Anne Liebig | 10th July 2017.
‘This is a true story.’ Every connoisseur of the Coen brother’s timeless classic Fargo and its equally cult-like series spin-off about small-town megalomania will appreciate the tongue-in-cheek quality of so blatant a lie. The sentence is repeatedly dangled in front of the viewer at the beginning of each episode as a propitious prop for make-believe, calling viewers to rejuvenate their sense for a suspension of disbelief and jump right into this mellifluent maelstrom of snow storms, ice deserts, and funny accents. If it is only popular entertainment, what does it have to do with our current post-truth political climate?
Apparently, more than you might think. Given the striking similarities between the Minnesota prairie and the Siberian taiga, it is weird that Russian gangsters haven’t made an earlier appearance in the idyllic world of Eden Valley, Bemidji, et. al. Appropriately dressed in Adidas stripes and loaded with dark, philosophical thoughts, the only thing that seems to be missing from the creators’ picture-perfect portrayal of the stereotypic Slavic crook is the Slav squat, true Gopnik style. They do, however, make a somewhat oblique reference to this unique (and now meme-worthy) sitting posture in a scene conveniently cut from Russian TV, so I suppose it is fair to say that the creators have ticked all the boxes.
That, in itself, is a bit of a miracle. In our age and day, images of Russians and Russia tend to be categorised according to the old Cold War rhetoric of the hard-drinking, hard-talking enemy in the East, which, really, should have been buried long ago, but which has instead been dug up and carefully dusted off in the wake of Putin’s egomania and geopolitical crusades. Fargo still plays with clichés, but at least it does so in an informed way. It also takes the trouble to hire actors who can speak Russian convincingly, rather than produce garbled sounds more reminiscent of an Eastern European accent (whatever that is supposed to be). The producers have done their research, and manage to sell the trite with a pinch of salt and a grain of truth.
This leads us back to the original premise of Fargo and the one redeeming factor in the series’ jejune use of the big, bad Russian criminal. From the sly fading out of the word ‘true’ from the series’ headline to its opening dialogue between a Stasi officer and an unlikely suspect – one speaking of truth, the other of stories – the third season of Fargo is an artistic project pathologically concerned with a postmodernist understanding of truth. If truth is created with words, and words constitute a narrative, why link truth to fact, when it is so much closer to fiction?
In a time where global statesmen speak of post-truths and alternative facts and media literacy should probably become a recognised school subject, this is a discussion that we simply have to have. It is also a discussion that could benefit from a particular Russian pearl of wisdom, presented in episode 4, The Narrow Escape Problem:Pravda, as the narrator continues to recount, is the word for man’s truth, while istina denotes God’s truth. And whereas most linguists will (and should) find this rather simplified explanation of an astoundingly complex Russian language phenomenon borderline hair-raising, it does capture the essence of the two words fairly well. But then, the narrator adds, there is a third word: nepravda, or untruth:Cleverly enough, the narrator doesn’t specify which leader he is referring to, although the implication that it is Putin is clear enough. What Western viewers might need to be reminded of is that Putin can look back on a long, illustrious list of totalitarian forefathers from whom to copy his strategies. Not that he lacks in creativity, as his impressive network of troll factories proves.
Not so Trump. What is the difference between Putinist untruth and Trumpian post-truth, then? Does the one simply negate known truths, whereas the other gives way to full-blown derangement? Is there a difference? Have postmodernists unleashed a beast by blasting Truth with a capital T from its pedestal, and chopping it up into bite-size chunks of subjective mini-truths? Because this is what most politicians nowadays seem to consider their main tool of the trade – a subjectivism blown out of all proportion that pays homage to our 21st century kowtowing to individualism.
It is moments like these where I find it hard not to join in the chorus of cynical voices wafting this way from my circle of friends and acquaintances in Russia. With their distinct linguistic and historical advantage, perhaps they can teach us a thing or two about how to see and label our visions of truth. We could certainly use the lesson. That is my pravda.
Anne is an alumna from Heidelberg University with a Staatsexamen teaching degree in English, Russian, and History. She is currently working towards a PhD in Russian literature at the University of Edinburgh. Her interests lie in dissident literature, popular fiction studies, kickboxing, and wine tastings.