Can we clear something up at the outset? The Russian government is not coming over all outraged because it knows it is being falsely accused of complicity in the attempted murder in Salisbury of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. It has more knowledge of the nature of its own involvement than anyone.
No, its theatrical expressions of outrage stem from quite other feelings. The feeling that it should be allowed to get away with poisoning “traitors” in the UK, as it did with Alexander Litvinenko. The feeling that London, having been more greedy than any other financial centre for Russian mafia money, is not showing appropriate respect to the capo di tutti capi himself — Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Above all, the feeling that the West is ganging up on an eternally maligned Russia, as it always has.
Of course, Russian officials can lie effortlessly, as if they truly believe what they are saying about Moscow’s innocence. They did so about the downing in 2014 of a Malaysian airliner with a Buk missile fired by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine — killing 298 mostly Dutch holidaymakers. Putin himself lied after Russian troops had marched across the border into Crimea, asserting they were Ukrainians kitted as Russian soldiers (“There are many uniforms there that are similar. You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.”) They lied for decades that they were innocent of the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn forest in 1940 (blaming it on the Nazis, with whom they had jointly invaded Poland, as per the secret protocol of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact).
That — and the mass-murder that followed — was the work of Stalin: the vengeful short-arsed dictator whom Putin, a man of identical attributes, has been busily rehabilitating. George Orwell, better than any other non-Russian, understood the Stalinist mindset, which he encapsulated in the invented term “doublethink”: “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it.”
Putin, an ex-KGB officer, was trained in this tradition, and his veteran foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is the undoubted master of doubletalk. As Charles Clover, the former Moscow bureau chief of the Financial Times, put it some years ago: “Putin has correctly surmised that lies unite rather than divide Russia’s political class. The greater and more obvious the lie, the more his subjects demonstrate their loyalty by accepting it, and the more they participate in the great sacral mystery of Kremlin power.”
This helps explain the eruption of conspiracy theories, like so much magma spewing from an angry volcano, with which Russia seeks to explain away the use of the novichok nerve agent (against the man Putin called a “traitor” and swore would “kick the bucket” after Skripal was released from Russian prison in exchange for the return of Moscow agents in American custody). It was Theresa May’s doing; it was Ukraine; it was America; it was the Czechs; it was the Slovaks; it was the Swedes; it was Yulia Skripal’s future mother-in-law.
It is said this is all skilful work, sending up a cloud of dust to confuse everyone. But these are not the “carefully constructed lies” of which Orwell spoke. It is desperate stuff, exemplified by the formidable Kremlin spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who last week, as evidence that Britain was behind the Salisbury attack, gave a passage in a Jules Verne novel suggesting 19th-century British colonists in Australia had considered mass poisoning of the aboriginal population. Savour the absurdity of the Kremlin basing its claims on a 19th-century French work of fiction!
Yet we need to go back to the 19th century, if not further, to understand all this. The Russian anger — and it is genuine anger, however phoney its accompanying self-exculpations — is the emanation of a deep sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the West. Russia is a vast country, the biggest on the planet, with unmatched natural resources. Yet its economy is smaller than Italy’s and about half the size of the tiny islands that comprise the United Kingdom.
For centuries, this weirdly incongruous disparity, or something like it, has been the case. Who is to blame? The Russian people are as well-educated and cultured as any in the world, so it can’t be their fault. The true and intimately linked reasons — grotesque corruption and misrule — cannot be admitted. It must be the fault of the West, harbouring malign thoughts and plans against Russia.
As the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in A Writer’s Diary, despite having spent years in a Siberian prison camp as a critic of the tsarist system and enjoyed freedom and support in Europe: “Everyone in Europe . . . has long been secretly nursing malice against us.” And, he added, in words tellingly revealing of the Russian sense of inferiority towards the West: “In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, while in Asia we shall be the masters. In Europe we were Tatars, while in Asia we are the Europeans.”
Imagine how much greater the insecurity in the Kremlin now, when across its vast eastern border, China, once the most poverty-stricken of the great nations, has soared beyond Russia to become second to America in economic power. That can only add to the inadmissible sense of inferiority, and, therefore, of spite masquerading as strategy.
Sometimes it is admitted; I’ve never seen it expressed with such painful clarity as in a final Moscow dispatch in February from The Guardian’s departing Russia correspondent, Shaun Walker (who had lived there on and off for almost 20 years). He described how what he termed “a reasonably high-placed official” suddenly snapped: “You think we’re barbarians, don’t you?” When Walker replied, “Of course not!”, his interlocutor “fixed his eyes on me: ‘Well, we are barbarians, OK? But it’s your fault. Why can’t you just leave us alone? Why can’t the West just stop interfering in our affairs . . . Now you are again trying to bring the country to a collapse and you will only succeed in making us more angry!’ ”
Now the Russian state is getting more angry: because we — and worse, supported by Europe and America — are pointing out it has behaved barbarically. It knows it has, which makes our accusation all the more unbearable to Moscow and to the poisonous figure in the Kremlin.
And, the sickest joke of all: the Kremlin denounces all this as Russophobia, while itself wanting, more than anything, the rest of the world to fear Russia. Because, without respect, fear is the nearest thing to it.