In surreal Russia, fake presidential tweets are much more relevant than the real ones.
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
In his off-hours, a seemingly dutiful government servant in Czar Nicholas I’s Ministry of Finance would pass the time jotting down little aphorisms. Some were obscure in meaning: "Not every general is stout by nature." Or, "If you have a fountain, plug it up. Let the fountain too have a rest." Others mocked the state for which the official, a heavy-browed and dimple-chinned man named Kozma Prutkov, worked. "Our land is rich; there is just no order in it," he wrote of Russia under Nicholas, a reactionary authoritarian who personally censored the poet Aleksandr Pushkin and whose education minister came up with the dubious motto of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality." Prutkov’s very existence — a doltish, maudlin bureaucrat in a state overflowing with them — was itself an admonition to the regime.
Prutkov, however, did not actually exist. His verses and indelible image were the invention of writer Aleksey Tolstoy and his cousins, the Zhemchuzhnikov brothers, who published his short witticisms in the thick literary journals so popular at the time.
It’s hard not to think of Prutkov when scrolling through the short, sharp parodies on KermlinRussia, the wildly popular new Twitter account lampooning President Dmitry Medvedev and his anodyne official news feed at KremlinRussia. KermlinRussia’s persona — that of a solipsistic, foolish child-president — seems an apt echo of the earlier satirist’s bumbling scribbles. When I asked the anonymous author of the Twitter parody whether he was a latter-day Prutkov, he responded with characteristic bite: "More like a lie detector."
As of this writing, KermlinRussia has more than 50,000 followers and is adding a thousand or more each week. Its tweets, like Prutkov’s acerbic little commentaries, pack the kind of sharp nuance for which Twitter is so well-suited, weaving together current events, history, literary allusions, and a very Russian sense of the absurd, all in 140 characters or less. It has been a successful formula. Not only is KermlinRussia the third-most popular Twitter account on the Russian-language Internet, it has among its followers the cream of the Moscow chattering classes and 40 percent of the real Medvedev’s followers. All this has transpired over less than half a year, while readers remain happily unaware of the author’s true identity, a tightly guarded secret.
When I asked KermlinRussia’s author for an interview, the "Persident of Ruissia" agreed to grant one but only via Skype, through an account created just for the interview — security fit for any world leader. The Persident dialed in first.
"Hello?" she said.
It’s interesting, I noted out loud, that a country as patriarchal as Ruissia should have a female persident.
"Yes, it’s unexpected, isn’t it?" the Persident said, and released an airy, tinkling laugh.
"There’s a male voice, too!" chirped a young man. "There’s an author and a co-author," he added.
The author and co-author — let’s call them Masha and Sasha — are young ("between 20 and 30," as they like to say) professionals, both of whom studied at St. Petersburg State University, an honor they share with Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and author Ayn Rand.* There, the two studied journalism (Masha) and economics (Sasha), and they now work as a copywriter (Masha) and financial analyst (Sasha).
Sasha’s idea for a parody Twitter feed came about when Medvedev visited Silicon Valley last June and, to much fanfare, started his official Twitter account.
At the time, Sasha was already in what he called "a protesting mood." He hated that the division between business and government in Russia had become so negligible that even though he worked for a private company, his job amounted to ratifying public corruption. He hated the lack of professionalism, the lack of logic, the slapdash, emotional decision-making, the fact that Kremlin connections outweigh results. He hated that "all our politics are centered on thousands of people guessing about what kind of relationship Putin and Medvedev have."
"Basically, this is the system that’s formed here, and I find it deeply repulsive," Sasha told me in our Skype call, his ebullience fading to despair.
Sasha’s first tweet came on June 25, two days after Medvedev’s first tweet (with a typo, for ambience) from Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. At first, Sasha just retweeted the president’s bland messages. Then his writing skills — and years of barely repressed grievances — kicked in.
