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The Piano Man: Russia's Off-Key Coverage Of French Protests

We're all in the mood for a melody.
We're all in the mood for a melody.

"In the unlikeliest of places, they played Kalinka on a piano."

That's how the so-called Yellow Vest protesters in France reacted to reports that Russia was inflaming their antigovernment protests, at least according to the Russian state broadcaster Rossia-1 television on December 10.

The broadcast then cuts to a video clip showing a man wearing a yellow vest sitting with his back to the camera at a rouge-hued piano on an abandoned roadway, amid a cloud of black smoke. A crowd of onlookers -- most, if not all, draped in the protesters' trademark yellow vests -- listens, some chronicling the unusual event on their mobile phones.

The tune being played?

According to Rossia-1, it is Kalinka, a popular folk tune written in 1860 by the Russian composer Ivan Larionov. And that is, indeed, what is heard in the video.

But something seems off.

That's because it turns out the virtuosic protester was playing an entirely different, unidentified tune.

The video used in the Rossia-1 news reports is credited to the EnglishRussia1 Twitter account, which earlier in the day had posted the footage under the introduction: "When two cultures meet in France."

However, some online sleuthing revealed that a video featuring the same images but a different tune was uploaded two days earlier, on December 8, on another Twitter account.

According to the tweet, the footage was shot by one of the Yellow Vest protesters on a highway blocked by demonstrators in Bessan, in southern France, on December 8.

The Kalinka-overdubbed clip got lots of traction on Russian social media in the wake of the French Foreign Ministry's December 9 announcement that it was investigating possible Russian involvement in the Yellow Vest movement.

According to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, about 600 Twitter accounts known to promote Kremlin views are focusing on France, many by way of the hashtag #giletsjaunes, the French name for the Yellow Vest protests.

Street protests over the cost of living have convulsed France in recent weeks, sparking violence in Paris and threatening President Emmanuel Macron's authority.

Russia has been criticized for exploiting social media to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere.

According to the EU East StratCom Task Force, Russia-linked sites have pushed reports of a mutiny among police, and of officers’ support for the protests.

The claim that police were in solidarity with the protesters was debunked by several media organizations, including the French news agency AFP.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mark Krutov
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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    Mark Krutov

    Mark Krutov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service and one of the leading investigative journalists in Russia. He has been instrumental in the production of dozens of in-depth reports, exposing corruption among Russia's political elite and revealing the murky operations behind Kremlin-led secret services. Krutov joined RFE/RL in 2003 and has extensive experience as both a correspondent and a TV host.