Archive for January, 2011

Binging on Purging

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Just after 4:30 pm Moscow time on Monday, a man with a suitcase walked into a crowd at the international arrivals terminal in Domodedovo, Russia’s busiest airport, and the suitcase blew up. Or maybe it was a man with explosives strapped to his body. Unless it was a woman who opened her bag, triggering an explosion that blew off the head of the man accompanying her. A day after the bombing at Domodedovo that killed 35 people, including several foreigners, and injured over 100, no one has yet claimed responsibility and there is little to go on except a closed-circuit tape of the moment of the blast and a grainy photo of the alleged bomber’s severed head.

But, even before the medics could carry the bodies out of the airport, the finger-pointing began. Within hours of the attack, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went on the air with the opening salvo. “The airport is a good one, everyone recognizes this. It’s new and modern,” the president said on state television. “But what happened shows there were severe security breaches. And everyone there who takes part in decision making should bear responsibility for this, including the management of the airport.”

Said (privately owned) airport immediately fired back. “We think that we should not bear responsibility for the blast, as all the requirements of aviation safety were met by our personnel,” a Domodedovo spokeswoman said, adding that it was far too early to parcel out the blame.

United Russia Duma deputy Alexandr Khinshtein, meanwhile, did not. He had a different culprit. In fact, he had three, though no one had ever heard of them. “I am certain that the chief of the security division of Domodedovo, the chief of the transportation department of the Interior Ministry of the Central Federal District, the chief of transportation security of the Interior Ministry — if they consider themselves officers, they must write letters of resignation,” Khinshtein said on Tuesday.

Medvedev seemed to agree. Later that day, he did something that he knew would make everyone in Russia feel better: He asked Rashid Nurgaliev, the interior minister, to present him with a list of people to fire, by the end of the day. (He hasn’t, yet.)

Firing people seems to be the best way out of any difficult situation in contemporary Russia. Transportation collapse at peak holiday travel season due to unforeseeable meteorology? Fire the deputy director of Aeroflot Airlines. Internationally controversial death of a lawyer in highly questionable police custody? No problem! Just fire 20 prison officials. Catastrophic fire at a provincial nightclub that leaves 148 people dead? Fire the nightclub’s management, and, while you’re at it, force the entire region’s government to resign for good measure.

Russians love firing people, because it’s fast, cheap, and easy. If you fire people, you don’t have to, say, examine the way fire codes are implemented and clean out a cadre of corrupt fire safety inspectors. You don’t have to overhaul the entire Interior Ministry to punish the inspectors who first defrauded the Russian treasury of $230 million and then put lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in jail for investigating it. And you certainly don’t, in the case of the Domodedovo bombing, have to pursue a delicately balanced counterterrorism strategy in the North Caucasus.

It wasn’t always like this. In November 2009, Medvedev pleasantly surprised many when he spoke of the increasingly violent and uncontainable Caucasus in his address to the nation’s political elite. “It is evident that the source of many problems lies primarily in the region’s economic backwardness and the absence of the promise of a normal life for most people,” he said, finally acknowledging the complex factors — poverty and corruption, as well as radical Islam — that feed the growing insurgency in the area. “We will pay attention to the resolution of social and economic problems,” Medvedev promised. He even appointed a young-ish businessman, Alexander Khloponin, to preside over a newly delineated federal district in the area.

After two wars and extensive — and notoriously brutal — Russian operations to snuff out resistance in Chechnya, the North Caucasus has been stubbornly spinning out of control in the last few years, with violence spilling into neighboring Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Hardly a week goes by without news of a suicide bombing or of Russian troops “eliminating” yet another nest of fighters. But those missions alone have so far yielded few results: By Moscow’s own estimates, terrorist attacks in the region doubled in 2010.

Just a year after announcing his new plan, however, Medvedev seems to have entirely forgotten about it. “What happened to the strategy? Was it successful? Was it even being pursued?” asks Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made some gestures toward assisting the region, including chastising his cabinet — just a day before the Domodedovo bombing — for holding back progress in the region, and pledging $13 billion to various stimulus projects there. But the strategy is generally seen as unsuccessful and bogged down in the usual government corruption. There’s no sign that Putin’s stab at it will be any different. Says Lipman, “It’s the right policy toward the region, but it takes a decade — or decades — to pursue. It’s simpler learn to live with the reality of terrorism if you can’t solve it in the short term.” Removing people from their posts is part of that palliative strategy.

Firing, of course, may be a sign of political evolution, if an ambivalent one. Back when Putin was president, there was little public-penance firing to speak of. In the aftermath of a terror attack, like Beslan or the hostage crisis at Dubrovka, Putin would turn to his rattled nation, and reassure them with tough talk and aggressively scatological metaphors.

