Barack Obama’s final press conference was marked by an interruption by a Russian reporter from the state-run TASS news agency, the outlet that symbolized Soviet propaganda for decades. Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo cited a number of tweets from journalists present at the presser pointing out that TASS bureau chief, Andrey Sitov, yelled questions at the President three times. When he was not called on, he shouted “You attacked Russia!” at Obama.
In an email to TPM, Sitov defiantly mocked the President for helplessly flailing about after Trump’s election:
I think it would have been only fair given that President Obama and the White House in general have engaged in relentless Russia-bashing for weeks. In Russia we have a saying, ‘swing your fists after the fight’. It describes a sore loser. I think this is what we are seeing now and that the aim is mostly to delegitimize President-Elect Trump. But it does hurt the U.S.-Russian relations, unfortunately.
It’s perhaps surprising behavior for a foreign correspondent. Journalists abroad usually are scrupulously deferential as they are often last in line to get access; even with an outgoing President, why poison the well? But in this case, Sitov’s behavior betrays just how rancorous the attitudes against Obama in Russia have gotten.
Casual racism is not uncommon in Russia, and especially since the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has in no way discouraged or condemned it being attached to the American President in popular culture. For example, a Russian supermarket was selling cutting boards for 2016—the Chinese “year of the monkey”—displaying Obama’s face on one of the three primates printed on its surface. And the Kremlin-controlled Rossiya-24 ran a casual “human interest” story last year about a zoo in Primorski Krai that had named its “exotic” black goat “Obama”.
Those attitudes have bled over into the Russian diaspora. A certain Eduard Orlov Devolro (no relation of mine, incidentally) wrote a poem to Obama (he called it an “address”), and posted it on his Facebook page last week. The twenty line masterpiece contained a number of references to Obama’s skin color, compared the outgoing President to a monkey in a zoo, and pointed out that Obama’s ancestors were eating white people’s leftovers. Facebook’s moderators repeatedly deleted the post, but Orlov kept re-posting it. (Russian journalist Anton Krasovsky captured a screenshot of the poem, for posterity.)
Orlov, apparently a U.S. citizen and a huge Trump fan, appears to be a minor celebrity on Facebook; he posts every day, and has almost 5,000 friends and 6,000 followers. Orlov runs a successful custom car business in Miami called Devolro. In an interview with the Russian website cars.ru, he described himself as “an immigrant who doesn’t ask for money”. His “poem” is all the rage among Russians on Facebook these days.
Orlov was not the only one causing a racist splash on social media. A notorious Russian writer with four moderately successful books to his name, Eduard Bagirov, tweeted out a storm of racist profanities on December 30: “That the word n****r is forbidden in the U.S. doesn’t change the fact that a n****r has been in charge there for the past eight years. An ordinary n****r. N****r. F*****g n****r. N****r n****r.” The tweet was later deleted, but a screenshot exists. Bagirov is a staunch Putin supporter, and was notably arrested and imprisoned in Moldova under suspicion of fomenting riots in Chisinau.
Why this outpouring of such vile emotions now? Orlov maybe feels secure that his rich clients may not read Russian. (Or maybe he knows they do not care that they are buying their souped up cars from a bigot.) Bagirov maybe thinks that whoever Donald Trump sends to Spaso House as Ambassador will be less uptight about racial issues, and his outbursts won’t cost him a future visa ban. (Alas for him, Thomas Graham, who has been rumored as a possibility, though a fan of a rethink in Russia policy, has shown no signs of tolerating racism.) And Sitov is perhaps counting on getting front row seats, alongside RT’s correspondents, at future Trump pressers. (Alas for us all, Sitov may be proven right.)
In any case, clearly a lot of frustration has been stored up in the Russian psyche, and these loud ill-bred vulgarians need to get their kicks in as Obama leaves office. And like many Russians, they are all ecstatic about the rise of Donald Trump. But will it last? As Mikhail Khodorkovsky remarked when we interviewed him last month, “I personally am very curious to see just how they intend to turn it all around and spin Donald Trump’s America as the main enemy again. This is going to be an interesting thing to watch. But I am confident Russia’s propagandists will be up to the task.”