Dec 13, 2011

It's hard to be lucky in Russia!

If all Russia’s superstitions were true I think someone you knew would die almost every day, you would be constantly arguing and almost constantly afflicted by bad luck! We discussed some today and I decided to share some. It makes a change from the political musings which have come to dominate my blog.

I came across one yesterday evening. I left my mobile phone at my friend’s house and, having gone down five flights of stairs (the lift, which stops at the fourth and sixth floors conveniently skips the fifth) I remembered and faced the stairs again. When I got back to the flat, I wasn’t allowed to just take the phone and disappear into the night. If I did so, something terrible would surely happen. It was absolutely essential that I smiled in the mirror before leaving. I objected – I didn’t want to take my boots off (and going into a Russian home with shoes on is NELZYA – forbidden), and anyway, I’ve had to come back for forgotten things hundreds of times without smiling in a mirror, and disaster hasn’t struck yet. However, I wasn’t allowed to ‘risk it’ – a pocket mirror was found, I put on my broadest smile and headed out the door, ready for anything!

Another superstition related to coming and going is that you mustn’t greet or say goodbye to someone across the threshold of their home. That means you’re sure to argue. Spilling salt also guarantees an argument. There are plenty of money related beliefs. Whistling indoors is a no-no. It will lead to poverty. Leaving empty bottles on the table is also asking for trouble – you’ll be out of money. And after dark take care not to put money in someone’s hand. If an exchange is necessary, put the money down and let them pick it up. Something positive which may come from this is the little money tray in every shop. This means that when you receive coins and notes as change you can pick them up separately out of the tray, instead of struggling to put the coins into the coin section of your wallet while holding onto your notes and receipt, a challenge I’ve still not worked out how to deal with in England!

If you’re hoping to get married any time soon, you’d better not sit at the corner of a table. For 7 years you won’t find some to tie the knot with. If you are in a relationship, make sure you don’t give your other half an even number of flowers. Someone will surely die!

It’s a good idea for students to put their textbook under their pillow the night before an exam. Apparently information will just stream in to your brain. But be careful not to wash your hair in the morning – because you’ll wash it all out again!

On top of these, Russians also worry about lots of the things we worry about. If a black cat runs across the road in front of you, you’d better pull over and let someone else be the next person to drive past. The 13th is an unlucky day, especially in May. In fact, May is a generally unlucky month (even though that’s when they won the Great Patriotic War (WWII)), because it is part of the word mayatsya, to suffer. It’s not only bad luck to walk under a ladder – anything which leans against something else is better avoided.

And there are plenty more – enough to justify a whole website (in Russian). You might have noticed that there isn’t much good luck going round, but fear not! It can be found! Trolleybus tickets all have a chain of 6 numbers of them. If the first 3 numbers add up to the same amount as the second 3 then you have to eat your ticket and you’re sure to be lucky! It’s probably easier to find than a four leafed clover, but I’m yet to find my lucky ticket…

Dec 10, 2011

Revolution in Russia?

Ben Hopkins, BBC news, Petrozavodsk... take a look!

A Russian Spring? Don’t count on it. And indeed, even comparing what happened in Russia today with what has happened and is happening in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen is unhelpful. Almost nobody here is calling for a revolution. Very few want Putin to step down. He would almost certainly win next year’s elections even if state control of the media was ended, all parties were allowed to participate and votes were not falsified, which is exactly what protesters today were asking for. Chestnie vibori, narodnie prava  they cried in Petrozavodsk today. “Honest elections. Rights for the people!” And that is all they want.

Russians have had enough of revolutions. It is a dirty word here - ‘revolutionaries’ are about as popular here as anarchists are in the UK. Many believe that honest elections are the best medicine to fix society without another damaging revolution. I think they are right.

There were maybe 300 people at the protest in Petrozavodsk today (when I left after an hour or so). Significantly fewer than the 1000 who pledged to attend on vKontakte, Russia’s very own Facebook (which, incidentally, grants users free access to pretty much any film or song you can name… legal? This is Russia…), but still more than have taken to the streets here in recent memory. The group congregated on “Lenin Prospect”, outside the government building. Communists waved red flags, Anarchists waved black flags, and supporters of Fair Russia, a social democratic party wore yellow coats. Despite the crowd being made up of such a diverse range of people, it was very calm and all seemed united in their goal - fair elections. It was also interesting to see people of all ages there, not least my 75 year old host Tamara who, when I told her about the protest said - “Well, let’s go”, holding a clenched fist in the air! She even joined in briefly with one of the chants!

