Will Russians Choose Truth or Lies?
Will Russians Choose Truth or Lies?
Russians are facing a psychological conundrum all human beings confront every day, but at a far more consequential level. It is this: How much will they choose to know, or deliberately not know? Their answer may decide the course of history.
If the war of aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin against Ukraine is the world’s most urgent problem, the question about how ordinary Russians sift and interpret information about it is the meta-problem. It’ll determine whether Putin stays in power, and whether he gets away with escalating this conflict into an even bigger catastrophe.
In this war, two mutually exclusive perceptions of reality are clashing. In the one prevailing outside of Russia, Ukrainians are the victims, while Putin is the aggressor and the perpetrator of war crimes, as he bombs millions of innocent women, children and men.
Inside Russia, Putin’s propaganda tries to flip this reality. Here, the Ukrainians are pawns of a menacing West, as well as fascists who must be “de-Nazified and de-militarized,” before they can commit a genocide against ethnic Russians. There is no war, only a “special military operation.”
Creating and weaponizing such a universe of lies is what Putin, with his KGB training, specializes in. What remains to be seen is whether his fiction will be accepted as truth in Russia. Many Russians still get some information from independent sources, however dangerous and difficult that has become. That’s motivated thousands to protest against the war, knowing they’d get arrested. But most others appear to be buying into Putin’s alternative narrative.
The psychology that makes this pliancy possible is complex but all too human. Social scientists have long studied the phenomenon of “motivated ignorance.” Often, not knowing things — about your kids, spouse, political donors or whatever — is the easier way.
For example, a lot of Romanians under the Ceausescu regime during the Cold War could and should have known that disabled children and orphans were in effect being kept in concentration camps. But most chose not to know. A lot of Catholic bishops and priests could have noticed the sexual abuse perpetrated for decades by other men of the cloth. They chose not to. There are countless examples.
Sometimes such decisions to turn a blind eye are deliberate. Most of the time, however, they are subconscious and involve cognitively sophisticated self-deception. In groups, this can take the form of so-called “spirals of silence.” People are afraid of social isolation, and therefore send and receive cues about which facts are safe or unsafe to acknowledge publicly.
The closest analog to the situation Russians find themselves in today is that of Germans in World War II. In 1939, most of them publicly accepted Adolf Hitler’s propaganda that Germany was “encircled” by aggressors, that ethnic Germans in eastern Europe were threatened by genocide, and that the Third Reich had to fight back.
But as Nicholas Stargardt documents hauntingly in “The German War,” Germans not only could have known, but actually did know, a lot more than they admitted publicly.
Stargardt perused the diaries of soldiers on the front and their wives at home, as well as letters between them and other private correspondence. Well hidden among the banalities of daily life — how are the kids, are they doing their homework, and so forth — a coded language wafted from between the lines. At home, apartments became available because Jewish owners had moved away. How much effort did it take for people not to ask where and why? At the front lines, husbands, brothers, fathers and sons witnessed atrocities but didn’t know what to label them.
The word “Holocaust” would not be applied to the mass murder until years later. But a knowledge of it, vague or concrete, was the invisible subtext in these writings, often because the writers presumed their audience would understand.
This explains why Germans increasingly “mixed anxieties about their culpability with a sense of their own victimhood,” as Stargardt puts it. The war must never come home, the diarists implied, because they will do unto us as we did to them. You can’t have such thoughts unless you’re clear about who “they” are, and what you did to them. Unsurprisingly, when the Allies incinerated Hamburg, Dresden and other cities, Germans called these air raids “Jewish terror bombing.”
In this way, to Germans then as to Russians today, ignorance is not actually bliss, as the cliche has it. Instead, ignorance is alibi. For years after the war, many Germans insisted they knew nothing.
Refusing to see certain things, even obvious ones, is apparently part of our nature. But so is having a conscience. The duel between these impulses takes place daily in every human mind. For the sake of Ukrainians — and indeed the world — let us hope that enough Russians will find the courage to know.