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Applebaum: My car did not explode

Some of you may be deeply disappointed to hear this, but let me begin by reassuring all of my readers that no, my car did not blow up last weekend. I’m afraid it simply isn’t true that the Russian mafia are out to get me either. I know it would have been more fun — and for some of you much more satisfying — but alas, I was never under attack at all.

Here is what happened: I was driving home from a friend’s house in a Warsaw suburb Saturday night when my engine died. I tried to restart it, pumped the accelerator, heard a small explosion and saw a flame. Smoke started coming out of the hood, which I didn’t want to open. (A bad move, in retrospect, but I’ve seen what happens to smoking cars in the movies.) Someone called the fire department, which clearly didn’t take my car problems too seriously.

When firemen finally arrived, maybe 20 minutes later, the scene did look rather spectacular. Columns of billowing white smoke, flames, the works. Still, it was only the engine burning, not the entire car, and the police officer who showed up agreed that the cause was probably some weird mechanical malfunction. The car was seven years old, after all, and it had been configured
to run on both gasoline and natural gas.

Nevertheless, he did do a kind of double-take when I mentioned that the car belonged jointly to me and my husband — and that my husband, Radek Sikorski, happens to be the Polish foreign minister. Nervous, he called his boss. His boss called the secret service. In an overabundance of caution, the secret service decided to check out the car and hang around me for the next day. Fine, I thought. That’s their job. They would do that in any country.

As happens so often in these cases, someone tipped off the Polish tabloids, and the Polish tabloids sent photographers (they would do that in any country too). There were some radio reports, and then pictures of my poor Jeep, looking like something off the streets of Beirut, were spread all over the Internet under headlines like “Attack on Sikorski’s wife???” The stories were accompanied by commentary that ran the usual gamut from paranoid to hysterical. (Our personal favorite: “Clearly, Sikorski was trying to change BOTH his wife AND his car in one go .....”) But they were just tabloid stories, and I reckoned that they would be filed away with alien abductions and starlet pregnancies and forgotten.

How wrong I was. The next morning, anxious friends started calling from London. It seems the London Times had run a story, both in the newspaper and online, headlined “American author Anne Applebaum given police guard after car blows up.” The story described the incident (incorrectly) and concluded by ominously noting that I and my husband “have been sharp critics of the Kremlin.”

Well, that certainly beat the Polish tabloids, which didn’t mention anything about either the Kremlin or exploding cars. About 9 a.m., I wrote to the Times correspondent and a couple of acquaintances at the paper, and asked them to please take down this ludicrous story and run a correction. They said they would investigate.

All day long, while they were “investigating,” I fielded telephone calls and e-mails from worried friends, many of whom sent me links to an ever-increasing number of Web sites. At one point, I noticed that the Daily Telegraph — for which I sometimes write — was running a copycat online story with even more speculation about possible Russian motives. I called its foreign desk. They took down their story immediately. A friend told me the Estonian press was all worked up about the “incident,” and I heard about some Russian Web sites too.

Surely the high point of the day, however, was the link that appeared on Gawker, the gossip site beloved of twentysomething New Yorkers. The headline? “Anne Applebaum’s Freaking Car Explodes.” I quote:

“Still Anne Applebaum has some bodyguards with her now and we would advise her, on general principle, to come on back to America and try not to get poisoned by dioxin or shot up, as is wont to happen sometimes, although of course we know nothing and are not implying anything and would never jump to conclusions, about Russia’s state-sponsored gangsterism. But: Car explosion! Damn.”

Finally, around 5 o’clock, the Times deigned to alter its story. The new headline: “Police called after Anne Applebaum’s car catches fire.” The story now mentions a “small noise” as well as smoke. It notes that there is a police investigation. It notes that I was “unharmed.” And that’s it.

At some point, perhaps Gawker and the Estonian Web sites will notice that the story to which they are linking has undergone, um, a change of tone. As of this writing, though, there is no correction, and no explanation as to why on earth the London Times, flagship of the Murdoch group, is reporting the fact that Anne Applebaum’s car engine caught fire.

If you ask me, that’s the weirdest part of all.

By Anne Applebaum  | December 7, 2009; 3:09 PM ET
Categories:  Applebaum  | Tags:  Anne Applebaum  
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Next: The real embarrassment in Copenhagen


Are you actually sure it was your car?

