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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Polluting Public Discourse

Perhaps I am out of the loop these days. But the rumors that come my way are not what they used to be. There was a time, Gorbachev's time, when they had an unsurpassed richness of invention. They were what I called the people's alternative news broadcasts, and they had the force of myth.

Nobody ever died in them. Leonid Brezhnev, for example, was still alive and well and living with a 30-year-old and two beautiful young children in Western Samoa. Yury Gagarin had not been killed in a plane crash -- he was alive, but tied to a hospital bed in a lunatic asylum. Even Stalin's hatchet-man, the brutal Lavrenty Beria, went on and on, before finally kicking the bucket in a sumptuous Brazilian palace, and leaving a fortune to his native Georgia in -- wait for it -- disposable hypodermic syringes.

Meanwhile, those who were really alive, and could be seen on television, lived an off-camera life that might have come from "The Arabian Nights." Gorbachev, for example, had a place in the Crimea stacked with gold and precious jewels. He also had an American submarine standing by in case of a putsch and a secret new aircraft which could make the journey to Moscow in under 40 minutes.

Because no one in the West wanted to buy copies of his first book, the Soviet Embassy in London was stacked to the rafters with hundreds of thousands of them, bought with hard currency, so that he could top the best-seller list. None of this could actually be said in public, you understand, because we had to be nice to him. He was, after all -- as foretold in the Book of Revelations -- the ruler of the last kingdom of the Earth before Armageddon: the man called Mikhail with the mark of the beast on his forehead!

When alternative newspapers first appeared, a lot of this wonderful scuttlebutt finally arrived in print. I remember reading, for example, in something called "Russian Newsman," that it was George Bush who had appointed Gorbachev general secretary, at a secret meeting in Switzerland. I also read that, because Gorbachev had fulfilled the Nazi dream of breaking up the Soviet Union, there were streets and squares named after him all over Germany. The proof of all this, apparently -- the final, unassailable truth -- was that the names of Gorbachev and Hitler began with the same letter! (Well, they do, if only in Russian.)

At the back of all this myth-making and rumormongering there seemed to me, at the beginning at least, to be a sort of cockamamie logic. If you have been consistently lied to for 70 years, after all, then everything and anything is possible except what you hear on the evening news. By these lights maybe Beria did escape to Brazil. Maybe Shevardnadze did sell off the Bering Sea to the Americans for his private profit. Maybe Gagarin survived his plane crash; maybe Yeltsin was a Japanese spy; maybe the Moscow Metro is built in the shape of a Star of David. It was possible; it is possible -- and in any case the local rule applied: The authorities lie, so the more they deny it, the higher the percentage of truth it must contain.

The problem, of course, is that when you have lived long enough on this diet of alternative rumors, then the idea of truth finally loses all its moorings. Everything is equally possible, and truth begins to belong to whomever has the widest currency or the loudest voice. This is what happened when the world of rumors, as well as gossip, myth and blatant invention, invaded not only the newspapers, but also the parliament building. The universe of public discourse was contaminated; a forum was created in which virtually nothing was agreed or certain at all.

It is this which makes coming back here after a trip abroad so irremediably strange. For the Western world of fact and news and truth disappears and gives way to a world that lives by absolutely different rules -- like the Middle Ages, or China.

I am not simply talking here about gradations of truth: the differently souped-up versions of events that are passed on by different friends and neighbors and newspapers. ("Get out of town! Armed neo-Nazis are invading the Kremlin!") I am talking about a world in which all the familiar landmarks of evidence and argument and logic have disappeared; a world in which the news is not that which is fit to print, but often something that was simply made up by a journalist or a politician the day before -- on the basis that if it is not true, then it ought to be. I sometimes think that the world of rumors has simply been privatized, like so much of everything else around here. The best rumors -- the best lies -- are all privately owned.