Cracow — Several years ago, a bright young Polish law student in the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society (the crash course in Catholic social doctrine I lead here every July) asked one of my faculty colleagues, “Who is this ‘Father Popieluszko’ you and the other faculty keep talking about?” That a 25-year-old Pole, in 2010 or thereabouts, did not recognize the name of the martyr-priest of Solidarity, whose grave in the churchyard at St. Stanislaus Kostka in Warsaw had become a small piece of free Poland in the half-decade before the 1989 Communist crack-up, suggested that my colleagues and I were assuming far too much in terms of what our 21st-century students knew about the drama of the 20th century and the epic contest for the human future waged two generations ago between imperfect democracies and pluperfect tyrannies.
So, beginning the next year, and every year since, I’ve opened the three-week seminar with a 90-minute lecture on the Communist challenge to the civilization of the West, emphasizing the distortions in public and personal life that the Communist culture of the lie created, and stressing how dissident leaders like Vaclav Havel and Karol Wojtyla (who became Pope John Paul II) had proposed “living in the truth,” “living ‘as if’ one were free,” as the most effective strategic counter to the institutionalized mendacity of what was once pristinely called “late bureaucratic socialism.”
It was thus more than ironic that this year’s seminar concluded on July 17, just as word reached Cracow of the deaths of 295 innocent people in the shootdown over Ukraine of a Malaysia Airlines 777. We soon learned of the immediate response to this crime by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin — the Big Lie: in this case, that the party responsible for this massacre was the Ukrainian government.
PREVARICATION ON STEROIDS
The Big Lie has been an integral tactic in Putin’s grand strategy for years, but the lying has achieved a particular virulence in these past nine months on the matter of Ukraine. Putin regularly lies about the history of the eastern Slavs in his attempts to cobble together a historical, and even spiritual, rationale for his attempts to re-create something resembling the old Soviet Union, the demise of which he has more than once described as a great geopolitical disaster. Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is a smoother, slicker version of Joachim von Ribbentrop, the ex-Champagne salesman whose prevarications in 1938, prior to the Nazi absorption of the Sudetenland, had set the previous gold standard for shameless lying by the foreign minister of a major power. The current boldfaced and outrageous lying from the Kremlin is endlessly repeated by the Putin-controlled mass media in Russia, and even by senior officials of the Russian Orthodox Church.
And it has an effect. Here in Cracow, I met a very bright young Russian, with excellent language skills, obvious intelligence, and goodwill toward the United States, who nonetheless had swallowed the Kremlin line on Ukraine in toto and without reservation — a reminder, I remarked to others, of what things must have been like in the late 1930s when all those bright young people were marching at the Nuremberg rallies. Multiply that young Russian by a few tens of thousands, and you begin to understand the moral, cultural, and political wreckage that Putin will leave in his wake.
Grasping the reality of the Big Lie as an essential, not marginal, component of Putin’s strategy also helps clarify just who this man, now indisputably the greatest threat to peace and order in the post–Cold War world, is. One recent, learned analysis by an anti-Putin Russian intellectual, Vladimir Pastukhov, suggested that Putin is the last iteration of a classic pattern of Russian historical reinvention: a habit of creating an imagined past in order to buttress efforts to bludgeon one’s way toward an imagined future that would be the full flowering of that imagined past in the present. From what I know of Russian history, which is far less than Pastukhov knows, he has certainly identified a recurring bad habit among Russian tyrants of various sorts. But I do wonder if this doesn’t overanalyze Putin by a good stretch.