"I don’t understand all this talk of hours-long traffic jams," he tweeted as the bizarro president, jabbing at the epic standstills created when the roads into the Russian capital are closed off to make way for functionaries zooming in from the ritzy outer suburbs in their speeding Mercedes: A trip from Rublevka, the Russian Beverly Hills, easily takes an hour or more for commoners. "Personally, I always get to the Kremlin from Rublevka in 10-15 minutes." On the corruption and wildly growing bill for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi: "In order to save 327 bn. rubles, the decision has been made to move the venue for the Olympic games from Sochi to Vancouver, where everything is already ready." On the graft that accompanied the Kremlin bailout in 2008 and 2009: "It’s important not to allow a second wave of the economic crisis as the stabilization fund has already been looted." On the lack of elections of governors: "Today the elections of the governors of Karelia and Chuvashia were held in my office." When a controversial law giving the internal security service known as the FSB significantly wider reach was being discussed: "The amendments to the FSB law will give the special services powers necessary for guarding the country’s most valuable possession — the country’s citizens."
One of Sasha’s great gifts as a tweeter is his ability to deftly link the seemingly unrelated — all in service of underscoring the absurdity of Russian political life. When a list surfaced of the plum businesses headed by bureaucrats’ children, he connected it to the government’s campaign to spark an entrepreneurial culture: "Governors need to have more children so that the country will have more successful young entrepreneurs," he wrote. Commenting on the battle against corruption that seems to have only made corruption worse, he managed a jibe at the falsehoods of state television too: "Everyone who observes what’s happening in the country on television will note that corruption is decreasing." When the second trial of already jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrapped up with observers expecting the inevitable additional lengthy sentence, KermlinRussia invoked the widely held notion that Putin will take back the presidency in 2012. "When Khodorkovsky finishes his second term, Putin will be finishing up his second second term."
Over the summer, Sasha convinced his good friend Masha to join. With Masha on board, the tweets became richer, more layered. "The second dissident" — i.e., Masha — "has a very fine sense of language," Sasha told me. "Approximately 70 percent of the tweets with the complex humor? Those aren’t mine." Masha has a background in Soviet film and a head full of obscure quotes, giving some of her contributions bonus-points-level opacity. When Dmitry Zelenin, governor of the Tver region, found a worm in his salad at a Kremlin reception and got in trouble for tweeting a photo of it, Masha wrote: "Eisenstein got an Oscar for his worms. What’s Zelenin angling for?" No one got it. "In the film Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein, the plot turns on the part where the sailors are served maggoty meat and they’re forced to eat it," Masha explained to me. "And of course it turns into a mutiny, and the rest we know from history books."
Both Sasha and Masha have a propensity, like many young Russians, to speak in the floridly vague, precisely obfuscatory language of the ruling class. They’ve learned to speak like the bureaucrats who control their lives. In conversation, as well as on the KermlinRussia feed, their indirection and polysyllabic jumbles sound just like the officious ballast of the actual president, until the tweet suddenly disintegrates into a Gogolian absurdity. Consider these persidential tweets: "For a number of categories of citizens, drunkenness or intoxication at the time of the committing of the crime will be a mitigating circumstance. Similarly, the mitigation of punishment will require the provision of a document, according to which the citizen committing the crime was already a fuckwit." There just isn’t that much KermlinRussia needs to do to make Russian reality funny.
IN A COUNTRY WHERE the presented reality usually smacks a bit of hallucination or, at best, a joke, and where the political system has almost always been closed, opaque, and absurd, satire has long played a key role. "Irony is a classic phenomenon of a totalitarian culture and a closed society," observed Irina Prokhorova, a scholar of culture and the elder sister of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Glancing sarcasm and mockery reached their peak in the late days of the Soviet Union, when few believed in a system that was stagflating itself out of existence. This was the period of the famous anekdoty: short, canned jokes that played with the drab reality of Soviet life, the absurdity of the country’s leadership, the tectonic separation between words and meaning. (For example: What is happiness? Living in a socialist country that is building communism and striving for a bright and happy future. What is unhappiness? Having such happiness.) Anekdoty were also a means of analysis, of sharing knowledge that was unavailable in official media. The jokes were told for hours at the famous Soviet kitchen tables, the cramped linoleum corners into which civil society had been pushed.
