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RuNet Skeptical About Chelyabinsk Meteorite

The tendency of the RuNet to amplify conspiracy theory explanations of any given event cannot be overestimated. And yet, the degree to which such explanations often become part of the mainstream discourse never fails to surprise.

Case in point — the meteorite [GV] that put the gloomy city of Chelyabinsk on the map last Friday. The first conspiracy theory came hot on the heels of the meteorite's sonic boom, with Echo Moskvy's Yulia Latynina insinuating at Novaya Gazeta that the explosion was some sort of weapon that exploded while flying from one local military range to another, and the space rock was just a cover-story. (Sean's Russia Blog has translated Latynina's “questions” here.)

Sad Keanu and Belochka the Hell Squirrel join Putin atop meteorite contrail. Anonymous image widely disseminated online

Sad Keanu and Belochka the Hell Squirrel join Putin atop meteorite contrail. Anonymous image widely disseminated online

The article, which began with “Now, I'm not a rocket scientist,” was quickly removed [ru] from the Novaya Gazeta website, but not before screenshots [ru] and copies [ru] were spread throughout the RuNet. Latynina later apologized [ru] for being “paranoid” on her Echo Moskvy radio program, admitting that the meteorite was after all a meteorite. Her apology, however, rings somewhat hollow:

[...] как только стало ясно, что там речь идет о килотоннах взрыва, то понятно, что это никакая не ракета, и понятно, что это, действительно, метеорит. [...] Действительно, совпадение. Метеорит летел на Чебаркульский полигон. Ну что? Бывает. [...] Когда у человека возникает паранойя, у него начинаются сразу всякие логические подтверждения этой паранойи.

[...] as soon as it became clear that the story is kilotons of explosive [energy], well, then its obvious, that it's not a rocket, and obvious that it's actually a meteorite. [...] Really, a coincidence. A meteorite was flying to the Chebarkulsky military range. So what? It happens. [...] When a person gets paranoid, they immediately start making up logical confirmations of this paranoia.

Remarkably, Latynina seems to be saying that her original idea (a rocket detonation was covered up with meteorite story) was “logical”, and furthermore, that if the amount of energy released by the meteorite was smaller, she would still be inclined to believe her first theory.

While Latynina is notorious for kooky theories and poor grasp of technical details, that's usually not the case for Andrei Makarevich, front-man of cult rock group Mashina Vremeni, who blogged [ru] on Snob.ru, calling the meteorite a “convenient” talking point to distract the people from political scandals. He also wondered how expensive it would be to “launch” a meteorite.

Another person to tentatively accept the meteorite's existence was Alfred Koch, the economist in charge of Russian privatization in the 90s and briefly the director of Gazprom Media. First, Koch wrote a Facebook post (liked by over 9000 people) asking [ru] why Russian anti air defense forces did not track and destroy the meteorite:

Почему он не был даже засечен? На фига нам такая ПВО? Может и нет никакой ПВО?

Why wasn't it even detected? Why the hell do we need an anti-air defense like that? Maybe there is no anti-air defense at all?

Perhaps Koch was expecting an effort more akin to the one portrayed in the (fictional) Bruce Willis vehicle Armageddon. Later he wrote another post [ru]:

Над нашей страной произошел взрыв неизвестного объекта. Высота на которой произошел взрыв – 20 км. Мощность – примерно 20 – 30 Хиросим. Теперь самое интересное: не прошло и суток, как это случилось, а поиски остатков объекта – прекращены… Не знаю как вы, а мне кажется, что меня держат за идиота.

An unknown object exploded above our country. The height of the explosion – 20 km. Force – about 20-30 Hiroshimas. Now for the interesting part: it hasn't even been 24 hours since it happened, but the search for the remnants of the object is over … Don't know about you, but it seems to be that someone is taking me for a fool.

Incredibly, opposition leader and Coordinating Council of the Opposition member Boris Nemtsov was on the same page with Koch as far as “unknown objects”, writing [ru] yesterday:

Альфред Кох удивляется, почему прекращены поиски челябинского неопознанного летающего объекта (НЛО) [...] И почему версия Латыниной, что это был не метеорит, а наша ракета нечаянно кем-то запущенная, была забанена даже независимыми СМИ. Мне представляется, что дискуссия вокруг НЛО крайне опасна и невыгодна властям.

Alfred Koch is wondering why the search is over for the Chelyabinsk unidentified flying object (UFO) [...] And why Latynina's theory that it wasn't a meteorite, but our own rocket launched by mistake, was banned even by independent mass media. I think that a discussion about the UFO is highly dangerous and disadvantageous for the government.

Several commenters responded with links to a YouTube video [ru] entitled “Were we saved?”, one of them saying [ru]:

Вообще-то там заметили сигарообразный объект который сбил и уменьшил тем самым метеорит и затем полетел дальше.

Actually, they've noticed a cigar-like object that knocked down and reduced the size of the meteorite and then kept on flying.

A diagram. An anonymous image widely distributed online.

A diagram showing meteorite trajectory, labeled from left to right: Putin's Dacha, Very powerful KGB fan, and Chelyabinsk. An anonymous image widely distributed online.

Why are some people so loath to take simple explanations of, granted, rare events at face value? Blogger Vladimir Golishev took a step back [ru], attributing the desire to complicate to a fear of randomness:

что хуже: метеорит или ракета?
по-моему, ракета как-то превычней, понятней, тривиальней
подумаешь, с курса сбилась – врезала по людЯм!
первый раз что ли?!
вполне штатная ситуация для неуклонно поднимающейся с колен расеи
а вот ежели вправду метеорит – тогда, действительно, страшно

what's worse: a meteorite or a rocket?
to me, a rocket is somehow more habitual, understandable, trivial
who cares, went off course – hit some folk!
as if it's the first time?!
pretty boring situation for russia steadily rising to her news
but if it's actually a meteorite – well, that's scary, for sure

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