Under Medvedev — at least in the areas where he is allowed to exercise a modicum of political muscle — there is still the tough talk, though much toned down. (When he ran into journalist Oleg Kashin on his trip to Israel, Medvedev told him he would “tear the heads off” the two men who beat Kashin up.) But Medvedev is a liberal, and he likes to show that he is listening and that he is outraged when something bad happens in his government. Being a Russian liberal, however, he must show that he can and will act swiftly to punish those who, say, allow his subjects to gather unprotected in the nation’s airport terminals. And because he cannot change the system — and because his subjects know he can’t — he must find the specific people responsible for each seemingly relevant dereliction.

“This is a Russian tradition because there is no tradition of political responsibility,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who runs a think tank linked to the Kremlin. “The idea of political responsibility is now seen as political terror, as Stalinism.” The fear of repeating the purges of the late 1930s has swung so far the other way that now “there’s a tendency to look for that one specific person who didn’t put the metal detector in the right place, and maybe his boss, and fire them. And the problem with insisting on personal responsibility is you end up with the head of the government surrounded by the same people that can sometimes change places, but they’re never going to bring any systemic change in their ministries.”

That is, the people who matter — whose departures could significantly improve the ministries and agencies they head — never get fired. The officials who are publicly fired are usually of middling deputy rank, sacrificial lambs whose departures rarely make a difference save for a quick political catharsis, and quick political hay.

Speaking today at the FSB board, Medvedev seemed to acknowledge the futility of this approach. “Unfortunately, it always happens like this here,” he said. “After unfortunate events, we mobilize all our resources, everyone is called upon to be extremely attentive. Everything works in this way for a while — the armed forces, the law enforcement agencies. Even the citizens have a more responsible attitude.” And then? And then “there is a loss of control and vigilance.”

And then Medvedev asked his interior minister for the list of people to fire.

Binging on Purging [FP]

A Bombing at the Airport

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

When Robert Shlegel, a twenty-six-year-old member of the Russian Duma, the parliament, saw the news of an explosion at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, he heard some other reports as well. “Tomorrow, I am going to introduce legislation cracking down on illegal taxis,” he told me, standing in the middle of the airport in a trim tweed overcoat, an iPad under his arm. “There were rumors going around on Twitter that taxis were charging twenty thousand rubles”—six hundred and sixty-nine dollars—“to take people from the airport.” (It’s about an hour to the center of town.) This kind of profiteering was especially galling to Shlegel because the same kind of racket goes down every time there’s a tragedy in Moscow, and no one seems to learn from it: “It happened in December”—when an apocalyptic layer of ice covered the capital and halted air travel at peak holiday time—“it happened in March”—when two young women detonated themselves in the Moscow metro, killing forty people—“it happens all the time, and no one does anything about it. In every civilized country, there are official airport taxis and they have official rates,” Shlegel said.

It soon became clear, however, that gypsy cabs were the least of Shlegel’s, or anyone’s, worries. Thirty-five bodies still lay in the greeting area outside the international arrivals gate, now festooned with hanging debris and police tape. The injured, a hundred and eighty of them, were on their way to various Moscow hospitals, some with shrapnel wounds, others with traumatic amputations. Worried parents stood waiting to meet their children, returning—they hoped—from trips abroad, as bands of camera crews and journalists roved the scene. One illegal taxi driver, a stunned thirty-year-old named Artem Zhilenkov, became their main catch. Dressed in a Russian Olympic-team track suit flecked with blood, hair, and unidentifiable bits of human flesh, he recounted to a pushy press scrum how he saw a man walk into the center of the crowd and explode.

And yet the airport was kept open and operating, even though the acrid smoke had barely dissipated. (Not to mention that terrorist attacks in Moscow tend to happen in pairs.) Planes kept landing, planes kept taking off, and people kept arriving to get on those planes. By 8:30 that evening—just four hours after the blast—the police decided to screen every single person entering the airport, and that’s when all those people discovered that Domodedovo really is Russia’s biggest and busiest airport: there was only one revolving door, and one metal detector for all of them.

Shlegel, the young Duma deputy, watched the resultant bottleneck, as it swayed and pushed and spilled back out onto the curb, his face registering utter disbelief. People shoved in twos and threes through the metal detector as the narrow plastic rectangle flashed an error message and beeped in uninterrupted desperation. A cop tried to send one man back through, but there was already a throng behind him, pushing him into the departure hall. A plaid suitcase crowdsurfed toward the baggage scanner. A large lady in a large fur coat exploded through the clog, wondering aloud if there was really a god. The metal detector, which was not attached to the floor, began to wobble and dance. A fistfight broke out.

