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Masha Gessen’s unpredictable spelling tea leaves

How name games became Masha Gessen's new way of undertaking Russian political analysis.

Masha Gessen, the ultimate nemesis of Russian authoritarianism, the time-tested Valkyrie of anti-Putin struggle, has just tested a new verbal weapon. The impact of that weapon’s use on the Russia-writing community may be as unpredictable as Putin is in Masha’s imagination.

In her article for the once intellectual magazine The New Yorker, Masha tried to analyze the appointment of Putin’s new head of administration, Anton Vayno.

Having toyed with the idea that Vayno’s appointment could mean a crackdown on Russian opposition before the Duma election (Masha had predicted dozens of such never-happening crackdowns during her twenty years in Russia) or an “all-out war with Ukraine” (for anyone knowing Masha this is actually a very optimistic forecast on her part) – so, having toyed with all of these standard “crackdowns” and “invasions”, Masha decided to turn to linguistic tea leaves. Her discovery was explosive.

Here is what she wrote, at the top of her inspiration:

“A final fact about Vayno is that the letters of his last name can spell voyna, the Russian word for war. Is this the message that Putin is sending?”

Indeed, is this THE message? Having embarked on the slippery road of guessing the elite’s intentions by the names of its chosen authors (Masha is analysing Vayno’s book in her article), we can make astounding revelations.

Let’s take the name of The Washington Post’s longtime opinion editor, Fred Hiatt. The letters of his name can spell “Fear and Hate.” Is this the message which The Washington Post is sending to Russia? Judging by the WaPo’s jingoist editorials on Russian themes (“Mr. Putin Means War,” “Stop Russia’s Dangerous Moves”) this is precisely THE message.  And Mr. Hiatt’s appointment becomes not just one more promotion of a Russophobic liar with a penchant for reporting on his own colleagues (remember Mr. Hiatt’s publicly exposing his colleague Fareed Zakaria for some mistakes in Zakaria’s writings). Add some of Masha’s word magic to Hiatt’s militarism and bigotry – and we have a deeply symbolic move on the part of The Washington Post’s editors.

Some of the Russia-bashing authors like to write in pairs, like Owen Mathews and Anna Nemtsova, Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill. Finding out what combinations of their names could spell out for Russia’s relations with the West – that can be a fascinating game, worthy of Masha Gessen’s wit and profound knowledge of Russian realities.

This game can be not a bit less serious, than, say, Fiona Hill’s interviews to Le Figaro, where she suspects Putin of “not stopping with the conquest of Ukraine.” If Le Figaro can publish such “analysis” from Fiona Hill, why can’t we play with some of the names of the Western writers on Russian topics? 

What if we combine Edward Lucas (a British author who recently “discovered” Donald Trump’s huge Russian funds) and Richard Pipes (a historian, whom even his Harvard colleagues call “a Russophobe”). Edward Lucas + Richard Pipes = Mad Ed Likes War Rides. Why not? If Putin’s Vayno can, in Masha’s view, mean “voyna” (war), then Ed and Dick do not just MEAN war, they actually MAKE it by their writings on Russia.    

And what if we combine Fareed Zakaria and Owen Mathews? Zakaria, who  used his position of the invited moderator at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in order to look for the much coveted “proof” of Putin’s “admiration” for Trump (Zakaria failed with that task for the lack of the aforementioned admiration) – Fareed Zakaria  certainly deserves a prominent position in Masha’s spelling research. Owen Mathews, who wrote that Putin was to blame for the terrorist acts that took place in Moscow in the 2000s, is also an indispensable figure here, just like Americans are an indispensable nation in Obama’s view. So, Fareed Zakaria + Owen Mathews = Read Zach’s Own Self-Made News.   

Timothy Snyder, who wrote that Europeans should learn democracy from the new fascist regime in Kiev, could make a nice triple with Svante Cornell (incredible lies on Russia’s “aggression” against Georgia) and Andrew Kuchins (who once wrote a fictitious article on “Putin’s coup”). So, Timothy Snyder + Svante Cornell and Andrew Kuchins = Mothy Science and Team Lies. Pretty much sums up these guys’ activities!

But what about Masha’s initial supposition that Anton Vayno’s second name could spell as “voyna”? In fact, together with his first name, Anton, the whole thing could read as “No to Voyna!” (No to War!). Did you give it a thought Masha? Oh, you better don’t . This is NOT the message that the modern The New Yorker and the once glorious The Washington Post would like to carry. Not only to Russia, but also to Iraq, Libya, Syria and many other countries.   

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