Russians tell powerful stories, and I’m not talking about Chekhov, Gogol and Tolstoy. Since the first days of their revolution, they have told whoppers about Lenin and the people, Stalin and the Great Patriotic War, the visionary KGB officer who rises to power to save the Motherland. Today their fictions have reached beyond their borders to poison our own tenuous hold on truth.
Thirty years have passed since I left Canada to travel from Berlin to Moscow. In 1989, Eastern Europe had risen up against its Red Army occupiers and sent them packing. The fall of the Wall was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Seventy years of totalitarianism ended almost overnight, and Europeans embraced the idea of a borderless continent, believing they had changed the world.
In those euphoric days I visited lands that were, for most Westerners, part of the forgotten half of Europe. In East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia itself, I met people who hadn’t spoken to a foreigner in decades, who opened their hearts and told me stories of lost years, ruined lives and rapacious propaganda. In Czechoslovakia, I heard Vaclav Havel – the former imprisoned playwright who’d become president – herald the birth of “a Europe in which no one more powerful will be able to suppress anyone less powerful, in which it will no longer be possible to settle disputes by force.”
How could it have been otherwise? My generation had grown up in the shadow of the Second World War, haunted by the ghosts of 60 million dead. We’d come of age during the Cold War, with half a continent imprisoned behind a wall. Our response was to value individual liberty above tribalism. We couldn’t have borne the loss of more fathers and uncles, to see our brothers die in the name of the old demons. So we celebrated when former adversaries drew back the Iron Curtain. We applauded as East and West Germans danced together in no man’s land. Some of us even dared to imagine – in our optimism, in our naïveté – the end of political lies.
Thirty years on, I retraced my original journey backward, to ask what became of our faith in truth. Why, after liberating themselves from Soviet tyranny, have Russians surrendered their freedom to Dictatorship 2.0? Why, after that promising dawn, has the Kremlin redoubled its efforts to undermine Western unity? And how could so many of us have fallen for the populists’ lies and spin, dragging democracy to this precarious moment?
Let’s look back to the early 1990s. In those tumultuous years, Russia’s gross domestic product fell by half, a more precipitous decline than the United States’ during the Great Depression. Bank savings were wiped out by inflation. Male life expectancy crashed to 57 years, the lowest in the industrialized world. Ordinary Russians struggled to survive, asking whether there was such a thing as right and wrong, while criminals lorded it over their streets and the Kremlin.
There is a story from those days of two gangs vying to blackmail the same bank. The banker made it known that he would pay protection money solely to the stronger of the two. To prove themselves worthy, the first gang set about kneecapping its opponents. The second gang opted to use brains rather than brawn, staging a brutal deception. It scooped a homeless drunk off the streets, cleaned him up, dressed him in designer clothes and spread the word that he was the head of an especially ruthless third gang. He was seen in the best restaurants, spotted buying serious weapons from a KGB fence and overheard boasting about annihilating the competition. Then with the scene set, and in full sight of the banker, the second gang executed the homeless man in cold blood. Some say he was roasted to death in a burning Mercedes; others that he was buried up to the neck and decapitated with a scythe. But no matter how the poor man met his end, the second gang’s deception so impressed the banker that he chose them.
This turmoil – this crushing of certainties – shattered Russians because for generations they had been fed a myth. When the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time, it took with it the illusion of a people’s utopia. Moscow – once portrayed as a proletarian paradise – became the global capital of inequality, and people found themselves with no ideology to cling to, no vision for the future.
In their despair, in the absence of a positive new narrative, they began to long for their Communist past. Their nostalgia was cleverly manipulated – through the newspapers and TV stations of the new elite – into a mythologized version of history that deified Stalin, welcomed the restoration of the Soviet national anthem and dismissed forced labour and the gulags as the “unavoidable cost of modernization.” Enemies were said to surround Russia once again. The West was revived as an aggressor. If the country stood up against them, Russia could be great – again.
Sound familiar? Russians – like many of us when confronting traumatic change – had lost their appetite for hard truths, choosing to champion leaders who told them – who tell us – a single, emotive story.
Now look even further back. Imagine a dead-straight Leningrad street lined by workers’ tenements. It’s 1973, and Russia is transfixed by a 12-part television series. Seventeen Moments of Spring spins a tale about a handsome KGB agent – armed with nerves of steel, a cool demeanour and perfect German – who exposes a Nazi plot to negotiate peace with the Western allies. No matter that no such spy or plot ever existed, the series – in which wartime newsreels mutate into fiction – was perceived as historical fact. Viewers came to believe Russia had been betrayed. Almost no one knew that Seventeen Moments of Spring – Russia’s most popular program ever – was conceived and commissioned by the KGB to encourage young, educated recruits to join the security agency.
