the populists turned into reality", says Ferraris.

Of course it wasn't philosophy that brought about the Berlusconis and Putins of this world. But the rejection of their politics of lies also requires revising the entire edifice of postmodernism. The postmodern concept of plurality of truth is being riddled with bullets in Ukraine. Putin is imposing a return to reality. Realpolitik is being displaced by the real, by the old-fashioned adventure of naming things. The luxury of relative truths and devalued values is gone. In Russia the lies have triumphed once again, and once again only simple, black-and-white language does justice to this drama. Solzhenitsyn wrote it thus: "Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence".

Published on  August 27th, 2017