Quote Origin: They Lie To Us, We Know They’re Lying, They Know We Know They’re Lying But They Keep Lying Anyway, and We Keep Pretending To Believe Them

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Elena Gorokhova? Marah Ellis Ryan? Rex Stout? Arleigh A. Burke? Anonymous?

Matryoshka doll symbolizing nested lies from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: People living under oppressive rulers know that they are being fed lies, but their responses are limited. Also, the rulers know that the populace contains cynical disbelievers. Yet, the rituals of deception continue:

(1) They lie.
(2) We know they are lying.
(3) They know we know they are lying.
(4) They keep lying.
(5) We keep pretending to believe.

This series of statements has been attributed to anonymous citizens of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the cold war. It has also been ascribed to the famous Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I have not seen a precise citation; hence, I am uncertain. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: QI has not yet found a match for this series of expressions in the books or speeches of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

A close match appeared in the 2010 book “A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir” by Elena Gorokhova who was born in 1955 in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). One theme of her memoir was the “game of vranyo”, i.e., the game of pretending.  Gorokhova described a set of rules for the game. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying but they keep lying anyway, and we keep pretending to believe them.

The quotation above occurred in a section about Gorokhova’s experiences as a teenager, but she did not specify an exact time period for the quotation. Partially matching statements have been circulating for decades, but QI believes that the formulation above should be credited to Gorokhova.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1913 U.S. author and actress Marah Ellis Ryan published “The Woman of the Twilight: The Story of a Story” which contained a partial match for the quotation under examination:2

“Of course, Monica, it’s this way,” she elucidated; “we pretend to believe them, and they pretend to be deceived by our pretense, but no one is fooled, even a little bit!”

In 1947 prominent U.S. detective fiction writer Rex Stout published “Too Many Women”. Progress on a case was stalled because of collusion:3

He maintained it was hopeless. He would have nothing to go on, he said, but one little fact regarding which they had agreed to lie and they knew we knew they were lying. It was stalemate, and he would have nowhere to start from.

In 1949 “Hygeia: The Health Magazine” published an article about venereal disease which is a topic filled with shame and deception:4

Those persons who lie outright are the problems. Even when they are confronted with laboratory and clinical evidence they look us in the eye and evade questions. It is easy to see they are lying, they know we know they are lying and there is nothing we can do about it.

In 1959 U.S. Navy Admiral Arleigh A. Burke testified before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate about the difficulties of negotiating military agreements:5

I was in conferences in Korea where they lied, we knew they were lying, they knew we knew they were lying, and it did not make any difference. They went right ahead. Things that were obvious, I mean things that you could prove, physical things, and it made no difference.

In 1986 Hervé Varenne edited the book “Symbolizing America”. He wrote the following about advertising within an introduction to a section of the volume:6

It is propaganda. The advertisers know this. Those who watch commercials know this. The advertisers know that we know that they are lying. We know that they know we know, and so on.

In 1987 a columnist at “The San Diego Union-Tribune” in California complained about the inaccuracy of airline schedules and called for the help of a well-known consumer activist:7

Airline schedules. We know they’re lying. They know they’re lying. They know we know. Where’s Ralph Nader when you need him?

In 1999 wordsmith Patricia T. O’Conner published “Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing” which contained the following passage:8

“I’m not a demanding person,” your father-in-law writes, then proceeds to tell you exactly how he’d like his breakfast prepared when he comes to visit. (Oh yes he is.)

That type of dishonest writing doesn’t fool anybody. We know it’s not true, the writers know it’s not true, and we know they know we know.

In 2010 Elena Gorokhova’s book “A Mountain of Crumbs” was published in English as mentioned at the beginning of this article. An evaluation of the book was printed in “Women’s Review of Books”:9

The same disingenuousness—the denial of lack coupled with readiness to overlook deprivation—Gorokhova insists, granted the repressive system its power, while affording ordinary Soviet citizens a modicum of contentment. Vranyo, as Gorokhova calls this game of pretense, took on different forms, but its rules were simple: “[T]hey lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying but they keep lying anyway, and we keep pretending to believe them.”

In 2019 a version of the saying was attributed to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by a message on the X-twitter social network:10

We know they are lying. They also know that they are lying. They also know that we know they are lying. We also know that they know that we know they are lying, but they are still lying.
Nobel Prize for literature : Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn …

In conclusion, Elena Gorokhova deserves credit for the passage she wrote in her 2010 memoir “A Mountain of Crumbs”. Gorokhova was born in 1955 in the former Soviet Union, and the quotation occurred in a section describing her teen years. Hence, she might have employed it in the 1970s. It is also possible Gorokhova heard it from others. In that case, the originator would be anonymous. Partial matches appeared by 1913. QI has found no substantive support for the attribution to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Image Notes: Matryoshka doll symbolizing nested lies from Didssph at Unsplash. The image has been cropped.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Paulo Pinto, Alan Rew, Mary Branscombe, and John Borrows whose emails and tweets led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Branscombe knew about the ascription to Elena Gorokhova.

  1. 2010 (2009 Copyright), A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir by Elena Gorokhova, Chapter 13: A Tour of Leningrad, Quote Page 172 and 173, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  2. 1913, The Woman of the Twilight: The Story of a Story by Marah Ellis Ryan, Chapter 18, Quote Page 341, A. C. McClurg & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  3. 1967 (1947 Copyright), A Nero Wolfe Novel: Too Many Women by Rex Stout, Chapter 27, Quote Page 130, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  4. 1949 July, Hygeia: The Health Magazine, Volume 27, Number 7, My life in a VD clinic by Elaine Arrowsmith, Start Page 482, Quote Page 483, Column 2, The American Medical Association, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  5. 1959, United States Senate, Eighty-Sixth Congress, First Session, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Relations, Disarmament and Foreign Policy, Part 1, Date: January 30, 1959, Speaker: Admiral Arleigh A. Burke (Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy), Quote Page 88, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  6. 1986, Symbolizing America, Edited by Hervé Varenne, Part 2: Crafting America, Section: Editor’s Introduction, Quote Page 50, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  7. 1987 December 30, The San Diego Union-Tribune, 1987 – Goodbye and good riddance by Karla Peterson, Quote Page D-1, San Diego, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩︎
  8. 1999, Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing by Patricia T. O’Conner, Part 3: Getting Better All the Time, Chapter 27: The Importance of Being Honest, Quote Page 198, Harcourt Brace & Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  9. 2010 November-December, Women’s Review of Books, Volume 27, Number 6, They Know We Know They Know by Marta Bladek, (Review of Elena Gorokhova’s “A Mountain of Crumbs”), Start Page 26, Quote Page 26, Column 2, Published By: Old City Publishing, Inc. (JSTOR) link ↩︎
  10. Social network: X-Twitter, Handle: donh0n @donh0n, Timestamp: 9:19 AM · Aug 22, 2019, Text: We know they are lying … (Accessed on twitter.com on October 14, 2023) link ↩︎
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