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.
It’s true that Putin engages in historical revisionism in his quest to force a “New Russia” onto the world-historical stage. But this aspect of Putin’s rhetorical armamentarium strikes me as less a matter of developed ideology, of the Hitlerian or Leninist sort, than as something more analogous to a Mafia don’s appeal to putative loyalties embedded deep in Sicilian cultural memory when trying to get the other dons to do what he wants. In other words, think Don Corleone, not G. W. F. Hegel, when trying to understand Putin’s rhetorical m.o.
Peter the Great certainly had an “idea” of Russia, as, arguably, did Stalin. Putin’s “idea,” however, seems to me more a matter of intellectual superstructure (if you’ll permit the Marxist terminology), a carapace of faux-idealism over the actions of a man who deliberately sought employment in the KGB, who climbed the greasy pole within its slimy ranks, and who has now welded the persona of an amoral spook — to whom the Big Lie, especially when covering up murder, was a normal tactic of statecraft — to the persona of a kleptomaniacal Mafia don, who remains in power by helping his fellow kleptomaniacs (otherwise known as “oligarchs”) remain awash in wealth — even as the society he leads rots away under him.
NO SUBSTITUTE FOR REGIME CHANGE
The Kremlin’s instinctive Big Lie in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines massacre reinforced the intuition (subsequently verified, as the Kyiv Post reported, by Ukrainian intelligence intercepts of conversations among “separatist” goons in the Donetsk region claiming credit for the shootdown) that these murders are ultimately to be laid to the account of a Russian government that has brazenly conducted a clandestine destabilization of Ukraine, using its own special forces, hired thugs and freelance murderers of various sorts, and local gangsters-for-hire. Now the ante has been raised, as the citizens of numerous countries have been killed, not in a crossfire for which “both sides” might reasonably be held to moral account, but by the instigating party to this lethal conflict, which is Russia.
Western leaders, if there are any these days, will note that the ante has been raised and will consider strengthening economic sanctions against Putin and his oligarchic Mafia, perhaps even ramping up Western military supplies to a hard-pressed Ukrainian government. The harder the sanctions bite, and the more Ukraine can be helped to defend itself, the better. But none of that will make strategic sense over the medium and long term if the West does not recognize that regime change in Moscow is the only serious answer to the threats to peace, security, freedom, and order in post–Cold War Europe posed by Vladimir Putin.
Containing Putin’s Russia is a first, necessary step. But it is a tactic, and the strategic goal must be to see Russia governed by leaders who are not KGB alumni sporting virtual-Mafia livery in the 21st century. That is the only change that will make Russia safe for the long-suffering (if now widely duped) Russian people. And that is the only change that will make Russia safe for the world.
The notion that the Russian war on Ukraine is, to borrow from Neville Chamberlain, “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing” was destroyed on July 17, as a civilian airliner carrying 295 innocent parties was blown out of the Ukrainian sky by a surface-to-air missile. We know all too well who is finally responsible or this — the man with whom Angela Merkel was yukking it up at the World Cup final in Brazil five days ago; the man who recently thumbed his nose at the U.S. from 90 miles away while underwriting the Castro brothers’ island prison; the man of the Big Lie. And the conflict is not “far away.” That Malaysia Airlines flight originated in Amsterdam and was heading for Kuala Lumpur. It carried citizens of different countries, likely including Americans, whose political leaders must now recognize that the Russian war on Ukraine is, de facto, a war in the neighborhood.
And the war is not a mere “quarrel.” The Big Lie, married to new methods of irregular warfare, has now metastasized into a new form of lethality, with the long-blurred distinction between combatants and noncombatants obliterated. There is no safety in hiding from Putin. There is only safety, and honor, and justice, and a chance for peace in a Western strategy that aims at nothing less than democratic regime change in Russia.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.