In Russia, the truth is optional

The Baltimore Sun

We moved back from Moscow a year ago, and there are lots of things I miss about the place: the sardonic humor, Baltika beer, the cold snap that comes in late August. But one thing I never expected to feel nostalgic about, and certainly do, is Russian culture's healthy skepticism about the value of always telling the truth.

Lies, of course, can be despicable things. But in the West, the gentle art of deception - the flamboyant, shameless or spiritually uplifting stretcher - has long since fallen out of fashion.

Not so in Russia. There, bold prevarication is a form of recreation, a tool of personal diplomacy, a social lubricant almost as necessary and cherished as vodka. Blatant, mostly harmless falsehoods are defended as the sincerest form of honesty. Inconvenient, distressing or impolite truths are quietly ignored, or flatly contradicted.

"You speak great Russian!" my hosts would implausibly insist. (The farther from Moscow, the more hospitable people seemed to become.) A nudge and wink would invariably follow. "How young you look! I better lock up my daughters, eh? Now, what do you think of our local watermelons?"

Once, we in the United States understood the value of occasionally avoiding the truth. Mark Twain, in his 1882 essay "On the Decay of The Art of Lying," praised the lie as "a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man's best and surest friend ... "

But somewhere on our journey from the frontier to the suburbs, we lost our way. It's not that Americans don't lie: We do, in boardrooms and bedrooms and on tax returns, just like everyone else. It's just that we don't always lie charitably and generously, perhaps out of fear we might get caught. When we do lie, many Americans can't seem to admit it, even to themselves.

In this respect, Russian culture seems more honest than our own. A few years back I visited Pyatak Prison, a centuries-old monastery stuck in the middle of a forlorn lake a couple of days' drive north of Moscow. All the inmates had been convicted of multiple murders. When I interviewed them, they all matter-of-factly confessed to their crimes. (One man beheaded his taxi driver rather than pay the fare.)

American prisons, anyone who has ever visited one knows, are filled almost exclusively with the innocent.

Cheating is another point where Russia and the West diverge. People in all cultures cheat, of course, as recent sports doping scandals show. But few cheat as boldly and joyfully as the Russians.

Tim Harte, a veteran of 11 marathons and a scholar of modern Russian art, ran a five-kilometer road race near Moscow State University one bright blue Saturday afternoon back in July of 2002. As he sprinted up Sparrow Hills above the Moscow River, some of the other runners started to dart off the course and take short cuts.

"They cut not only corners, but also entire sections," he recalled. "And most astounding for me was that 200 yards from the finish, a huge group of runners suddenly materialized right in front of me - they obviously cut a kilometer or so off the race by going through the woods."

Students have been cheating on exams for millennia. But in Russia, students, parents and teachers seem to regard it with equal measures of outrage, amusement and even pride in the cheaters' ingenuity.

Last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, a museum in the city of Cherepove(sp?) hosted an exhibit on shpargalki, or "cunning papers," the cheat sheets Russian pupils start to use in the third grade. The exhibit included a pair of underpants full of scribbled facts and figures.

"Many students use shpargalki," Lena S., a cheerful Moscow middle schooler, told me matter-of-factly a couple of years ago. "All my classmates do."

For history exams, she said, she liked to write notes on her knees and inch up her skirt to peek at them. In math tests, she wrote answers in tiny letters on the back of a wooden ruler. When the teacher walked by, she would flip the ruler over to hide the notes. The ruler trick worked so well that many classmates copied her. "Students with rulers made of plastic were out of luck," she said.

She was proud of, not embarassed about, her scheme. She relied on shpargalki, she explained, because her homework, dance classes and English lessons don't leave her enough time to sleep, much less study.

Yuri V. Scherbatykh, a psychologist at the Medical Academy of Voronezh, a city in southwestern Russia, says there is a "double standard" in Russian society. "Cheating is condemned on the one hand, but on the other, it is taken with understanding."

The psychologist, author of books titled The Art of Cheating and How to Cheat, says that the Russian attitude toward cheating is, in fact, one of the most difficult things for Westerners to grasp. "There is a proverb in English, 'Honesty is the best policy,' but this isn't a Russian proverb," he said.

No Russian leader, he said, has ever said anything like the remark attributed to a youthful George Washington: "I cannot tell a lie."

Cheating a little on a business deal is not necessarily considered dishonorable. If an outrageous claim serves the greater good - if committing perjury, say, will free an innocent man - it is called a "saving lie," a praiseworthy, even noble act.

Scherbatykh is far from the only Russian student of the human psyche to notice this cultural divide between East and West. "In other nations, only scoundrels lie, seeking their own interests," Dostoyevsky once wrote. "But here [in Russia], they lie for nothing, or seeking some honorable goals, or for hospitality."

The dance between fact and falsehood plays a role in Russian history. There are those famous Potemkin villages, of course, allegedly built in the Crimea to deceive the Empress Catherine II into thinking she had conquered rich new lands. Ivan Tsarevich, the hero of many Russian folk tales, triumphs over evil adversaries by trickery. During World War II, the Soviet press glorified the work of snipers and spies, masters of stealth and deceit.

The Soviets, of course, enshrined the big, nasty, clumsy lie in public policy. They invented statistics on cotton harvests and covered up air crashes and disease outbreaks. Nothing could stain the triumph of socialism. Pathological truth-tellers were locked up in mental hospitals, or denounced as "wreckers" and spies.

But the U.S.S.R., of course, finally stretched the truth a bit too far. When foreign books, newspapers and television programs penetrated the Iron Curtain, Soviet citizens could no longer bring themselves to suspend their disbelief.

Still, Russians have not lost their contempt for unnecessary or harmful candor. And that makes life there more interesting than in Western societies, sometimes in unexpected ways.

A friend was stopped for speeding in Moscow last year, and the traffic policeman demanded she blow into a breathalyzer. It barely registered. He ordered her to do it again. She did, with the same result. He shouted that she was doing it wrong, grabbed the machine and blew with all his might. The device registered an alcohol level near the limit of its scale.

The highest expression of the Russian art of what might be called transactional fiction is called vranyo, which means a "pack of lies," or harmless, boastful exaggeration. Story tellers will falsely brag of knowing powerful politicians, of owning luxurious dachas, of knowing where to find the freshest sausage or the tastiest mushrooms in the forest.

"Vranyo is a social and psychological phenomenon," Viktor Snakov, a psychologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences, wrote in a book titled Telling Lies. "Vranyo is not meant to confuse or cheat anybody. It's like art. It's in our blood. ... The motives, which are clear to any Russian, are beyond understanding for foreigners who have trade, political or other deals here."

But doesn't this boasting sound familiar? Didn't 19th century Americans have their own form of vranyo, called the tall tale? The stories of Paul Bunyan and John Henry were, of course, outrageously exaggerated.

They were topped, of course, by one of the most famous congressmen in American history: Davy Crockett. "I'm that same David Crockett," he is supposed to have said, "fresh from the backwoods, half-horse, half-alligator, a little touched with the snapping-turtle; can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio, ride upon a streak of lightning, and slip without a scratch down a honey locust."

Somewhere and somehow, we Americans lost our way. We no longer honor the tall tale, the stretcher, the "sweet and loving art," as Twain put it, "of graceful and gilded forms of charitable and unselfish lying."

Most Americans, perhaps, regard exaggeration, evasion and even lighthearted deceit as a character flaw or, worse, a symptom of mental illness. We pretend to live in a culture where everyone can and should tell the brutal and uncouth truth, at all times and under all circumstances.

Whom are we kidding?

Only ourselves.

douglas.birch@baltsun.com

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