Sep 17, 2013

An Autumn walk in Petrozavodsk

On Sunday evening I saw Tania off on the Moscow train at eight, and headed home on foot. It’s about a 40 minute walk, and it takes in some of the best bits of Petrozavodsk. As you walk out of the station, you are confronted with a bizarre sight - someone decided it would be a good idea to build a miniature Big Ben in the middle of the square. It’s about 4 metres high and looks completely out of place, but never mind. At least they’ve resurfaced the road now, so that looks a bit better.

I then walked down the top part of Lenin Prospect, or, as everyone calls it “Lenina”. As is the case in a large percentage of Russian towns, Lenina is the main street in Petrozavodsk, running down the hill in a straight line from the station to the lake. I got as far as the university, which is an elegant but unremarkable Soviet structure, and turned right into Antekainena, a street name which reminds you that the region used to be inhabited by Finns. In a final (and ultimately vain) bid to stay in his job, the previous mayor launched a road building campaign this summer, which has improved the city’s dreadful roads quite considerably. Antekainena, however, remains among the city's worst. There is a traffic jam all day as cars slow to an almost dead stop as they negotiate the minefield of potholes and bumps. However, that didn’t bother me in the slightest as I wondered on towards Derzhavin’s park. 

Autumn arrives early in the North, and the trees are already turning. As I enjoyed the cool evening air the crimson and golden leaves shone so brightly, although it was after sunset, that it seemed as though they were producing light themselves. 

As you walk down through the park at twilight, you can’t help noticing the 'eternal flame' flickering just beyond the park boundary, on Lenin Square. Eternal flames are another ubiquitous feature of Russian cities - kept alight at all times in memory of the millions that died in WWII, or, as the Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War. It is a particularly pleasant place, with long rows of bright red flowers seemingly in constant bloom on either side of the flame, and a view down a steep bank into Governor’s Park and across to the factory which gave the city its name 300 years ago. 

I then dropped down into the park, continuing to enjoy the leaves in the fading light, and remembering this time two years ago, when Tania and I first wandered along those paths together.

In the park the path joins the river, which is home to some of the world’s hardiest ducks. Throughout the winter the brave birds cling on to life in the tiny sections which are fast flowing enough to remain ice-free all year round. But they've got a few months before they need to worry about that! Indeed, winter still feels a long way off. 

Wandering on down the river, I passed the municipal football pitch, which is in constant use. People even play on the snow in midwinter. After passing under a bridge, the river then runs into a small lake. But before doing so it splits, creating a little island which, for some reason, is home to the most striking trees of all. Connecting the island to the shore on both sides are pretty white bridges laden with padlocks left by lovers. Together, they create one of the prettiest landscapes in the city. 

My walk then took me onto sand - it’s hardly the Costa del Sol, but the lakeside beach is a popular spot for sunbathing and beach volleyball in the summer. As I passed by some of the hardy ducks pushed out into the middle of the lake, leaving behind them perfect V-shapes on the glassy water. 

As night finally started to squeeze out the last of the daylight I left the park and completed my journey home on the road, passing the faculty where I used to attend politics lectures, and the bus stop where I would wait every day (strangely I’m now living around the corner from  the flat I lived in last time I was here). The faculty has been restored to its former glory, with a striking coat of bright red paint. It seems a little incongruous though, as all the other buildings in the area are faded, with the paint slowly peeling away. Although it’s a pleasant place to live, next to the Lake and not far from the city centre, it’s one of the less desirable parts of the city, and the houses are mostly very old - with many pre-dating the 1917 revolution. 

After passing some of those sorry old houses, I turn into our ‘dvor’ - the communal area between blocks of flats. On the left is our local supermarket, and then a kindergarten, while our long, five floor block extends the length of the right hand side of the street. 

Our block is a Khrushchovka - one of the hundreds of thousands of five floor houses built under Khrushchev to try and solve the Soviet Union’s terrible housing shortage. They were only meant to be temporary housing, but 50 years on, they are still standing and still very much inhabitable, even if they look a bit grim on the outside.

I arrived home in the dark, and had to feel my way to the light switch which, for some strange reason, you have to climb a flight of stairs to find. Now able to see where I was going, I found my way to our third floor flat, put our new kettle on (it glows blue and red… very exciting) and thought to myself that, as Russian cities go, Petrozavodsk is pretty alright… 

Aug 15, 2012

Pussy Riot... should have kept quiet???

After midnight, in a featureless attic in Moscow, Daniel Sandford, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent looked a bit like Dad walking in on a weird teenage sleepover party. Indeed, some of the faces hidden behind their trademark brightly coloured balaclavas belonged to teenagers, but this was no light hearted meeting. They had to meet ‘after midnight’ to ‘avoid the police’. And the conversation was serious. 

The girls belong to Pussy Riot, a punk group catapulted to global stardom or infamy, depending on how you look at it, when three members were arrested after they recorded themselves performing a vulgar, blasphemous and anti-Putin song in Moscow’s main cathedral, one of the holiest places for Orthodox believers. I’ve been trying to think up some equivalents… think Amy Winehouse on the altar at Westminster Abbey, or maybe The Sex Pistols in St Paul’s Cathedral. Or for that matter, Lady Gaga at Mecca. 

When you think about it that way, the charge of ‘hooliganism’ doesn’t sound so far fetched. But the girls are adamant they did nothing wrong. The interview opens with a group member claiming that the girls are in court “not because they did something wrong, just because somebody decided to show us his power”. That somebody is Putin - the allegation, that the girls are on trial not because they performed a blasphemous song in a cathedral without permission, but because they sang it about the President.