Tamara, my host, with the anarchists.

The police were almost redundant - protesters themselves made sure that a path was kept clear through the protests for pedestrians, and there wasn’t a hint of violence. In fact, most people didn’t even want to shout, and the chanting was largely left to the hard core Communists and Anarchists who are presumably more used to protesting. The rest seemed unsure what to do - it’s such a new thing for them - but they were determined to be there and make their presence felt. If protests continue (and there are plans for another next Sunday), no doubt people will work out what to do! 

This scene, of peaceful protesters, monitored by a heavy police presence, demanding free, fair elections, was repeated across Russia today, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad. In Moscow over 30 000 took part in the biggest rally since 1991. Encouragingly, apart from a few scuffles in St Petersburg, all the protests passed without incident. The protesters are well aware that Putin’s party machine are ready to jump at any opportunity to portray the protesters as violent ‘revolutionaries‘ determined to de-stabilise Russia, which would make most Russians turn against them. And so they behaved impeccably, even the anarchists!

But will it make any difference? Most Russians are skeptical. When a country has been plagued by corruption for hundreds of years it’s hard for anyone to believe things will change just because a few thousand people take to the streets. Indeed, I don’t expect this movement to force United Russia from power any time soon. I certainly don’t think there will be a ‘revolution’, and I remain 99% sure that Putin will still win presidential elections in March. However, this is something new and I believe that it will make an impact. It was interesting that all the protest meetings today were permitted to take place - and if such meetings continue and grow larger, then pressure will inevitably build on the ruling party to make next year’s Presidential elections fairer and more open than the Parliamentary ones which took place last week. It won’t be enough to force Putin from power - most Russians still can’t imagine another leader, but in 2018, in largely free and fair elections, maybe Russia, for the first time ever, will see power transferred without a revolution. That is a dream worth taking to the streets for. 

Some video of the protests. They are demanding honest elections.

One of the police's few actions was to insist on a change to this sign... 
"A Recount won't make the elections fairer" 

Honest choice!
Give us our votes back!

Nov 29, 2011

Russian “Democracy”

On Sunday, Russians will go to the polls for Parliamentary elections. The result is not in doubt - one Russian not only told me today who would win the election, he also confidently foretold the result. United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev will win 54% of the vote. I replied “why not 70%?” With a look of pity at my naiveté, he told me “70% is not in fashion any more. 50 or 60% - this is democracy.

Though he was being sarcastic, he captured what seems to be the essence of the upcoming elections - to give the Russian people and the world the impression that Russia is a proper democracy. And if you don’t keep your wits about you, the very clever manipulation of media coverage and, to an extent, opposition parties might just make you believe it.

First - opposition parties. According to an opinion poll I saw today, the Communists are likely to come in second place in the election, with up to 20% of the vote. This however doesn’t worry the government too much. Most Communist voters are pensioners nostalgic for the good old days of the Soviet Union (presumably they have a selective memory…). And though Russian grandmothers are certainly a force to be reckoned with, they aren’t going to March on Red Square to try and bring down the Government (though I’d love to see them try!). And the young are never going to vote for the Communists, so, understandably, the ruling party doesn’t worry too much about them.

In third place in the opinion poll is LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia). Incidentally, their leader, Zhirinovsky is as much a figure of fun as our own Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. And, also like Nick Clegg, he likes to make lots of noise against the government and then, when it really matters, vote with them. Zhirinovsky’s party is considered by some as a ‘clone’ party, controlled by United Russia but promoted as an opposition party in order to split the opposition vote. Whatever they are, they are no threat to Putin.

In fourth is “Fair Russia”. They seem to be genuinely opposed to the government, and they are at least making an effort. I’ve seen their people giving out newspapers in St Petersburg and Petrozavodsk, and some bus drivers have had their distinctive rising sun symbol blazoned across their bonnets. Despite this, or possibly because of it, they won’t get more than 10% when the official results are announced.

There seems to be a clear correlation between a party’s democratic credentials and its share of the vote, because in fifth, struggling to get the 5% of the vote required to enter the Parliament (Duma) is likely to be Yabloko (Apple in Russian, but Steve Jobs had nothing to do with it). This is my babushka’s favourite party, and from what I’ve managed to find out, they are mine too. Many Russians agree that they are “honest”, but they complain that they “don’t do anything”, which might be true, but when you aren’t in parliament (they didn’t get 5% last time) it is difficult.

