The cost of lies

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The cost of lies

When Kim Philby defected to the USSR in 1963, he got a surprise. Even though he’d spent nearly thirty years as the KGB’s top agent in the West, burrowing his way through both MI5 and MI6, the Soviets still didn’t trust him and gave him no formal role in their intelligence set-up. Traitors like him were considered too good at lying to be reliable and so he ended up becoming a sort of PR tool for the KGB. His book, My Silent War, showed the unmistakable influence of his Moscow handlers. Philby also lectured at spy schools behind the Iron Curtain and in 2016, footage emerged of him giving a talk in 1981 to members of the East German Stasi.

One of the points Philby emphasised to his audience was the importance of the lie. No matter how glaring the facts, he said, no matter how cornered you are, keep lying. “If they confront you with a document with your own handwriting then it’s a forgery — just deny everything.”

“They interrogated me to break my nerve and force me to confess,” said Philby. “And all I had to do really was keep my nerve. So my advice to you is to tell all your agents that they are never to confess.”

In 1984, three years after Philby’s speech, a new Russian intelligence officer from Leningrad was seconded to work with the East German Stasi. His name was Vladimir Putin. He missed Philby’s lecture, but the Englishman’s career as a double agent was one of the KGB’s greatest triumphs and Putin will have learned the details of that operation. He will almost certainly have known of Philby’s lecture.

Philby was the great private deceiver, a man who hid in the secret world and lied while he hid. Though he springs from the same roots as Philby, Putin has become something different. The Russian President lies, but he does so publicly. He doesn’t hide. He lies and doesn’t care who knows it and doesn’t care when his foreign adversaries can see through those lies. Philby became an icon of secret deception; Putin has become a global transmitter of untruths. But Putin’s war in Ukraine has shown the world who he really is. We know the truth about him now. Putin’s lies won’t cut it any more.

I can still remember vividly, in 2018, standing in the open-air shopping centre in Salisbury as a group of men in white biohazard suits cut up the bench on which Sergei and Julia Skripal had been found unconscious. The Skripals had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent, of a kind developed in Russia, a fact quickly established at the Porton Down testing facility.

There was an extraordinary dissonance between the humdrum normality of that small West Country town and the fact that it had been the scene of a chemical weapons attack. The busses were still running, the cafés were open and in the shopping centre where the bench was being dissected, ducks were wandering about in little groups. One family of birds went over to the bench to have a look and then started waddling over to where I was standing. The police by the cordon backed away as they came near. There was a very real danger that the ducks might have stepped in something.

The situation was made all the more disconcerting by the Kremlin’s reaction, which was, in line with Philby’s guidance, to deny any involvement. The lie was delivered with the finality of a descending guillotine. The poisoning had nothing to do with Russia. Sure, Skripal was a former Russian intelligence operative. Sure, he had defected to Britain and worked for MI6. Even so, Russia had nothing to do with it.

The lie was blatant to the point of absurdity. The nerve agent was Russian, the victim was Russian and the two men caught on CCTV taking a train from London to Salisbury on the day of the poisoning and who then immediately returned to London and flew to Russia were also Russian. Not only that, but an investigation by the open source intelligence group Bellingcat identified the two men as officers of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence organisation.

And then, in a near comical twist, these two GRU suspects appeared on Russian state-controlled television for an interview in which they claimed to be tourists. They had visited the town, they explained, in order to view the spire of Salisbury cathedral.

It was a lie so idiotic that it was almost unsettling. How could they deny their obvious responsibility? The blatancy of the Russian denial began to take on a disconcerting force of its own. The unwillingness to own up seemed to leave the whole business in a state of limbo, as if it were a crime without solution. Perhaps they were telling the truth. Perhaps, despite all the evidence, they didn’t do it. Perhaps it was we who were mistaken.

Taken alongside other events, it is now very clear that the Kremlin lied about the Skripal poisoning, just as it had lied about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, another former Russian intelligence officer. He was killed in London in 2006, having been poisoned with polonium, a highly unusual radiological agent of the sort that could only have come from a state-backed organisation. The very exoticism of the method of killing seemed almost a taunt, designed to emphasise Russian state involvement at the same time as the Kremlin was denying responsibility. When in 2020 the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned — also using a “novichok” nerve agent — Moscow claimed innocence. 