This claim fits very nicely into the Western caricature of Putin’s Russia as a place where, to quote Sandford, there is “a growing risk to those who oppose Putin’s rule”. Sandford accepts the girls’ claim without a hint of reservation, citing their case as “symbolic of the new clampdown (on freedom of speech) in Russia”.

Of course, in the imaginary Russia inhabited by Western correspondents like Sandford, the girls are absolutely right. In this make believe world it doesn’t matter where or how you oppose Putin - he’ll either murder you (Anna Politkovskaja/Alexander Litvinenko), exile you or put you in prison (Khodorkovsky/Pussy Riot). Indeed, the location of the protest is an unimportant detail, which the BBC’s Newsbeat felt they could leave out. Their report claimed that Pussy Riot “face prison for performing a concert in which they called for the removal of Putin from power”, and suggested that David Cameron raise the issue with Putin as yet another example of Human Rights violations in Russia. 

This subjective analysis of an imaginary Russia is thus conveyed to millions of homes across the UK, and, via the website, the world. And people tut in their living rooms and thank providence that though their politicians have their faults, at least they aren’t as bad as Putin. And thus our ‘holier than thou’ attitude to the world’s ‘undemocratic countries’ looks more and more like the attitude the colonialists once held towards the ‘barbarians’ they ruled. Misunderstanding and distrust become more and more entrenched, and the dream of international cooperation disappears further into the future...

So, if the BBC is wrong, then what is really going on with Pussy Riot? To answer that, we need to consider some other questions.

1: Would the girls be in court if they had performed the concert somewhere else? 

No. This point was made by the girls’ defence lawyer in their trial. Anti-Putin songs, videos, blogs and flyers are produced every day by Russians, throughout Russia, and their creators aren’t in trouble with the authorities. The girls themselves had already performed in other high profile places, such as Red Square, without being arrested. So they aren’t on trial just because they called for Putin’s removal from power. 

2: Would the girls be in court if they sang a blasphemous song which didn’t mention Putin?

This is a more difficult question. There’s no doubt that the location and nature of the protest is more important than the content. Even non-religious Russians, who make up the vast majority of the population, understand that you shouldn’t do something like that in any church, let alone one of the holiest Orthodox churches in the world. So even a stunt like that with no political agenda might well have been led to a run in with the law. 

However, the fact that the girls sought to send a political message probably makes their crime more serious in the eyes of the authorities. Putin’s strategy for staying in power is built around limiting where political discussion can and can’t happen. In Putin’s Russia, political debate can be played out in Parliament, which his party controls, in the media, much of which is connected to his party, in officially sanctioned meetings, like the much publicized ones in Moscow last winter and online. The law is designed to keep political discussion in these places, three of which are largely controlled by the Kremlin, the internet being the exception. Introducing politics into other spheres, like education, sports or, in this case, religion, is considered inappropriate. Therefore, while a blasphemous but non-political song might still be considered a crime, the political element made it more serious. 

3: What does the Pussy Riot case tell us about freedom of speech in Russia.

At the end of his report, Sandford claims that the trial is “symbolic of the clampdown on the opposition”. This is another example of the subjectivity which colours the reports of so many foreign correspondents, casting the opposition as ‘goodies’ - oppressed victims fighting against the ‘baddy’ state, which “clamps down” on their human rights. Viewers like such ‘black and white’ reporting. It is easier for us to get our heads round a straight fight between good evil than to try to comprehend complex reality. In this case, the complex reality is that in Russia, like in other democracies there is a battle for public opinion going on. In America that battle is clear for all to see at the moment, as Romney and Obama’s campaign teams bombard the population with TV ads, billboards and via their respective broadcasters (Fox for the Republicans, NBC for the Democrats). As long as they both manage to raise similar amounts of money, the battleground will be quite level, as it should be. In Russia, the battleground for public opinion remains heavily tilted towards the Government, which, quite understandably, seeks to keep it that way. This doesn’t mean that Russians lack freedom of speech, nor that their human rights are being violated. But it does mean that some voices, most importantly Putin’s, are heard louder than others. Pussy Riot’s shocking protest is symbolic of this system, in which the opposition feels powerless to make its voice heard through officially sanctioned channels. 

Concluding comments…

In this blog I’ve tried to defend Putin and his government from the charge of clamping down on freedom of speech, especially with regard to Pussy Riot’s protest. However, my opinions are just as grey as the world, and I would hate those who prefer to think in black and white to therefore cast me as some sort of Putin-lover who supports everything the Russian government does. There are many problems with Russia’s political system and politicians, some of which I outlined in my answer to the third question. But denying punks the right to flash mob cathedrals is not one of them. 

And as for the sentencing on Friday, I hope that the girls don’t go to jail, but I also hope they don’t do it again. 

By the way - a huge area I didn’t touch on at all is whether or not it is right to punish Pussy Riot because they performed in a church, but let them go when they performed in Red Square. There’s a very interesting short video on the Russia Today website which deals with this question, as does this blog. And while your there, check out some other stuff on the site. It’s surprisingly good, especially the section about Russian women…  (don't miss the six sub headings at the bottom).

May 28, 2012

Northern (sun)Lights

There's a beautiful sunset every day as sunny spring days drift into white nights, but today's was extra special. Enjoy!

The Russian police have never looked so good... 

May 27, 2012

War and Peace: If life could write itself...

