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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

KGB Club Preserves the Lie

Once in a while there appears an item in a newspaper that causes the eyes to goggle and the mouth to gape, however hardened the reader. One such, a couple of weeks ago, was an account of a press conference given by something called the "Club of State Security Veterans," i.e. ex-officers of the KGB.

The leaders of this club appeared "accompanied by several burly bodyguards" -- of whom the deputy president, one Sergei Obrezanov, said: "We are ready in case of attacks. We have always been like that -- why should we change now?"

Why indeed? With my skepticism-counter clicking in anticipation of a motherlode, I read on. And I eventually arrived at the purpose of the club, which was, according to Obrezanov, to help former KGB men to retrain for other jobs. "Any former KGB officer," he was reported as saying proudly, "is a potential manager, because his work was with people. He can work in tourism, hotels, or in publishing" -- which is, of course, exactly where he used to work, undercover.

Well, well. Click, click, click. Valery Velichko, the club's president, then stepped up to the plate, to announce that the club was strictly "non-political." Well, yes, he said, it did keep "extensive files" on political parties and movements in Russia, but these were not for publication, merely to enable members, ahem, to assess the "balance of forces."

At this point -- with my counter approaching authentic disbelief -- an intrepid journalist apparently stood up to inquire whether these former members of the KGB felt any remorse for the human rights violations of the past. Sergei Obrezanov appeared again, to bat clean-up on this one. "People forget one thing," he said authoritatively. "The KGB worked in the legal situation that existed at the time. These people were condemned by the courts. In the 1930s there was one legal system, in the 1960s another and now there's a third. That's the case," he added, "in any country."

Bingo! There it was: the continuous ping from the counter, the full -- as they say in England -- monty. Eyes duly goggled, mouth gaped. How on earth can Russians say such things? How can they?

Now as it happens these are questions that a reader once challenged me to answer. He said I'd made a pretty good stab in an earlier column ("Why Buy a Broken Bulb?") at explaining why it is that Russians steal. The next question I should address myself to, he said, was: Why do they lie?

Well, the first answer, I think, is that they don't lie the way we do. But then they aren't us. And such notions as truth and fact and history simply do not hang together and cohere for them, as they do, by and large, for Westerners. What is history, for example, for the ordinary Russian? Nothing but a projection of ideology into the past: a domain in which there is almost nothing that has not been written and rewritten, suppressed, invented and glorified by turns, to suit the needs of foreign policy or the national idea. Presiding over Russian history is the spirit of Humpty-Dumpty, who replied to Alice's "But words can't mean what you want them to mean" with "It just depends who is master." Say it loud enough and with enough authority, in other words, and sooner or later it will turn into the real McCoy. (This rule still applies.)

As for truth, well, what do you expect from a country in which there was once a ministry for it; in which it was simple sanity (for 70 years and more) to disbelieve whatever "truths" were in the newspapers or on the evening news? In these circumstances, the opposite might be true; anything at all might be true. Given the total absence of authentic information about their own country -- let alone others -- it is no wonder that Russians threw up shifting alternative "truths" of their own: a web of gossip and rumor, fantasy and speculation that took in the past, the present, the leadership, other countries -- everything. The rule was (again): If something was given wide enough currency -- and if the authorities denied it enough -- then maybe that meant that it was actually "true."

Ideology, then, mixed with an eternally open possibility. You can see this heady cocktail still deployed every day in the state Duma, in the newspapers, at political meetings -- and, yes, at the Club of State Security Veterans a couple of weeks ago. Truth -- in our sense -- has nothing at all to do with it. In any case, a "truth" in Russia -- or, rather, an ideological opinion -- is like one of those garments you wanted to throw away 10 years ago, and then decided to hold on to at the last moment. Well, given the cyclical nature of history here, it might just come back into vogue at any minute.