Do the Russian people, restricted from the global internet, really trust state media? This is a question we may be able to answer with a proper understanding of the Russian concept of vranyo.
The Russian Federation initiated its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. By early March, the Russian people had become cut off from the global internet. This was just one part of Vladimir Putin’s effort to return Russia to the days of the USSR, when the only news outlets available were The Truth (Pravda) and The News (Izvestia). Russians over 50 will recall the joke that of these two choices there was no news in The Truth and no truth in The News. Even at the height of Soviet power, the people could still think for themselves. So, what do Russians believe today?
What is Vranyo?
Vranyo plays an important role in defining the relationship between the Russian people and their state. The best way to understand vranyo is to contrast it with another Russian term, lozh. Both lozh and vranyo translate as “falsehood,” but there is a meaningful distinction. Lozh is a genuine lie: one party says something recognisably false while expecting to be believed. Vranyo, by contrast, describes a story told that both sides know is untrue but nonetheless is responded to as if it were the truth. In Part Four of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, General Ardalyon Ivolgin spins Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin a tale claiming to have convinced Napoleon to retreat from Moscow. Myshkin knows the story is false and Ivolgin is likely aware of this fact, yet Ivolgin tells it with a straight face and Mishkin smiles and plays along.
Unlike lozh, vranyo is a two-way street. The vrun (liar) does not expect to be believed, just listened to respectfully. Does Ivolgin himself believe what he’s saying? Yes and no. Though the vrun may initially be aware that their vranyo is a falsehood, they can become convinced by their own lie mid-tirade, a phenomenon Russian scholar Ronald Hingley labels as the “take off.”
Perplexed by the universality of vranyo in Russian society, Dostoyevsky suggests in his 1873 essay Something about Lying that Russians are “afraid of the truth.” Truth can be “insufficiently poetic,” or “too banal,” while fiction is “fantastic and utopian.” Through vranyo, both the vrun and the victim replace truth with fiction. Dostoyevsky also lamented that “wholesale Russian lying suggests that we are all ashamed of ourselves.” The vranyo game can allow the players to throw off this sense of shame. Life becomes better when everybody agrees to replace an unhappy reality with a more agreeable one.
The New Soviet Vrun
Much changed over the next century. In Dostoyevsky’s time, vranyo was an object of leisure and improvisation. By the time of Stalin’s death, it had become inescapable. The journalist Hedrick Smith, who travelled around Russia in the 1970s, described vranyo as existing in a system that required participation in “the political rites and rituals of Communist society.” Just as the Russian Orthodox Church placed more emphasis on ceremony than theology, the Communist Party placed “more stress on ritual than belief.” These rituals ranged from obligatory speeches at the Bolshoi Ballet School praising the party’s wise patronage to mandatory 15-minute political sessions at factories. Few people actually listened to these speeches and even the lecturers did not really believe what they were saying. One factory worker admitted that speakers often did little more than read propaganda articles straight from the papers.
This system created “radish communists”— red on the outside but white on the inside. It also turned vranyo into a chore. Vruni could not create their own vranyo but were made to repeat state-sanctioned lies. Foremen had to drag workers to the political meetings by their collars, and an eyewitness to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 explained that the Hungarians had become “fed up with telling lies.”
The New Vranyo: Injections of Truth
Soviet vranyo also became, in Hingley’s words, diluted with injections of truth. The spokesmen who claimed that millions of Soviet workers drove to vacation spots on the Black sea “in their own cars,” were now willing to admit that “there are some workers who don’t yet have cars of their own.” These “frank admissions” of various defects served to add reliability to the performance. But if vranyo was not meant to be believed, why did reliability matter? The answer lies in the Russian saying “Vri, vri, da, no ne zaviraisya” — meaning, “I will tolerate your lies until they become so ridiculous that I feel like an idiot for playing along.” Vranyo is meant to create an appealing fictional world, and the audience will not want to step into that world if it makes them feel stupid. in the contemporary context of Ukraine, once it was clear that the war was not going as well as the state claimed, Russian MP Andrei Kartapolov warned on state television that the Defense Ministry needed to “stop lying,” because “our people are not stupid.”
Putin as a Vrun
Authoritarian societies tend to imitate the practices of the head honcho. Nikita Khrushchev was a well-known vrun. His very open “secret speech” and promises to surpass America’s agricultural production through a miraculous corn campaign all reeked of vranyo. Putin is a practiced vrun as well. Elena Gorkhova recalls a news article in which Putin was photographed walking out of the Black Sea with two nearly intact ancient amphorae. It would have been impossible for him to find such treasures. Having grown up in the USSR, Gorkhova immediately recognised the vranyo: “Putin was lying to us, we knew he was lying, he knew we knew he was lying, but he kept lying anyways, and we pretended to believe him.”
Questions for Modern Russia
Gorkhova suspects that those born after perestroika (restructuring) have lost the ability to detect vranyo. 90s kids were never forced to march in an October Revolution Day parade, and millennials did not grow up with only two newspapers. But how different is today’s Russia from the USSR? Though there are now more than two different news sources, few deviate from the party line and vranyo is everywhere.
To understand the relationship between the Kremlin and the Russian people, there are questions we must ask: do state pundits really believe what they are saying? Or are they engaging in lozh? Has the USSR created a population capable of recognising state lies? To what extent has modernity nullified that capability? Finally, is Russia returning to a vranyo state?
If vranyo is born from shame and a bleak reality, as Dostoyevsky suggests, then the war in Ukraine provides the perfect setting.
The embarrassing performance of the once-vaunted Russian military has become apparent to many inside Russia. The atrocities committed by the Kremlin’s forces have likewise become hard to hide. The phone calls of many Russian soldiers reveal a deep sense of guilt among servicemen, one that has been shared with their families. Given that the truth is so bleak, the temptation to accept a new reality created by state vranyo must be considerable. The world created by Putin’s media machine is blindingly bright. Television is dominated by displays of packed venues full of hands grasping Russian flags and smiling faces chanting, “Russ-i-a! Russ-i-a!” If you were living in Putin’s Russia and a loved one was off fighting in Ukraine, which reality would you want to live in?
Theodore Horowitz is an intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs Victoria pursuing an undergraduate degree in international and public affairs at Brown University. His interests include international security, European and American History and Russian studies.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.