Why Lying Has Become a National Pastime
When I first arrived in Moscow, I soon learned that if I asked if something could be done and I received the answer, ‘OK, no problem,’ that did not mean I could expect for the deed to be accomplished. Many times, when I left for the United States and had paid for various tasks to be done by the time I returned two months later, I came back to a job that was either done incorrectly or not at all. In fact, several times the other person acted as though our conversation concerning the job had never taken place.
I found lies were more acceptable than admitting a lack of knowledge about how to do what I had requested. Or they had overcommitted and rather than telling me that they would not be able to accomplish my request, they simply procrastinated and kept insisting that the job was ‘almost done,’ when in fact, it had not even been started.
When speaking with Russian friends about my frustration in such situations, they laughed and said, ‘That’s normal here.’
Many Russians lie on a regular basis. They lie even when they don’t have to lie. It is a national pastime. It can proceed from the small white lie of a family member to one of major proportions from a government official. But often, most Russians are not deceived and know when a statement is a falsehood.
So why do they tolerate this phenomenon?
Not telling the truth was reinforced by a Soviet system that lied consistently to their people. The government instilled great fear in its citizenry with non-stop propaganda about enemies who they perceived were everywhere – inside and outside the country. The Soviet system lied to manipulate, maintain control and create fear and submission. The government could not admit any flaws, and if errors occurred they were instantly denied because they would reveal intolerable weaknesses.
The Party even went so far as to rewrite and delete history. It is interesting to view old photos of Josef Stalin posing with people who were later deemed enemies of the state and compare them with later versions in which these ‘enemies’ were erased. School history books were rewritten when there were changes in Party leadership or when prominent officials fell out of favour and were arrested, executed or sent to the gulag. People often mention they have a difficult time with trust because the things that they were taught as absolute truths were so often changed and replaced by new truths. It became an ethical dilemma for teachers and parents who genuinely desired to be loyal Soviet citizens.
One of the ways people survived these mind-bending issues was to practise what is known in Russia as ‘vranyo.’ It is deemed a white lie and is generally acceptable. Vranyo is described as when a person knows they are lying and expects the other person to understand that. ‘He 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.’
Lying is often used to maintain a better image and to save face. Russians are a very proud people, and under the Soviet system many genuinely believed they were the best. For those men and women, their sense of personal value was coupled with this system. Thus, when it fell, so did their personal worth. They also had never been allowed to think independently or understand how to be responsible for themselves. As a result, during the chaos of the 1990s, many Russians were very confused. They were required to suddenly make decisions and accept responsibilities for which they had had no training. At the same time, their pride would not allow them to admit that they did not know how to accomplish these new tasks. Consequently, they fell back into their old familiar pattern of vranyo and lied rather than admit that they could not do something or needed help.
Lying often is used to take advantage of others, thus breeding corruption and theft. Many entrepreneurs have been robbed because criminals bribed officials who enabled them to evict the rightful owners of newly successful businesses. Contracts have been cancelled and property seized.
Russia is plagued by lying that ranges from what is deemed as a mild-mannered vranyo to immoral corruption. Vranyo is a lie, and the acceptance of this creates a system of falsehood that undermines trust and condones and encourages deceit, deception and irresponsibility. If someone lies regarding small things, he will likely lie in more important areas and also will accept this behaviour in others.