Скотт Келли. Фото: Pat Sullivan / AP
"Dimon, why did you delete that tweet?" Arguing with people online is nothing special but former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who made four spaceflights to the ISS, knows how to make his tweets count. Kelly made waves on Russian Twitter rebuking Dmitry Rogozin of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, and mocking Russian officials for their hypocrisy about the war in Ukraine — in fluent Russian. In this interview, Kelly speaks out about the war, the fate of Russia and Ukraine, and the divided space.
— First of all, based on your Twitter, your Russian seems pretty good. Obviously, you trained for the mission at the International Space Station. Can you describe just how much training and experience you have?
— Well, I've taken Russian for a long time. When I say I speak Russian what I mean is "I speak some Russian". I don't speak Russian like Pushkin - or my tweets. I mean, that's negative Russian language (laughs). Clearly, I'm getting assistance with that. I've taken Russian language [lessons] for 20 years, but I wanted to write it in a way that would get the Russians' attention and, you know, what better way to do that than to write it in a language that they speak and how they speak it.
— And the attention you did get, lots of people are discussing your tweets. Were you expecting that kind of attention, were you trying to get it?
— Well, where this kind of started, obviously the war got my attention. It got my attention for a number of reasons. One is it's a war. Generally, do I comment on that? Not really. It's not my brand. But in this case, it was so horrific and it affected so many people that I know, Ukrainians. I have Ukrainian friends and Ukrainian family members, my sister-in-law, my wife's sister, is married to a Ukrainian American. He moved here when he was 10. So I have Ukrainian American nieces and nephews. I have many Russian friends, and I'm worried about all these people. And now I'm worried about our planet, what's the impact of this on our civilization — I guess, you could say if you take this to the worst of possible endings. So I wanted to make a difference. And I have a big platform because I have a lot of Twitter followers and a lot of them are in Russia because I wrote a book in Russian that I think probably did OK. So I looked at this as an opportunity to get information out to Russian people that are now starved of real information.
Kind of where it started was with Rogozin's tweets or the Roscosmos video that suggested the Mark Vande Hei would be left on the space station and I wrote it in a way that I wanted to get people's attention on it because I wanted to have a large audience, not for space messaging, but for really important news that the Russian people particularly need to see.
— I know we are talking during a very challenging period in the relationship between the US and Russia, and some think that the whole world order is about to change or is changing as we speak. How do you feel about this? Do you think the consequences of these actions in Ukraine will affect the way the world works?
— Yeah, I think it could possibly have that effect on realignments of countries and their relationship. Certainly. When you take the largest country in the world and the largest country in Europe, and they're basically at war — yeah, it's going to have a huge impact. When you have the price of oil change, it's gonna put a lot of money into certain countries that didn't have that much liquidity and that has an impact, absolutely.
— And it has an impact on the US taxpayers, for example, when the gas prices go up or something like that. The US and Europe showed a lot of resolve in responding to this crisis even if there are financial costs involved. Was that unexpected for you that these ethical stances prevailed?
— Well, I think ethics are more important than economics, and I think at least my opinion is it's worth the higher prices that we might pay for gas. The higher prices are due to this, due to that, it's due to the pandemic, due to a lot of things. What a lot of Americans don't understand is that even though the US doesn't import much Russian oil, I think it's less than 10%, but oil is purchased on a world market. So when you take a large producer away, it's going to affect the price. Even if we could produce oil to replace it, which we can, the world price is still affected. The prices will be higher. We don't have that much control over the price of oil because it is a world market. I don't think a lot of people understand that.
Having said that, I think absolutely it's worth whatever the cost is because the downside is you're destroying a democracy that was developing and an economy that was growing, and you're destroying it, in Europe. And at the same time, the Russian economy is being destroyed. Of course, I fear more for the Ukrainians because they're being killed, but this also will have a significant long-term impact on Russia and the Russian people. I have Russian friends, and I've known them for decades in some cases. And there are a lot of things about the Russian culture that I admire, and it's just heartbreaking to see both of these countries being destroyed because of one person.
— That's really sad, yeah. Let's go back to your words about Dmitry Rogozin who is perhaps the most famous target of your tweets and rebuttals. Have you met him? Do you think he's just as goofy as he seems online? Or perhaps it's more of a publicity stunt?
— When I was at NASA, he wasn't at Roscosmos. I certainly don't remember ever meeting him, maybe he was in some circles there with the leadership 'cause he has been in the space industry, but I have no recollection of ever meeting him.
I think he basically does those things really for an audience of one person, the president of Russia.
