Novichok suspects: Why (even) the Russians did not buy their story
Ever since the Novichok scandal broke up in March of this year, RT revealed that its viewers were generally skeptical of the official British account of the Skripals poisoning. But this month’s interview with the suspects marked a dramatic change – the online community showed unprecedented unanimity: people didn’t buy it.
The top comments on RT youtube Russian language channel included many from viewers who felt the interview was a farce and that the suspects’ stories were implausible. “I did not believe the British, but after this chat – I do”, - being a frequent refrain.
Why did this narrative fall flat?
First, the inability by Kremlin to reframe its effort as meaningful.
Russians draw on ideas of military intelligence from the old Soviet myths, due to its current lack of relatable narratives. The most known foreign spy of the Soviet era was a fictional character Mikhail Isaev, aka Max Otto von Stierlitz operating in Nazi Germany during the World War II. He inspired cult recognition and was a subject of many anecdotes – largely untranslatable jokes relying on linguistic puns and word play. One of my favourites: Stierlitz walks along the streets of Berlin and wonders why people keep staring at him. Could it be the radio transmitter that he is carrying or maybe the parachute that drags behind?
Watching Boshirov and Petrov on TV last week felt like they were wrapped up in that parachute, only the World War II has been over for some time.
Second, the virtue of linear thinking cultivated within the security forces led to the pitiful lack of creativity.
Many internet users picked up on the suspects’ body language – they look like they have been moulded at the same factory, where they certainly learned to march in line. And while the content of their story was not per se unbelievable - I personally know a good few Russian guys who fly out for a weekend in obscure destinations to get off on booze, drugs and sex tourism, - what mattes is the authenticity of the characters and their actions, the concept that is lost on the Russian military.
Finally, it’s the “Ice Cream in the Ass.” phenomenon.
“Ice Cream in the Ass” is a joke that came out of Russia in the wake of Sochi Olympics (some would argue earlier) and most recently – the World Cup, which saw multiple items being translated from Russian into English quite literally, including street and parks names, tube stops, buildings, and menus. The latter often feature items in assortment, in Russian reduced to “ass”. This expression is quite typical for the Russian menus and shop items descriptions. Why would it not be possible to use professional expertise to make sure people of other cultures understand what you are trying to sell?
I once had dinner with my mother at an upscale local restaurant in my hometown – roughly in the same area where “Petrov” is seemingly from, according to his leaked passport data, - when an item on the menu caught my sight. It read: “Language under the horse radish sauce”. This made my mother, who is a linguist, very amused. She called a waiter and asked if they perhaps meant something different. Indeed, they it was a delicacy called “beef tongue”, which sounds identical to "language" in Russian, but obviously has a different meaning. “We know it’s wrong, - said the waitress, - but the menu has been printed out already. And people would eat anything, really”.
Well, apparently, they won’t.
If Russia cannot offer better narratives, it needs better storytellers.