The murder of Russian defector and fierce Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko was a radioactive wake-up call to many in the West about the nature of the Russian regime. Eight years later, the annexation of Crimea and subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 were also rightly condemned around the world. It’s safe to say these events – and the ongoing allegations of Russian meddling in western democracies – have made it an interesting time to be a Russian in this country.
Yet while this topic has been a rich vein of material for a comedian, the extent of hysteria about Russia’s involvement in every aspect of our daily lives is now getting beyond satire.
We’re told the Russians were responsible for Brexit. As I have said before, if we Russians were responsible for Brexit, Brexit would be done. We’d be out and we’d have taken a chunk of France with us.
I recall being heckled in a comedy club by an American who told me ‘Russians don’t understand democracy’. ‘Got Trump elected, didn’t we?’ was my reply. The fact the Mueller Report appeared to show no such thing, however, seems to have had little effect on the public consciousness.
And while gags about Russian interference still work, my sense is that the joke is wearing thin.
Take Hillary Clinton’s recent channeling of Joseph McCarthy by appearing to suggest Democratic presidential candidate and military veteran Tulsi Gabbard is a ‘favourite of the Russians’. Clinton offered no evidence for this accusation. I have little doubt that the Russian regime is eager to influence western elections – just as the US and UK governments have been keen to do the same in countries around the world for decades. But that senior politicians can simply throw out smears without any evidence means we have now reached a point where the obsession with Russian spies is reaching Cold War levels.
A case in point is Labour MP David Lammy’s recent tweet asking: ‘Is Dominic Cummings a Russian Spy? Hidden in plain sight’. In his message, Lammy linked to an article saying the PM’s top advisor was facing questions about the time he spent in Russia in the 1990s. Again, there was no evidence offered as to why this question was being asked. But perhaps Cummings should be grateful; this is a kinder take than Lammy’s assessment of the ERG wing of the Tory party, whom he suggested were worse than Nazis.
These baseless attempts to tarnish the reputations of political opponents represents the final stages of what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’. Defined as the mental discomfort we experience when confronted with evidence that contradicts our pre-existing beliefs, cognitive dissonance means Hillary Clinton and other Trump opponents – as well as a few Remainers here in Britain – are simply unwilling to confront the realities that saw them lose in 2016.
Instead of facing up to the challenges which led to her defeat, such as voter apathy about the Clinton dynasty or stagnant wage levels, Hillary would rather look elsewhere to explain what went wrong.
Likewise with Brexit. Instead of seeking to educate themselves about the concerns of voters in Britain, who backed Leave to express their frustrations at being ignored for decades on issues like immigration and national sovereignty, a minority of Remainers have turned the conversation, once again, to Russia.
The latest furore surrounds a report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum. Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry claimed the delay in the report’s publication is ‘clearly politically motivated’. She said that some in Downing Street had realised that the publication of the report would mean questions being asked ‘about the links between Russia and Brexit and with the current leadership of the Tory party, which risks derailing their election campaign’.
Thornberry might be right but as someone who voted Remain and was not a fan of Trump, I find this sour-grapes politics unwise and counterproductive.
Democrats will not win by accusing Trump of colluding with the Russians. Remainers will not win by presenting Brexit as the product of Putin’s meddling.
Western politicians need to remember that democracy is about the concerns of ordinary people. No amount of foreign interference will ever be as powerful in shaping people’s choices at the ballot box than the sense that they are being ignored and spurned by their elected representatives.
Konstantin Kisin is a Russian-British comedian