What is truth?

Sadakat Kadri

My friend Nastassia recently returned to London from visiting her parents in Moscow. At a dumpling party, as guests kneaded dough at the table, a recently qualified ornithologist had told a weird story. Her new job involved feeding birds of prey, with mice she’d kill by swinging them against a wall – and that wasn’t the weird bit. Moscow Zoo wouldn’t take her on until she passed a lie detector test to show she wasn’t a thief or drug addict. ‘Unbelievable!’ Nastassia said.

Quite normal too, apparently. Since Russia acknowledged in 1993 that its security agents use polygraphy, the technique has developed into a sprawling industry. A company that claims to be at the cutting-edge promises it can ‘help to achieve a 100 per cent result’ in detecting crimes from corruption to murder. Its website indicates that would-be polygraphologists can almost immediately start to train others. All it takes is a two-week course and a machine of your own: prices start at around £900.

Though polygraphy is only marginally more accurate than guesswork, correctly identifying lies about two-thirds of the time, it’s overvalued and under-regulated everywhere. But the reliance some Russians place on calibrated measurements of perspiration, breathing, pulse rate and blood pressure is excessive, all the same. Polygraph tests have been used to corroborate claims by champion skaters that rivals contaminated their bodily fluids with banned substances, and to bolster a charge that the under-19 handball team had ‘betrayed the motherland’ by throwing matches at the European championships. Lie detection even served to acquit three cosmonauts of drilling a hole in the International Space Station – and to imply that the true driller was a Nasa astronaut with psychological problems.

The widespread use of polygraphy reflects high levels of distrust and corruption that aren’t ignored even by state-owned media. When the Duma proposed in 2009 to subject senior bureaucrats to lie detector tests, Russia Today spoke of ‘a bold mission of sweeping out the halls of power’. And though the mission was aborted – the law didn’t pass – it’s a reminder of polygraphy’s allure. Promises to detect falsehoods are the flipside of cynicism. They reflect a residual hope that honesty is attainable, facts are ascertainable and liars should be held accountable.

Again, such aspirations aren’t confined to Russia. It’s hard everywhere to differentiate honesty and good faith from deception. Western mindsets that have experienced the Iraq War, Brexit, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson certainly have epistemological issues of their own. And now, over Ukraine, the troubled perspectives are colliding.

‘It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth,’ Harry Frankfurt wrote in his monograph On Bullshit. ‘Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.’ The editor-in-chief of RT (formerly Russia Today) warns that Ukraine’s government has secretly murdered thousands of children and might be preparing to gas civilians in camps. The UK government fears a ‘whiff of Munich’ and ‘the biggest war in Europe since 1945’. President Biden is ‘convinced’ that Vladimir Putin will invade ‘in the coming days’. Where’s the truth? The polygraphs are silent – and they haven’t built a bullshit detector powerful enough.

The arguments are equivocal, for sure. Since his 2008 war with Georgia, Putin has assumed that threatening postures by a restrengthened military will bring political advantage, but half the national army can’t remain poised to invade for ever: not even gas exports are valuable enough to support that. Setting plans in motion, on the other hand, would involve wanton destruction or a sustained occupation that could only jeopardise his hold on power. And though Putin has been canny enough in the past to forestall discontent and unpopularity, positioning himself between Russia’s ultra-nationalists and liberals, the balancing act is more precarious now than it’s ever been. The expectations he’s unleashing, fuelled by escalating rhetoric, mean that carefully calculated manoeuvring could easily end in accidental catastrophe.

Then there’s the Madman Theory: the idea that it sometimes pays dividends in international relations to act bonkers. It’s most closely associated with Richard Nixon, but the strategy has older precedents – and one in particular has been doing the rounds in Russia. According to Nastassia, a lot of Muscovites have been favourably comparing Putin’s stance to the successful US negotiating position during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s certainly contentious. The superpowers came close to a nuclear exchange in 1962, and Russia has no more right to kick neighbouring states around than America does. The parallel has long been popular though. Perhaps it’s even true. Whatever that means.


  • 21 February 2022 at 10:34pm
    staberinde says:
    Nobody has positioned, or seeks to position, nuclear missiles in Ukraine with the intention of creating a first-strike capability.

    There is no parallel with Cuba. And Cuba was never about spheres of influence. It was always about mutual deterrence.