“If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy” (Isaak Babel, 20th century Russian author)

War and Peace runs to 1721 pages on my kindle, taking in 7 of the most dramatic years in European history (1805-1812). The narrative is as broad as life itself, moving from dazzling Petersburg ballrooms, to Moscow stately homes, to country estates, to the battlefields of Austria, Germany and ultimately, Russia. The characters, of whom there are over 500, ranging from Napoleon and Tsar Alexander, to Dron the peasant and Karataev the soldier, each have a significant role to play, and Tolstoy masterfully explores the thoughts, fears and motivations of them all, from the Emperor who conquered Europe to a dying peasant prisoner of war. And it could be argued that the peasant Karataev plays the greater role – revealing to the troubled hero Pierre a happiness he’s been searching for throughout the novel. There is no emotion which isn’t felt by someone. Characters experience the most profound joy and the most devastating grief, there is love, lust, anger, hate, malice, innocence, kindness and cruelty. The narrative travels through all the seasons, all weathers, there is construction and destruction, defeat and victory, new life and death. It’s a story about life, and fittingly, as its central theme it has life’s biggest questions.

Pierre’s search for happiness is a fascinating exploration of the meaning of life. Pierre, who I can understand only too well, struggles greatly to decide what to do with his life. The son of an immensely wealthy count, the world really is his oyster. He could take up any career he likes. He just has to choose. And that is his problem. Faced with almost unlimited possibilities, he finds that wherever he turns happiness proves elusive. He inherits an enormous fortune, and the responsibility depresses him, he marries a woman reknowned in society for her beauty and intelligence, but he cannot bear her, he turns to Masonism, hoping to find meaning in religion, but is disappointed. He frees his peasants, but philanthropy too doesn’t really satisfy him. His insatiable curiosity leads him to the front line at the pivotal Battle of Borodino, while his burning desire to do something meaningful prompts him to seek to assassinate Napoleon. His life story reads a bit like the book of Ecclesiastes – he tries everything, and everything turns out to be meaningless. In a brilliant paradox, he only finds inner peace, freedom from his own tormenting thoughts, when he becomes a prisoner. It is then that he meets the peasant Karataev, who, in every situation simply accepts what fate has given him and seeks to make the best of it. The peace Pierre saw in this possession-less, friend-less, family-less man made a lasting impression on him, and he was never the same again.

Pierre is not the only character struggling to find contentment. His friend, Prince Andrew, has the same goal, but he seeks it in a very different way. After finding that the one great aim of his life – to do something truly heroic and receive the praise of men, was utterly meaningless, he has an epiphany. Looking at the sky he realizes that there is another plane of existence, almost unattainable but to which we must strive. Its very un-attainability makes the prince despair of and retreat from life itself, only to find that true life, in the form of love, wouldn’t leave him be. A lifelong skeptic, he finally finds meaning in Christ’s timeless command “love your enemies”, but alas, it is already too late.

You could say that all the characters are searching for meaning in one way or another; in service of the Tsar (Nicholas), in adventure (Petya), in romantic love (Natasha), in orthodox religion (Princess Mary), in self sacrifice (Sonya), in career (Boris), in achievement (Berg) and the list goes on and on. All experience highs and lows, some find happiness, others don’t, others slip away quietly and we never find out. But what all these characters have in common is that they come across as real people – three dimensional individuals each doing their best to make something of their life.

 Tolstoy did not consider War and Peace a novel – he considered it a historical epic. It’s meant to be a history, and it is broken up by essays in which Tolstoy attacks the historians of the day. He disapproves of their exclusive focus on the great men, the Napoleons, Kuznetsovs and Alexanders, an approach which overlooks something much more profound and mysterious – the force which impels men to go from West to East and then to go from East to West, the force behind the whole of human history. For most of the book, Tolstoy deals with individuals, each seemingly acting according to their own free will and unique character. However, when Tolstoy takes a huge step back and considers the forces governing history, he seeks to show how dependent men are on that mysterious force, which Tolstoy considered divine. This paradox between fate and free will is never really resolved, but it doesn't need to be. War and Peace (which could be translated War and the World) is a novel about life, and life is full of paradoxes - love and hate, passion and reason, fate and free will, War and Peace... 

May 22, 2012

Russian Spring - this time it's for real

I’ve heard that our eyes can recognize more shades of green than any other colour. It might not be true, but in Spring it certainly feels that way. Trees, bushes, shrubs and grass have had to wait a long time for the sun to release them from their icy prison, which had locked them up since October, but with 18 hours of sunlight a day they’re quickly making up for lost time.

It is hard to believe that 2 weeks ago the lake was frozen, the trees were mere skeletons and the city was a grey and quite depressing place. Fittingly, the lake broke free of ice on the 9th of May - Victory Day (when WWII is commemorated), and the world exploded back to life.

When I imagined the Northern forests I always imagined them to be dark, spooky places populated by evergreen pine trees which block out the light. In fact, at this latitude the pines are delightfully interspersed with tall silver birch, whose vivid bright green leaves combine with the dark pine needles to create a beautiful patchwork effect. The pines themselves might be evergreen, but that doesn’t stop them making the most of the spring sunshine to grow new, brighter needles, adding another hue to the forest palette. The trees mostly have long, naked trunks opening out into small canopies at the top, allowing sunlight to fall in shafts of golden light, illuminating and invigorating the grass, shrubs and flowers on the forest floor.

As the sun paints the woody world, adding new hues and colours with every passing day, the birds fill it with sound. Looking up to find the source of a new song, I’ve often been amazed to see that it comes from the tiniest of birds as it flutters from branch to branch. Woodpeckers provide a percussive accompaniment, while the breeze rustles the delicate new leaves and occasionally causes the trees to creak as they rub against each other. It’s nature’s orchestra, in perfect harmony.

