When one of Russia's most prestigious universities announced that it would invite the men suspected of poisoning a Russian double agent on English soil to a lecture series marking the anniversary of the incident, many took it as another example of dark humor.
Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were hospitalized for weeks following the poisoning believed to have been carried out in Salisbury on March 4, 2018, by Russian military intelligence officers later identified as Anatoly Chepiga and Aleksandr Mishkin. One British civilian later died after coming into contact with Novichok, the nerve agent used in the attack.
In the 12 months since the incident, which led to international condemnation and accusations of Kremlin involvement by Britain, the Skripal poisoning has entered Russian popular folklore. Businesses now peddle "Novichok" olive oil, a board game titled Our Guys In Salisbury, and various merchandise playing on memes and phrases made famous by media coverage of the event.
So news that Moscow State University would host a conference series dubbed the Skripal Readings, devoted to discussing the West's alleged "information war" on Russia, was quickly dismissed by some as the latest instance of Russian posturing. Then Andrei Manoylo, a political-science professor and the event's organizer, said he'd sent invitations to the two suspects and that he planned to hold a second conference session inside Salisbury Cathedral.
Was it just another case of trolling?
On March 4, the university's press service appeared to confirm as much -- it retracted Manoylo's statement and told Interfax that the professor often "sails close to the wind with his jokes."
But in an interview with RFE/RL, Manoylo sowed more confusion. The claim that Chepiga and Mishkin had been invited was not a joke, he said, using the pseudonyms under which British investigators believe the men travelled to the U.K. Manoylo said he had indeed reached out to the two men "through private channels," and was waiting for a response. He doubted they would turn up, he admitted, as "no one's seen them for a long time."
The Skripal Readings are an extension of the interdisciplinary course Technologies Of Information War that Manoylo has taught at Moscow State University since 2016. He has ambitious plans for the conference series, which he hopes will take place alternately in Britain and Russia and will involve "specialists in information war" from many countries.
Manoylo said the date of the first session at Moscow State University had yet to be announced, but would most likely take place next week.
'It's Not Funny Anymore'
It's unclear whether a cameo from Chepiga and Mishkin will be forthcoming. But if claims they'd been invited were mere trolling, as some suspect, they would fit into a familiar pattern.
State-funded international news channel RT, which aired an interview with the suspected assailants following the release of photos showing them walking the streets of Salisbury, has made a modest business out of its role as the main mouthpiece for the Russian counternarrative.
On December 21, it launched an online store that sells merchandise making light of the deadly incident. Days later, officials in Salisbury blasted the channel after news emerged it had sent chocolate models of the city's cathedral, complete with ribbons and the channel's green logo, as a festive gift to Russian opposition media.
In January, Moscow-based Russian toymaker Igroland released a board game titled Our Guys In Salisbury, featuring the cities Chepiga and Mishkin are alleged to have visited en route to their arrival in Salisbury last year. The English city, the final location on the board, is decorated with images of its famous cathedral and two figures in hazmat suits.
It was "our answer to Western media: enough already," Mikhail Bober of Igroland, who came up with the idea, told The Guardian. "To us, it's not funny anymore. It's sad. This needs to stop." He suggested that Western coverage of the incident and allegations of Russian complicity had gone too far. And in this he's not alone.
When asked in an October 2018 survey by the independent Russian pollster Levada Center who was responsible for the poisoning in Salisbury, only 3 percent of respondents implicated the Russian secret services. Twenty-eight percent blamed British authorities, and 56 percent responded that "it could have been anyone." Many in Russia doubt the poisoning took place at all.
In Britain a thorough investigation led first to the publication of CCTV images showing the two alleged assailants, then to a concerted and successful campaign to rally international support for the denunciation of Russian involvement, and finally to the expulsions of Russian diplomats from a host of European states, including Great Britain.
Moscow has long accused the West of waging an information war aimed at destabilizing Russia, and both officials and media reports have portrayed British claims of Russian involvement in Salisbury as an extension of that campaign.
For Manoylo, the incident and the unified Western response serve as a perfect case study of what he portrays to his students as the West's information war against Russia. "The Skripal case is the longest and most extensive campaign of information war currently taking place," he told RFE/RL.