Ursula Carlson: Bewitching lies — a surreal reality
As a child, an immigrant at that, I heard plenty of broad generalizations in the 1950s about Americans: that they were gun-toting criminals and killers, that they thought all immigrants were dumb and didn’t know how to drive, that everybody chewed gum. But our family’s experience showed those generalizations didn’t apply to all Americans.
So, hesitant to embrace broad generalizations even now, I nevertheless always believed one particular generalization about communists. My mother (and father), who had a lifetime of experience with them in Latvia, always said communists lie. It was an absolute, a principle, a necessity. It was the easiest way to persuade those who weren’t well informed. The Communist lies were all of a type: each lie promised something the listener wanted to believe: Yes, join the party and you’ll have a good job; yes, you’ll make money. In Latvia those promises were a cruel joke. By then my parents had long fled. In the years since, the lies continue, and always what the listener wants to believe: No, Russia has no soldiers in Crimea; no, Russia hasn’t interfered in U.S. elections.
Back in 2011 I discovered Elena Gorokhova, a Russian native who wrote a memoir published in 2010 titled “A Mountain of Crumbs,” about growing up in Soviet Russia. She also wrote a short essay titled “From Russia with Lies” (NY Times Magazine, Oct. 23, 2011) I saved — never anticipating its timeliness today! Gorokhova introduces us to the Russian word vranyo, a special form of lying she learned in nursery school from Aunt Polya (who wasn’t really an aunt, of course). It’s a game of pretend. Here’s her example featuring Putin:
The New York Times has a photo of Putin in wet suit and oxygen mask, as if having gone to great depths, walking out of the Black Sea holding two ancient amphorae (two handled jar from Greek and Roman days) as clean as if they’d come from a museum. She writes, “I was sure thousands of Russians were smirking: Putin was lying to us, we knew he was lying, he knew we knew he was lying, but he kept lying anyway, and we pretended to believe him.”
Then she realizes many of Putin’s subjects were born after Perestroika (Gorbachev’s reforms of 1979) so wouldn’t know what it was like to grow up “with only two major newspapers, The Truth and The News, or know the standard joke that there is no news in The Truth and no truth in The News.” She mournfully adds the “uncommunist generation” has “lost the ability to detect a lie.”
The New York Times reported a week later the Putin Black Sea dive was a setup. But Gorokhova worries those ignorant of “vranyo” may have fallen for the visual optics: the heroic Putin deep sea diving, “clutching history.” The strongman “defying time and human limitations.”
Not surprisingly, Gorokhova’s story brings to mind another president, one who also is equally skilled in visual optics, if nothing else, and who may very well hold the world title in “vranyo,” but whose native language is simple, street-talk American English.
Sometimes I wonder if those old broad generalizations Latvians thought about the U.S. in the 1950s have turned into a surreal reality. (Although there’s nothing surreal about chewing gum).
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.