The chance that Russia’s track and field team will participate at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games next month looks increasingly slim after the International Olympic Committee backed a ban of Russian athletes because of the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs. Even as Moscow makes a last-minute appeal, evidence is mounting of a state-run doping program that extends into other Olympic disciplines as well.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reaction is telling. Doping is a global phenomenon, he said on the day of the IOC ruling, echoing his standard retort to questions about corruption in Russia. “If someone tries to politicize something in this area, I think it’s a big mistake,” Putin said and suggested that his nation was the victim of “anti-Russian politics.”
In fact, the doping scandal is a symptom of a much larger problem: the casual disregard for the truth that has become a hallmark of Putin’s rule. In a country where elections are rigged, lawsuits are fabricated, and state TV spews lies around the clock, it’s hard to know what ordinary citizens are to believe anymore. Beyond politics, corruption has not only gnawed away at Russia’s reputation as a sports powerhouse, but cheapened the prestige of its once-vaunted institutions of higher education.
Putin’s initial denial of Russia’s 2014 military intervention in Crimea — followed by a later admission of it — was the clearest demonstration of the Kremlin’s belief that the ends justify the means. Many Russians seem to agree.
In a poll taken by the independent Levada Center in April 2015, 37 percent of respondents said they believed their government that Russia wasn’t militarily involved in eastern Ukraine. An almost equal portion, 38 percent, said that “even if there are Russian soldiers and military equipment in Ukraine, it’s the correct policy for Russia to deny these facts in the current global situation.” Eleven percent said the denial of Russian involvement would only lead to an escalation of tensions and hinder a settlement of the conflict.
Lying has become just one more weapon in Russia’s “hybrid war” against its multitudinous foes. The favorite defense from Kremlin apologists is that “everybody does it,” citing the U.S. government’s false alarm over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as the most egregious example.
Of course Russians are not more prone to prevarication than anyone else, and Western politicians are caught lying and cheating on a daily basis. The gleeful misrepresentation of the truth by Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, shows the lazy appeal of placing personal prejudices over an examination of the facts. But Trump’s way has not yet been validated in an election; in Putin’s Russia, lying has long become part of the system.
Russia’s political culture is rooted in a cynicism that was born in the late Soviet era, when even committed Communists couldn’t deny the huge gap between their ideals and the reality of proletarian dictatorship. It was hard to have any ethical qualms about cheating an immoral system that seemed designed primarily to make people’s lives miserable. What’s more, bending the rules became a survival technique amid the shortages that accompanied the end of Communism and the chaotic transition to capitalism.
In the absence of rules, laws, and institutions that would safeguard the most vulnerable, those who knew the most tricks got the farthest, reaping Russia’s riches. Even today, it’s often impossible to follow one law without breaking another. In the Russian experience of the past 30 years, honesty has meant penury.
Communist-era dissidents such as Vaclav Havel described the deleterious effects of a system built on fear and lies. “Lying can never save us from another lie,” said the Czech writer. The best way to overcome a repressive regime is to “live in truth.”
Following the peaceful Velvet Revolution in 1989, Havel became the president of his country and later one of Putin’s fiercest critics.
Russia had its Velvet Revolution moment five years ago, when Muscovites from all walks of life surprised Putin by demanding honest elections and an end to institutionalized lying. Although diehard Communists and Russian nationalists also took to the streets, the impetus came from middle-class Muscovites, who wanted to live free and honest lives like any other Europeans.
The Kremlin struck back by saddling activists with legal cases to deter future protest and tainting leaders with criminal investigations to show that they were no better than anybody else. The world Putin inhabits is a dangerous place full of dirty, double-crossing backstabbers. Blunders, or wonders, never just happen — they are instigated by equally cynical adversaries at the U.S. State Department or CIA.
Responding to a lie with facts often has the unintended consequence of reducing the truth to just another opinion, no less valid than the original falsehood. Irony, it turns out, is a much more effective weapon.
After Wales ousted Russia from the European soccer championships 3-0 last month, a meme did the rounds on the Russian internet in which Putin says: “Those weren’t our players. You can buy a uniform in any store.” The reference was to Putin’s famous fib that the troops occupying Crimea two years ago were not Russian, but locals dressed in army surplus uniforms.