We were having a few drinks in a rented flat in the centre of Grozny in late 1994. A bunch of foreign reporters, including myself, who were usually based in Moscow, had been sent to check out the strange conflict flickering in Chechnya. It was late at night. The room was full of fag smoke. Someone played a guitar, inevitably. There was vodka. Outnumbered women journalists were enduring attention from men who were digging warfare, and living their best life to date. In a few cases, it was vice-versa: young male producers made interesting targets for seasoned female reporters.
At the time, the background noise from the Kremlin was that if Chechen rebels didn’t stand down, there would be unspecified but terrible consequences. But nobody truly believed the Russian general staff meant it. We scoffed, and had big evenings not far from a market where you could buy grenades, AK-47s and God knows what else for cash.
It had to be a bluff, a pose – none of it made sense. The men in Moscow weren’t that crazy. The president, maybe. But he was surrounded by grown-ups. Right? (Which might sound familiar.)
To date, it had been a semi-phoney conflict: an insurrectionist government in Chechnya was being harried and periodically attacked by ‘local’ troops directed by the GRU – Russian military intelligence – who used as their figureheads ‘local’ leaders from ‘breakaway’ areas of the republic. (Probably also rings a bell.)
The then Russian defence minister, the famously corrupt Pavel Grachev, had boasted that he could take Grozny in two hours with one airborne regiment. It would be a walk in the park. So don’t tempt us. (A final comparison.)
Suddenly, amid our by now somewhat debauched soirée, a correspondent from Sky News shouted: 'Bloody hell! They’re actually doing it!'
The drunken strumming of a local hack came to a stop, drowned out by massive explosions, very close by, and the sound of jet planes returning for another run. All of us sobered up, piled into the nearest vehicles, the competitive journalist instinct overriding inebriation and also good sense.
Just up the road, an apartment building was smouldering. Walls that should have been protecting those dreaming in their beds were there no longer. I could see someone on an upper floor wandering around her bathroom.
At ground level, the camera lights reveal a man covered in plaster dust and soot, his hair literally up on end, arms spread wide and hands gesturing madly, as though trying to grasp the impossibility of the moment. His eyes and mouth were wide open, but he had no words. We filmed.
A few days later, I returned to our bureau in Moscow. There was admin to do and there were faxes to look through. One was from a government information service. It quoted Oleg Soskovets, a now forgotten official, then deputy prime minister with the portfolio for security matters:
'The bandit groupings in Chechnya have taken to blowing up their own apartment blocks in order to simulate the effects of air raids.'
I couldn’t believe what I was reading.
A press release that followed accepted that there may have been air raids after all, but said they were by ‘unidentified aircraft’.
Planes from Lichtenstein, I wondered? Is that what you’re saying? Maybe devilishly clever pilots from outer space with missions we can only guess at? Given what I had seen in Grozny, I was astonished by the insane scale of the lies.
I kept the fax, because it seemed so utterly egregious. A bad version of Nazi propaganda. Goebbels on an off day. It had to be the exception rather than the rule. I got the print-out framed and hung it in my toilet, the better to examine it at my leisure with a mix of wonderment and horror.
Only now do I recall that at no point at the time did the Kremlin call what was happening ‘a war’. It was referred to as an ‘operation to restore constitutional order’. Much as what is taking place almost thirty years later in Ukraine is also not a war, but a ‘special military operation’.
Among the many compliments paid to Vladimir Putin’s version of tyranny is a supposed special and novel gift for devious information warfare. As though he were some kind of post-modern genius: Foucault with novichok and tanks.
The truth is that he is merely an inheritor of the ingrained governing DNA. Pathological lying to foreigners and one’s own citizens is standard operating procedure.
The late dissident Soviet author Vladimir Voinovich said, at the twilight of the USSR, that his domestic critics had never appreciated ‘a method that is very alien to us – depicting reality as it is.’
