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Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova

John Kerry, who served as secretary of state under the first black president of the United States, lamented the state of relations between Moscow and Washington this week, as he encouraged Harvard University students to go learn Russian.

The sharp-tongued spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry offered up this eyebrow-raising recommendation in response:

Go read a 90-year-old Russian poem about an "elderly negro."

During his May 24 commencement speech to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Kerry was harshly partisan and often scathing in his criticism of President Donald Trump’s administration.

He also quipped that one of the best ways to succeed in a Trump administration would be to learn Russian, using Rosetta Stone, a widely used commercial tool for learning foreign languages.

"I’m often asked what is the secret to having real impact on government," Kerry said. "Well, it’s recently changed. I used to say either run for office or get a degree from Harvard Kennedy School. With this White House I’d say, buy Rosetta Stone and learn Russian."

Kerry’s comments reflected the growing furor in Washington about ties between Trump associates and Russian officials, and U.S. intelligence conclusions that Moscow meddled in last year’s presidential election. Several congressional committees are investigating those ties, and the FBI is conducting a criminal probe as well.

In Moscow, Maria Zakharova, whose undiplomatic barbs have targeted Jewish voters and Washington’s former ambassador to Moscow, appeared defensive at Kerry’s comments.

In a post she wrote to her Facebook page, Zakharova echoed the Kremlin’s assertions that the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama was to blame for the state of bilateral relations and suggested that poems by the Soviet futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky would have been useful.

She then quoted a verse from Mayakovsky's 1927 poem called To Our Youth:

"Even if I
were an elderly negro
and then
without being despondent or lazy
I would learn Russian
only because it
was spoken by Lenin."

Zakharova’s choice of poem, the language it contained, and the fact she directed it at Obama caught the attention of more than a handful of commentators on her Facebook page, some of whom parsed Kerry’s speech but many more who debated the choice of word.

For many, particularly older, Russians, “negro” is a commonly used word to describe African-Americans, and is not considered offensive. The use of “black-skinned” or "black" – as in “black American”-- is sometimes heard, though the word "black" is also used as an epithet to describe people from the southern Caucasus region.

"With the word 'negro' then, it's not all so straightforward," wrote one man, identified as Roman Cochinsky.

The news that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was skiing while mass protests were being held in the country has sparked a reaction on social media. (file photo)

While tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Russia on March 26 to express their anger, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was at the top of the world, skiing.

"How was your day?" an Instagram user identified as inspiridonoff messaged Medvedev within hours after Russia saw its largest nationwide demonstrations in years, underscored by calls from protesters for the prime minister to resign amid corruption allegations.

"Not bad, I was skiing" he replied on his damedvedev handle without mentioning where, adding a smiley with its tongue hanging out for good measure.

Medvedev's comments attracted a wealth of responses on social media, with one Twitter user nicknamed Andrei Sokolov suggesting that "He's probably training to run away."

Another user created a combo photo showing the portraits of Medvedev and Tsar Nicolas II with the dates 2017 and 1917 -- referring to the revolution that overthrew Russia's last monarch 100 years ago.

Moscow police say about 500 people were detained during the protests in the capital, while OVD-Info, a nongovernmental organization that tracks such incidents, put the number at 1,030.

Police Disperse Anticorruption Rally In Moscow
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Those arrested during the protests included opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who had called for the nationwide marches after his anticorruption group released a report on March 2 accusing Medvedev of using charities and NGOs to collect donations from tycoons and state banks and using the funds to buy expensive assets.

Navalny was sentenced on March 27 to 15 days' imprisonment for disobeying police.

WATCH: Aleksei Navalny's Report On Dmitry Medvedev's Assets

Medvedev has not personally responded to the allegations of corruption lodged by Navalny's group, although his spokeswoman has called them "propaganda attacks."

Medvedev has faced unusual pressure over the accusations that the prime minister used an array of charity and nonprofit organizations to collect donations from oligarchs and state banks, and then redirected the funds to purchase pricey assets.

Communist lawmakers, who seldom stray too far from the Kremlin line on important issues, on March 24 submitted a formal request to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, to investigate the claims.

Earlier, Communist lawmaker Valery Rashkin appealed to federal investigators to probe the allegations that Navalny made against Medvedev.

Medvedev was recently mocked online after President Vladimir Putin said on March 14 that the prime minister had gone down with the flu, apparently explaining why he had missed several government meetings.

After Medvedev on March 23 denied he had actually been ill, social media networks poked fun at him for having finally challenged the president.

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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