On communist lies and current ones: Most people have a breaking point when it comes to swallowing falsehoods

When Moscow journalist Marina Ovsyannikova recently walked in front of the cameras during a live news broadcast on Russian state television displaying an anti-war placard she was taking a huge personal risk.

By Ian Ellis
Thursday, 7th April 2022, 7:28 am
Updated Thursday, 7th April 2022, 11:18 am
Marina Ovsyannikova
Marina Ovsyannikova

The placard read: “No war, stop the war, don’t believe the propaganda, they are lying to you here.”

Ms Ovsyannikov’s demonstration came after she had also issued a video in which she said she was ashamed of having promoted Kremlin propaganda on the television channel.

The mother of two said that after being arrested she was subjected to a relentless interrogation during which she was denied both sleep and legal representation. She was issued with a fine before being released.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The moment Marina interrupted the broadcast

It is unclear whether Ms Ovsyannikov will face any further action by the authorities as the fine reportedly related only to the video.

She was, of course, not alone in making a public protest.

After the war in Ukraine commenced, public street protests in Russia were so challenging to the authorities that a law was swiftly introduced allowing for punishment of up to 15 years in prison for anyone who makes a public statement contradicting the Kremlin’s line.

Most people, however, do have a sense of integrity and when involved in deception may well find that there can indeed come a breaking point.

That is the point at which lying weighs so heavily on the conscience that the person simply cannot continue with the wrongdoing.

Even Pontius Pilate’s wife was so deeply disturbed by a dream because of “that innocent man”, Jesus, that she sent her husband a message during the trial beseeching him to have nothing more to do with the matter before him.

Samuel Johnson, declared by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to be “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”, wrote in 1758 in his weekly press series, The Idler: “Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.”

Indeed later, in 1918, the US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson is reported to have coined the well known saying that the first casualty of war is the truth, and then in 1949 the English writer, Theodore Dalrymple, added that truth is also the first casualty of populism.

I remember visiting a pastor and his wife across the Iron Curtain in East Berlin in 1968. The pastor’s parish faced many unwelcome local government restrictions. It was the year in which the Warsaw Pact countries invaded what then was Czechoslovakia. The purpose of the invasion was to crush the liberalising reforms of the president, Alexander Dubček, who had to resign after the takeover.

The then communist-controlled newspaper which I bought that day in East Berlin, Neues Deutschland, carried the false headline that Prague citizens had welcomed the invaders.

That is precisely what Vladimir Putin so wrongly assured his troops would be the reaction of ordinary Ukrainians when Russian forces would march into their country.

How do we know who is telling the truth and who is peddling lies? The Christian will instinctively say that it is, to quote the Bible, “by their fruits”.

A person whose life is characterised by kindness, goodness, and love will be infinitely more credible than one whose life is characterised by thoughtlessness, lack of compassion and cruelty.

A fundamental difference between autocracies and truly democratic societies is that in the latter a president can be impeached and a prime minister can be criticised over “parties” or “gatherings” during lockdown. No such thing can happen in the former.

There is an immense difference between liberal democracy and autocracy. After the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia could have been led towards liberal democracy but sadly today ordinary Russians are faced with Mr Putin, his associates and oligarchs.

The Church of England’s Bishop Richard Harries has said: “The only secure bulwark against authoritarian rule are really strong public institutions: the rule of law backed by an independent judiciary, a free press and a government accountable to a parliament that has been genuinely freely elected. These safeguard the possibility of truth in public life and that truth desperately matters.”

Not that even in liberal democracies is the truth always told.

There can be government cover-ups, corruption and secret deals.

Yet in the kind of society that Bishop Harries has so concisely and effectively characterised, falsehoods can be discovered and brought to public light by the free press, and if crimes have been committed those involved can be brought before the law administered by judges who are independent of government.

These are all values that we in the western world cherish and they are values that Ukrainians are defending, in the face of unspeakable barbarity, with astonishing courage and determination.

Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette.

More from the News Letter: