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Novichok Suspects: Gay Or Not Gay? That Is Russian State Media's Question

A screen grab from RT's interview with Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov to discuss claims made by London that they were involved in the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury.

"Living together is merrier and easier, it's normal," explained Ruslan Boshirov as he appeared to defend himself against the suggestion that he and fellow Novichok-poisoning suspect Aleksandr Petrov had slept in the same bed during their March trip to England.

RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan, who conducted the bizarre September 12 interview, broke into a suggestive smile.

"What, so to speak, unites you then?" she asked the two, who had been thrust into the spotlight in the wake of London's accusations that they were agents of Russia's military intelligence, the GRU, who carried out the poisonings of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British territory.

After the men declined to answer, asking that details of their private lives be left out, she added: "No need to justify yourselves. Whether you had a single or double bed is the least of the world's concerns right now."

RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan during her interview with Barishov and Petrov
RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan during her interview with Barishov and Petrov

The fuse was lit, however, and in the hours that followed, Russian state-controlled media wasted no time peddling rumors about the men's sexuality -- an apparent effort to counter the idea they could be GRU officers.

Some attempted to portray them as an innocent couple keen to explore Europe's foremost gay-friendly destinations.

"The LGBT community has come out in defense of Petrov and Boshirov," was the headline on Life News, subsequently reposted by a range of pro-Kremlin outlets.

"Instead of dangerous killers -- timid gays," wrote a columnist in Zavtra, a nationalist online newspaper. Moskovsky Komsomolets proclaimed the interview "The GRU's coming out".

In the evening, flagship news channel Rossia 24 broadcast a sarcastic report about Salisbury's spirit of "modern European tolerance," portraying it as a place overrun with gay clubs and parades.

"This is how they 'unwind' in Salisbury," the presenter said, using the exact phrase Petrov used to describe the aim of the men's trip.

Journalists in and outside Russia took notice ... did Kremlin critics.

Commenting on reports that a separate pair of Russian spies had been apprehended in the Netherlands, lawyer Nikolai Polozov wrote, apparently in jest: "Yet another gay pair from the GRU in search of a worthy cafe."

Blogger Rustem Adagamov, meanwhile, tweeted a suggestion about Russian state media's true intentions.

"To punish Petrov and Vasechkin for their failure to execute, they've clearly decided to legendize [provide a cover story for] them as a couple of gays," he wrote, playing on the theme of a popular Soviet children's comedy, "The Adventures of Petrov and Vasechkin."

Amid the fallout, Simonyan took to Twitter with comments that served to add grist to the rumor mill.

Noting that the two men "didn't hit on me" during the interview, she wrote: "I don't know if they're gay or not gay. They're stylish, as far as I can tell -- with little beards and cute haircuts, taut trousers and jumpers that tighten around impressive biceps."

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