Shlegel took some videos with his iPhone:
Domodedovo security line

Then Shlegel grabbed a policeman—an officer of decent rank —and asked him to set up a new entrance. The policeman escorted Shlegel to Entrance No. 1 to show him that it was already working. There was only a thin stream of people here, so Shlegel asked the cop to go and tell all those people cramming themselves through Entrance No. 2 to come to Entrance No. 1 instead. The cop ducked away, slipping his arm out of Shlegel’s grasp.

Shelgel spun around, his fair face reddening. “This horrible,” he said. “I mean, this is just fucking—Oh, sorry! I mean, this is outrageous! Why isn’t there anyone handling this? Where are the police? Where is the airport administration? Why isn’t there any announcement about the other door?” An idea came to him: maybe he could have someone make an announcement. But how? “I don’t even know whom to call,” he wondered out loud, striding quickly, somewhere, all the while. (It was then he reconsidered his legislative project: “The airport’s entire staff should be fired,” he said. “Maybe I should propose that instead.”)

“Where is Information?” he asked two cops who seemed to just be standing around. They smirked and pointed past Shlegel: it was right behind him.

Shlegel nearly ran up to the Information booth, and pleaded with a heavyset woman behind the counter to make an announcement that there was another entrance open.

“That entrance is open,” she said, peering at him skeptically over her glasses and pointing to Entrance No. 1.

“Yes, I know, I used it myself,” Shlegel said, attempting to explain that he wanted an announcement that Entrance No. 1 was open in order to alleviate the congestion at Entrance No. 2.

“I can’t make an announcement!” the woman said. “The announcer has to make the announcement. See, she’s making an announcement now and I can’t interrupt her.”

Shlegel would run into this problem again when he encountered the only megaphone in the airport. The megaphone was attached to a cop, and the cop told Shlegel he could not leave his post, which was in a deserted wing of the airport. Behind him, in the corner, stood a metal detector, complete with an operator, lonely and useless.

“Look! That’s a working metal detector! Why is it just standing there? It’s on wheels—why can’t they move it over to the other entrance?” Shlegel asked. The cop shrugged.

Shlegel speed walked back to Entrance No. 2, where things were not looking any better. The metal detector was still wobbling under the weight of the crowd. Now desperate, he tried to tell people himself. “There’s another entrance,” he said approaching the crush of passengers, laughing uncomfortably. “It’s open.”
Shlegel

“This is useless, I think,” he said after a minute of blank stares.

Nearby, a group of young men and women held up pieces of printer paper with the words “I’ll give you a free ride to the Metro” scrawled on them in ballpoint pen. They were activists from Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group, whom Shlegel had mobilized—along with the group’s “Gazelle” vans. (Shlegel is himself a Nashi commissar, and it was his activism in the group that catapulted him into the Duma.) No one seemed to be taking them up on their offer.

Shlegel called a few people to complain, but he seemed defeated and frustrated in his unexpressive way. “I’ll tell you a funny story,” he said. To get to Domodedovo that evening, Shlegel decided to take the Aeroexpress, the express train running from the city center. Aeroexpress had announced that it would be running for free for the rest of the evening. And yet people stood there buying tickets. The command had simply not trickled down. “So I went up to the cashier, and told her what had been announced and showed her my Duma card,” Shlegel said. “She took my card, went with it somewhere, and all of a sudden I hear an announcement that the train is free.”

Shlegel laughed, and I laughed, too, but he quickly cut me off. “It’s not funny,” he said, suddenly self-conscious. For him, an official from the ruling party, a very visible member of the Nashi movement and the Russian blogosphere, to be suddenly useless in a moment of chaos and national need—I could see why the moment would lack the tragicomic luster of so many things in Russia. Trained as an activist, a doer, Shlegel stood face to face with a stupid, inefficient, dangerous situation: the airport was still running when it should have been shut down; the one metal detector to screen the incoming crowd was clearly useless and was rarely used in normal circumstances; the authorities, now highly competent at clearing and cordoning off scenes of a terrorist attack, were still bad at directing the rest and worse at prevention. Shlegel, like all other Russians—officials or civilians—operate in a vertical in an easily paralyzed system where everyone is waiting for a command from the next level up. But, as WikiLeaks showed, a good half of even the all-powerful Vladmir Putin’s commands went unimplemented. If that was the case, what could a twenty-six-year-old member of a rubber-stamp parliament do but let the situation spin itself out?

A Bombing at the Airport [TNY]

Facebook’s Russia Campaign

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Facebook is the world’s largest social network site, with 500 million-plus members at last count. However, there are plenty of big markets where Mark Zuckerberg’s creation isn’t dominant. In Japan, Facebook doesn’t rank in the top three, and the site isn’t much of a force in Brazil or China, two populous countries where Internet usage is off the charts.