On that dead-straight Leningrad street, at No. 12 Baskov Pereulok, a young man is gazing in awe at the dashing hero, his eyes fixed on the screen, his palms sweaty with excitement. He wants to be a Soviet James Bond, subduing the country’s enemies. He has already walked into KGB headquarters and been instructed on how to prepare for service. Within a year or two, he will join the organization.
Now set that against the fall of the Wall. Think of the boy’s father, who’d served in both the Red Army and an NKVD destruction battalion. Think of his mother, who’d collapsed from hunger during the Siege of Leningrad. Think of that young man in 1990, driving home from East Germany – where he served as a KGB officer – to the crumbling Soviet empire, haunted by the loss of purpose and pride. Was his family’s sacrifice – and his effort – all for nothing? He eases himself into St. Petersburg politics. He calls the collapse of the Soviet Union – with its history of state terror, death camps and the forced starvation of millions – “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” He is filled with redemptive purpose and determined to restore Russia’s power. He declares that “it is time for Russia to get off its knees!” and sets about spinning false narratives.
Vladimir Putin is that KGB officer. But when he comes to power, he has a problem. His Russia has almost no money, owing to the thieving oligarchs and the financial crisis. He builds new missiles, but he needs something else. To cement his power, he needs “a weapon that is very cheap – almost free of charge – but can affect as huge amount of people as can nuclear weapons,” as suggested by his National Security Council.
For the past several years, the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency has waged war on democracy, hacking our emotions and undermining our trust in the healing power of openness and reconciliation. On Facebook and Twitter its operatives propagate whopping lies: linking pornography to Russian opposition politicians on VKontakte, slamming Democrats on Breitbart, championing Brexit on the Daily Mail Online, hijacking the hashtag #TrudeauMustGo. Bots then forward these “personal” comments to countless fake accounts, making them trend by manipulating Google’s algorithms.
The agency’s success has been breathtaking. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its 80,000 Facebook posts, replete with inflammatory images, were seen by 126 million Americans. On the day of the Brexit referendum, 3,800 fake accounts were mobilized to tweet #ReasonsToLeaveEU. After a terrorist attack in the Belgian capital, its operatives spouted, “Syrian refugees are not welcome to toronto … #IslamKills #Brussels” and “Canada Pays 8M To A Terrorist Who Killed An American Soldier.” Every post, meme, video and deepfake photograph was designed to sow distrust, exacerbate division, exploit fear and discredit the truth.
The technology may be new, but the tactics haven’t changed since the days of Lenin. In Soviet times, survival meant lying. Only by spouting dogma could someone excel at school, win a place at university or secure a good job. Ideology was used, not believed. The regime itself had to lie to survive, falsifying the past, pretending that no honest citizen needed to fear it. Its leaders trumpeted about serving the people, then shook up the political order to retain their grip on power – as has Mr. Putin, now the longest-serving Russian leader since Stalin. But we in the West lack this bitter Soviet experience. So today many of us gobble up the troll state’s dezinformatsiya as truth, and our own disingenuous operators – unprincipled politicians, virtual disruptors and digital kleptocracies – have learned how to use the same techniques to target and manipulate our behaviour, to shape us. As Europe sleepwalks into a perilous new age, opportunists – from Mr. Putin to local populists – have made a joke of truth.
Thirty years ago I left home with the certainty of a young man, living by certain principles, prizing certain values. Over the decades, those certainties – those ethics – have sustained me and I’ve continued to live by them as much as possible. Yet, in 1989 just 11 countries had border walls or fences. Today, there are more than 70 around the world.
Chekhov – that great Russian storyteller – foresaw that in his homeland “a type of toad and crocodile will come to power more frightful than anything that ever came out of Spain’s Inquisition – a narrow-minded, self-righteous, overbearingly ambitious type, totally lacking in conscience. Charlatans and wolves in sheep’s clothing will be able to lie and dissemble to their heart’s content.” In our gullibility we have allowed a toxic nihilism to undermine objectivity, deepening splits in our societies and even changing the way we think.
At the dawn of another new age, I – we – need to find a way to keep faith in tolerance, empathy and the promise of the future. We need to be aware of how our behaviour is manipulated, and so empower ourselves to manage it. We need to be wary of simplistic interpretations and seductive fictions. Democracies are good at correcting their errors. To protect ours, we need to strive for clarity and truth.