Just as he lied about these killings and attempted killings, and many others like them, Putin denied that he ever intended to invade Ukraine. As we now see, this was a lie. And now that he has started his war, the lie is further contorted so that, despite the presence of tens of thousands of Russian troops engaged in Ukraine, with thousands more on their way, and despite the missile strikes on apartment blocks in Ukrainian cities, in Putin’s version of events Russia remains the victim. Ukraine is the aggressor. Russia’s state-controlled media has even been forbidden from referring to Russia’s offensive as a “war”.

Other leaders have dallied with this Putinesque strategy of sustained untruth. Trump was a fan, the crowning example being his refusal to accept the result of the 2020 presidential election, which he lost. Trump, and a number of his supporters, still claim that the election was fixed, despite never having provided any evidence to support that claim. The former president has never concealed his admiration for the Russian leader. In recent remarks, Trump described Putin’s buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border, saying, “This is genius. Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful.”

But while people in positions of authority have always lied and deceived, it is far harder to lie in the age of the smartphone. Twenty years ago the policeman who murdered George Floyd would almost certainly have got away with it. He would have filed a report stating that a man had died resisting arrest, and that would have been the end of it. But someone was there with a smartphone and filmed the whole incident.

In Ukraine, a huge amount of video footage has appeared on social media since the war began, showing the full extent, and horror, of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the face of this, outright denials by the Kremlin have lost their disconcerting edge. The lies have no purchase. They don’t work any more.

And at a different point on the scale of deceit we come to other lies, more humdrum and petty-seeming perhaps, but on the same spectrum nonetheless. Lies such as, for example, “there was no party”. But we now have the photographs of those parties, which include the very man who claimed they never happened. “If they confront you with a document with your own handwriting, then it’s a forgery — just deny everything”. 

To bring up “Partygate” may seem unfair, absurd, almost a category error. But it is not. Putin’s war has reminded us of the terrible, corrosive effect of lies on public life. Lies destroy everything. They erode the very stuff that makes society function. Individuals tend to expect a certain degree of freedom and opportunity in their everyday existence, but a society run by a government with no regard for the truth cannot provide that freedom. Lies will inevitably crush it.

A ruler who lies must remove the people who bring his lies to wider attention. That is why Putin has been so relaxed about the murder of Russian journalists including, most notoriously, Anna Politkovskaya, the brilliant journalist who investigated the atrocities committed by Putin’s forces during the Chechen war. The liar cannot stand a free press. If his lies are to stand, then the media must come under his control.

The liar also cannot allow political opposition. Opponents draw attention to his lies, and — worse — to his mistakes, which show up the lies and broken promises all the more clearly. That is why Putin has been so unconcerned by the attempted murder of opposition politicians such as Alexei Navalny and the actual murder of political opponents including Boris Nemtsov, shot dead near Red Square in 2015. At the time Nemtsov was organising opposition to Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

And so the liar must take control of the media and of the entire political apparatus — including the military and security agencies — in order to shield his untruths from scrutiny. Elections are a formality. From there, control of the economy and its largest institutions inevitably follows, brought into the fold in case the businessmen should become confused about who is really in charge. The economy becomes another tool in the service of the liar’s national narrative — and also his bank balance. In this way, the crushing weight of political lies destroys all hope of the free, open society.

This is how Putin made his Russia. And there he sits, a strange, Tsar-like figure seated alone at the far end of a comical Bond-villain table, his face sealed behind a mask of plastic surgery in which only his eyes, sunken and dark, seem to move, quick and paranoid. He represents the absurd end-state of the career political liar.

It is tempting to dismiss Putin, reassuring ourselves that our own politicians, though they perhaps bend the truth from time to time, are nothing like him. We tell ourselves that it couldn’t happen here. And yet Kim Philby was an Englishman. It has happened here. Putin reminds us of a difficult fact — we are just as prone to the lie as anyone. The price is paid in vigilance.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 92%
  • Interesting points: 95%
  • Agree with arguments: 93%
74 ratings - view all

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