Below them are the “Russian patriots”, whose party political broadcast looks like a 1970s Soviet propaganda movie (Rousing orchestral music, grainy images of the Russian countryside, slogans like “work in you country, take pride in your country, love your country), and who won’t be getting many votes on Sunday.

Such a fragmented opposition plays right into the hands of United Russia, who have also refrained from entering into the TV debates which representatives of other parties have been having every night on television. Maybe they think themselves above such things, or maybe they are afraid of being shown up. It’s a risk neither Putin or Medvedev, whose public appearances are all strictly stage managed, is willing to take. The debates themselves serve to highlight differences between opposition parties, which works for United Russia, which could only be seriously threatened by a united opposition movement.

Aside from debates, election coverage on mainstream channels is also strongly skewed in favour of the ruling party. Reports from small scale opposition gatherings are followed by clips of Putin addressing addressing a crowd of flag-waving thousands. Opposition adverts are outnumbered by those of United Russia’s, whose slogan “victory for Russia, victory for every one of us” is imprinted on my brain and probably the brains of millions of pensioners who never turn their radios off. And of course, wherever you go, Putin’s face is never far away, glaring down from a huge billboard and proclaiming that “Russia needs you”.

Having said all that, I’ve actually been surprised at how much coverage opposition parties have had, and at how freely they have been allowed to criticize the government, even on state television. It looks pretty democratic. And then I remember that I am yet to meet someone who says they will vote for United Russia. And I remember that despite this, according to official results, United Russia will win at least 50% of the vote on Sunday, because that how Russian Democracy works.

Nov 23, 2011

Volleyball is a real sport!

Yesterday I discovered a new sport - Volleyball. Of course, I’ve knocked a ball around on the beach and even played Birkdale School House Mixed Volleyball, but that game was about as similar to the one I played yesterday as primary school touch rugby is to the real thing.

At a time when I was blissfully unaware of this, and when my forearms weren’t bruised and my right thumb wasn't swollen like a chicken leg, I dared to suggest that a game of volleyball doesn’t constitute exercise. How wrong I was!

Even if I had arrived in sparkling volleyball kit, there was little chance of me looking like anything but a lost, clueless foreigner once I took to the court. As it was, I’d made a fool of myself before the game even began. I suppose I’m used to going to sports training wearing my trainers - however, when it’s -5 and there’s snow on the ground, winter boots are a better option - so I put on the boots, and left the trainers at home. Oops.

Naturally, I felt fairly stupid when I realised my mistake, but I thought nichevo strashnovo - no worries - I’ll play barefoot. After all - I was only going to play volleyball! How hard can it be?

The Russians wouldn’t let me play barefoot. Apparently it’s “too cold” and I’ll “get ill”. Not to be deterred I began to rummage through the lost property conveniently piled up in the corridor. Despite repeated assertions from the Russians that this was a school, that there were only children’s clothes, and the disappointment of finding shoes only to discover that they had 3 inch heels, I persisted and, to my delight, I found a pair which I could squeeze my size 6 ½ feet into.

After a quick lesson - hit the ball as high as you can, use your arms, don’t sleep - the game began. I must confess that I always associate volleyball in the UK with feelings of frustration at people who are determined to play, but don’t know what they are doing and therefore do more harm than good. Well, in Russia I am that person. Immediately identified as the weak link by the other team, the serves started flying at me. I never imagined that you could spin a volleyball, but as the ball swerved as it flew towards my stinging, pink forearms I realised that it must be possible. Unfortunately, knowing that the ball spins didn’t make it any easier to return it, and before long I had to endure the humiliating experience I’ve inflicted on plenty of others - my team mate came and stood right in front of me to ‘protect me’. I didn’t complain!

Once the rallies got going though I settled and started to get more confidence. In the UK a real 'spike' (smash) draws gasps of admiration from the other players. A block (when the defender jumps and blocks a spike back) happens once in a blue moon. Yesterday they happened every other point. It was the volleyball I'd always dreamed of (only in my dreams it didn't hurt so much). Even I managed a spike!

