The death toll in the Siberian region of Irkutsk resulting from people drinking tainted bath oil has risen to 74, stunning a country accustomed to high rates of alcohol-related deaths and prompting an angry response from President Vladimir Putin.
It also prompted some acidic trolling from a Ukrainian ambassador and, not surprisingly, a rebuke from a clearly unamused Russian Foreign Ministry.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Finland earlier this week found amusement in the story out of Irkutsk, where city officials believe a type of alcohol found in antifreeze was used in the manufacture of body lotion, instead of more typical industrial-grade alcohol like that used in aftershave or perfume.
In a series of posts to Twitter, Ambassador Andrii Olefirov sent out photographs from classic Soviet-era films, along with biting captions referring to the herbal bath lotion known in Russia as "Boyaryshnik" (Hawthorn) and believed to have medicinal properties.
Two of the films were based on the writings of beloved Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov; one was a 1970s children's cartoon. In one of the ambassador’s posts, he depicts a character from one of the films asking another, "Hey, Pops, you got any 'Boyaryshnik' in your town?"
The Russian Foreign Ministry was not amused.
"Tell us why the Ukrainian ambassador is publishing 'funny pictures' on social media about the mass poisoning in Irkutsk by tainted alcohol-containing products," the ministry said in a post on its Facebook page that included screenshots of the now-removed Twitter posts from Olefirov (above).
As of December 22, the posts had been removed from Olefirov’s Twitter feed, but Olefirov sent out another tweet, with a link to the Ukrainian news website ZN.ua, that discussed the spat, saying, "The Russian MFA has taken offense at a Ukrainian ambassador’s joke about Boyaryshnik."
That Twitter post, meanwhile, attracted ample trolling itself, from both Russian- and English-language posters. One such post suggested Olefirov's Finnish colleagues would not be amused by his joke, to which he replied: "They do not kill my people."
Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and the war that has been fueled by Russia-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region has made Kyiv and Moscow nearly outright enemies. At least 9,800 people have been killed in the fighting since 2014, according to the United Nations.
Meanwhile, the Irkutsk emergency has turned the spotlight on the sad, historical recurrence of Russian alcoholics and others looking to get drunk on liquids not typically suited for consumption.
Russian media have reported that people turned to the bath lotion to drink in Irkutsk because it was one-third the price of regular vodka.
Russia continues to have some of the highest per-capita alcohol consumption rates in the world, as well as the highest rates of alcohol-use disorders.