The outlook for Facebook in Russia may be more promising, despite the popularity of homegrown social network sites. Facebook officially launched its site in April and only ranks No. 5 so far, according to Internet tracker comScore, but its growth has been impressive. From January until August in 2010, its Russian operation has racked up a 376 percent increase in users, to 4.5 million, according to comScore data.

Early last year the company cut deals with Russian wireless carriers Beeline and Mobile TeleSystems, so that their subscribers could tap the mobile version of Facebook. To overcome the language barrier, Facebook allowed users to suggest translations for the name of features not easily understood in Russian such as “poke” (as in trying to get another Facebook user’s attention), and then let the site’s members vote them up or down. “Russian is a very complex language, so we allowed the users to translate the interface themselves so that it captures the complex grammar,” says Javier Olivan, a London-based Spaniard who holds the title Head of International Growth at Facebook.

Its founder has made no secret of his ambitions to thrive in Russia, a market where other Western players, including Google, have struggled to get their footing. Speaking at an Oct. 17 event at Stanford University, Zuckerberg said that if Facebook succeeded in penetrating the Russian market, it might have a shot at doing the same in China, the country with the largest number of Netizens. Russians’ heavy use of social network sites makes the country an ideal test-case. Russians spend 9.8 hours per visitor on a monthly basis on such sites—more than double the world average, according to comScore.

Why do Russians while away so many hours online? For one thing, there’s the climate: Staying indoors and socializing via the Internet is much more attractive when winter lasts a good six months. Then there’s the physical isolation, compounded by poor infrastructure, especially in cities like Murmansk, which lies north of the Arctic Circle.

Most importantly, though, there is a long tradition in Russia of relying on informal information networks for simple day-to-day survival. “In Russia, there is no sense that you can rely on the public or the system, so you’ve traditionally had to rely on a network of friends,” says Esther Dyson, a venture capitalist who has been investing in Russia’s tech sector for over a decade. In a country with weak institutions, “it’s very natural for people to network for what they want.” Even in these less oppressive, post-Soviet times, relationships are critical to everything from landing a job to wriggling out of a problem with authorities.

It’s no coincidence that the Russian love affair with the Internet has blossomed at a time when citizens are once again seeing their political and media freedoms dwindle. “[The Web] has become a place where you have absolute freedom of speech, where you can say whatever you want, good or bad,” says Ilya Krasilshchik, editor-in-chief of Afisha, a Russian lifestyle magazine and website. Afisha was one of the first Russian sites to incorporate the Facebook Like feature, which allows users to share content with friends on the site. Krasilshchik points out that Russia is different from China, where censorship prevails online. “We have this strange paradox where civil society is hemmed in, but its freedoms are limitless online.”

Not surprisingly, then, social networks have multiplied in Russia. Odnoklassniki.ru, a site modeled on Classmates.com with 17 million users, is the preferred destination for older, less tech-savvy users, along with being a popular dating site for Russians of all ages. Then there’s Moi Mir, similar to News Corp.’s (NWS) MySpace, with 20 million members.

The leader of the social networking pack is VKontakte, which is majority owned by Mail.Ru Group, a Russian investment fund specializing in Internet companies that also owns a small stake in Facebook. VKontakte, which has 28 million users, is inspired by Facebook. VKontakte has been dogged by claims that it has allowed the unauthorized posting of pirated music, movies, and other content free on its site. Mail.Ru declined to comment on allegations that VKontakte has engaged in such practices, though the company did disclose in a prospectus for a recent initial public offering in London that it is currently defending itself against several lawsuits. As for Facebook, the company “will not host any content that violates our terms of agreement,” says Olivan.

One thing Facebook does have over its Russian competitors is cachet. Whereas Odnoklassniki.ru has become the domain of the older generation, and VKontakte the hangout of young middle- and lower-class Russians, Facebook is the network of choice for the urban and the urbane. Facebook’s Russian users are generally of the wealthier, well-traveled, cosmopolitan variety, have foreign friends and tend to live in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Facebook’s status received a boost in September, when the company hosted its first developers’ conference in Russia. The event, held in Winzavod, an up-and-coming art complex in Moscow, drew hundreds, including some prominent Russian Internet investors. The bulk of the crowd was made up of software developers hoping to transform their Facebook apps into riches.

Anton Nossik, the Russian Web guru who has a number of successful Web startups and used to run the company that owned the popular blogging platform LiveJournal, notes that in Russia sites such as Facebook and Google attract a particularly cosmopolitan set. Both are “for the global Russian, for the circle of people for whom the world doesn’t begin and end with Russia.”

Facebook’s Russia Campaign [BBW]

Meet the Persident

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

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.”

Meet the Persident [FP]