Unfortunately, my team didn’t do very well. Our numerical advantage was outweighed by the disadvantage of having a clueless foreigner on the team. We lost 3 sets  in quick succession before we got a foothold, taking a 20-19 lead in set 4 (first to 25, 2 clear). Both teams realised we had a game on our hands, and the score progressed to 26-25, our set point. It was my moment. The ball dropped down from high above the net…

I jumped…

For a magic moment I hung in the air and dreamed of glory…

 I struck the ball hard…

… And it hit the net. Gutted.

On the bright side, we won the set 30-28, and so avoided a whitewash. In the final set, normal service was resumed and we lost it 25 to not very many, but never mind. Afterwards, maybe hoping for some sympathy, I mentioned to one guy that I’d bent my thumb back and it was really painful. He cheerfully said - “ah, classic mistake. It’ll be fine in a week.” Which is just in time for the next game! Bring it on...

Nov 16, 2011

Jonah the (Russian) Musical

My first three months in Russia have been filled with surprises. I didn’t expect to arrive to three days of blazing sunshine, to feed new Russian friends breakfast butties on my birthday, to sing with the university choir in three of the city’s main music venues, including the grand “musical theatre”, to learn to communicate in Russian so quickly or to have to wait until today for snow, and I frequently told people at home who suggested that I might find myself a beautiful Russian girl that it would never happen…

However, possibly most unexpected of all was getting a fairly major part in a musical organised by a church here. After two months of rehearsals and a week’s camp in the forest, Jonah the musical was performed to a full house of over 500 people as part of the church’s 20th birthday celebrations. It was a weird but, for the most part, wonderful experience.

I played the role of Tsar Adad, King of Ninevah. Aware that I could never hope to deliver my lines in Russian in a convincing manner, I opted to employ the melodramatic techniques honed playing roles such as “Milky White the Cow” in Into the Woods, the priest in The Princess Bride, junky in RENT and Elbow in Measure for Measure. Over the top emotions are a forte of mine, possibly to make up for my inability to act subtly - and so Tsar Adad was a perfect role for me. Adad’s Ninevah is tormented by enough problems to make Berlusconi or Papandreou feel fortunate - the country is tormented by earthquakes, floods, starvation and air crashes. The treasury is empty, the economy has collapsed and poverty is taking hold. His public response, like all good dictators, is to shout and scream and pretend it’s all nonsense (Gaddafi would approve). My favourite line is vsex v Sibir, k Dekabristam soshlyu! - “I’ll send you all to Siberia like the Decembrists!”

Siberia is that way! (Gaddafi style)
However, having sent away the satraps, anger quickly turns to fear and misery as Adad visits his old mother and cries on her shoulder as she sings to him (“I’ve not slept all week and I eat out of a tin”) - Gordon Brown was my model…
I don't know what to do (Gordon Brown style...)
 Later however, this temperamental, pitiful character is thrown off when Adad realises that Jonah, the “man from the fish” is “the prophet from the ancient story, bearing a message from God”. With great conviction and authority, (now Brown morphs into Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin) he commands the people to get on their knees and repent, which everyone does. Jonah tells the people they are forgiven, and they break out in joyful dancing, jazz hands and all. So I had the chance to shout, cry, tremble, command and break out into my favourite Daniel Radcliffe OTT smile, in the space of three scenes!

Repent my people! (Putin style)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was the strangest musical I’ve ever performed in, not only because it was in Russian and maybe 50% of the words meant nothing to me (very weird vocabulary - usually I understand a lot more than that!). The strangest thing, which horrified me at first, was that we recorded in advance all the vocals and then mimed on stage. It soon became clear why - casting was more about letting everyone join in than gathering the gifted and talented (which probably worked in my favour too!), and plenty of people, even in major roles, were either tone deaf, rhythm-less, unable to deliver lines or, in some cases, all three! Recording in advance meant that we only had to get it right once. It was also fun - I felt like a rock star with my big headphones on and the microphone almost in my mouth, as I tried again and again to pronounce all the words correctly!

Rock star... not exactly!
Rehearsals were also peculiar - it was usually just me and the musical director, and I only rehearsed with others in my scenes during the camp. The musical director and director didn’t communicate, so one would tell me one thing and then the other would say something else. Staging was being worked out during the dress rehearsal (reminded me of the Lancaster days at Birkdale!), we were still rehearsing 10 minutes before the performance was supposed to begin (but it started 15 minutes late) and the music was already starting when I had my eye liner put on!

