The Politics of Denial: The Malaysian Airliner, Doping, Dissernet, Etc.
July 17, 2016
The second anniversary of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 14 over Donbass has been marked by the publication of articles showing how Russian officials covered their tracks by providing the public with knowingly false information. Although these lies have been exposed (including by the New York Times), the exposés are unlikely to alter the official doctrine of the Russian authorities (shared by a good portion of Russian society), which we might term a politics of denial, the harsh, aggressive rejection of the very possibility one could be wrong (“we are always right and can never be wrong”), the deliberate denial of own’s one guilt and diverting it to third parties or even to victims, and, finally, representing oneself as the victim of biased slander (“everyone does it, but only we get blamed for it”). In this sense, misinformation concerning the downed Boeing, the actions of Russian sporting authorities vis-a-vis the doping scandals, the public shielding of high-ranking targets of Dissernet, and, to a certain extent, the aggressive reaction of a part of the public to the recent flash mob highlighting sexual violence are phenomena of the same order.
A while back, I wrote a column about “living a lie,” how lying had become the social norm in Russia. I would add that the politics of denial, as practiced by the Russian authorities, is today almost the principal means of generating collective identity, for building the Russian nation, and suchlike pursuits, whose objective is turning the public into accomplices of the “crooks and thieves.” While the public does not exactly support the moves made by the authorities, it is also not willing to disagree with them. Two years ago, almost no Russians believed that Flight MH14 was shot down by Russians and/or the Eastern Ukrainian separatists, and now a majority believes accusations that Russian athletes are guilty of doping are unfair and politically motivated.
But I will repeat what I wrote back in 2015.
“Living a lie […] is not only a moral category but also a behavioral strategy on the part of the Russian regime and its loyalists. This strategy has one major disadvantage, as once remarked by Abraham Lincoln. You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time (including, I would add, yourself). Sooner or later, Russians who have become accustomed to living a lie will be unable to hide from an uncomfortable truth by rejecting certain thoughts and words. And then, in all likelihood, the disappointment, inevitable in this case, will hit them like a severe hangover.”
Vladimir Gel’man is a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP) and Helsinki University. Read my translation of his recent article on bad governance in Russia. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo by the Russian Reader