“Mischievous Englishwomen” are blamed for everything from the Skripal poisoning to 17th-century famines
IT WAS Britain, not Russia, that poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter, to stoke Russophobia. Or perhaps Ukraine targeted the former spy, to frame Russia. Then again, maybe the Skripals were accidentally exposed to a British nerve-agent, produced at Porton Down laboratory. Or maybe the culprits were the daughter’s half-crazy fiancé and his mother, who did it out of jealousy. After all, Russia does not produce the Novichok nerve-agent that is said to have been used. And in any case it was not Novichok at all, but a toxin called BZ, as a Swiss laboratory secretly confirmed.
These are some of the claims made by Russia’s state media, its foreign ministry and by online trolls following last month’s assassination attempt on a former Russian spy in Salisbury. Their contradictory character is not a flaw of the Kremlin’s propaganda, but a feature. The purpose of the disinformation campaign is to drown Western intelligence in a cacophony of wild claims, rather than offer a coherent counter-narrative. Russia has used the tactic before, during the wars in Ukraine (including the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17) and Syria. The stories are regularly collated by Britain’s Foreign Office.
Earlier this year the Russian embassy in the Netherlands tweeted a suggested slogan to describe its foreign policy: “Russia’s strength is in truth”. It was unclear whether the nod to George Orwell was intentional. But Russian officials have barely hidden their engagement in information warfare, claiming that Russia is under attack from the Western media, which wants to stir trouble. In so doing, they project Russia’s own tactics onto other countries.
Thus, Britain and France staged a chemical attack in Douma, Syria, and used a fake YouTube video to justify their strikes with America on April 14th. “This is an established fact,” asserted Dmitry Kiselev, the anchor of Russia’s main weekly TV news show. The media first said that there was no evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, before adopting the line that the evidence was fabricated by Britain.
Both the poisoning of the Skripals and the attack on Syria, Mr Kiselev claimed, were “Anglo-Saxon provocations”, led by “petty Britain” with America participating in its “devilish plot”. (The world, he added, was lucky to have so sober and restrained a leader as Vladimir Putin.) The studio backdrop showed Big Ben and an old Russian saying, Anglichanka gadit (an Englishwoman makes mischief), which was first applied to Queen Victoria after she humiliated Russia in the Crimean war of 1853-56.
Victoria is not the only Anglichanka said to have made mischief in Russia. The largest pro-Kremlin tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, last month ran a long interview with a “historian of intelligence services”, who claimed that Elizabeth I dispatched her physicians to the “noble and kind” Tsar Ivan IV (better known as Ivan the Terrible), to poison him and his wife with mercury. “The English had every reason to poison Ivan the Terrible. He started to display independence, stripped English merchants of their privileges and contradicted the queen herself,” the historian explained. English spies, disguised as merchants, were also behind the so-called time of troubles, a spell of famine and uprising in the early 17th century, he added.
All this is framed as a historical precedent to the supposed plot by another Anglichanka,Theresa May, to poison the image of Russia’s modern tsar, Mr Putin, by unleashing a nerve agent on the Skripals. But the real history is somewhat different, and perhaps telling. In his letters to Elizabeth I, Ivan proposed to marry the English queen, and asked her for shelter in case he met trouble at home. She turned him down.