The city itself, despite the efforts of Soviet (and contemporary) architects, cannot resist the tide of natural beauty which is sweeping Northwards as spring takes hold. Trees now obscure much of the bare bricks, faded paintwork and crumbling walls, while the bright sun does its best to pick out what shades of paint remain and to show the buildings in their best light. The road sides, where snow drifts had lain for so long, get greener by the day, flowers are growing in the parks and the river, undeterred by a fortnight of almost unbroken sunshine, gushes by, carrying away what remains of the snowmelt into the vast watery expanse of Lake Onega.

The lake too has a life of its own. During the daytime, it often shows its deep blue face, wrinkled by waves stirred up by the strong breeze. In calmer spots, nearer the shore, it takes on a lighter blue, across which dark blue shadows fizz, tracking the wind as it gusts over the surface. At dusk, which begins about half past nine and lasts at least two hours, the wind usually drops and the lake takes on a glassy form, perfect for reflecting the oranges, reds, pinks, yellows and whites of the slow northern sunset. Once the sun has gone the orange glow remains for a long time, both in the sky and on the lake. Even later, after midnight, when the sky is almost dark, the lake refuses to sleep. In contrast to the land, cast in shadow, and the sky above, the lake itself seems to shine in a milky white, as if it is the cause, and not the effect, of the famous “white nights”.

You have to wait a long time for Spring to come to the North. But good things come to those who wait. 

May 7, 2012

The Problem with European Democracy

This week's elections in Britain, France and Greece have continued to follow a dangerous trend. Since the crisis in 2008, European elections have begun to resemble a merry go round - with incumbents being kicked out by dissatisfied populations only to, within a matter of months, become just as unpopular as their predecessors. At the same time, the vote for anti-establishment parties, and those on the far right and left, has increased dramatically. Meanwhile, in Russia, Putin will be sworn in today as president. Western journalists, politicians and academics have voiced strong criticism of the way he was chosen. One of the main criticisms of Putin's election was the absence of viable opposition candidates. Many Europeans seem to question whether they have any viable candidates at all. And that's the problem with European democracy. 
Britain - Labour just thumped the incumbent Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties at the Ballot box, despite having presided over the spending spree which left us with such a massive national debt, and then spent the last two years criticizing almost every measure the government takes to tackle it, while offering almost nothing in the way of alternative ideas. On top of that, they have a leader, Ed Miliband, who, rather like the leaders of the Russian opposition, is trusted by very few to run the country. 
France - Francois Hollande just became the first Socialist President of France for 35 years. He used his victory speech to declare that “austerity can no longer be the only option”. Indeed, despite a pledge to wipe out France’s enormous debt by 2017, almost all his manifesto promises involve spending more money - like his promise to employ 60 000 new teachers and to reduce the pension age for some back to 60, when most European countries are raising it to 67. His main policy for reducing the deficit seems to be “tax the rich”, whom he admits that he “does not like”. His proposed 75% tax rate on those earning more than 1 million Euros is expected not only to make very little money but also to encourage more and more French businessmen to spend their money, and possibly to move their businesses, to London or Switzerland. On top of this, he’s never held national office, so, again like the Russian opposition, he is an unknown. But, when the alternative is one of the most disliked Presidents the Fifth Republic has ever had, the French were willing to take the risk. 
Francois Hollande - "Change is now". It probably won't be for the better.
Greece - Democracy may have been founded in Athens, but now many Greeks are very disillusioned by the leaders their democracy has left them with. In the first election after the crisis the incumbent party, the centre right New Democracy, which governed during the unsustainable boom years, were heavily punished, losing 61 seats to the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). However, things haven’t got any better since then, and so in this weekend’s elections the Greeks put PASOK out of their misery, They lost 119 seats and their share of the vote dropped by over 30%. However, not many of their votes went to New Democracy, who, nevertheless, will be the main party in the next coalition government. Most went to extreme parties on the right and left. Syriza, a coalition of hyper socialists and communists got 16%, making them the second biggest party. The far right also got 8%. 
Meanwhile, ever since the 2008 Financial crisis the only real requirement for winning an election seems to be being an opposition party or candidate. Since then in Britain, Ireland, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Greece (twice) incumbents have been kicked out and replaced by alternatives who, as a rule, are just as unpopular within two years as their predecessors were. Even in Germany, where Angela Merkel remains reasonably popular the vote share of alternative parties like the Greens and, most recently, the Pirate Party has rocketed. 
In fact, possibly the only incumbent leader to remain popular despite imposing austerity measures is Mario Monti, the unelected technocrat now leading Italy. His competence and consequent popularity, especially when compared with the leader Italy’s democratic system provided (Silvio Berlusconi) and, indeed, all the opposition candidates, challenges the notion that electoral democracy according to a party system is always the best system of Government.
The resounding message from this month’s round of European elections is that Europe is very dissatisfied with its politicians, political parties, political establishment, basically, with everything to do with politics. However, I haven’t heard anyone suggesting that the system itself, electoral democracy, might be part of the problem.
In democracies, governments are always burdened with an impossible task - they are expected to spend on defence, education, benefits, law and order, health etc while keeping taxes as low as possible. Voters usually seem to expect governments to do more with less, and punish them at the next election if they don’t. These unrealistic expectations, encouraged by the media and by campaign promises, are one big problem with our current political system. 
The second, however, is greater. It seems to me like our current system not only fails to enable the most qualified people from gaining high office, it discourages them from doing so. Unelected Mario Monti’s popularity in Italy, derived from his competence in government in contrast to the alternatives offered by political parties, would, I think, be repeated across Europe. Competent unelected politicians will always, I dare to suggest, be more popular than incompetent elected ones, and, if the last few years are anything to go by, Europe is pretty convinced that all its elected politicians are incompetent (Angela Merkel being the exception). 
The crisis in European politics is deep and it requires a radical solution. At the moment, unelected but competent technocratic governments like the one in Italy seem like an attractive alternative. Suffering Greeks might even prefer China’s model of government, by a 17 man Politburo which changes every 10 years, to their own, which offers them the choice between two terrible options. 
However, I’m not advocating getting rid of elections. When they work they ensure that politicians are accountable, they provide an outlet for opposition voices and they protect the rights of the majority from being overridden by an autocratic elite. 
At the moment though, they don’t work - when incumbents get kicked out at every single election they actually become less accountable - if you know you will lose anyway, you are free to do as you please. Opposition parties seem to have been released from the obligation to offer sensible ideas, and can win elections by simply criticizing everything that the Government does. At the same time, most Europeans feel that having the right to choose the politician or party they dislike the least doesn’t really mean that their voice is heard. 
So, if the Queen summoned me to draw up a new political system for the United Kingdom, I wouldn’t scrap elections, but I would like to change the way election candidates are chosen. At the moment, politics both attracts and then rewards a certain type of person. Of course there are exceptions, but very often people who are able to lie, to trample on others and to give up their own principles in order to tow the party line are rewarded. People with broad general knowledge are favored over those with expertise in a specific area. People with charisma are favored over those with intelligence or moral values. Independent thinkers, people with strongly held principles and those with great expertise in specific fields find it very difficult to “climb the greasy pole”, while career politicians, who devote as much time to student politics at university as they do to acquiring knowledge and then go straight into a politics-related job, often thanks to connections within a party, rise to the top and then find that they don’t have the necessary skills. 
Political parties, which we rely on to provide us with the best possible candidates for Government, are failing. However, viable alternatives, rather like truly viable opposition parties, are hard to find. In recent years, Europeans have turned in greater and greater numbers to ‘anti-politics’ parties and extremes on the right and left. It’s a dangerous trend, and one which might only be checked by something even more radical; the introduction of panels of experts to choose candidates, leaders held accountable by targets instead of the ballot box, a greater role for technocrats, in short, nothing less than the transformation of the whole political system. 

