Russian Hysteria and Russian Sang Froid

Anyone watching the international scene, particularly those transfixed by American television, has long been accustomed to reaching for a stiff drink and succumbing to weary resignation at the endless stream of unhinged hysteria, the fog of verbal war.

But then we can switch off and look for rational statements emanating from within government to adjust our senses to reality. This transposition is natural. The deadweight of power forces statesmen to their senses. The media, on the other hand, have no gravitational force acting upon them to stabilise their judgement. Indeed, often one suspects that they have no judgement at all, certainly when watching self-promoting journalists at White House press conferences. They drift on balloons of hot air that seize the attention of a terrorised or vengeful audience who will raise advertising ratings.  A certain dreadful predictability holds sway.

Russia has become a very peculiar place, however. The contrast between hysteria and reason is still there but their positions have been inverted. Government and its spokesmen/women rant like the leaders of a rabid, braying, ignorant mob but the press coolly evaluates the realities behind events. Somehow the Kremlin’s asylum has been taken over by the mental patients. “Calm down, dear. Take a pill,” as film producer, the late Michael Winner would say.

This curious inversion first became apparent with the scandal of the attempted assassination of the Skripal’s. All kinds of completely ludicrous, mutually contradictory and libellous accusations were lobbed at the British Government and especially its security services. The entire Russian Government seemed to have lost its head. They were so appalling that one had to shield the children’s ears from such transparent mendacity. Just as one thought we had reached rock bottom, worse was to come. Yet the wildest accusations emerged not from the Russian media but from Putin’s closest employees, not least Mr Lavrov, his spokeswoman, and his coterie of apparently mentally disturbed ambassadors.

In the bad old days of Stalin’s terror, where frightening exhibitions of extreme loyalty to the General Secretary of the Communist Party knew no limits because  no one knew whether the black mariahs were coming for them from midnight – see The Death of Stalin for a vivid impression – one could perhaps be forgiven for allowing oneself to behave like feral beasts from the worst of Michael Winner’s B movies in the 1960s. But is that degree of moral prostitution really necessary today, working for Mr Putin?

Today’s newspapers give the best examples of sang froid in their evaluations of the “new entente” bombing Syrian chemical warfare capabilities, previously hailed variously as a step towards World War III and a criminal breach of international law (never mentioned in Moscow when invading someone else’s country). Nezavisimaya Gazeta, not exactly a radical paper, has an article by one of its many deputy chief editors that is a perfect model of decorum, describing calmly the fact that Russia did not risk shooting down Tomahawk Cruise Missiles sent in by the Americans, the French and the British (“Rossiya ne risknula sbivat’ ‘Tomagavki’ novoi Antanty”). Even Vzglyad’ ru, the most anti-Western rag, lists three not very evident facts about the attack on Syria in a completely dispassionate manner (“Tri neochevidnykh fakta ob udare po Sirii”). As Petr Akopov says, nothing has really changed. The fight for Syria goes on. The Russians are still there (hang on, I thought they were supposed to have left?). And something else.

Novaya gazeta now echoes the concern about propaganda issuing from government and defying any credibility (Y. Latynina, “Rossiiskaya propaganda ushla v astral i ne vernulsya”, Novaya gazeta 21 April 2018.)

That leaves us with a puzzle when we compare this cold and intelligent analysis with everything that has been spewing from the foaming mouths of the Russian officials from the past few weeks.