This story is over 5 years old.


Why Ukraine is so obsessed with lie detector tests

Polygraphs are regarded by many academics as pseudoscience, but in Ukraine their use is booming.

KIEV — If you believe that a country’s reality TV tells you something about the national character of the people, then consider Ukraine’s "Love for Survival," a show that puts relationships of participating couples to the test with a polygraph exam focused on fidelity.

The popularity of "Love for Survival" and its most recognizable star — the lie detector — makes sense, says psychotherapist and vocal critic of the polygraph, Irina Muzychuk. She believes there's a cultural reason for this: In “highly unstable societies like Ukraine,” lie detectors give “hope that the truth will be found.”


Since breaking from the Soviet Union in 1990, the country has suffered from three decades of corruption, oligarchy and conflict. A continuing proxy war with Russia is now the greatest source of national paranoia. Roughly 13,000 Ukrainians have died since fighting broke out in the Donbass region of the country in 2014. Meanwhile, Ukrainians continue to get bombarded by propaganda and disinformation.

It's no wonder, then, that Ukrainians are susceptible to a technology that promises to deliver truth. And that collective longing has meant big business for the polygraph industry, despite the practice being widely discredited in many parts of the world.

The industry has enjoyed rapid growth over the last decade. The All-Ukrainian Polygraph association started with just 12 members in 2014, but it now has over 300, according to the association’s Executive Director Volodymr Vehmid. That popularity has extended into other parts of Ukrainian society.

Polygraph tests have become a common part of a job interview for bankers, tax inspectors, cleaners, military personnel and anti-corruption officials. And unlike much of Europe, Ukraine even allows polygraph evidence in court, the most notable example being the case against Nadiya Savchenko, a former member of Parliament who was arrested in 2018 for her alleged role in an attempted coup d'etat.

Even the Ukrainian government is catching on to the trend. Ukraine’s chief military prosecutor now wants to weaponize lie detection technology in the country’s war against Russia. During a television appearance in January, Colonel Gen. Anatolii Matios announced he was developing a “polygraph program."


His proposal is still in development, but essentially he wants to use a computer-based lie detection test, which bears some similarities to an unconscious bias test, to quickly, and on a mass scale, weed out collaborators with Russian separatists.

This Orwellian-sounding tool, developed by the makers of Ukraine’s own “Rubicon” polygraph, has a claimed accuracy of around 70 percent.

When pushed on the alarming human rights questions his proposal raises, Matios seemed more interested in the expedience it promises: “People can't wait for years while the state establishes whether they are guilty or not. Polygraphs will make it all easier, as well as screening tests and tools.”

VICE News visited Kiev to get a behind-the-scenes look at the popular reality-TV show, and the tool that underpins Ukraine’s new obsession.

This segment originally aired March 21, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.