‘Wipe them out in the shitter’, 2022 version — and other posts

This blog is about two social media posts — a Tweet, and a few lines on Telegram. It may seem — and indeed it kind of seems to me, so that I almost didn’t write this — silly to devote any time to such things, but I think they are of potential importance and reveal, concisely, the mood among influential pro-Russian sources at the moment. In addition, if you’re not familiar with the relevant events they’re about — and if you’re not particularly interested in Russian politics you might not be — they’re worth explaining, in part because they serve as an answer to a question at least I find myself asking. How can you be sure, to put it crudely, that Russia are the ones to blame in this conflict? Of course the media says that, but the media manufactures consent; and it’s hard to spend much time on Twitter without experiencing dumbasses like that Pool guy defending Russia. And even dumbasses need to be refuted, at least sometimes.

So, a secondary point is to present relatively solid reasons for thinking, even granting that the pro-Ukrainian media is completely wrong and the dumbasses completely right (which I obviously don’t), that we should have a prior belief in a claim something like the following: if the Russian state is doing something, and there’s debate about whether it’s good or bad, it’s probably, by our lights, bad. Probably, not definitely. I don’t want to suggest the administration has done nothing good, or is completely evil, just because I don’t think that’s how reality works. But I think it often is, and I think our grounds for thinking this are good (I’m thinking of cases like Chechnia, Dozhd, Politkovkaya, Pussy Riot, Memorial, Nemtsov, Navalny, Syria — cases that range from censorship to war-crimes via murder — and I’m probably leaving really important ones off the list. What they share is solid evidence of illegal or immoral or anti-democratic action on the part of the Russian state).

And there’s yet a third aim. Some commentators talk about the particularly post-modern, or again post-truthy, features of Russian politics. It’s a world of show, of propaganda, of bullshit, of image. These two posts encapsulate all this pretty well. So hopefully it’s worth the time.

Simonyan’s Tweet

Sergei Skripal was a Russian intelligence agent who spied for the UK, and was found to have done so. He was moved to the UK. In 2018, he and his daughter were poisoned by a chemical weapon, Novichok. (It didn’t kill them; however, the accepted story is that the poison didn’t get disposed of adequately, was picked up by someone else, and that did lead to the death of a British citizen— someone entirely unrelated to spying and Russia.)

Two men were name as suspects by the UK. And here Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT, enters for the first time. She interviews them on RT. The interview is famously farcical and available online. The interviewees, two young Russian guys, are asked, you know, what were you doing in the quaint English city of Salisbury? Is it true what they were saying, you’re would-be murderers?

No! They reply. It’s simply tourism. They love English ecclesiastical architecture, and as such Salisbury was a must see, even if their schedule permitted only a day-trip (into country, see cathedral, leave). Most famously of all, they tell us they wanted to see Salisbury because:

There’s the famous Salisbury cathedral, famous not only in Europe but in the whole world for its 123-metre spire and for its clock, one of the first created in the world.

Such metrically precise knowledge is of course a bit odd. Even if one goes to see a dimensionally unusual object it’s seldom you’d be able to quote its exact measurements. Commentators had a diagnosis: they had, a sensation any student will know when struggling to speak when ill-prepared, copied their info straight from Wikipedia.

But that’s not what makes it worth the attention, really. It’s highly unlikely they were just very bad at defending themselves, and that RT’s Simonyan was just super mean in not letting them do another take when they can say anything better.

No, the plausible view is that RT was happy to release to the world Russian citizens ballfacedly lying about the murder, on another country’s soil. I use ‘ballfaced’ there are a technical term — it means a lie that is very obviously a lie and which the lier makes no attempt to cover up.

I confess to not knowing the literature here (this looks decent), but this is about the — prima facie very plausible — claim that such ballfaced lies are demonstrations of power, in roughly the same way breaking many norms are things that can only be done by people unafraid of the punishment that comes from them.

Arguably, then — and I think this is how it has been received — the RT interview is simply a gesture of contempt. “I don’t care enough about you, yo can’t do anything to mean, to make me go to the hassle of coming up with a good lie for you.” But it’s noteworthy that it’s less contemptuous than one can imagine. In a ballfaced lie, you’re at least pretending to pretend that something is true. There’s a truth connection, and thus, if we think that conversation is a normative enterprise aimed at truth, some mutual agreement to the normative statuses of the liers and lied to. It would have been different, just as a matter of political reality, had they come out and said ‘yeah, we killed him’.

So that’s the first few points. First, Russia bad — they poisoned someone, and killed a completely innocent bystander. In the aftermath, they showed a blatant disregard for prevailing norms in politics and communication in general: that if you do something bad, you at least pretend you didn’t, or try to finesse it, or avoid the question (I think there’s a saying ‘At least respect me enough to lie to me’ or something like that (imagine it said of a spouse to a philandering other spouse)).