Apr 15, 2012

Real Russian Spring???

Vesna, Krasnа, Nasho ladushka prishla!!!
Spring, Beauty, our darling has arrived!

These lines come from an operetta by Tchaikovsky which we sang during “maslenitsa”, a week long pancake-fest which marks, simultaneously, the beginning of Lent and the ‘end’ of winter. This was in mid-February, when there was still a few feet of snow and the temperature still hadn’t climbed above -5. So it felt a bit premature.

Two months on, something has arrived, but there’s nothing beautiful about it. About 10 days ago, a fundamental change took place. The sun, which for 3 months had cheerfully glinted off icicles and glistened on virgin snow, decided that enough was enough, and turned up the heat. Mercury in thermometers across Karelia slid above zero, and the frozen world began to be unlocked.

Petrozavodsk, usually a wet place, is even wetter than normal as hundreds of tonnes of snow melt away. Snowmelt has carved canyons in the thick layers of rock solid ice which cloaks the city’s pavements and yards. As the ice recedes, new additions to Petrozavodsk’s already abundant collection of potholes become visible, and quickly fill with water. It’s wise to stand well back from the edge of the road when waiting to cross, unless you don’t mind being sprayed from head to toe by filthy meltwater. And it really is filthy. When you think ice melt, you tend to imagine dazzling blue rivers tumbling down mountains and along majestic glacial valleys. But that ice comes from pristine alpine glaciers. As this ice melts, it releases 4 months of accumulated dirt, grit and sand. Lovely…

Away from the roads and pavements, the snow is doing it’s best to withstand the sun’s 16 hour daily onslaught (these Northern days are already as long as British days in late May). Instead of just melting away quietly, it has to pass through the kasha (porridge) phase. Walking through it is pretty grim, but driving in it is worse. This weekend I was 3 hours north of Petrozavodsk in a little town called Pindushi, where there is even more snow and little effort is made to shift it. The yard, where we tried to park the car, is now like a tennis court size bowl of mushy porridge, and the thick rock-ice covering the road is cut through by deep ruts and holes, leaving drivers to choose between slipping around on the slushy but generally flat raised bits or braving the ruts and being unable to avoid any pot holes which block your path. When roads cross, everything gets very confused as converging ruts and lumps of ice combine to form a suspension-killing assault course.

All things considered, this might not have been the time to try driving abroad for the first time. But loving a challenge, I asked if I might have a turn behind the wheel (the insurance policy covers all licensed drivers, so I did nothing illegal!). It quite quickly became clear that this was not a great idea. From the unfamiliar surroundings of left-hand drive, I struggled to gauge where my wheels and where the side of the car was. To add to this, I had to get used to controlling the clutch on the sort of road British mountain-bikers would tackle with pleasure, and which no-one in their right mind would take their 2-wheel drive saloon on.

Needless to say, I didn’t do very well. If I tried to stay out of the ruts, I hit the snow drift at the side of the road. If I went in the ruts, I slid around and thumped through pot holes. My every move seemed to draw shrieks from my passengers, who were wondering why on earth they’d let me behind the wheel of their new car. Their patience didn’t last long, and after a painful 500 metres or so (for car and passengers) I pulled over and returned to the passenger’s seat, where I plan to stay put for the foreseeable future.

