Saturday, March 14, 2015

Moscow in a Time of Twitter

Paul Goble


            Staunton, March 14 – Rumors have always swirled around the Russian throne especially when anything happens or is thought to be happening or even is desired to happen. But the reach and intensity if not the accuracy and insight of such rumors has been vastly increased by the rise of social media and especially Twitter with its 140 character limit.


            Every few hours or on occasion every few minutes a new tweet appears sending analysts, commentators and even ordinary citizens off in one direction and then in another, creating a situation where, in the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s recent book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.


            That author described this state as “the surreal heart” of contemporary Russia, a description which seems increasingly apt.  But at the same time, while it is entirely possible that none of the specific rumors is correct, the rumors taken as a whole may suggest certain conclusions, just as big data can tell us things that no one data point can.


            In a commentary yesterday, Ivan Preobrazhensky, the politics editor of the news agency, suggests that the swirl of rumors proves only one thing: “the political, economic and cultural life of the entire country is concentrated suddenly not on one position but on one single concrete individual” (


            The Rosbalt editor reaches that conclusion after tracing the rumors about Putin over the last week from the report that the Kremlin leader was about to sack Igor Sechin to the discussions of Putin’s role in the Nemtsov murder to the suggestion of many that there is a major fight between the FSB and the Chechen “clan” in Moscow.


            As these rumors spread, Preobrazhensky notes, “the media suddenly or at the advice of someone recalled that no one had seen the chief of state for several days.” That led to other rumors that he was ill or dead or the victim of foul play. And those rumors then “multiplied and metastasized” into stories about a coup.


            Some of these stories have a basis in fact – no one denies that the FSB and Kadyrov are enemies – but others appear to have been designed to “sent everyone off on a false trail,” to distract attention from other issues be they the Nemtsov murder and Putin’s possible role in it or something else entirely such as reports about early Duma and presidential elections.


            Then on Friday, a video of Putin meeting with Supreme Court head Vyacheslav Lebedev appeared, “the media and the bloggers breathed with relief and with a light heart went off for the weekend and the entire history about the supposed coup d’etat not to mention the illness or death of the president of Russia was dispelled like smoke.”


          But even as he makes this argument, Preobrazhensky ends with another, one that points to a somewhat different conclusion. He points out that “many people who did not approve of Stalin’s policies were very worried at the time of his death because it seemed that the world was held on the shoulders of one man and because they had the sense that all life had stopped.”


            Such people in 1953 were mistaken as are “mistaken today the supporters and opponents of Vladimir Putin” who instead of talking about the real problems of the country and its place in the world have acted as if the only thing that matters to them is  “gossip about the health of one individual.”


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