Furthermore, in Russia the middle finger itself is a very recent appropriation borrowed via Hollywood movies and other popular culture vehicles along with some American slang expressions, curse words, political correctness, and Che Guevara T-shirts.

The traditional Russian equivalent of the middle finger used to be “the fig” — a fist with a thumb placed between the index and the middle fingers. Since there is no significance to this gesture in the American culture, it’s easy to imagine a U.S. official, e.g., Hillary Clinton, accidentally placing her fingers in that manner over the table while dining with a Russian counterpart. That would be impolite because every Russian knows that polite people show “the fig” only with the hand hidden deep in the pocket. The televised act of supplanting it with the middle finger symbolizes not hostility, but rather a new era of Russian-American friendship, cultural exchange, and deepened mutual understanding.

A brief search of the Russian online media confirms my theory:

Tatiana claims to not have any feelings towards Obama one way or another; the finger was aimed at the camera crew while she didn’t realize she was still on.

Initially, REN TV declined comments on the blooper, while trying to pull the videos of it from popular websites. Only two days ago, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that her network wasn’t going to punish Tatiana, who had already been shaken up enough. But that changed today with the announcement of Tatiana Limanova being fired. Apparently the world’s desire to see Obama being flipped off by a Russian TV anchorwoman had made it too big an issue for the network to handle without attempting damage control – and so it overreacted.

Consistent with the Russians’ lack of distinction between the government and the people, many headlines in today’s Russian media covering this story contain words “insult to the West.” Apparently the Russians are misreading America’s reaction just as much as the Americans misread the anchorwoman’s gesture.

Herein lies an important lesson: a random silly gesture minus cultural and linguistic context, multiplied by wishful thinking on both sides, can result in a serious international “overcharge.”

Fortunately, Americans aren’t prone to taking to the streets to riot and break things due to a perceived insult. So let’s be grateful that the newscaster’s finger went up as she pronounced “Barack Obama” and not some other random combination of words that might sound like, let’s say, “Prophet Mohammed.” That turn of events would have been much scarier, accompanied by serious material damage and loss of life — as has happened before in some other similar cases.