I fear that my little adventure lost me any authority I previously had to offer driving tips, but I gained even more respect for Russian drivers, who battle daily against snow, ice, puddles, potholes, marking-free roads, temperamental (and, until recently, corrupt) traffic cops and vehicles which should have been taken off the road years ago.

  Talking of which, I’ve found myself a new favourite car here. The UAZ Buhanka (Loaf) has the friendly headlights and endearing loaf-of-bread shape of the VW Hippy Van, but it’s built like a Land-Rover, with 4 wheel drive, massive clearance and the same chassis as a jeep built by the same company. When I tell Russians of my love, and my dream of buying an old, Soviet model, painting it and driving it home to England they think I’m out of my mind. They tell me its uncomfortable. They tell me its unreliable. But if it can survive rural Russian roads in Spring, then I’m sure it can handle anything Britain can throw at it (except maybe the MOT…)

The original Soviet Union Buhanka
Modern day Russian post van. Unstoppable...

The hippy version... imagine a few surf boards on the roof...

Apr 10, 2012

The Soviet Union Lives on... in the Classroom

Moscow State University: A temple to Soviet Education
The longer you put something off the harder it becomes to actually do it. This always happens with my bedroom. Barely a day passes without time to tidy it - If I sacrificed just a fraction of the time I religiously devote to the BBC Sport website, my room would probably be clean enough to eat off the floor. As it is, the floor’s often barely fit to walk on - I have to hop through a minefield of t-shirts, jumpers, trousers, books and, if I’m doing really badly, dirty plates…

I know that 5 minutes at the end of every day would be more than enough to keep my things in order, just like I know that washing up straight away is easier (ketchup, for example, doesn’t have time to superglue itself to the plate), but, for some reason, it doesn’t happen, and the longer I put it off, the harder it becomes. In my first year at UCL I shared a room in halls and sometimes it seemed like my room-mate and I were subconsciously competing to leave the most disgusting item in our room. His speciality was milk - he liked to leave a row of cartons at different stages of decomposition on the windowsill, as if he was conducting some strange experiment. I preferred fruit. Taking responsibility for my own finances had made me obsess about saving pennies and I discovered that I could buy big bowls of mandarins/satsumas for a pound from the roadside stall on my way home. Now I understand why - they were all on or past their sell by date, but for at least a term I refused to acknowledge this and preferred to bring them home and observe them turn green in our room… Nice.

Anyway, that long-winded introduction was my way of justifying my lengthy absence from the blogosphere. Maybe as the great BBC eye swung its gaze away from Russia I lost my inspiration… Whatever the reason, I’m back and I’ll try and be a little less political (although I sense a blog on Syria rumbling somewhere in the recesses of my mind).

Apart from a wonderful week spent with Mum and Dad, I’ve spent most of my days “studying” at the Petrozavodsk State University Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, which is even more of a mouthful than European Social and Political Studies at University College London. When I first arrived in Russia in September, I was very impressed with how hard Russian students seemed to study. Coming from my practically part-time UK humanities degree, their 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, with homework and termly 10 page assignments seemed like another world. Like many UCL students, I’d grown a bit disillusioned by the university’s apparent disinterest in its undergraduates, and I felt quite jealous of the Russian students, who were being taught all day every day. Now having studied with them, I’m very glad to study in the UK.

For a foreigner seeking an overview of subjects like Russian Political Systems, Foreign Policy or Geopolitics, the style of the courses has been great. Lecturers (underpaid and overworked) principally feed information to the students who (if they aren’t sleeping) try to scribble as much down in the note books as possible. Occasionally they ask questions which the students can’t answer, and express out loud their displeasure. They also make sure to train their students in the art of University lecturing by making them give presentations which follow a similar pattern - lots of factual information about this political decision or that legal reform, with very little critical analysis. Genuine discussions are very rare.

One lecturer, Lapshin, a huge man with an bushy red beard, epitomises the department. His name is rarely mentioned without reference to his immense brain, which seems to contain a brief history of all the world’s 205 countries, their relationship to Russia, and, most importantly, their military capability. In today’s lecture, he started with Burkina Faso and moved South through Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo (yes, they are different countries) Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, telling us about their conflicts, coups, resources and prospects. I share the students’ awe at his immense knowledge and I find his lectures fascinating, but I don’t think he is really helping them.

A British university education in the Humanities should, above all, teach you to think. Students are (quite rightly) expected to be able to pick up the necessary knowledge in their own time. For example, if, for one of my politics courses at UCL the week’s topic was the EU Common Agricultural Policy I would attend a lecture, which serves as a broad introduction to the topic. I would be expected to read 3-5 academic articles and then to discuss them at a seminar. By the end of the week I should understand the key issues surrounding the policy and be able to ask probing, relevant questions and, if if I can’t answer them, at least know how, given more time, I would go about doing so.

In Russia students would hear the lecture and be expected to learn the facts and that would be it. Their knowledge would never go beyond describing. They wouldn’t really be asked to think for themselves. Any opinions they have are likely to be formed by the lecturer. Having sat in Geopolitics lecturers with a true patriot who says things like “Russia has never invaded anyone, it has only freed them from foreign oppressors,” and today heard a different teacher explain how “Britain is a democracy. Russia is not,” I know that lecturers have controversial opinions. But when they are expressed the students just jot them down in their notebooks ready to reproduce them in their exam, which will be set, conducted and graded by… their lecturer. Questioning, debate, discussion is almost absent.