Most Germans and Austrians would strongly believe that almost all cars on Polish roads still have a rightful owner in their country.

And journalists who make their money by peddling stereotypes should be the last ones to blame them for thinking that.

Posted by: brux1 | December 7, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

It was likely an assassination attempt by the Washington Times.

Posted by: SUMB44 | December 7, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

This story is a perfect example of "news" in the internet age. Glad you're okay.

Posted by: simpleton1 | December 7, 2009 5:10 PM | Report abuse

RFE/RL carried the story today, citing Britain's Times, with the headline "Anne Applebaum's Car Explodes." You can read it at In fact, it's still online.

It certainly had me worried. Glad to hear that one of my favorite columnists and writers is AOK.

Posted by: rhadz | December 7, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Well Mrs. Sikorski: was Jack Bauer seen fleeing the scene?

Posted by: nickthimmeschearthlinknet | December 7, 2009 6:31 PM | Report abuse

"let me begin by reassuring all of my readers that no, my car did not blow up last weekend"

Thank you for the reassurance, but I hadn't heard anything about it nor, to be blunt, would it have spoiled my cornflakes if I had.

Posted by: observer100 | December 7, 2009 6:45 PM | Report abuse

It's nice to use the word 'blunt'. 'Tacky' and 'asinine' also are suitable.

Posted by: redlineblue | December 7, 2009 10:29 PM | Report abuse

As usual, there's less to Anne Applebaum than meets the eye.

Posted by: HughBriss | December 7, 2009 11:37 PM | Report abuse

I am sure she is too afraid to say the truth. This is an assassination attempt made by Kremlin.

Posted by: swiesel1 | December 8, 2009 3:35 AM | Report abuse

Yeah. Entire Russian segment of the Internet waiting impatiently for the entire last month. And such a disappointment.

Posted by: IWH_rus | December 8, 2009 4:04 AM | Report abuse

Who is Anne Applebaum?

Posted by: neilwied | December 8, 2009 4:12 AM | Report abuse

How ironic: at the same time Mr Murdoch is writing in the WSJ how important is to maintaint trust of the readers. New business model indeed!

Posted by: erkkibahovski | December 8, 2009 4:41 AM | Report abuse

I am a 'legal alien' in Poland myself, married to a Polish woman and actually living not far from where it happened. Not that this is relevant...., but good to hear you are safe and nothing more serious happened. Funny how officials react though when they find out who you are but from what I can read they did what they had to do. And as you already indicated, a similar approach would be common in other countries as well.
Regarding the Times....nie wiem.... By accident they didn't have one of their journalists in Warsaw over the WE?

Posted by: Geebee4 | December 8, 2009 5:04 AM | Report abuse

“Clearly, Sikorski was trying to change BOTH his wife AND his car in one go .....”

...and than shift the blame onto Russians. He wanted thereby to kill two birds (and one bear) with one stone. He failed as always, because he is a Polack.

Posted by: dmkh | December 8, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Anne, sorry to hear about the Jeep. I guess Roman had to change flights, now that you couldn't pick him up at the airport.

Posted by: OttoDog | December 8, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

This administration reminds me of used car salesman pushing this health reform......trying to get the dotted line signed before you find out that the motor is broke....

Posted by: lucygirl1 | December 8, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Russophobe: One who fears or dislikes Russia or its people or culture

Posted by: ukr1 | December 8, 2009 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Really, she is sooo typical of her type, isn't she?

First, blasts away at everything and everybody. Americans are stupid, short sighted, naieve, etc, for months.

Then the requisite spades...about how we, or her readers, or whomever will be "deeply disappointed that her car didn't..."

or that it might have been "sastifying for many if she HAD been under attack...."

Do they teach that at the knee, or is it in the genes, this hatred expressed for everything and everybody...the constant
anger and rant against trangressions....

and then the WHINE, in this case against
something that might have, MIGHT have
pushed back?

What a messy, but familiar, kind of thing.

Posted by: whistling | December 10, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I think there is one possible explanation of the vigor in searching Kremlin's hand in such cases by tabloids like London Times. It is likely that Boris Berezovsky and Rupert Murdoch are still "business" partners. If so, then there should be no surprize.

Posted by: pigswithfigs | December 10, 2009 8:18 PM | Report abuse

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