Pravda Ha Ha: Truth, Lies and the End of Europe

If you could, which contemporary politician would you ask to explain himself? Might you ask Donald Trump how he can sleep at night? Would you ask some of the UK party leaders how they can bring themselves to tell such blatant porkies? I’d like to ask Vladimir Putin why – after the fall of the Wall and Europe’s promising dawn – he has redoubled Russia’s efforts to undermine European unity?

Thirty years have passed since I made my original Stalin’s Nose journey from Moscow to Berlin, at the dawn of a new age. In 1989 the fall of the Wall was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Seventy years of totalitarianism ended almost overnight and Europeans embraced the idea of a borderless continent, believing that they had changed the world.

In those euphoric days I explored lands that were – for most of Westerners – the forgotten half of Europe. In East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia itself, I met people who hadn’t spoken to a foreigner in decades, who opened their hearts and told me stories of lost years, ruined lives and secret policemen. In Czechoslovakia, I heard Václav Havel — the imprisoned playwright who’d become president – herald the birth of ‘a Europe in which no one more powerful will be able to suppress anyone less powerful, in which it will no longer be possible to settle disputes by force.’

How could it have been otherwise? My generation had grown up in the shadow of the Second World War, haunted by the ghosts of its sixty million dead. We’d come of age during the Cold War, with half a continent imprisoned behind a wall. Our response was to value individual liberty above tribalism. We couldn’t have borne the loss of more fathers and uncles, to see our brothers die in the name of the old demons. So we celebrated when former adversaries drew back the Iron Curtain.

Thirty years on, I’ve retraced my original journey, backwards, to ask what became of our faith in the healing power of openness and reconciliation? Why – after liberating themselves from Soviet tyranny – have Russians surrendered their freedom for Dictatorship 2.0? How could so many of us in the West have fallen for the populists’ lies and spin, dragging democracy to this precarious present moment?

It’s sobering to realise that in 1989, the year when the Wall fell, 11 countries had border walls or fences. Today there are more than 70 around the world. I’ve written Pravda Ha Ha to find a way to keep faith in tolerance, empathy and the promise of the future, despite the rise of chauvinism and xenophobia, the echo of marching boots and the shadow of Brexit.

November 1, 2019