This sort of brazen anti-truthfulness is of course something new familiar to us post-Trump, but it’s cases like these that make people say that US political discourse and the norms surrounding it are following in Russia’s footsteps.

And it’s cases like these that — at least for me — make me prone to reflexively doubt anything the Russian state and its apparatuses say (and thus deny, even if I ignore all the media and heed the dumbasses, exculpatory pro-Russian motives for the war in Ukraine).

And with that background, the first message. Simonyan, who interviewed the two suspects originally, simply tweeted out two days ago:

That is to say, just as formerly ‘spier admirers’ went to the UK to attempt to assassinate someone on foreign soil … so, in the case of Dugina, the same should be done here. And so, although not directly, it is, as commentators noted, the first overt recognition of the prevailing narrative that it was indeed an assassination attempt and not a holiday.

If you buy the story that pretending to pretend links one to the person you’re pretending to pretend to, forming an (admittedly malfunctioning) community or group, then if you cease to pretend to pretend, and admit straight up to something, it’s arguable that you’re doing something like explicitly severing the relationship. And so you might think that Simonyan’s remark has reverberations far beyond what it literally says, laying down a new way of Russia-Western interactions, where — although of course this remains to be seen — the move is no longer smirking bullshit but straightforwardly admitting to serious crimes. And that — this potential move — is why I wrote 1k words on a 21 word tweet (and indeed think the topic is worth expanding on).

The second is from today, and also requires some background. The details here are more complicated so I’ll just say the minimal to understand the Telegram message, which comes from propagandist Vladimir Solovyov. It was the most popular of his posts today, and reads, with the above video attached:

Мочить террористов в сортире! Старый, но очень актуальный сегодня, совет от Путина.

Rub out the terrorists in the shitter. Old, but very timely today, advice from Putin.

The first sentence, as you’ll notice, isn’t in the Youtube video and indeed doesn’t really sound English. It’s Russian gangster slang the exact connotations of which can’t really be captured in English (at least, the Anglophone Russian commentators I’ve read haven’t succeeded).

To explain this odd rhetoric, a small bit of history. At the end of the hard 90s, a replacement for aging and ill Yeltsin was required. Separately, among the hardships of that decade was fighting in Chechnya.

The problem with the former issue was that no clear replacement to Yeltsin had been found. At that point, Putin has served in various governmental offices in St Petersburg, gradually moving higher and higher and getting closer to Yeltsin and his family. The latter thus attempted to get him into positions of power, first prime minister with a view to the presidency (the former, that having been achieved, did something akin to a pardon for any crimes Yeltsin might have been guilty of).

The problem is that Putin was unknown. Reading the accounts of that time, the overwhelming impression that they convey is a sort of nondescriptness (a quality very fitting for the foreign intelligence role he occupied before Petersburg, but not at all for high-visibility politics).

And so, a story goes, it was very convenient, if tragic, when a series of apartments were blown up in Russia, including in Moscow. And then a clip above, you’ll see if you watch any documentary about Putin.

Arguably roughly akin to Bush II and the ‘war on terror’, Putin’s machismo gave him at least something like a personality (from my sense, having the unknown and retiring prime minister suddenly come out with that would have had an effect). His popularity skyrocketed, he became known, and his position as prime minister and president not seemed politically imaginable.

But here’s the point. The very convenience mentioned above — that this story seemed made to catapult an unknown and uncharismatic figure to leadership — aroused suspicion. That suspicion was only increased when the received story — it was Chechens who planted the bombs — seemed to have holes, which you can read about on wiki. Among many commentators, the idea that the whole bombing (of Russian citizens, in Russia), was carried out by the FSB as an attempt to force the people to like Putin is a live one, and one that hasn’t gone away.

And so today. Dugina is killed. A Ukrainian suspect is found extremely quickly. Commentators are suggesting the story doesn’t add up, it’s too convenient, it’s an excuse for Russia to adopt yet more extreme measures. And Solovoyov? Well, he just reminds us of this salient and controversial bit of recent history that fits exactly the bill! That surely means something.(And just for propriety: Solovyov wasn’t the first to draw this connection, see here for a pro-Russian take on the comparison.)

I don’t know what to conclude. Is it intentional, a sort of jibe? ‘We set up a pretext in 1999 and we’ll do it in 2022'. Probably not — that’s probably excessive. Is it trolling? Maybe.

I don’t know. But whatever, these two recent messages, and the history they rely on to achieve their effects, are both intrinsically important to understanding what’s happening right now, what happened in the past, and how political (mis)communication works.

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