— You've probably discussed this with your fellow crew members, astronauts, and cosmonauts, I'm not trying to get out of you who backs whom but what was the reaction of your Russian friends overall?
— I'll tell you in general, I don't want to identify anyone personally and what their position is, but I would say that of all my Russian friends — some of which are in the space program and some of them aren't, I met them over the course of the years I spent in Russia — I think most of them are aligned with the Western world on this that it is an unjust, illegal war, it's an atrocity. These are Russian brothers that are in Ukraine, family members even, of Russian citizens that are being killed. This is a war on your brother and sister, and most of them are in line with that.
And then there are the other folks — they're not stupid people and they don't have bad intentions — they've just been brainwashed by years of propaganda, and now mostly, unless they're making a real effort to get real information meaning using like VPN or other sources they are just hearing this other side of the story that they believe. I talk to some of those people daily and see what they're saying. Today I was tweeting about how Russians now are sending me Tucker Carlson videos to validate this war and the atrocities. They're using American — I wouldn't even say it's news because they've even admitted it's not news, it's opinion entertainment — as a rationale for the defense of Russia. You know some of these people — again, smart, well-intentioned people — think that before this started Russia was in danger of this blitzkrieg type invasion to destroy them from the Ukrainian Nazis. It's insane. I mean, I was like, OK, just think back to like what your life was like a few weeks ago, there was no war in Ukraine, there were no NATO or Ukrainian forces in Russia, there was no imminent attack going to happen, and by the way, you weren't standing in line at the bank trying to get hard foreign currency because the ruble was being decimated.
We're living in a country with free press — now, granted, our press has some problems because the 1st Amendment is great, but it doesn't protect for stupid, and there's a lot of stupid out there. We have to kind of figure it out ourselves. But when the government controls the media like it is in Russia right now, on one hand, it's just really hard to understand but on the other hand, I kind of get it when that's all the news you're getting.
— You're returning the space achievement medal that you received from Mr. Medvedev in 2011 to the Russian government. Back then, Medvedev was trying to project this reformist image, he also started a Twitter account, met Mark Zuckerberg, and was always with his phone and iPad at hand but something changed over the course of these ten years: just yesterday he announced that he's quitting Instagram and Facebook because of their stance on threats against Russians. Do you think his personal development reflects the way Russia itself changed over the course of these years?
— Well, it seems like Putin's changed over 20 years. It just took a while for Medvedev to catch up. That's kind of how it looks to me anyway.
— Did your attitude towards Russia change over the course of this war or over the course of these past few years?
— When the Soviet Union was dissolved, and then Putin came to power, it seemed like, in the beginning anyway, that he wanted to have a more free open society with more freedoms for people. And then over the course of the last 20-something years, he's just turned the country into a very authoritarian state where he is the dictator, so my opinion certainly has changed over the course of the last 20 plus years. I just think it changed in line with how the Russian government has changed.
Having said that, part of the Russian Government is the Russian space program and that's where my working relationship has been with Russia, and those people are great. I mean, at least the ones I know and worked with, which is hundreds of them, they're dedicated, they're smart, they're talented, they're empathetic. I was in Sochi during 9/11. I was on a Russian Navy ship doing water survival with two Russian cosmonauts. And, you know, I was really taken with how the Russians in the space program just took care of us, helped us tried to keep us informed with what was going on, because there was only Russian news there, and at that time none of us really spoke great Russian, so they were keeping us updated. They were trying to get us home as quickly as they could. That's the Russia that I love and I believe in, not this current Russian government.
— How well do you think will the Russian space program fare in this divided world?
— I think with regards to the International Space Station program, the people at Roscosmos, the day-to-day people, the senior management, and the senior management at NASA are working really hard to hold this partnership together. I'm fairly confident they will do the right thing.
Having said that, I was fairly confident that the Russian Government wouldn't invade Ukraine, so I don't have 100% confidence, but I'm fairly confident they're going to do the right thing. They're good people, and NASA is dedicated to making this partnership work.
Having said that, the Russian space program is part of the Russian economy and it's going to have to find its own path through these sanctions. And I don't know what their business model is, where they get their revenue from. I know that international investment and revenue they get from external entities is really important to their bottom line, so we'll just have to see. I don't really know what's going to happen.
I hope they hold the Russian space program together for a number of reasons. One, I have a lot of friends that work there and I care about them and I don't want them to lose their jobs. The other thing is the Russian people as a society look to their space program for inspiration and I would hate with everything that they're losing for them to lose that as well.
Editor: Dmitriy Treschanin
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