It sounds like a recipe for disaster, which is what I feared for most of the rehearsal period. However, it wasn’t. Most people mimed effectively, and so the use of the recording didn’t detract too much from the performance. Effective lighting appeared out of nowhere. Flashy costumes appeared the morning of the performance, dancers rose to the occasion and the enthusiastic full house (warmed up by a rousing televangelist style sermon filled with “Hallelujahs” in the morning service) gave us all a lift.

 The final refrain in the musical is On derzhit tselij mir svoej rukej (loose translation - He’s got the whole world in his hands). While I think this must be an over-simplification - it is hard to believe that God really, explicitly guides everything that happens on Earth when there is so much suffering, hardship and sadness, I continue to be very thankful for the pleasant surprises life in Russia keeps on providing. Slava Bogu. Praise God. 
(Almost) the whole cast.
A beautiful Russian girl...

Oct 24, 2011

Rights and Privileges

“Education is a right not a privilege” was scrawled onto the walls of UCL’s quad during the ‘occupation’ against tuition fee rises last year. I couldn’t resist a smile when I saw that the author had mis-spelt ‘privilege’ but I was more troubled by a bigger mistake underlying this statement, one which we see being expounded time and time again in the ongoing movement against cuts. All 18-21 year olds, apparently, have a ‘right’ to free university tuition (or, as is the case for a significant number of students, 3 years of partying and holidays inconveniently interrupted by lectures and exams). People have a ‘right’ to child benefits, regardless of their income, teachers and lecturers have a ‘right’ to higher pensions, we all have a ‘right’ to be made well by the Health Service, regardless of the cost, the unemployed have a ‘right’ to benefits, regardless of how many jobs they have turned down, young people have a ‘right’ to Education Maintenance Allowance… you get the idea.

Basically, it seems like we all have the ‘right’ to a better life, and we rely on the government to provide it for us. This ‘culture of entitlement’, which encourages us not just to expect, but to demand things which we cannot have, is, for me, the underlying problem with many of the protests. This is not to say that the things I’ve listed above aren’t good things! They are, and I wish the Government could give us all everything we want. But, as Russians have accepted for a long time, it can’t.

Generally speaking, Russians don’t protest against their political leaders. Of course, there are good reasons not to – the omnipresent police are instructed to treat protesters severely, genuine dissent is not really tolerated, and the shadow of “Siberia” may still loom large in the mind of some. Having said that, protesters in the Middle East have taken to the streets against regimes significantly more repressive than United Russia’s, and Russians have plenty of grievances, not least the impossibility of holding Vladimir Putin to account through government, the media or the ballot box. According to the Kremlin, this is because Russians are “mindless”. In a letter to the Economist, an American reader corroborated this, saying that

 “great majority of Russians display no interest in politics, for they regard all politicians, at home as well as abroad, as crooks. How politicians get themselves elected and how they rule is of little or no interest to Russians, as long as they protect them from domestic and foreign enemies.”

He is right to say that they regard all politicians as “crooks” – including our own UK members of Parliament. I have been trying in vain to explain to Andrei, who teaches stranovedenie, my favourite lesson (technically ‘country studies’, but, I usually turn it into a politics forum…) that our political system and our politicians, for all their faults, are not like their Russian counterparts, but he is having none of it. “Ben”, he says “you have to understand: this is politics. This is complicated. This is money.” Given that all politicians are crooks, it is perhaps unsurprising that Russians don’t pin much hope on their Government to improve their lives. This can be negative – it allows the Government to, again quoting the Economist, “treat citizens like cattle”, and it means that ‘revolution’ is unlikely to happen any time soon.

However, there is a positive side to this lack of faith in Government. While we, with our ‘culture of entitlement’, often lean too heavily on the Government to improve our lives, Russians acknowledge that the Government isn’t going to do this, so they set about improving their lives for themselves. They work hard. The 16 year olds in the class I teach on Fridays not only have school on Saturdays, like all Russians, they also come in for 3 hours of extra Maths on Sunday, their only day off! Students seem to have as much homework as we do at home, but they also have 6 or 8 hours of classes a day and they “podrabativat” (work on the side). My host, who is 75, spends most of the summer growing vegetables at her ‘dacha’ so she doesn’t have to buy them. When you are doing all these things, there isn’t really time to build a Western-style ‘civil society’, and, with the current political climate, many Russians would say "I za chem?" – What’s the point?

