When Dmitry Zelenin, the governor of Tver Region, was at a Kremlin reception with President Dmitry Medvedev recently, he was shocked to find a worm in his salad. Seeing the funny side of it, he took a photograph of it on his phone, and uploaded it to his Twitter feed, with a pithy comment that the Kremlin liked to serve its salads extra-fresh.
All hell broke loose, with Kremlin officials thundering that he ought to be fired for such insolence.
The most interesting insight from the whole episode is that a top Russian official was putting a photograph from the Kremlin into the public domain. After all, Russian officialdom in general has always been opaque and closed to scrutiny. Now, not just Zelenin, but dozens of top officials right up to President Medvedev himself have Twitter feeds. Kremlin advisers such as Arkady Dvorkovich, formerly completely closeted away from the world, can now be contacted with a simple tweet.
At a recent government meeting, Kirov governor Nikita Belykh kept followers updated on proceedings with a series of tweets from his iPad. Dvorkovich noticed, and mentioned it to Medvedev, who scolded Belykh for tweeting during a meeting. Later, the governor and the president discussed the incident – on their Twitter feeds.
Whatever one thinks about the value of social networking sites in general, there is no doubt that for journalists based in Moscow, the embracing of them by top Russian officials is a godsend. Three years ago, I travelled to Kalmykia, a Buddhist region in the south of Russia. I was desperate to interview its eccentric leader, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a chess-mad dictator who claimed to have been abducted by aliens in yellow suits. I was asked to send questions by fax, spoke to several different press secretaries, and eventually after a month was told that there would be no interview.
A few weeks ago, I was again writing about Ilyumzhinov and thought I’d try again. I sent him a message on Facebook, and interview took place the next day.
“Before, to be heard by the President, you had to try to get a piece of paper in front of him, and that could take years,” says Tina Kandelaki, a television presenter with one of the most followed Twitter feeds in Russia. “Now, you just have to write on Twitter.”
There are limits to openness of course, as the worm incident showed. Zelenin quickly deleted the offending tweet when controversy broke out, and has since restricted his tweeting to more mundane matters of regional governance. The worm scandal has not been entirely forgotten, however. Someone has set up a Twitter feed supposedly written by the worm itself, which now has over 2,000 followers, and is persistently spamming all involved in the scandal with sarcastic remarks.