Opposition figures like Alexei Navalny will know what he meant. The anti-corruption campaigner has called out the astonishing chutzpah of self-appointed officials who demand a frugal observance of cultural pieties – skrepi, in Russian – while rewarding themselves with grotesque luxury and big second homes in Italy and Spain. Having survived attempted assassination by poisoning, Navalny, already behind bars, was sentenced this week to nine years in jail for his troubles.
A great many Russian journalists have been killed under Putin. And, in recent days, those who remain have been given the choice of silence or exile, including very brave friends from the BBC Russian service. It is, in effect, against the law to tell the truth. Now more than ever, you cannot dishonour a principle taken for granted by many in the country: 'menshe znaesh, luchshe spish’ – the less you know, the better you sleep.
So to think that Putin and his acolytes at outlets like Russia Today have some special talent for mendacity is both to ignore the past and pay such dismal characters an undeserved compliment. Falsehood has a serious pedigree here.
It is also seems to be attractive: some of my former Russian colleagues rapidly jumped ship and joined the disinformation bandwagon when it was being lavishly constructed. A producer at Associated Press Television, who used to tuck into Big Macs in the nineties and enjoyed being paid in dollars, became a Russia Today founding grandee. A BBC reporter I used to work with in Moscow picked up a contract to run the UK bureau of Sputnik, the written companion to the poison-laced broadcast offering.
There is an often-voiced idea that what happens in Russia, and what Russia is doing today in Ukraine, is the fault of myopic or malign western leaders. As if in some state of nature, like noble savages, Russians would be at peace with their neighbours and themselves, were it not for ‘us’. So one logical conclusion would be that these two people I once tried to cover the news with were compelled to talk nonsense for money because of something I did, or failed to do.
This approach simply seems untrue to human nature, which we know allows us to believe several incompatible things with honest fervour if it suits us to do so.
In the case of oligarchs and KGB men, maybe it’s that the fabulous riches gained by robbing your country are actually deserved because you’re protecting the nation in an ineffable but very important way.
Or in the case of my ex-team mates, perhaps that telling outright lies at home and abroad somehow serves a greater truth. Is that’s how they square it with their consciences, as they enjoy dual citizenships and more than one pension scheme? Or possibly it wasn’t ideology, or the anger of the scorned: they just fancied the money. Or all three together. How would I know?
But it is surely better to assume such men have moral autonomy – that theirs were freely reached decisions, rather than the inevitable consequence of mistreatment or misunderstanding by western co-workers. The latter view would be deeply patronising: bigotry verging on racism.
Whatever the post-Soviet catechism of these people, it falls within a long tradition of deceit: the idea that you can change abject reality by renaming it. The problem is, of course, that at some point people get tired of being fed bullshit and start to speak up.
The best satirists write a cigarette paper’s breadth from the truth, and Voinovich was renowned for that. Indeed, he was regarded at his death in 2018 as prophetic:
'People keep saying that all the bad things I write come true, so I’m going to write something good.'
That’s not mere jest. It’s at heart a strong defence of the importance of choosing words well – truthfully, however old-fashioned the concept. It’s also a statement of agency, and therefore a good reason to treat with scorn the assertion that ‘if it wasn’t for us, none of this would be happening’. How very self-obsessed to think that Russians are incapable of evil behaviour without our having a hand in it.
Oleg Soskovets, the hero of the fax in my toilet about how Chechens were faking air raids, might even agree. He’s still alive and will celebrate his 74th birthday this spring, if Wikipedia is to be believed. How could one be sure, though? Perhaps a journalist could find out and report back. OK, perhaps not in Russia.
Meanwhile, a friend advised me not to look at the ex-BBC Sputnik guy’s Twitter feed, because it would make me angry. So of course I did. A week into the war in Ukraine, the man posted this comment below a video of bombed out residential buildings: ‘What makes you think the Russians did it?’
Nichego ne menyaetsya, as they say where he comes from. Nothing changes.