Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
When an airplane owned by Russian warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin plummeted in a fiery crash northwest of Moscow last week, observers in Russia and around the world immediately recalled two indisputable facts. First, that Prigozhin had openly challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin, and second, that countless others who had defied Putin have met untimely, violent deaths.
In the quest to understand what happened, one other fact was clear: The Kremlin was not the place to seek straightforward, credible answers. The Kremlin’s word is, shall we say, not a good source for independent, reliable truth.
In fact, when Putin’s spokesman dismissed claims that the state had Prigozhin killed as an “absolute lie,” it seemed a pro forma statement, one we’ve heard before as Putin’s critics, one after the other, meet macabre endings.
Putin and his inner circle have been at war with the truth for decades, most recently and notoriously regarding Ukraine, which they have falsely claimed is ruled by Nazis and is, they maintain despite obvious evidence to the contrary, not a real country.
Dictators, autocrats and strongmen have a long history of battling the truth in pursuit of their goals. So do would-be autocrats, individuals who would like to enjoy the benefits of enormous, long-lasting power, and are willing to break all manner of norms to acquire and keep it.
In one of history’s most remarkable split-screen moments, the Prigozhin crash competed for the news spotlight with a wave of arrests related to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to reverse the outcome of the 2020 election he lost – his own denial of truth and reality.
The world is in the midst of a global authoritarian drift. In different ways, both Putin and Trump are key players in that phenomenon. And they are each running into a determined pushback against their efforts.
Putin’s efforts to remake the world to his liking, his falsehood-fueled mission to bring Ukraine under Moscow’s rule, has smashed against the reality that Ukraine is, in fact, a country, and is not willing to submit to Putin’s whims. And Trump, who still lives in a country where there is an independent judiciary, is running into the fact that, however much freedom you have to shout lies into a microphone and try to mislead the country, there is no First Amendment right to try to intimidate election officials or subvert electoral rules.
Last week, Trump surrendered to jail in Atlanta, where he is accused of a criminal scheme to essentially steal the 2020 election. Trump has denied all the accusations in this and three other criminal indictments.
In their own context, and within the limits of their power, the Russian strongman and the American would-be autocrat have gone to war against the truth and are getting pummeled by it. But they are nowhere near defeated.
Today, the world is keeping one wary eye on Putin and the war he launched against Ukraine on false pretenses – while also monitoring with alarm how Trump’s multiple criminal cases have failed to erode his standing among Republicans.
Sure, politicians stretch the truth. But this is of a different magnitude. Autocrats and aspiring autocrats have been telling lies for centuries.
In the 20th century, a declining Soviet Union was famous for a system in which, as the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitzyn noted, the government lied, the people knew the government was lying, the government knew the people knew, but it all continued. Beyond its borders, Moscow weaved a tapestry of deception, ensnaring countless believers.
Neither Trump nor Putin are novices at the art of conjuring major victories by going to war against the truth. They are masters at gaslighting, and it has long served them well.
Trump built his public persona by manipulating media coverage of his business acumen. Then, as he prepared to become president, he slandered legitimate media as “fake news,” so that he could then lie with impunity and evidence of his falsehoods could be dismissed. He was embraced by a network so mendacious that it later paid $787 million to settle a case of promoting Trump and his allies’ elections lies.
His administration started lying from its first day in office. On his first full day in office, January 21, Trump concocted fantasies about the size of the crowd at his inauguration; his adviser justified the lies as “alternative facts.” Throughout his time in office, fact-checkers at the Washington Post clocked 30,573 “untruths,” culminating with his efforts, which continue to this day, to claim he won the 2020 election. In a landslide, no less.
Putin has no less experience at distorting reality. Many believe he secured his first presidential election in Russia by blaming Chechen terrorists for the 1999 apartment explosions in Moscow that many are convinced were carried out by the Kremlin (although it has never been conclusively proven). The crisis and his tough guy response helped cement his image of a strongman who would protect Russia.
Over the years, Putin has turned Russia into a global purveyor of disinformation – another word for deliberate, politically-motivated lies.
Putin denied interfering in America’s 2016 elections, an operation coincidentally run by Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency. That operation, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation concluded, indicting Prigozhin among others, was part of a Kremlin effort to sow discord in the United States through “what they called information warfare.” Prigozhin, who had a penchant for telling truths, later admitted doing it.
He also contradicted Putin’s pretext for going to war against Ukraine. Imagine Putin’s fury.
Prigozhin’s death comes precisely two months after his mutiny, a challenge to Putin’s authority.
Symbolic dates matter in Putin’s Russia. The journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a fierce Putin critic, was assassinated on Putin’s birthday, for example. Putin launched the full-scale war in Ukraine around the 8th anniversary of his 2014 invasion of Crimea.
Putin denied he had anything to do with the 2015 assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a popular politician who had blasted his 2014 intervention in eastern Ukraine. He denied any involvement in the 2020 poisoning of his critic Alexei Navalny, who later duped a Russian intelligence agent to confess on the phone by pretending to be his boss, and many others who perished suddenly after challenging Putin’s views.
When asked who killed the man they still idolize, Prigozhin’s bereaved fans, even with their faces blurred for a CNN interview, can only say “no comment.”
It’s understandable. One has to be careful before deciding to cross a powerful man engaged in open warfare with the truth, who breaks rules and norms as a matter of course, in pursuit of his own interests above all else.