And you might, quite rightly, be asking “What’s the point in this blog entry?” I suppose what I’m trying to say is that we all need to find a balance between going out and trying to make our own lives better, and applying pressure on our government to do its bit as well. I think that’s what David Cameron’s “Big Society” idea was all about – an attempt to tackle ‘entitlement culture’ by challenging people to “do their bit” to improve society. And if we showed some of the determination and perseverance I see every day in Russia, maybe the next generation in Britain will be able to view as “rights” things we consider “privileges”.

Oct 19, 2011

Making Lenin Smile...

Life sometimes throws up the most unexpected things. On Sunday afternoon, after 6 weeks in Petrozavodsk, I found myself singing Soviet propaganda at the top of my voice on the stage of Petrozavodsk’s main theatre, watching the audience rise as one to join in the fun. The 100 strong choir, which I was part of, belted out the heart warming, nonsensical lyrics with an enthusiasm which must have made Lenin smile in his Mausoleum. The Karelian Philharmonic Orchestra, which accompanied us, did their best to be heard. Here’s my loose translation of what we sang…

In days of great undertakings, in happy rumblings and flames and ringing.
We greet thee, land of heroes, land of scientists and land of dreamers,
Across the Steppe and through the woods, from tropics to the polar north.
Sweeps my horizon-less, forever glorious, and everlasting motherland.  

We’ll not be stopped
On land or on the water
We’re not afraid
of ice nor threatening clouds
Our soul’s ever-burning flame
Our nation’s glorious name
We’ll always bear
Through all the world forever more.

Shall we remain in our place? Our onward march is always right and valiant.
Our work is a work of honour, a feat of bravery, a feat of glory.
All hands together to the task, to blast us onward through the rocks
A dream so beautiful, still yet to be fulfilled, calls you on to victory.

Our land is one of glory, a century’s work done in few short years.
We’ve earned our right to fortune - we take it, love it and we sing like infants.
Our shining scarlet stars above, shine proud and bright like ne’er before.
High over our great land, high o’er an o-ce-an, of countless dreams at last come true.

Get the picture? Silly though the words might sound now, the Soviet Propaganda machine knew what they were doing when they commissioned this sort of thing. They had the unenviable task of maintaining unity in an empire stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific, from the Arctic to the Hindu Kush, containing dozens of peoples, cultures and languages. Music, particularly rousing anthems like this, was a good way of doing it. Times may have changed a lot, but the power of music to unite people remains strong, and we felt it this week during Petrozavodsk University’s first choir festival, which brought together choirs from other parts of Karelia, from Petersburg and even from Barcelona! When we were together, the music barely stopped. People burst into song every few minutes at the parties which followed concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Language didn’t seem to matter - there were songs in Russian, English, Latin, Catalan, Norwegian and even a Zulu spiritual which became our ‘anthem’, maybe because it was the one song which nobody understood! We even sang it on the station platform as we waved goodbye to our visitors. It was quite a surreal moment - wrapped up in coat, hat and gloves against the rapidly approaching Northern winter singing a song composed on the savanna somewhere near the Equator. It just goes to show music’s amazing capacity to transcend borders and cultures and bring people joy.

Those who know me well might be surprised to hear me raving about music - I’m someone who owned an iPod for a year and never added a single song to it! However, fortunately my ambivalence towards listening to music doesn’t stop me loving to make it. Combine the opportunity to make music with the opportunity to unite people from different countries and cultures and you have the recipe for a very happy Ben! It was such a privilege and so much fun to be involved in the festival - whether we were singing, dancing, chatting, eating or drinking together, it was one of those experiences which makes you so glad to be alive!

Much rehearsing for the festival and for the musical I will be in in a few weeks have done a good job of keeping me from my computer recently, which explains the recent lack of blogs. There should be more to come soon though. As I expected, Russia continues to provide plenty to write about.

Oct 3, 2011

The Master and the Teddy Bear

It’s been a week since Dmitri “Teddy Bear” Medvedev graciously invited Vladimir “Master of the World” Putin to represent their party, United Russia in next year’s presidential election. To nobody’s surprise, the Master politely accepted, and promptly offered Teddy Bear the chance to lead United Russia in December’s parliamentary elections, all but guaranteeing that he will take Putin’s current job as Prime Minister. So the “tandem”, on which Putin holds the handlebars, is pretty certain to continue leading Russia until it hosts the World Cup in 2018 (A blog-worthy topic for another day!), because presidential terms were, conveniently, recently increased to 6 years.

