Since the chemical attack on ex-soviet spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the sleepy British town of Salisbury, diplomatic tensions between the two countries have been flying high. Moscow is vehemently denying any responsibility and throwing shade at the UK’s allegations through a series of cryptic literary references to the point where erudite remarks are now commonplace in the consular slanging matches.
When the UN Security Council first met to discuss the issue in March, Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian permanent representative, compared the British government to Inspector LeStrade—the fictional Scotland Yard Detective from the Sherlock Holmes novels that endlessly relies on Holmes’s detective skills. After making the statement, Vassily added: “I’m not saying people working at Scotland Yard today are not professional, God guard me from that, but I do think we could all benefit from having a Sherlock Holmes with us today.”
The next reference came from British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who compared the situation to being “rather like the beginning of Crime and Punishment in the sense that we are all confident of the culprit.”
Yesterday, Nebenzia reached for the pages of another classic, and read out a passage from Alice in Wonderland recalling an unfair trial before rhetorically asking the other attendees, “does that remind us of anyone?” Not one to let sleeping dogs lie, UK Ambassador Karen Pierce hit back at Nebenzia: “There is another very good quote from Alice in Wonderland which is: ‘sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,’ so I think that’s the quote that suits my Russian colleague best.” Pierce went on to compare him to another Holmes character—Inspector Moriarty, often described as the “Napoleon of crime.”
Resting on old stereotypes—the bumbling British man, the sinister Russian villain—are both countries’ ways of defaming each other. Russia’s lack of a defense is obvious in their tit-for-tat tactics but the UK’s willingness to retaliate shows the power of citing a country’s cultural prowess.
Boris Johnson cited even the UK’s burgeoning film industry as a beacon of creativity, another reason why the Russian’s should be jealous of our democratic values. As he opened with the pinnacle of Russian literature, he ended on another cinematic claim to fame: “They make novichok,” he said, “we make lightsabers.”