As a foreigner it is really easy to come to a foreign country and find plenty to criticise. Western journalists in Russia specialize in it. Where possible I try to see the positive aspects of things that are different, and only to criticise when its constructive. The Soviet education system was one of its crowning glories, and Russia remains a highly educated country, whose hard working students put many of us to shame. However, if Russia is to become a better place to live it needs innovation - in science, business, politics and society, and if you want people to innovate you have to let them think for themselves.

One of the hallmarks of an authoritarian country is that, instead of allowing its people to think for themselves, it tells them what to think. The Soviet education system, which has become the Russian one, was built on that authoritarian principle - it filled students’ brains with knowledge, but didn’t teach them how to use it. Most people in Russia today were taught to think in the Soviet Union, and those who weren’t have been taught to think by those who were. That’s why, 20 years on, Russian students still aren’t being taught to think, and Russian democracy remains weak.

There is hope though. Younger teachers are better than old ones. And the next generation (if the Government funds education properly, and that is a big if) should be better than this one. The protests earlier this year were dominated by a middle class made up of independent thinkers: entrepreneurs; businessmen; intellectuals. The blogosphere has provided an outlet for political innovators to share their ideas. Slowly but surely, society is opening up. The great wall of thought control is cracking, but it won’t come crashing down until change comes to the classroom.

Mar 5, 2012

Russia's chosen Putin. They were probably right

On our way to the polling station today we passed an old man. He caught my attention for two reasons. He was wearing a tracksuit (hopefully with something warm underneath - it was sub-zero). And he was literally inching towards the polling station on his crutches.

I spent election day far away from the action, from Western correspondents and, it seemed to me, from any signs of falsification. I was in Pindushi, a dilapidated town of 3000 or so 3 hours by road from Petrozavodsk. The town’s population have plenty of reasons to feel disillusioned by the political process - the main employer, a shipyard, stopped working a decade ago, leaving half the town redundant; investment is nowhere to be seen - many buildings look very tired; the roads, of course, are full of holes; the public heating system is faulty, so temperatures indoors often struggle to get above 10 degrees in mid winter.

However, I didn’t see many signs of disillusionment on their faces as they bustled into the Dom Kultura (Culture House) and cast their votes. The voting room itself looked a lot like the one I voted in last year in London and the process was the same. Voters arrived, showed their personal ID, signed against their name on a list, took a voting form into a little booth, placed their cross, put the form in a box and went on their way.

At least the majority, probably the vast majority, voted for Putin. If we are to believe the middle class, facebook-using leaders of the opposition movement, they did so because they are Putin-voting robots, programmed by daily doses of propaganda from state controlled television. This is partly true - these people do watch state TV and state TV is biased. However, it is also an oversimplification which is, I think, disrespectful. It assumes that most people who vote for Putin only do so because they can’t think for themselves. Actually, plenty of people, even in Pindushi, have good reasons to vote Putin.

First and foremost they are satisfied with what has been achieved in the last 12 years. Most importantly, pensions and wages are now higher and paid on time. Corruption is a less visible problem (the police don’t demand petty bribes like they used to). Chechnya, which used to be plagued by terrorists posing as freedom fighters (or at least, that’s the Russian perspective) is now fully under state control. Russia is taken more seriously on the world stage. In general, Russia is stronger, safer, more stable, more prosperous and more independent than it was when Putin came to power. Many people give Putin credit for this. They are right to do so.

Secondly Pindushi’s voters are afraid of change. Most voters remember what happened the last time Russia experienced a change of government. They endured years of real poverty. They can remember being literally penniless. Understandably, they don’t want to risk it happening again. And, considering the calibre of the opposition candidates, there’s no guarantee that change wouldn’t have made things worse.

It is important to weigh these arguments against the plentiful arguments against Putin: The continued imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is an ever present reminder of Putin’s ruthlessness in dealing with those who oppose him too openly. The ‘little people’ who are too vociferous in their opposition (including an acquaintance at university) continue to be intimidated by police. Their are serious issues surrounding the fairness and openness of elections. He is the director of a system which sanctions and maybe even depends on large scale corruption. Putin’s insuperable and not always well-founded suspicion of the West makes him very difficult to deal with. Reasons enough to vote against him in spite of the weakness of the opposition candidates, which many did.

Presented with both sides of the argument, it becomes clear that Russian politics isn’t the black and white battle between good (the opposition) and evil (Putin) often presented in the Western media. There are convincing arguments on both sides, and opposition candidates have been on state TV every day for the last month criticizing the government and offering an alternative. The odds may have been stacked against them from the start, and that is a problem, but they had an opportunity. Their voice was heard (quietly) and the majority weren’t convinced.

When we came out of the polling station today the old man in the tracksuit was just arriving. It had taken him 10 minutes to shuffle 100 metres. Today, Russia, like this man, chose to keep inching forwards. Despite its many problems, it is determined to shuffle on one painful step at a time. It will do it at its own pace. It doesn’t want any help from healthier do-gooders. But, like the old man, it will get there in the end.

Feb 22, 2012

Russia Makes War Films too...

August 2008 - in cinemas from 21st February 2012

What is true? Who can we trust? What is history? What is going on now? What is right? Who is good?  

