Leonardo Padura, The Man who Loved Dogs, translated by Anna Kushner. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 592 pages.
In April, Fox News agreed to pay $800 million to Dominion Voting Systems, which had sued it for endorsing claims about a stolen election that its own people knew were false. Fox News had done this because, as Paul Krugman pointed out, “it feared losing market share among viewers who wanted to believe the Big Lie.”
Around the same time, a Russian court sentenced Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in jail for exposing Vladimir Putin’s big lie about Ukraine. However patently absurd, Mr. Putin’s and the Trumpites’ big lies were bought by a large “market share” of Russians and Republicans since to reject them would constitute a psychological break with their political community.
On a small scale, such groupthink in Putin’s Russia is reminiscent of that in Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s, a period recently brilliantly recounted in The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura, Cuba’s most popular writer. Published in Spanish in 2009 and in English several years later, it follows the parallel paths of Leon Trotsky, from the time of his exile in 1929 up to his assassination in 1940 in Mexico City, and that of his murderer, Ramon Mercador.
Padura recounts the extraordinary lengths to which Stalin went to remove leading Communists not only from physical existence but also from history, forcing them to admit that from early on they were part of a conspiracy to bring down the workers’ state. Stalin waited until he had killed off pretty much all of the “conspirators” before murdering Trotsky, because he needed Trotsky around so as to cast him as the conspiracy’s mastermind manipulator. Moscow’s agents inside and outside the USSR spread the word of Trotsky’s ongoing betrayal, and citizens and sympathizers of the USSR apparently believed the absurd lie that this desperate exile and his small band of followers constituted an international capitalist-fascist effort to stave off the arrival of the promised socialist paradise.
We follow Mercador through the Spanish Civil War, during which he was recruited and groomed for his historical role by Stalin’s agent, Kotov. In the process, Mercador learns that everyone is expendable and that, in service to their historical mission, every lie becomes truth.
Reading Padura provides an insight into why Putin’s lies about the “special military operation” in Ukraine have apparently been accepted as truth by most Russians. Once one is convinced that a cause one has adopted, often at great sacrifice, is just, all evidence to the contrary is dismissed as enemy disinformation.
Is there something particular to Russian culture that makes its people especially susceptible to such self-deception? How will the people of Russia deal with looming defeat on the Ukrainian battlefield and the cost in lives, livelihood and isolation that that they will continue to pay?
In a sense, the Cuban backstory is Padura’s tentative answer to this question. The author could not have published this story, based on his Cuban narrator’s encounter with a man who turns out to be Mercador, in the years during which such an encounter would have taken place. Not even a mild criticism of the USSR, Cuba’s benefactor, would have passed the censors, let alone a deeply penetrating insight into the horrors of Stalinism.
The Cuban authorities have tried to discourage the book’s distribution in Cuba, but Padura is far too popular to be silenced. If only it were available in Russian.