The adventures of alleged Russian espionage agents Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, whom the U.K. has accused of poisoning a double agent last year, are now the subject of a lighthearted board game called Our Guys in Salisbury. Sergei Skripal, a Russian agent who was caught spying for the British in 2006, and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned by a nerve agent and hospitalized in Salisbury, England, on March 4, 2018. The designer of Our Guys in Salisbury, Mikhail Bober, called the game “a bridge of friendship” and “a humorous answer to our [Russophobic] Western neighbors.” But at least one person close to the poisoning isn’t amused.
Salisbury resident Matthew Rowley is the brother of Charlie Rowley, who, along with his partner Dawn Sturgess, was exposed to the same nerve agent used on the Skripals. The couple was hospitalized in July 2018 after Rowley unwittingly picked up a bottle believed to have held the Novichok nerve agent and gave it to Sturgess as a gift. Sturgess died in the hospital, and Rowley is continuing to struggle with eyesight and mobility issues.
In an interview with the BBC, Matthew Rowley expressed outrage over the release of Our Guys in Salisbury. He believes that the game should be recalled and discontinued and the game developers fined. Rowley was on his way to see his brother when approached by the BBC. He wasn’t sure how he was going to break the news about the game to him.
Our Guys in Salisbury takes pairs of players on a sightseeing tour of all the European cities visited by Chepiga and Mishkin, with the ultimate goal of reaching the Salisbury cathedral with the least number of penalty points. It was the Salisbury Cathedral that Chepiga and Mishkin, in a now-infamous interview, claimed they came to Salisbury to see. At the time, they insisted they were tourists named Petrov and Boshirov and denied any connection to the Skripals’ poisoning.
So far, 5,000 games have been produced. The Insider, a Russian news outlet, has confirmed that the game is for sale in two online stores for approximately 80 rubles ($1.20).
Responses on Russian social media to the game’s release vary from incredulous to charmed. News site Izvestia tweeted, “It’s never been easier to feel like Petrov and Boshirov!” Russian radio station Echo Moskvy asked readers to propose other ideas for political board games. The most creative entries are testaments to Russians’ deep cynicism, dark humor, or both. One was President, in which players must flip an hourglass precisely every six years to become president. Number of players? “Unlimited, but no more than one.” In Battleship, the Russian team attempts to prevent the Ukrainian team from entering the Kerch Strait. And in Frighten America, players must draw scary rockets and throw them at each other.
The board game is not even the first instance of tone-deaf Salisbury jokes in Russia. In December 2018, news outlet Russia Today sent out chocolate replicas of the Salisbury Cathedral to several other Russian media companies as New Year’s gifts. Independent TV channel Dozhd tweeted out the photo of the chocolate with the caption, “Come for tea, we’re afraid to eat it alone.”
News of the game spread on social media days after the EU Council imposed sanctions on Chepiga, Mishkin, and leaders of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, in response to the Salisbury attacks. On Jan. 21, the council issued a statement where it pronounced the GRU “responsible for possession, transport and use in Salisbury (UK) of a toxic nerve agent on the weekend of 4 March 2018.” The decision was made after a special session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Besides the four Russians, sanctions were also imposed on Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, believed to be in charge of Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Russian officials continue to deny their role in the Salisbury poisonings. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in response to the new round of sanctions. In it, the ministry claims that “the new accusations against Russia and Russian citizens under the so-called Skripal case do not stand up to scrutiny.” It goes on to accuse the British government of launching an information campaign against Russia for domestic political purposes and reminds the EU that Russia reserves the right to respond to “this unfriendly action.”
Those unable to get their hands on Our Guys in Salisbury can still expect some new light to be shed on the Skripal case soon. Eliot Higgins, the founder of the online investigations website Bellingcat, which first exposed the identities of Chepiga and Mishkin, promised to release long-awaited articles on Skripal and downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 “before the heat death of the universe.” Not long now.