I’m old enough to have witnessed life during Soviet times. In 1974, as a student of Russian language and literature, I attended a summer language course at the seaside resort of Sestroretsk, northwest of Leningrad. Our group was accompanied by a Russian ‘guide’ who, we later found out, was reporting to the authorities about our ‘activities’. Later I understood that ‘official’ mistrust towards foreigners was a remnant of Stalin’s times. On the other hand, ‘normal’ Russian people could be extremely friendly and hospitable. Yet, they had to be cautious…
A few years later, when I had joined a Research Institute in Bonn, then capital of West Germany, I regularly read Soviet material, books, articles and above all the Pravda newspaper. Reading the official organ of the Communist Party was necessary to understand what was going on, or at least what the authorities wanted to be presented as the ‘truth’.
Several years after that, when Gorbachev had become General Secretary of the Communist Party and leader of the Soviet Union, it was fascinating to watch how ‘Perestrojka’ (Reconstruction) and ‘Glasnost’ (Openness) were radically changing public life: now people could learn about many previously hidden facts of Soviet life – Stalin’s crimes (which led to the creation of ‘Memorial’), the secret protocol of the Hitler-Stalin pact (which lead to the carving up of Eastern Europe) and many more previously hidden truths. There was no more fear about talking openly. Despite the growing economic difficulties, there was freedom to read, watch and learn about the real truths.
Life in the Soviet Union before Gorbachev had consisted of two types of truth: – the official one, presented in ‘Pravda’ and the endless speeches and slogans of Party officials; and the real one, which nobody could talk about openly. Since the telephones of citizens were bugged and nobody could be sure whether the KGB could listen to conversations in private homes, the only way to speak openly was to go outside. Soviet intellectuals were very much conscious of this fact of life – the existence of two kinds of ‘truth’ – the Communist Party’s and the real one.
During Donald Trump’s Presidency and the ‘Brexit’ campaign in 2016, people in the West could experience what it means to live with ‘alternative facts’ and fabricated ‘truths’. We witnessed the poisoning of public life, when ruthless politicians suppressed truth and produced their own ‘Pravda’. Unfortunately, this poison has not disappeared.
If you read my November 2020 article about life in post-Soviet Russia under ‘Stal-Put-in’, you can see how Putin brought the return of totalitarianism. Now in February 2022, having closed down the very last free media channels, Putin is now able to exclusively present his distorted version of ‘truth’ to his people:
- the Ukrainian ‘fascists’ are attacking the helpless Russian-speaking people in the Crimea and the Donbass;
- the massive Russian military intervention and absolutely ruthless war against civilians in Ukrainian cities is nothing but a ‘spetsnaz’ (spetsialnovo naznacheniya – special operation) to ‘liberate’ the Ukrainian citizens.
Like in ‘good old Soviet times’, normal Russian citizens now have no access to media other than the official ones, closely controlled by the authorities. The only difference is that before the late 1990s, the Secret Service had been supervised by the Communist Party. Under Putin it is the Secret Service alone which controls the truth.
Don’t say that history doesn’t repeat itself!