Every day of our lives we are bombarded with answers to many of these questions. These answers may only be opinions, theories, ideas or constructs, but they are usually presented as hard facts. And we accept them. In Geopolitics these ‘answers’, which form the frameworks by which we live our lives, are called discourses. They are not intrinsically good or bad. They help create a stable society. They give people an identity and a history they can be proud of. They generate national unity. 
In Britain, we believe that we have not only a right, but a responsibility to be a world leader. We expect our politicians to maintain our global influence. We don’t often remember that we are a small island where less than 1% of the world’s population lives. We have this responsibility, or ‘duty’, because ‘our’ values - honour, dignity, democracy, freedom - are worth sharing. We dare to claim these as ‘our‘ values because of our history. We twice fought to ‘save‘ Europe in the World Wars and we ‘won’. In WWII, we like to think that we stood alone, conveniently forgetting the Soviet Union’s immense sacrifice (20 million citizens) on the Eastern Front. Every British child knows all about the Blitz, when the Nazis bombed London, but how many Brits know about how we firebombed Dresden, using incendiary bombs so destructive that even the ‘rocks burned’. Many of us take pride in our former empire - through which we tamed ‘barbarians‘ the world over to the extent that they even learned to play cricket! We forget the abhorrent racist views held by most imperialists, and some of the violent things we did to stop the locals doing anything ‘not cricket’. Going further back, we remember Francis Drake as a hero. The rest of the world remembers him as a Pirate, which is exactly what he was. 
Anyway, enough about history. The point I’m trying to make is that every nation has a selective memory on which it constructs it’s identity. It then uses this identity to interpret the present - Britain did a pretty good job of running half the world in the 19th century and has always stood up for respectable values. Therefore it ought to have a big say in how the world is run (UN Security council, G8 etc). Countries which agree with us on things like democracy and capitalism and want to join NATO are good. Countries which don’t (and especially their leaders) are bad.
And, at long last, that gets me on to Russia, which, like us, has a comprehensive set of "discourses" to explain its history and place in the world. The newly released August 2008, which I watched today, is an attempt to do that. It's a film about what Russia calls "Georgia’s 2008 invasion of South Ossetia". In the West, our predominant discourse leads us to call it something else: "Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia". The rationale is simple. Russia, with its corrupt, authoritarian, openly-hostile-to-the-West regime must be the aggressor, the invader, the baddy. Georgia, whose people took to the streets in the Rose Revolution to kick out a Russian crony and install pro-Western, anti-Russian (and slightly insane) Mikhail Saakachvili as President is, naturally, cast as the goody. It helps that they were the underdog too (we Brits do love the underdog). 
Last year at university I wrote an essay about the conflict which I’m a bit ashamed of now. I remember that, as I wrote it, I dismissed everything from the Russian side as propaganda, while being prepared to accept almost everything the Georgians said at face value. And I ended up with a very unbalanced essay, albeit it one which BBC or Economist correspondents would have largely agreed with judging by their coverage of the conflict (and which an academic with a special interest in the region gave a good grade to).
Tonight’s film showed the other side of the conflict. The film tells the story of a mother trying to find her son who was visiting his father and grandparents in South Ossetia when war broke out. The most poignant moment of the film is probably when a Georgian tank (donated by the USA) arrives at the family home. The boy’s father goes out to meet it. He holds out his helmet. On it are the Russian letters МС - Миротворческий Сыль - Peacekeeper. He smiles. The Georgian tank blows him to pieces from close range. While this is happening, the boy’s mother is in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, which is being blown to pieces by Georgian artillery. Only after all this has happened does President Medvedev give the order to the Russian army to cross the border in order to protect the Peacekeepers and the peaceful population of South Ossetia. 
His own side warns him that the West will blame Russia and call it the aggressor. Of course, this is exactly what the West did - it chose to believe the Georgian account - that their troops only entered Ossetia from the South in response to a Russian ‘invasion’ from the North. 
The story of the conflict portrayed in the film is as one-sided (and probably as inaccurate) as the one portrayed in the Western media. It is as much an exercise in propaganda as Hollywood blockbusters about heroic American soldiers in the Middle East, and as the Hollywood pro-Georgian film 5 Days in August released last year. And, however historically accurate or inaccurate it might be, its portrayal of Georgian soldiers as killers of weaponless peacekeepers who are willing to sniper a defenseless mother certainly won’t improve Russo-Georgian relations. 
So I don’t agree with everything in the film. To use Geopolitics speak, it is a ‘tool’ in the hands of ‘intellectuals of statecraft’, used to construct a framework through which Russians are encouraged to view an important event in their recent history. To use more comprehensible speak, it is a biased, embellished and one-sided version of events designed to manipulate emotions, increase national pride and support for Russia’s leaders two weeks before presidential elections.  
But it is also a good film. The plot is gripping and moving. The setting is spectacular and their are numerous memorable moments. There is also one unexpected event which offers hope for a better future. The mother and son are found by a Georgian soldier who, seeing them driving a Georgian jeep (she has stolen it) points his gun at them. We fear the worst. But not only does he not shoot her - in thickly accented Russian he points out that if the Russians see her in a Georgian vehicle they will shoot at her. He takes the wheel and drives her safely to a place where Russian troops will soon pass. 
We have to view the world through frameworks or discourses. Without them we’d be lost, confused and directionless. I just wish that these frameworks rested on events like the one above - which show our human capacity for kindness, understanding and love, which disregard our differences, forget about friends and enemies and move us towards a world where there is no “us and them” or “friends and foes” - A world in which everyone works together so that people can enjoy a beautiful place like South Ossetia in peace. A world in which everyone can “live as one”. Maybe it’s naive to think like that. Maybe I’m just a dreamer… but I’m not the only one ;)