After the Soviet Union’s collapse and the brief flowering of journalistic liberty that followed, anekdoty became more mainstream and gradually less relevant. Real satire was making its way into the media. Writer Viktor Shenderovich became a star for his TV program Kukly, which used puppets of the country’s politicians and businessmen to deliver potent, hilarious political comedy — a Daily Show for post-Soviet Russia. But that didn’t last long. At the top of Putin’s agenda when he came to power in 2000 was regaining control over television. He didn’t like his portrayal on Shenderovich’s show, so he took over the channel that aired it and quickly snuffed the program.
Putin’s clampdown created a vacuum: There was no longer real space for making sense of the changes happening so rapidly in the country. Eventually, the Internet filled most of that blank spot, but in the absence of real political discourse, the anekdoty started creeping back. "The tradition is being revived because civil society is feeling increasingly squeezed," Prokhorova said. "And this is the tried-and-true societal reaction: irony, mockery. It’s not as bad as in the Soviet Union, but the elements are there and they’re recognizable."
This time, however, anekdoty have morphed into digital-era equivalents like KermlinRussia, allowed to exist for its tens of thousands of followers, a minuscule nothing in a country of 140 million. "Satire will never go away," Shenderovich told me. "It’ll always find a way out like water finds a hole. The question is, will it be on the margins, like on the Internet … or will it be on prime time, like Jon Stewart?"
The authors of KermlinRussia do not see themselves as an outgrowth of the tradition of anekdoty — it is "a dead genre," according to Sasha — but there is one powerful link between the two: Both forms of satire are necessarily anonymous. No one knew who wrote the anekdoty before they were launched into the perfume-bottle atomizer of Soviet society. They just circulated. "I would have really liked to know the names of the people who wrote them," Shenderovich said. "But of course I was not the only one who wanted to know their identities, which is why they were anonymous."
This is also why the two halves of the Ruissian Persidency — like the anekdoty authors before them and the men behind Kozma Prutkov before that — prefer to remain nameless. Until our interview, KermlinRussia had talked to the media only by chat service, and only in character. Exposure, they say, could well cost them their jobs. It would also spoil the whole carefully constructed image of the parallel tweets of the Russian president, slightly warped at the edges. Said Masha, using a particularly Russian turn of phrase, "Why reveal information if you can not reveal it?"
But Masha’s is a larger point that speaks to the reason why KermlinRussia has resonated so deeply in the Russian blogosphere: It plays on the image of Medvedev as a cheerful, gadget-happy man warming the seat for the grimmer proto-czar Putin — a fake leader no one, including many in the government hierarchy, much believes in. Medvedev is already viewed as a parody; KermlinRussia is almost a form of wish fulfillment. "What people really want is for Medvedev himself to be writing it," Masha explained. "People still have this hope that our president is actually a witty, discerning, thinking person. Everyone’s constantly writing to us that KermlinRussia is just his alter ego, that these are his real thoughts, and that what he writes in the official Twitter is just PR."
As for the president himself, Masha and Sasha are "100 percent certain" that he reads their tweets. The presidential press service told me that everyone in the administration knows of KermlinRussia’s existence, but would not comment on whether Medvedev himself actually reads it. When pressed, they stonewalled: "We were stumped by your query," they said.
Two weeks later came a strange riposte: The president was leaving his KremlinRussia account. Instead, he was starting a new Twitter feed that no one would confuse with Kermlin: MedvedevRussia. He took all 122,000 of his Kremlin followers with him. "Goodbye to everyone who is now with @MedvedevRussia," Kermlin tweeted when the news broke. "Hello to everyone who never confused the two accounts to begin with."
*This sentence has been updated to reflect an editorial error. Joseph Brodsky did not attend St. Petersburg State University. We regret the mistake.