As they voiced this rather preposterous claim, Putin and his aides knew perfectly well that they were lying.
We are repeatedly told these days that we are living in a new and frightening era of ‘post-truth’, and that lies and fictions are all around us. Examples are not hard to come by. Thus in late February 2014, Russian special units bearing no Army insignia invaded Ukraine and occupied key installations in Crimea. The Russian government and President Putin in person repeatedly denied that these were Russian troops, and described them as spontaneous ‘self-defence groups’ that may have acquired Russian-looking equipment from local shops.
As they voiced this rather preposterous claim, Putin and his aides knew perfectly well that they were lying. Russian nationalists can excuse this lie by arguing that it served a higher truth. Russia was engaged in a just war, and if it is OK to kill for a just cause, surely it is also OK to lie? The higher cause that allegedly justified the invasion of Ukraine was the preservation of the sacred Russian nation. According to Russian national myths, Russia is a sacred entity that has endured for a thousand years despite repeated attempts by vicious enemies to invade and dismember it. Following the Mongols, the Poles, the Swedes, Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Hitler’s Wehrmacht, in the 1990s it was NATO, the USA and the EU that attempted to destroy Russia by detaching parts of its body and forming them into ‘fake countries’ such as Ukraine. For many Russian nationalists, the idea that Ukraine is a separate nation from Russia constitutes a far bigger lie than anything uttered by President Putin during his holy mission to reintegrate the Russian nation.
Ukrainian citizens, outside observers and professional historians may well be outraged by this explanation, and regard it as a kind of ‘atom-bomb lie’ in the Russian arsenal of deception. To claim that Ukraine does not exist as a nation and as an independent country disregards a long list of historical facts — for example, that during the thousand years of supposed Russian unity, Kyiv and Moscow were part of the same country for only about 300 years. It also violates numerous international laws and treaties that Russia has previously accepted and that have safeguarded the sovereignty and borders of independent Ukraine. Most importantly, it ignores what millions of Ukrainians think about themselves.
Don’t they have a say about who they are? Ukrainian nationalists would certainly agree with Russian nationalists that there are some fake countries around. But Ukraine isn’t one of them. Rather, these fake countries are the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ and the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ that Russia has set up to mask its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Whichever side you support, it seems that we are indeed living in a terrifying era of post-truth, when not just particular military incidents, but entire histories and nations might be faked. But if this is the era of post-truth, when, exactly, was the halcyon age of truth? In the 1980s? The 1950s? The 1930s? And what triggered our transition to the post-truth era — the Internet? Social media? The rise of Putin and Trump? A cursory look at history reveals that propaganda and disinformation are nothing new, and even the habit of denying entire nations and creating fake countries has a long pedigree. In 1931 the Japanese army staged mock attacks on itself to justify its invasion of China, and then created the fake country of Manchukuo to legitimise its conquests. China itself has long denied that Tibet ever existed as an independent country. British settlement in Australia was justified by the legal doctrine of terra nullius (‘nobody’s land’), which effectively erased 50,000 years of Aboriginal history.
In the early twentieth century a favourite Zionist slogan spoke of the return of ‘a people without a land [the Jews] to a land without a people [Palestine]’. The existence of the local Arab population was conveniently ignored. In 1969 Israeli prime minister Golda Meir famously said that there is no Palestinian people and never was. Such views are very common in Israel even today, despite decades of armed conflicts against something that doesn’t exist. For example, in February 2016 MP Anat Berko gave a speech in the Israeli Parliament in which she doubted the reality and history of the Palestinian people. Her proof? The letter ‘p’ does not even exist in Arabic, so how can there be a Palestinian people? (In Arabic, ‘f’ stands for ‘p’, and the Arabic name for Palestine is Falastin.) The post-truth species. In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.
So if you blame Facebook, Trump or Putin for ushering in a new and frightening era of post-truth, remind yourself that centuries ago millions of Christians locked themselves inside a self-reinforcing mythological bubble, never daring to question the factual veracity of the Bible, while millions of Muslims put their unquestioning faith in the Quran. For millennia, much of what passed for ‘news’ and ‘facts’ in human social networks were stories about miracles, angels, demons and witches, with bold reporters giving live coverage straight from the deepest pits of the underworld.
We have zero scientific evidence that Eve was tempted by the Serpent, that the souls of all infidels burn in hell after they die, or that the creator of the universe doesn’t like it when a Brahmin marries an Untouchable — yet billions of people have believed in these stories for thousands of years. Some fake news lasts forever.
