Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation and a former KGB agent, is nothing if not a master of stonewalling. And in this video Putin does exactly that: he refuses to play into the hysterical stereotypes that so often characterize hackers in political discourse. Of course, as surprising as it might be to hear a world leader discuss hackers so poetically, no one will be surprised that such rhetoric serves his interests. Refusing to acknowledge or address Russian meddling in the 2016 American election, Putin deflects the issue with three assertions: first, he is not responsible for the actions of “Russian hackers”; second, it is impossible to influence foreign elections through hacking anyway; and, third, the Russian government doesn’t support hackers and is in fact dealing with the same problem at home. However novel his hacker rhetoric may be, the politics behind it is as old as rhetoric itself.
Nevertheless, Putin’s refreshing analogy for hackers as independent artists does unexpected work: it highlights technical craft, cleverness, creativity, and even inspiration. Unlike many other hacker stereotypes (a hired gun, a bored teenager, a black-hat cowboy villain, a cold war spy, or even, in President Donald Trump’s fat-shaming formulation, a 400-pound man on his bed), Putin’s image is admiring as he asserts that hackers, like artists, are free people who rise in the morning in a good mood and—if so inspired by the news and their own patriotism—get to work. He implies that little can be done to stop such spontaneous outbursts of hackerish zeal—a new vision indeed for the irrepressible Russian soul! Putin is clearly having fun with the analogy—as is some of his audience (notice the chuckles from his neighbour as well as the fun on Twitter at his suggestion that hackers get up in the morning).
The trouble is that his hacker-artist insight serves tired power politics; in his repeated refusal to acknowledge even a glimmer of truth behind the hacker hysteria, Putin cannily feeds the resurgence of dangerous cold war “you are with us or against us” rhetoric: the red-baiting, the accusations of treason, and anti-Russia sentiment characterizing US political talk. In fact, by denying the evidence that Russian-backed hackers did try to influence the US election, Putin mimics over a century of official American denials of its own interventions in foreign elections. (The USA has intervened in foreign elections twice as many times as Russia). In this video, the US viewer glimpses, in the foreground, a surprisingly fresh image of hackers that denies the hysteria and moral panics of the moment and, in the background, a damning reflection of our own modern statecraft—updated slightly, but grimly familiar nonetheless.