On this blog I have often made reference to journalists who sexy up their work in Russia by resorting to Cold War cliches and turning their mundane lives into cloak and dagger spy thrillers. It may surprise the reader to learn that these spy fantasies are not at all limited to journalists. I have seen ordinary private citizens, even those who come to Russia only as tourists, delude themselves into thinking they were a person of interest to Russian intelligence services, which they often refer to as “the KGB.”
If the idea of people turning delusional and transforming their lives into an elaborate fantasy seems too far-fetched for you, I highly encourage you to read this article. It was written by the spy novelist and real life “spy” John Le Carre. In it he discusses how actual members of Britain’s intelligence establishment could be driven by tedium to basically invent phony missions and exploits so as to impress others and generally make their lives more interesting.
Let the following sink in for a second. Actual intelligence operatives, during the Cold War, were actually driven by boredom and perhaps shattered expectations to invent and sometimes live out exciting “missions” which were in fact totally fake and the product of nothing but their own imagination. No doubt these flights of fancy could be traced to the misconceptions they had about intelligence work prior to their joining their respective agencies. Fantasy helped them cope with the disillusionment. If that’s what happened to “real spies” during the real Cold War, it isn’t too hard to imagine that ordinary people with even more boring, seemingly insignificant jobs might want to fantasize a bit when they travel to Russia or live there.
Intelligence agencies, like the military, are exclusive, mysterious, and inaccessible to most people. More importantly, they have the entertainment industry backing up these images and cementing them in the minds of the public. Many people I meet often become very curious and interested if I mention, in passing, that I was in the army. Of course I tell them the real story, that most of my experience consisted of standing around, waiting for things to happen, or doing pointless busywork. I like to disabuse people of Hollywood-manufactured myths. A less honest person, in that same moment, would easily be able to weave all kinds of action-packed tales and their audience would be none the wiser, all thanks to Hollywood and the fact that most people do not serve in the military. My experience has taught me that there are indeed many dishonest people out there who take that exact route.
The same goes for Russia. Many Western people will never have the opportunity to even visit here, much less live here for any significant amount of time. Even then, without having a high proficiency in the Russian language it can be difficult to really understand what is going on around you. If you’re a person who has lived in Russia for a significant amount of time and you have real proficiency in the language, it’s as though you’re ex-military talking to civilians. You have a lot of information and they have virtually nothing. I’ve been living here for nearly eight years so far. In this time I have had experiences and encounters which, with a little bit of embellishment and a ton of innuendo, could easily be made to sound far more thrilling than they actually were. Random, insignificant occurrences can be connected via the ever-handy Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy to construct an adventure complete with shady characters, attractive women with hidden agendas, and yes, even actual FSB counter-intelligence agents(at least so they claimed). I don’t do this, however, because I feel as though I really couldn’t live with myself if I did. Throughout my life I can remember meeting these people who would tell me their bullshit stories right to my face. In childhood the bullshitters say something like, “My dad’s a ninja,” and in continues in adulthood with, “I was a Navy SEAL sniper. I can’t tell you anything more than that though.” Most of the time it never seems to occur to them that their lies may be easily unraveled; it’s even as if they believe their own lies. I couldn’t let myself become one of those people.
This post may have been a bit meandering, I must admit, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that people’s bullshit delusions cause them to engage in bullshitting, and that some of those people will do that in Russia. That’s why Russia Without Bullshit is necessary.