I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly the point. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month — that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years — that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it ‘fake news’ in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath). Note, however, that I am not denying the effectiveness or potential benevolence of religion. Just the opposite. For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s toolkit. By bringing people together, religious creeds make largescale human cooperation possible. They inspire people to build hospitals, schools and bridges in addition to armies and prisons.
Adam and Eve never existed, but Chartres Cathedral is still beautiful. Much of the Bible may be fictional, but it can still bring joy to billions and can still encourage humans to be compassionate, courageous and creative — just like other great works of fiction, such as Don Quixote, War and Peace and Harry Potter. Again, some people may be offended by my comparison of the Bible with Harry Potter. If you are a scientifically minded Christian you might explain away all the errors, myths and contradictions in the Bible by arguing that the holy book was never meant to be read as a factual account, but rather as a metaphorical story containing deep wisdom. But isn’t that true of Harry Potter too? If you are a fundamentalist Christian you are more likely to insist that every word of the Bible is literally true. Let’s assume for a moment that you are right, and that the Bible is indeed the infallible word of the one true God. What, then, do you make of the Quran, the Talmud, the Book of Mormon, the Vedas, the Avesta, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead? Aren’t you tempted to say that these texts are elaborate fictions created by flesh-and-blood humans (or perhaps by devils)? And how do you view the divinity of Roman emperors such as Augustus and Claudius? The Roman Senate claimed to have the power to turn people into gods, and then expected the empire’s subjects to worship these gods. Wasn’t that a fiction? Indeed, we have at least one example in history of a false god who acknowledged the fiction with his own mouth. As noted earlier, Japanese militarism in the 1930s and early 1940s relied on a fanatical belief in the divinity of Emperor Hirohito. After Japan’s defeat Hirohito publicly proclaimed that this was not true, and that he wasn’t a god after all. So even if we agree that the Bible is the true word of God, that still leaves us with billions of devout Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Egyptians, Romans and Japanese who for thousands of years put their trust in fictions. Again, that does not mean that these fictions are necessarily worthless or harmful. They could still be beautiful and inspiring. Of course, not all religious myths have been equally beneficent. On 29 August 1255 the body of a nine-year-old English boy called Hugh was found in a well in the town of Lincoln. Even in the absence of Facebook and Twitter, rumour quickly spread that Hugh was ritually murdered by the local Jews. The story only grew with retelling, and one of the most renowned English chroniclers of the day — Matthew Paris — provided a detailed and gory description of how prominent Jews from throughout England gathered in Lincoln to fatten up, torture and finally crucify the abducted child. Nineteen Jews were tried and executed for the alleged murder. Similar blood libels became popular in other English towns, leading to a series of pogroms in which whole communities were massacred. Eventually, in 1290 the entire Jewish population of England was expelled.
The story didn’t end there. A century after the expulsion of the Jews from England, Geoffrey Chaucer — the Father of English literature — included a blood libel modelled on the story of Hugh of Lincoln in the Canterbury Tales (‘The Prioress’s Tale’). The tale culminates with the hanging of the Jews. Similar blood libels subsequently became a staple part of every anti-Semitic movement from late medieval Spain to modern Russia. A distant echo can even be heard in the 2016 ‘fake news’ story that Hillary Clinton headed a child-trafficking network that held children as sex slaves in the basement of a popular pizzeria. Enough Americans believed that story to hurt Clinton’s election campaign, and one person even came armed with a gun to the pizzeria and demanded to see the basement (it turned out that the pizzeria had no basement).
As for Hugh of Lincoln himself, nobody knows how he really found his death, but he was buried in Lincoln Cathedral and was venerated as a saint. He was reputed to perform various miracles, and his tomb continued to draw pilgrims even centuries after the expulsion of all Jews from England.
Only in 1955 — ten years after the Holocaust — did Lincoln Cathedral repudiate the blood libel, placing a plaque near Hugh’s tomb which reads: Trumped-up stories of ‘ritual murders’ of Christian boys by Jewish communities were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and even much later. These fictions cost many innocent Jews their lives. Lincoln had its own legend and the alleged victim was buried in the Cathedral in the year 1255. Such stories do not redound to the credit of Christendom. Well, some fake news lasts only 700 years. Once a lie, always the truth.