Red Flags

Russian operatives used some very Russian English to meddle in the American election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a video conference dedicated to the opening new sports facilities built as a part of the Gazprom's 'Gazprom for Children' social program at his country residence of Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow on February 16, 2018.  / AFP PHOTO / Sputnik / Alexei Druzhinin        (Photo credit should read ALEXEI DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a video conference, dedicated to opening new sports facilities, at his country residence of Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow on Friday.
Alexei Druzhinin/Getty Images

The Facebook message from the totally authentic American began as follows: “Hi there! I’m a member of Being Patriotic online community.”

Addressed to one of the sender’s fellow grass-roots organizers in Florida, the message went on: “Listen, we’ve got an idea. Florida is still a purple state and we need to paint it red. If we lose Florida, we lose America. We can’t let it happen, right?”

Wrong! The phrase should really be, “If we lose Florida, we lose the White House.” Or maybe “we lose the presidency.” Certainly not “we lose America.” No one would ever write “we lose America” there—it’s unnatural. Same goes for “We can’t let it happen, right?” The correct article would’ve been this, not it. And the “right?” at the end just sounds … weird.

Actually, it sounds like something a Russian person would say. Most likely in a friendly tone, one just barely concealing a sinister sneakiness.

On Friday, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller released a 37-page indictment targeting 13 Russian operatives who stand accused of insinuating themselves into the 2016 presidential election. The cornerstone of their operation was the online impersonation of highly energized American voters—mostly supporters of Donald Trump.

Mueller’s indictment contains a number of primary source documents related to the investigation of Russian meddling in U.S. politics. The message I quoted above was sent from a Facebook account that had been stolen from a “real U.S. person” (Mueller’s phrase) named “T.W.” Understandably, the people who received the message weren’t on the lookout for treacherous Russians. Why would they be? The small errors in syntax and the slightly sideways use of idioms didn’t raise any red flags.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Russian origins of that message seem obvious to me. I moved to the United States from Moscow at age 5, and I know what Russian people who don’t speak fluent English sound like. Their mistakes and verbal tics are distinctive—most famously, they tend to skip the articles the and a—as is the mood they conjure with their choice of words. At its essence, English-broken-by-way-of-Russian evokes the fragile intimacy that exists between unlucky, beleaguered people: Hey bah-dee, the Russian speaker tells someone who isn’t really his buddy, this is hell of election, right? 

The documents collected by Mueller contain some truly choice examples of Russian-inflected English. Take, for example, a post published on Instagram by a sock puppet account with the username “Woke Blacks.” (I have to admit I’m impressed the Russians knew woke. But using blacks in that way … let’s just say I’m not surprised a Russian person did that.) Here’s the post, per the indictment:

[A] particular hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.

“The lesser of two devils” is a very funny malapropism. While I’m not sure it’s a specifically Russian mistake (my mom told me there’s not a Russian phrase that translates literally to “the lesser of two devils”) you can see how that English expression might trip up a non-native speaker.

I was also struck by “a particular hype and hatred.” This is not a real phrase! My sense is that a Russified version of the word hype is now commonly used by Russians in conversation—it’s rendered as хайп and is one of many English words that have been imported, grotesquely, into Russian vernacular since the fall of the Soviet Union. But in Russian, хайп seems to mean something closer to lie than it does in English, which would explain its deployment here.

My favorite bit of Englussian from the Mueller indictment comes from the same fake Florida resident I mentioned earlier:

We are currently reaching out to local activists and we’ve got the folks who are okay to be in charge of organizing their events almost everywhere in FL. However, we still need your support. What do you think about that? Are you in?

It’s subtle, but the use of “about that” gives it away. Say it aloud, and you’ll realize an American would have left it at, “What do you think?”—a phrase that might strike a foreigner as too imprecise to be proper English. What do you think about what? About that! (Also, when was the last time you heard someone who wasn’t in an action movie say, “Are you in?” Probably when a Russian guy said it to you on a dark street corner.)

But perhaps the most egregious example of non-native English to come out of the Russia investigation is this tweet:

After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters - worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness.

That one’s not from the Mueller indictment, though—it is from the Twitter account of Donald Trump.