    • 26 February 2022 at 10:49am
      Bob K says: @ staberinde
      Are you sure that nobody seeks to position, nuclear missiles in Ukraine with the intention of creating a first-strike capability?NATO already has plans for missiles on its current front line towards Russia that would aid a first strike.

    • 28 February 2022 at 2:24pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Bob K
      And Ukraine is not in NATO. But that is no doubt a detail. And given Putin's aggression, it may be a detail that changes after he has been pushed out of Ukraine.

  • 22 February 2022 at 12:08am
    Tony Barrett says:
    What a morally slimy last paragraph in the face of naked aggression. Shameful

  • 22 February 2022 at 11:06am
    Graucho says:
    In order to calibrate a polygraph the subject has to answer some questions truthfully first. That's a big ask if one of Putin and his entourage are being questioned.

  • 22 February 2022 at 10:36pm
    RM says:
    The truth of what the man wants is in what he says and has said repeatedly. There are English subtitles for what the man says as well. I don't get the posture of bafflement and mystery in the MSM about what the man says. The man's country was attacked four times by the (free) West in the last 150 years and he does not want to become another Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan by the very same NATO - officially an anti Russian military alliance - that destroyed those nations and has been creeping towards the man's land by 20km/yr in the past 30 years. One has to be mind-numbingly stupid not to get what the man says.

    • 25 February 2022 at 12:59pm
      Rory Allen says: @ RM
      Ah, I get it now, thank you for explaining it so clearly, RM. Putin is really a regular, peace-loving guy who simply wants to defend his country against NATO aggression. Yes, of course he is. And Oedipus was just a good boy who loved his Mum.

    • 25 February 2022 at 1:51pm
      Reader says: @ Rory Allen
      You are far too polite about RM. His post is a blatant piece of dishonest propaganda and should be described as such. The Russians think, perhaps, that the British are so soft and so incapable of logic that they cannot see through this kind of thing. Speaking as Brit, please be assured, RM, that you are mistaken.

    • 25 February 2022 at 3:16pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Reader
      Now now, Reader, you will be accusing RM of being a Russian propaganda troll next [clutches pearls in horror].

    • 26 February 2022 at 10:43am
      Bob K says: @ Rory Allen
      @Rory Allen, @Reader It sounds like you are clutching your pearls in horror and screaming. I would dignify your arguments as "ad hominem" were it not that that usually comes along with some facts about the speaker. It's actually more like Trump shouting "fake facts" when people disagree with him.

      It is probably true that NATO has not attacked Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That does not mean that Russia is wrong to be worried about the possibility, in the same way that the West is worried about the possibility of an attack by China on Taiwan.

      Russia certainly sees the financing of the Ukraine revolution by the US as an attack on the Ukraine.

      I can't help thinking that the concentration by NATO on sanctions rather than military help betrays an inner doubt about whether NATO has gone too far in the Ukraine. Let's hope that the deaths remain minimal (compared with NATO's recent efforts) and that the situation becomes peaceful soon.

    • 26 February 2022 at 11:23am
      Bob K says: @ Bob K
      By the way, I just had a look at My browser said it was putting an automatic 5 second delay before showing me the site (WTF?). If you want to see real pro-Russia trolling, have a look at and at the comments.

    • 28 February 2022 at 2:32pm
      Reader says: @ Bob K
      Personally, I am screaming, you are right, but with laughter. And as for facts, here is a fact: Ukraine is not a member of NATO. And the aggressor here is Russia. But I love the sentence "NATO has probably not attacked Russia...". Are you suggesting that there might have been a very small attack, but we didn't notice it?

      And what do you mean by "NATO has gone too far in Ukraine"? Where is this mythical NATO in Ukraine? The only foreign troops I am aware of there are Russian.

      So, the attack is not 'ad hominem'. The logic is this: if someone makes statements that are clearly false, then either the person is ignorant (unlikely on this website) or being deliberately misleading. I hope that is clear now.

    • 1 March 2022 at 10:23am
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ Bob K
      Is this a game for boys only, or can girls join in?
      I genuinely cannot understand what NATO has to do with all this, when Ukraine is not a member. Perhaps one of you can explain in simple terms.
      I also cannot understand why Ukraine did not allow the two Eastern, ethically Russian provinces their independence long ago. Surely that would have removed a source of provocation to Putin and prevented this present war.
      And now I'm going back to my embroidery.

