I would propose an alternate subhead for this book, “Sort of True Travels …,” because this account of journeys through Russia and nearby states is delivered by a distinctly unreliable narrator. It reads like a cross between Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson.
Which is a very good thing, because Rory MacLean’s new book is darkly entertaining throughout, if not entirely to be believed. Like Twain’s camel that chokes to death trying to eat one of his manuscripts, gagging on “one of the mildest and gentlest statements of fact that I ever laid before a trusting public,” or the screeching bats (unseen by others) that attack Thompson in Las Vegas, many of the supposedly true details in this book serve a purpose larger than mere truth.
For the Sake of the Story
What MacLean is trying to do here is capture the craziness that has risen from the ashes of the old Soviet empire, and which is now insidiously infecting Western Europe and America—with the aid of Vladimir Putin’s clever, if linguistically challenged, cyber-saboteurs.
“Thirty years on, free speech and journalism have again been ‘replaced by blunt propaganda and primitive brainwashing,’” writes MacLean, quoting Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of a hugely successful collaborative science-fiction novel entitled Metro 2033. MacLean traces Putin’s rise to the bloody 1999 bombings of four Russian apartment blocks. Blamed by Putin on Chechen terrorists, the bombings, which killed hundreds, rallied the Russian public behind this bold new leader. But today the tragedies are widely suspected of having been engineered by Putin himself. He denies it vehemently, but has effectively blocked investigations that might lay the claim to rest. Several prominent journalists who have sought to independently confirm it and others who have attempted to draw attention to it have been murdered, many suspect by Russian agents. It is, therefore, not hard to believe. It stands to reason that a regime that peddles lies so assiduously is, in fact, founded on a particularly ugly one. But, in fairness (even if the word seems out of place), the allegation remains unproved.
MacLean traces Putin’s rise to the bloody 1999 bombings of four Russian apartment blocks.
MacLean buys it completely. Even if untrue, it works as a perfect founding myth for the slippery new world he’s navigating, one where “truth” is no longer a matter of fact, simply what one chooses to believe. “Lies became the glue that held people together,” he writes of post-Soviet Russia. When he relates this Putin origin story to a young Russian woman, she tells him, “This is not true.” And who’s to say she’s the one taken in? Whether ingesting hallucinogenic truffles with a Russian oligarch, or glimpsing a shower of gold in a remote mountain church (after taking powerful cold medication), MacLean is never quite sure even of what he sees with his own eyes. The book’s epigraph offers a definition of “pravda,” which is the Russian word for “truth” but also the name of the official Communist Party newspaper during the Soviet era, notoriously and unabashedly devoted to propaganda.
Fiction, Not Fact
Russians, MacLean argues, are historically inured to untruth, unlike those of us born and raised in what used to be called the Free World. Slavic cynicism and skepticism are deeply woven into the national character. No one expects to be told the truth, ever. Stories are simply a means to an end.
“In Soviet times, survival often meant lying. Only by spouting dogma could a child excel at school, a student win a place at university, a worker 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.” MacLean calls Russia “the troll state,” invoking the term for inflammatory cyber-personalities who sow discord, obfuscate, and spread untruths on the Internet.
“Today [its] lies target the West,” MacLean writes. Those of us raised on liberal democratic principles are sitting ducks. More trusting of institutions, journalism, and professions, we are, in consequence, suckers for dezinformatsiya. He interviews Adina, a Jewish woman employed at the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Russian agency that worked to promote Brexit and was named in the Mueller report as an architect of online efforts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential race and elect Donald Trump. Adina doesn’t feel good about the work she did helping to polarize British politics, but she wanted the paycheck. MacLean writes, “In our gullibility we allow Adina and her former co-workers to propagate a toxic nihilism, undermining objectivity, deepening splits in our societies and even changing the way we think.”
Russians, MacLean argues,
are historically inured to untruth.
No one expects to be told
the truth, ever.
So it’s only fitting that MacLean himself is an untrustworthy narrator. We want to believe stories that are so colorfully written, so moving (at times), and unfailingly wry. There’s the desperate Nigerian refugee Sami, whom he clumsily struggles to help escape deportation and complete a journey to the U.K. There’s Oleg Khorzhan—the Communist Party chairman of Transnistria, a breakaway republic on the eastern border of Moldova that remains stubbornly loyal to the former Soviet Union—who complains, without a hint of irony, that the Moldovans “stole our property.” There’s the former journalist who “had moved to Moscow to study history at university, an especially difficult subject as the past was always changing.”
The humor here is dark because it describes societies just a few years further down the path taken by Trump’s America, where traditional sources of information are all “failing” or “fake,” and where things are true because the president says so—his inauguration crowd the largest ever, Hurricane Dorian’s projected path altered by a hastily applied magic marker, his extortion phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky … “perfect.” These things would be hilarious if they were not also frightening. Trump is a fluent liar, if less skillful and ominous than Putin. But he is a liar with power, backed by a sophisticated propaganda machine (led by Fox News) and a devoted following that simply chooses to believe whatever he says, no matter how preposterous.
If you want to see where that leads, read Pravda Ha Ha. It does 1984 one better, because the dystopia MacLean describes already exists.