The most controversial aspect of the new pro-Western government in Kyiv is a new ministry – the Ministry of Information – approved by parliamentary vote on 2 December 2014. The Russian government has seized on this news as evidence that the Ukrainian authorities are creating an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth” that will ultimately serve as an official organ restricting and controlling the expression of opinions in society. The Kremlin has cited the warnings of none other than the representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) for Media Freedom, Dunja Mijatovic, as evidence of the Kyiv government’s lack of democratic credentials.
These accusations need to be addressed, and I offer a few thoughts here.
The Ministry of Truth (‘Minitru’ in short) is one of four ministries in Oceania, which is one of three political blocs ruling the world (along with Eurasia and Eastasia), in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The other three ministries are the Ministry of Peace (Minipax), the Ministry of Love (Miniluv) and the Ministry of Plenty (Miniplenty). In the novel, each ministry produces the exact opposite of what its name implies: the Ministry of Truth disseminates lies and falsifies history to suit the aims of the state; the Ministry of Peace makes war; the Ministry of Love directs the torture and brainwashing of Oceania’s citizens; the Ministry of Plenty presides over economic scarcity. Since Orwell worked in the British Ministry of Information during World War II, it is widely assumed that the Ministry of Truth analogizes his wartime employer.
An important point to be made with regard to the Russian accusations is that censors exist in any society, even in peacetime. Yet Ukraine is at war – against Russian-backed proxy separatists in its eastern provinces – just as Britain was at war against Hitler when its own Ministry of Information existed. The British Ministry of Information – though satirized in Orwell’s novel for its censorship and truth-bending – probably played a constructive role in the war by countering Axis propaganda. But it was in any case far less pernicious than the German state agencies and organizations spouting Nazi propaganda. One hopes that even Putin’s Kremlin views the victory of Great Britain in World War II as an outcome preferable to a triumphant Third Reich.
Thus, even while it is thus far impossible to say exactly what the new Ukrainian Ministry of Information will do, it is certainly reasonable to predict that it will serve a constructive purpose in countering and correcting some of the more outlandish statements and reports coming out of official Russian media, which still refers to the pro-Western authorities in Kyiv as a “junta,” despite the fact that of all seventeen ministers in the Ukrainian government, only one – the minister of defense – is a serving military officer. It will be remembered that Russian Channel One, a state TV outlet, reported early in the conflict in the east that Ukrainians had nailed a small child “crucifixion style” to a bulletin board in the middle of the town square in a small city. These and other reports are patently false, and are designed to whip up pro-war fever among Russia’s citizens and maintain popular support for Russian aggression and imperialism.
It should also be remembered that the television channel RT – broadcast in four or five different languages around the world – is a propaganda arm of the Kremlin, and is financed from the Russian presidential administration. It adheres to an unambiguously anti-American editorial line, while never criticizing Putin or the Russian government. It points out problems with Western capitalism, but not with capitalism itself, since Russia today is capitalism run amuck. If the West is unpleasant for its corruption, then Russia is hell, with no middle class and grotesque greed blatantly evident among its political leaders. Putin himself has never held a job outside the state sector, and his official salary as president is probably little more than $100,000 a year, yet he is widely believed to have personal wealth in the region of tens of billions of dollars and a string of opulent mansions on vast estates in different parts of the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile his people are lucky to eke out a miserable existence on salaries of a few hundred dollars a month maximum. RT says nothing about any of this; it only points out faults with American society. Yet America’s free market and open society allow RT to be received all over the country, with or without a cable TV package. Imagine an American TV channel broadcast in the Russian language, available for free throughout Russia, relentlessly critical of Russia’s government and society, and financed from the White House budget. This could never happen under Russia’s current regime, because the Russian regime is – de facto – fascist. Furthermore, since RT is global, it is potentially far more dangerous in terms of disseminating falsehoods internationally than any Ukrainian Ministry of Information could be.
Another point worth making about Orwell’s dark satire as it relates to wartime Ukraine is that the book was written in the post-war period. Orwell was a leftist, and his opposition to fascism and support for the war against Hitler were motivated by an appreciation of the greater of two evils. As Hitler was annexing and invading territory on the European continent, many of Orwell’s fellow leftists took a pacifist stance and opposed war, believing some sort of permanent peace could be reached with the Nazi dictator. Orwell – a lifelong anti-fascist – resolutely disagreed. At the same time, however, he had no illusions about the nature of the Stalin regime: he viewed it as an abomination and a betrayal of socialist ideals. Hitler was simply the greater danger in the near term, and this explained the temporary Western alliance with the tyrant dictator and murderer in Moscow. By contrast, many of Orwell’s fellow socialists were not only apologists but supporters of Stalin, and this no doubt included many colleagues at the wartime Ministry of Information. After the war, many British socialists revealed their enduring and enthusiastic Stalinist sympathies, thus giving Orwell the inspiration for the official ideology of Oceania – IngSoc (short for ‘English Socialism’) – with its all-powerful “Party” of the same name, consisting of the sort of people Orwell was forced to live around and work with during the war. The leader of the Party (Big Brother) is a kind of infallible, mustachioed Stalin figure no ordinary person has ever seen in the flesh.
It has been speculated lately that Putin is behaving as if Nineteen Eighty-Four is his bible, and that the West – led by the United States – is his Oceania. This would make sense, since Putin appears only to understand brute force on the world stage, and has seen fit to redraw internationally recognized borders at the point of a bayonet while still expecting to be treated as a peer among world leaders in the 21st century. But Putin’s lack of subtlety in international affairs extends to his understanding of literature, and, in the case of Nineteen Eighty-Four, of the story behind the book. It is easy to despair of the injustice of Western capitalism, and of the wars waged in furtherance of corporate greed. But none of that means the West today resembles Oceania in any meaningful sense, or that there is any justification for viewing Ukraine’s government as an extension of totalitarian tyranny. America and the West are plagued with many problems, but they are not totalitarian. Putin’s nationalist-imperialist Russia, by contrast, appears headed in that direction.