Last month, Natalya Timakova, the spokeswoman for Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in a peevish interview with the radio station Voice of Russia, attacked her country’s online culture. She was provoked, she said, by web users’ disrespectful habit of referring to her boss as “Dimon” – the equivalent of calling Barack Obama “Barry”, or David Cameron “Dave”.
“He is not “Dimon” to you, “ she said, “he is the head of the government. You don’t have to call him Dmitry Anatolyevich, but you could at least call him Dmitry and use the polite form of the word “you”. These are the rules of good manners.”
It was an unfortunate comment. There are many ways to stand up to online bullies, but letting them know they are getting to you is not one of them. Medvedev, a little and belittled man to whom Vladimir Putin loaned the presidency for a while, was subsequently laughed at all the more. The Russian-language hash-tags #Dimon and #DimonDontCry were trending on Twitter within an hour of the interview’s transcript appearing online.
'Pathetic', 'bumblebee', 'merry dwarf', 'nanopresident', 'Iphonchik' (a diminutive from Iphone) and 'Luntik' (a small fluffy purple cartoon figure) — certainly no way to refer to a Prime Minister. Photo: (cc) Flickr/maiak.info
But anyone who has had anything to do with the more vicious end of Russia’s online culture will surely have sympathised. It is a bear pit out there on the Runet.
This month, I have a book out. It describes, via travel and history, how in the 1960s Russia’s birth rate and life expectancy fell out of the European mainstream and into steep decline. It is, I hope, a sympathetic book that addresses the seriousness of the problem while also giving a slight air of hope that it is not terminal. It is the fruit of years of work, dozens of conversations, hundreds of hours of writing and thousands of miles of travel.
The Telegraph gave it five stars and called it a “superb hybrid of travel and social analysis”. The Observer called it “lively, well-written and commanding”. But those are not opinions you’ll meet on Amazon. But those are not opinions you’ll meet on Amazon.com. Although the book is not to be published in America for two weeks, someone called Vladimir Gusev gave it one star out of five.
“This book was outdated by all standards before it even went to print: 1) it recycles ancient western stereotypes: GULAG, KGB, VODKA, SNOW 2) it is not based on any modern facts,” he wrote, in a remarkably confident assessment from someone who could not conceivably have read the book.
Now, if there is one lesson to learn from Medvedev’s press secretary, it is that showing irritation does not help the situation. So, I will not do so, even though it is clear from the comments that Mr Gusev never read the book. Besides, it is more interesting to ask why a Russian would specially register on a foreign web site to criticise a foreign book that few of his compatriots will ever read?
The trigger-happiness of Russia’s online critics clearly concerned Timakova, Medvedev’s spokeswoman, who appeared convinced that the problem of anonymous trolling is specific to her country, rather than international.
“There are accounts in foreign languages on social networks, and the character and tone of discussions is so different! There people write, as a rule, on topic. There may be critical things, but the presentation is totally different. It is always respectful, giving an argument, not just with a desire to insult,” she wrote.
Anyone who has spent any time surfing the Web will know that is not true. Whatever language you write in; there are sites where you can vent spleen. The Russians are merely part of that trend, albeit a large one.
The threads beneath the reviews of my book in the Observer and Telegraph are dominated by critical comments written in the mashed-up language of Russglish, most of them making the argument that Britain has a drinking problem too, which is no doubt true but hardly relevant to the holocaust that vodka has unleashed on the Russians.
And my criticism was minor compared to that heaped on Moscow-based correspondents, who are constantly accused of being mercenary, ignorant and lacking respect for Russia and the Russian people. Often the attacks are so baroque as to be unintentionally hilarious. The Independent’s Shaun Walker, for example, has boasted on Twitter of being called a “pathetic, low-intellect New World Order shill” and a “mental midget”.
Indeed it is here, in spreading beyond their online borders, where Russians stand out from other nationalities. Most Britons keep their bile to British sites, and the same goes for French people or Germans, but Russians can be found taking and causing offence anywhere you go. Partly this is a result of their sheer numbers. There are more web users in Russia than any other European country.
Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine the average European reader either noticing or caring what a Russian journalist wrote, and it is strange how worked up Russians can get about foreigners’ opinions. I suspect this global tetchiness is a result of how restricted the media landscape is at home. With few sources of news to comment on in their own language, it is unsurprising that Russians should seek richer seams of offence to mine elsewhere.
Last week, the publishers of Bolshoi Gorod announced the web-version of fortnightly Moscow magazine will be closing (and the print version’s future looks precarious). BG has been a rare independent voice in recent years, and its closure would further limit a media market already dominated by the financial clout of state television and the government-owned news agencies.
Among those news agencies is RIA Novosti, and among RIA’s projects is Inosmi, a web site that collates and translates foreign-language news sources for Russian readers under the slogan “Everything that’s worth translating”. The idea for the site is a good one, since it brings some alternative colours into the rather monochrome Russian media.
It has not lived up to its founders’ expectations. It serves not so much as a forum where Russians can debate world affairs, but as a bridgehead where they can discover what’s been said about Russia, then fan out (via the helpful links inosmi provides to its source material) and swamp the original articles with critical comments.
And the more of their comments you read, the more you see a similarity between Russian’s feral posters and the prime minister they mock so much. They are both demanding respect from people who aren’t giving it to them, and they are going about it in a manner guaranteed to make sure they won’t get any. Poor Dimon.
Oliver Bullough’s new book, Last Man in Russia, is now available in the UK, published by Penguin Books. It will be released by Basic Books in the US on 30 April.