    • 1 March 2022 at 6:41pm
      freshborn says: @ Lexa Hypatia
      NATO is a cold war era military organisation that is essentially America's sphere of influence in Europe. On the dissolution of the USSR assurances were given to Russia that it would not expand its membership. Many felt that it should have been disbanded entirely as a dated relic that could only serve to alienate the newly capitalist nuclear power of Russia.

      In Western countries, NATO is seen as a necessary fact of life, a peaceful entity, and a protection from Russian militarism on the rest of Europe. It reneged on its assurances not to expand and now encompasses most of Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states bordering on Russia. Outside of the West, and for many in the West, I think it would be fair to say that NATO is not seen a wholly innocent organisation that exists only for peace and the defense of its members. The comparison to the Cuban Missile Crisis illustrates this. I also fail to see the difference between the Ukrainian invasion and the invasion of Iraq, by NATO allies, although I think the Ukrainian invasion is relatively more sensible and justifiable. Yet the difference in the media approach is palpable. You can also compare with NATO and its allies behaviour in Palestine and Kurdistan, and the Yemen. There's also NATO interventions in Eastern Europe, as well as America's constant worldwide operations to overthrow both democratic and dictatorial regimes that displease it.

      For a country such as Russia (and NATO specifically exists to counter Russia) that is designated by militarist westerners as an enemy or "rogue state", you may be somewhat distrustful of NATO and its allies and not want it to admit a country which shares a long border with you and place weapons on your border. Especially when they (America) seem to renege on all promises including multilateral nuclear disarmament and the Minsk Agreement (regarding Ukraine and the Eastern territories, along the lines of the point you make - Ukraine agreed to accept a referendum on independence and then declined). If they refuse to seriously engage in negotiations with you then you may feel the only way you can exercise your power, despite your status as a nuclear power, is to turn to the military, as America so often does.

      You may not be doing this for good, peaceful reasons. You may be trying to protect your power. But even if you were doing it out of an interest of peace, you would likely feel the same way about NATO. In the same way that, if you are America, you might claim to care about peace and self-determination of small countries, and that you attempt to acheive this through NATO, even though your interactions with global politics consistently involve denying self-determination and seeking war.

    • 2 March 2022 at 10:39am
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ freshborn
      Reading your carefully argued and completely reasonable case, I am reminded of that old saying: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

  • 23 February 2022 at 7:46am
    nlowhim says:
    Yeah, I've been hearing the parallels to the Cuban Missile crisis to our current crisis from a lot of people. To think that the US was in the right in that situation (or the USSR for that matter) as well as the risk of the end of human civilization is something else entirely. And I'd agree that the US doesn't have as much right as Russia, but the US does, doesn't it?

    • 25 February 2022 at 1:01pm
      Rory Allen says: @ nlowhim
      Compared with Biden and Putin, Kennedy and Kruschev seem to be giants of political wisdom. After all, the Cuban missile crisis was resolved, eventually, entirely peacefully.

  • 23 February 2022 at 10:53am
    XopherO says:
    The 1962 Cuba crisis was resolved by talking over the hot line, Kennedy - Kruschev. The latter knew Kennedy could not back down because of the hawkish generals behind him who thought the US could win a nuclear war. Kruschev appeared to back down but got most of what the USSR wanted - the removal of US nuclear missiles from its border in Turkey, and an understanding that Cuba would not be attacked by the US (the Bay of Pigs invasion failed because the US refused to give air support, and Castro worried the next time might be different - he was forced into the USSR's zone of influence by American hostility and blockade.) It could thus be argued that it was really the US which backed down by removing its missiles. The USSR was always concerned that the US might attempt a first strike, and missiles on its border enhanced that possibility. Missiles on Cuba suggested the same to the US! At the same time these land-based missiles were anyway becoming redundant, being replaced by ICBMs. If there is a comparison it is that diplomacy in full public glare is doomed to failure (Brexit is a good example of this - laying down publicised red lines leaves no room for manoeuvre) So one has to suppose that the West's (USA's) completely open declarations are designed to wreck diplomacy and force a Russian invasion. Is there another explanation? Do they still think they could win a nuclear war?

    • 23 February 2022 at 6:58pm
      Dan says: @ XopherO
      Is there another explanation? Incompetence? Wagging the dog? Wanting to look intelligent/well informed /tough? It does seem like an extreme way to suspend nordstream...

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