Why Russians think their ‘August curse’ has come early


Debris of the Boeing 777, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which crashed during flying over the eastern Ukraine region near Donetsk, Ukraine, 17 July 2014. EPA/ALYONA ZYKINA

On Thursday afternoon, after news spread that a Malaysia Airlines plane appeared to have been shot down over eastern Ukraine, dozens of Russian Twitter users all began to tweet essentially the same joke: This year, August had come early:

The joke makes reference to a Russian meme – the idea that bad things happen, to Russians, in August. It's the "August Curse."

It's not a totally unreasonable thing to think. Lots of bad things have happened to Russia in August. A Wikipedia page devoted to the phenomena list quite a few since the fall of Communism: The 1991 coup attempt; the crash of Vnukovo Airlines Flight 2801; the beginning of the Russian apartment bombings and the start of the Second Chechen War; and the Kursk Submarine Disaster, are just a handful of the examples. And as a 2002 article from the New York Times points out that it may go back even further: The Russian Army suffered a historic defeat in Eastern Prussia in August 1914, for example.

While some say that the month is cursed, others say that these things probably happen because it's the month that Russians tend to go on vacation, and others would probably argue that this is all just a case of apophenia.

On its own, a few people making jokes on Twitter doesn't really mean much. But it's interesting to consider in the broader context of MH17. Many Russians are seeing this as a true tragedy, and not just for people on board the plane, but for themselves too. That's understandable. It's hard to imagine a way that the downing of a commercial airline – full of international passengers – could be good for Russia. As Mark Galeotti, an NYU professor who focuses on Russia, put it in a blog post, he suspects that the plane was downed accidentally and "when the histories are written, this will be deemed the day the [pro-Russian] insurgency lost."

For the Russian government, the hope seems to be to deflect the blame that has already attached itself to Moscow and their separatist allies. State media such as Russia Today and Ria Novosti are pushing the theory that in fact it was Ukraine forces, not the pro-Russian rebels, who shot the plane from the sky, and Vladimir Putin is following suit. "Certainly, the state over whose territory this happened bears responsibility for this terrible tragedy,” the Russian president said Thursday in televised remarks.

Of course, as the Twitter jokes acknowledge, it's not actually August yet. But there's something very Russian about the fatalism we're seeing here. And this does seem like the beginning of a sequence of events in which few of us, Russian or not, will have any control.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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