How do you like THAT, Elon Musk?

When the country that rejects you turns you into a meme then invites you to a conference

(Vicki’s note: 👋 Hello new followers who came from the Stack Overflow Newsletter and Elezea! I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia and this newsletter is about anything in tech that interests me but that I don’t see covered in the mainstream tech press. This includes data,business, people, and companies. The newsletter goes out once or twice a week for free subscribers (usually once since I have an infant) and once more for paid subscribers. On with the program!)

You know Elon Musk as a revolutionary Tesla CEO, rocket man, that guy who smoked up on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and the man who was fined $20 million by the SEC because he made a lame Twitter joke about 420.

But did you also know that he speaks Russian?

My interest in the rabbit hole of Elon’s connection to Russia started when Stalingulag tweeted a funny.

Stalingulag is Alexander Gorbunov. Gorbunov was initially an anonymous Russian twitter user who gained an enormous following both there and on Telegram, where you can blog in public channels, by writing pointed political (anti-Kremlin) commentary on the situation in Russia.

Explaining why he named his project after the USSR’s most notorious dictator, Gorbunov said, “It’s a kind of trolling. Someone comes to a channel with Stalin in the avatar and sees ‘StalinGulag,’ and thinks it’s going to be full of praise for that period, and then they see something completely the opposite.” “In fact,” Gorbunov told the BBC immodestly, “StalinGulag is the only popular Telegram channel that writes about how things actually are.”

There was a lot of speculation about who he was, until a Russian news site outed him, and his parents’ home in Mahachkala was raided over a bizzarre, suspected connections to a bombing in Moscow that was really a pretext for the Kremlin to get him to shut up.

(Now you’re all caught up on the Russian internet. )

Anyway, in October 2017, Gorbunov tweeted about a news story where physicists in Novosibirsk figured out how to smoke herring in a nuclear collider, and captioned it, “And what are you going to answer to THAT, Elon Musk?! You’re going to die of jealousy again over our country’s scientific accomplishments!”

This set off a meme chain reaction, with people tweeting and posting dubious homemade Russian inventions at Elon Musk with the phrase, “Как тебе это, Илон Маск?” - “And how do you like that, Elon Musk?”

If there’s one thing the Russian internet is good at (other than generating hackers and botmakers), it’s memeing, and variations of this meme echoed through the internet for the better part of a year.

It gained momentum until, finally, NTV, a Russian (state-sponsored) news outlet posted video that had gone viral in Russia, of an invention so stupid that it finally got Elon’s attention:

Elon, alarmingly, responded with:

which means, “haha unbelievable”, in Russian slang.

When I saw this, I was taken aback, for several reasons:

  1. Elon Musk answers in Russian?

  2. Офигенно, Ofigenno is very much a slang word, similar to “rad” or “out there”, a word you’d have to really know Russian well to use correctly.

What was going on here? It was time to go down the rabbit hole of Elon’s history.

***

In 2001, according to Inc Russia, Jim Cantrell got a call from a man who told him he wanted to go to Mars.

Cantrell previously worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Later, he worked at the French Space Agency and did some work coordinating between France and the Soviet Union related to travel to Mars. When the Soviet Union fell, he worked for the American government on joint missile defense programs conducted between America and Russia. In 2001, he was in Russia as a freelance consultant on space-related matters, and had built up a formidable network of Russian space-related contacts.

When Elon Musk called him, Cantrell was working in Russia on a program to test solar sails (what?) in space. As the Russian, Inc article recalls (translation mine),

As Cantrell recalls, in July of 2001, he was driving his cabriolet, when he got a call from an unknown number. The person on the other end of the line was prattling on about jet fuel, space tourism, and the necessity of making humankind multi-planetary inhabitants. ‘In 30 seconds on the phone, he told me his entire life philosophy,’ Cantrell remembers.

That person was Elon Musk. After they had met, he said he wanted to create a space company that would send cargo into space. From Cantrell, he needed connections to the Russian space program. Several months later, SpaceX was formed.

Over the course of the next several years, Musk and Cantrell made many trips to Russia to try to buy decommissioned Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (try explaining that to today’s American media) so they could send them into space.

Musk had little success buying stuff from Russians because, to put it bluntly, they didn’t trust or respect him. He was only 30 years old at the time, he had no knowledge or education around rocket science, and his knowledge of Russian business manners was lacking. As the 2015 biography of Musk by Ashlee Vance recounts , he had many frustrating experiences having to spend days on end with Russians drinking vodka, smoking, eating zakuski (the Russian word for chasers that are food, like pickles and kielbasa) and toasting to the American and Russian space programs before being told that he couldn’t possibly be serious, even as he was sitting on $20 million dollars.

Eventually, Musk decided that he didn’t like that, and went on to build his own rockets.

Whether he learned Russian on his ethanol-soaked trips to Russia remains an open question. It’s more likely (in my opinion) that he knows someone from his large network of Russian contacts who translated it for him.

But, knowing Musk, it’s also not impossible remembers the slang from his time in Russia.

There is another, third, weird option: his ex-girlfriend, Grimes, who as it came out, had a Ukranian grandmother and did a couple songs in Russian.

What was behind the choice to put a Russian poem on your album cover?

My grandma’s Ukrainian, and because my parents worked a lot I basically grew up with my grandparents, hearing Russian spoken a lot. They’re actually lines from two different poems by Anna Akhmatova, two different approaches to death. I kind of identified with her – she wrote a lot of poems about being a girl in the scene, all that shit. She’s a pretty cool lady. I also just wanted to put some writing on the cover, because I like the way fonts look.

She also congratulated Musk with his birthday in Russian (“happy birthday, my demon”) at one point in their five-second relationship.

Which brings us back to the present.

The reason I’m writing this post is that this meme has gotten to the point where the it’s reached the United States. On Twitter Katya, recently tweeted that a billboard had gone up in California with “How do you like that, Elon Musk,” transliterated into English letters.

The billboard invited Elon to a business forum in Krasnodar, located approximately at the end of the earth.

Here is the video from the group:

And what did Elon say to the country that laughed at his initial attempts to get SpaceX off the ground and rejected him, to the point where he decided to build the company he has now?

“You have a way with words", (again, in slang.)

Art source.

What I’m reading lately:

  1. Andrew Yang

  2. Consultants, you say? My interest is piqued.

  3. Do security systems make us feel secure?

  4. Slava also has a Russian newsletter on politics and other stuff. It’s very good.

  5. Logistic regression wins yet again


About the Author and Newsletter

I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. This newsletter is about tech and everything around tech that I don’t see covered in the mainstream tech press. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a newborn, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.

If you like this newsletter, subscribe and forward it to friends!