My NYT essay From Russia With Lies was translated into Russian by Inosmi, a Russian-language news website, where it received 399 comments, mostly registering outrage. People who read it, just as Captain Louis Renault in the movie Casablanca, were shocked, shocked. Clad in scuba gear, Vladimir Putin emerged from the Black Sea with two ancient amphorae that had been placed in 6 feet of water. “It isn’t lying; it’s just a publicity stunt,” wrote one indignant correspondent. “Don’t touch Putin!” warned another. “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” I should have known that writing about Putin’s lie was as grave as touching the third rail. As serious as announcing that there is no God.
Russians shamed me in their comments. My Motherland gave me a happy childhood and a good education, and now, by writing this essay, I’ve betrayed my country all over again. This made me think of my Leningrad University Dean, the Communist leader of the University party cell, who used the same words to admonish me for marrying an American back in 1980. One correspondent offered this explanation: “They are simply writhing at the idea that Russia is rising, and the U.S., in front of the entire world, is turning into shit.” Another comment suggested that Putin’s lying isn’t really lying. It is exactly the same as George W. Bush clearing underbrush at his Texas ranch.
As much as I detest watching George W. Bush, I have to say that it is not exactly the same. U.S. journalists who uncover illegal actions by the government publish articles and books that unravel government officials’ careers. Russian reporters who expose state corruption and fraud get harassed and murdered.
In their indignation, my former compatriots failed to see that my essay is not about Putin’s staged athletic feats. It is about the sad state of democracy in Russia. It is about President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin swapping posts in March in what will be called an election. It is about soon-to-be-President-all-over-again-Putin’s fundamental lie, which seems to be condoned by many Russians and which is much more dangerous than “finding” an ancient jug in 6 feet of water.