Sergei Lavrov’s official job is foreign minister of Russia, but his visit to Washington Wednesday won’t be remembered for any diplomatic breakthrough — just for Lavrov’s dripping irony and skill at provoking adversaries. Lavrov’s style, which mirrors that of his boss, Vladimir Putin, is often criticized as unfit for a diplomat. But I’d argue that Lavrov knows exactly what he’s doing and that the medium is the message here.
In Washington, Lavrov feigned astonishment for a US reporter who asked about Tuesday’s firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation chief James Comey: “Was he fired? You’re kidding! You’re kidding!” The Russian foreign ministry gleefully tweeted out the video.
He also smuggled a photographer from the state-owned news agency, TASS, into his meeting with President Donald Trump as his official photographer. TASS immediately published photos of Trump beaming at his Russian visitors, Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, who are obviously delighted by the reception. With the US press kept out, these happy photos from their Russian propaganda source created an uproar.
Sarcasm, provocation, a desire to throw interlocutors off balance always bubble just below the surface of Lavrov’s communications. He regularly stuns Western conversation partners with crude or offensive comments.
At a recent meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization ministers, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quipped, “You cannot tango with Lavrov because he’s not allowed to dance that one.” He meant that President Vladimir Putin determined policy in Russia and Lavrov wouldn’t be authorized to make deals. “My mother used to tell me: always be a good boy, don’t ever dance with other boys,” the Russian foreign minister responded.
In this, Lavrov’s style mirrors that of his boss. In 2006, Putin memorably told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to say hi to then-president Moshe Katsav, accused of raping and sexually harassing women: “He turned out to be a strong man, raped 10 women. I never would have expected it of him. He has surprised us all, we all envy him.” The Kremlin, whose communication was a little more self-conscious back then, had to explain that Putin didn’t condone rape and that his words were meant as a hard-to-translate joke.
Putin’s crude jokes are often written off as a product of his childhood on the streets of St. Petersburg. He’s only as polished as an intelligence officer who served in the former East Germany needed to be. Lavrov, however, is a highly professional diplomat. He knows the protocol, speaks three languages besides Russian, and is sophisticated in his tastes and interests. Even his verse, while not touched by genius, is competent and far less embarrassing than the poetic efforts of many other Russian officials.
Lavrov knows well how his remarks sound to Western ears. He is also aware that sarcasm and taunts are often considered unprofessional and seen as a sign of bad manners in the English-speaking world, especially in the US. And yet he keeps saying things that would have gotten any Western diplomat fired, playing out barbed comedy routines and engaging in practical jokes worthy of a college student.
His style is the message: Russians won’t play by others’ rules, it says. But this isn’t about touting Russia’s size and its nuclear arsenal; it’s more of a mischievous enticement, a dare.
Putin’s Russia has allied itself with Western populist forces, whose stand against political correctness and the constant self-censorship that comes with it constitutes a strong voter appeal. During the election campaign in the US last year, I was told many times that Trump’s penchant for uncensored speech was his most attractive quality. The Dutch say the same of Geert Wilders, the French of Marine Le Pen. The freedom to say whatever one wants without wondering if it could be construed as misogynist, racist, homophobic or offensive in a myriad other ways is, to many voters, a bonus.
Post-Soviet Russians have relished their freedom to say whatever they want, to be sarcastic, crude and informal, to be provocative and thus project confidence. Cursing in the workplace, a lack of respect for propriety and protocol, an absence of linguistic and ideological constraints were prizes to a society that had just cast off the Communist straitjacket.
In his 2014 book, “After Newspeak: Language Culture and Politics in Russia from Gorbachev to Putin,” Michael Gorham wrote,
One obvious reason for post-Soviet reticence toward Western notions of political correctness is that the Soviet era featured a state-sponsored form of PC that was both ubiquitous and hypertrophied. The well-documented cliched, wooden language of official speeches, documents and newspapers assumed such a degree of dominance that it came to symbolize in the Gorbachev-era revolts against that system, all that was wrong with it.
In recent years, a backlash to this unfettered freedom has developed in Russia. The advent of a Western corporate culture and many intellectuals’ admiration of sanitized Western discourse have constituted one line of attack. Russian Orthodox conservatives attacked from the opposite flank. Stringent laws weed out previously copious profanity from film and theater. Religion has become a dangerous conversation subject. Public discourse has turned more staid.
Lavrov has fun making his pitch for a politically incorrect Russia — the Russian embassy in the UK put up a photo of Darth Vader taking a selfie with the sardonic caption “Come to our side — follow us on twitter on #StarWarsDay”– and it’s having an effect. Trolled by official Russian accounts Western diplomats have started responding in kind.
New kinds of political correctness are developing in Russia, both on the pro-Putin and the anti-Putin side. Yet for export, so to speak, Lavrov is still able to offer Russia’s post-Soviet spontaneity and contempt for rules. What other foreign minister would allow his department’s hotline to play an English-language answering machine message asking callers to press three for election interference? Lavrov can; that’s his way of selling Russia as a freer country than its Western adversaries.
My big problem with Lavrov isn’t that he’s eccentric and prone to stretching the limits of propriety in the early post-Soviet style. It’s that this display of inner freedom is disingenuous and cynical. The policy behind this facade is one of lies and ruthlessness. It’s hard to enjoy Lavrov’s sense of humor with that in mind.