The bloody and terrible war in Ukraine has been accompanied by a war of words. One of the more frequent words heard in the Russian media is vranyo, which means a “lie”. The Russian government and media have hurled it at Ukraine and its allies, accusing them of exaggerating the devastating effects of its “special military operation” while Ukraine’s Russian speakers have used it to describe Russia’s apparently ad-libbed alternative explanations for the destruction wrought in Bucha, Mariupol and elsewhere. Vranyo, though, is not as simple as just a “lie” – it means more than that.
Russian has two words for truth, istina and pravda, and it also has two words for lies: lozh (ложь) and vranyo (враньё). Look them up in a dictionary, and you’ll find them cross-referencing each other, which isn’t much help. The English press has sometimes translated the former just as a “lie” and the latter as a “bald-faced lie”. That starts to get at the difference but isn’t quite there.
Lozh originates with the verb lgat’, the act of lying – the noun describes an untruth. Lozh is the word the US government used to translate Biden’s inaugural pronouncement that: “There is truth and there are lies,” and to connect it to the “stream of lies” coming out of Russia about Ukraine.
Vranyo is a noun formed from a different verb, vrat’. That verb also means “to lie”, but it has a more colloquial, pejorative flavour. Vranyo has a dismissive feel: it is a lie that no one would take seriously, an excuse, or a ducking of responsibility. It can be a mindless fib, like the story of how the dog ate your homework or a tall tale.
So vranyo starts with lozh, the negation of truth, and goes from there. Vranyo is not about the proposition itself – it focuses attention on the lie-tellers and why they are lying. As one wag put it on Reddit, vranyo means:
You know I’m lying, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know, but I go ahead with a straight face, and you nod seriously and take notes.
“A Russian friend explained vranyo this way: ‘You know I’m lying, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know, but I go ahead with a straight face, and you nod seriously and take notes.” Another trick the WH adopted from Russia.
— John Sipher (@john_sipher) February 24, 2018
The word has spewed consistently from the Russian side in this meaning. Following the lead of Russia’s foreign and defense ministries, Russian media have united in pooh-poohing almost anything in Ukrainian and western sources as blatant invention, whether that’s estimates of Russian losses (“propagandistic vranyo”) or details of how the Russian army leveled the Kievan suburb of Bucha (“the amount of vranyo from Kiev”) and bombed the train station in Kramatorsk (“they’re steeped in vranyo”), among the many atrocities already documented.
But when a government does vranyo, the nature of the fabrication can change. We may well be talking about “the big lie”, and the reason for vranyo might not be evasiveness but contempt. Western and liberal Russian sources have called vranyo a characteristic tactic of the Russian state, even coining a new compound gosvranyo, literally “government-vranyo”.
Ukraine certainly uses it this way about Russia. The Russian-language Ukrainian media have hit back, implying that Russia is formulating an alternative reality in which they do no wrong (“a war based on a great vranyo”, as one commentator saw it, or “straightforward vranyo dressed up as propagandistic cliches”, in the words of another).
Vranyo in the cathedral
Encounters with a high-profile word, though, don’t just connect with abstract meanings and uses; they also evoke associations and echoes of other places we’ve heard and seen them. And vranyo has been a constant in recent years with Russia in the news.
For example, when UK police fingered two foreigners as FSB (Russian state security) agents who they said had carried out the novichok poisonings in Salisbury in 2018, the pair were interviewed on Russian state television. They explained that, quite to the contrary, they were simple tourists who had made a special trip to Salisbury to see the fabled cathedral with its 123-metre-high spire.
The explanation was so far-fetched that it seemed they had barely put any effort into making it sound credible – liberal Russian commentators said the British were letting the Kremlin “drown itself in vranyo”. The government’s stance itself – denial without plausibility – can be seen as a display of strength, an indifference to the conventions of explanation.
But try to look up vranyo and mentions of the Skripal poisoning in Russian, and most of what jumps out is Russian media accounts dismissing the UK government’s accusations. Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova immediately fired back about “London’s vranyo”, which was widely reported across the Russian web. The same has now happened with the invasion of Ukraine.
Vranyo is thus both more specific and more multifaceted than “lying”. It’s a technique of the current Russian regime, and a trope the regime uses against its enemies. Vranyo is not of course unique to Russia; to take just one example, Trump employed the same tactics in the US election with his “big steal” claims. But vranyo does neatly encapsulate, in a single word, the paradox of truth-telling in the current conflict.