There are many odd parody accounts on Russian-language Twitter. Josef Stalin has tweeted almost 20,000 times to his 115,000 followers. Someone with nearly 30,000 subscribers poses as a man named Lev Sharansky, who pretends to be a Russian dissident but actually lampoons liberals and defends the Kremlin. Even the mustache of Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, has a Twitter account with more than 60,000 followers.
It’s not even two-weeks-old yet, but the latest thing to hit Russian Twitter is an account called @TusovochkaNews, which translates roughly as “CliqueNews.” The word “tusovka” comes from the verb “tusovat’sia,” which means, “to hang out.” In Moscow, “Тhe Тusovka” includes all the coolest activists, opposition politicians, poets, and so on. But the tusovka is especially about journalists, whose large appetite for writing about the news is exceeded only by their mutual fascination with each other. Whispers, scandals, and dirt are the tusovka’s bricks and mortar.
“The media space in Russia has narrowed to just a couple hundred people who gossip about each other. Sometimes these people don’t get enough self-irony,” TusovochkaNews’ creator told RuNet Echo.
According to the person operating its Twitter account, TusovochkaNews relies on an anonymous collective to author its tweets. The creator says he has written only 20-30 percent of the group’s 253 tweets to date. “I gave access to a few people and then to a few more people. And they don’t know about each other. Now, I myself don’t know who’s writing what,” TusovochkaNews told us.
The account started out as something like an “art project,” its creator says, “but curiously more and more people are now emerging who are really learning about news from our tweets.”
Indeed, TusovochkaNews was one of the first voices on Twitter to report the ouster of Russkaia Planeta’s editorial staff, tweeting:
Сотрудники «Русской планеты» пишут о своей работе в издании в прошедшем времени.
— TusovochkaNews (@TusovochkaNews) November 28, 2014
The staff members at “Russkaia Planeta” are writing about their work there in the past tense.
TusovochkaNews seems to have found that it’s possible to break news, relying entirely on gossip published in social-media posts, while cracking jokes. Consider the group’s first tweet, written on November 18:
Александр Винокуров поинтересовался стоимостью “Эха” у сайта Thequestion.ru
— TusovochkaNews (@TusovochkaNews) November 18, 2014
Alexander Vinokurov asked about the value of Echo of Moscow on the website TheQuestion.ru.
TheQuestion.ru is a new project (launched in late October) that solicits readers for random questions, which prominent members of the Russian intelligentsia then answer. Vinokurov is the owner of Slon.ru and TV Rain, two of Russia’s most popular independent news outlets. There are rumors that Echo of Moscow’s current majority shareholder, Gazprom Media, might be willing to sell its stake in the radio station, if it’s offered a fair price. Echo’s chief editor, Alexey Venediktov, has signaled his intention to make such an offer.
In other words, TusovochkaNews drew attention to the fact that Vinokurov is perhaps considering outbidding Venediktov.
If you’re not ROTFL, don’t beat yourself up. (These jokes aren’t meant for people outside the tusovka.)
More recent tweets, however, like the one about Russkaia Planeta, have addressed breaking news. They’re still humorous, by and large, but readers actually learn about breaking news in Russia’s world of journalism, while enjoying the tweets’ “self-irony.” For instance, when journalist Oleg Kashin appeared on TV Rain on November 27 to talk about the social circles within the tusovka, TusovochkaNews tweeted about it. When journalist Ekaterina Vinokurova wrote on Facebook to criticize the editorial purge at Russkaia Planeta, TusovochkaNews wrote about that, too.
Under normal circumstances—where independent news editors aren’t on the endangered species list and journalists’ social-media faux pas don’t jeopardize entire news outlets—something like TusovochkaNews might be amusing, at best, and utterly useless, otherwise. In modern-day Russia, however, it feels like this bizarre Twitter account is on to something. As the Kremlin and its media-owning friends squeeze the free press, Russia’s remaining independent journalists have become increasingly significant politically. Their squabbles and love affairs, which they catalogue themselves—rigorously—on Facebook and Twitter, are the country’s only unscripted politics, aside from the “clan wars” within the Kremlin, where we can only guess what’s really happening.
Even TusovochkaNews’ anonymity is a sign of the times. The mysterious project emerges as Echo of Moscow is busy drafting a “code of conduct” to restrict staff members in their online behavior. “We’re all journalists from different publications,” TusovochkaNews told RuNet Echo. “We know personally almost everyone we write about.”
If the rules Echo eventually introduces produce a chilling effect on how Russian journalists ponder and pontificate in social media, many might escape to anonymous accounts, like the TusovochkaNews collective. Such accounts can attract readers by merely implying their authors’ identity. In an environment where one errant tweet can risk your whole outfit, TusovochkaNews could be the future of Russian social media.