The remarkably underwhelming response here speaks volumes. Of course, the United Russia conference was fully covered by the media and no doubt everyone was aware of what went on. Novaya Gazeta, a particularly vocal anti-government newspaper was particularly critical, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who led the Soviet Union in the 1980s described 6 more years of Putin as "6 lost years".

One prominent figure within the government did dare to speak out, albeit more against Medvedev than Putin. That figure was Alexei Kudrin, the (now former) finance minister, who is widely credited with protecting Russia from the worst of the financial crisis and is considered by many to be the most competent figure in the Duma (Russian Parliament). When it was announced that Medvedev would be the next Prime Minister, Kudrin said he would not serve in the next government. Medvedev was furious, and not afraid to show it. At a televised meeting the next day, he brutally reminded Kudrin who was boss. Rather like an overbearing Headmaster, the President treated Kudrin, an older man who has served in the Kremlin since 1996, like an obnoxious pupil who needed to be put in his place, demanding an apology or a resignation. Tamara, my host, who has lived under Stalin, Khrushchev et al, told me that it wasn’t right - and it wasn’t - it was a shameful humiliation of a man who, though far from blameless, deserved better. He was right to resign, and the Russian government will be even worse off without him.

Having said all this, the announcement barely caused a ripple in society as a whole. I can see two main reasons for this - firstly it came as no surprise. As I mentioned in my previous blog, Putin has consistently used the media to remind Russia who is boss. Secondly, most Russians seem resigned to not being able to do anything about it. This doesn’t mean they are apathetic. They care deeply, but the predominant emotion, more than anger, seems to be sadness. I notice this whenever the topic comes up, and I can understand why. As a foreigner it is easy for me to make jokes about Masters and Teddy Bears, and laugh at the clips and the music on this BBC report, but Russians have to live with the consequences - entrenched corruption, the looting of natural resources, massive wealth inequality and a dysfunctional state which spends millions on the Olympics when schools are falling down, hospitals are underfunded and the roads look like they’ve been assaulted by a factor 7 earthquake. Feeling that they can’t vote with their hands at the ballot box, many Russians who can choose to vote with their feet instead. After a lull in the Noughties, emigration is on the rise again, especially among the brightest and best, the very people who might be able to improve, or even change Russia’s increasingly dictatorial leadership. Which is great for Putin, but not so great for his people. On the picture below, which, I assume, is displayed on billboards from the Baltic to the Pacific, Putin tells his people “Russia needs you”. It’s true. Only Russians can change Russia, and though it looks bleak at the moment, one day, I'm sure that they will.

Russia needs you! Unite!

Sep 29, 2011

How can you possibly do a written geography exam?!

“How can you possibly do a written geography exam?” our teacher exclaimed, flabbergasted at the concept of written exams for subjects such as geography, history, philosophy and literature. We, it must be said, were equally surprised to learn that Russians take oral exams not only in all these subjects, but also in subjects like Maths, Physics and Chemistry. The system seems to work something like this, at least for arts subjects. About a month before the exam, students receive a list of questions or topics to prepare. On the day of the exam they select a card at random, desperately hoping for a ‘good one.’ On this card will be a couple of the topics/questions. They then have 40 minutes or so to prepare and then they must go in and speak to their professor about the subject for 15 minutes or so. The Professor gives them a grade immediately, and they are done! It certainly saves on marking!

Grading is different here as well: students are scored from 1 (unacceptable) to 5 (excellent). Tamara, my wonderful grandmotherly host likes to say “molodets, pyat” (excellent, 5) when I successfully conjugate a difficult word! I won’t really be being graded at all though – we don’t have any exams, so we will avoid what must be a nerve shredding experience!

Another difference which surprised me is that here, Fizcultura (Sport) is not only a compulsory part of the timetable, it too is examined! Can you imagine failing your degree in Art History because you couldn’t get above 9 on the bleep test?! That might explain why I haven’t seen an overweight student.  

The university day also operates differently here. It is divided into two halves, and you either get lucky and have all your classes between 1:30 and 7pm, or you get unlucky, and have to be at uni for an 8am lecture every day including, and this is really bad… Saturday! In Russian schools and universities Saturday is just another day, albeit one which is often shortened. The timetable only changes every semester, so if you get the morning shift you miss out on lie-ins for a full 4 months. Happily, my course doesn’t correspond to the Russian timetable - I have all my classes between 11:30 and 3, Monday to Friday. I feel like a right slacker!

Russian universities also clearly value their contact hours. Even Literature students have a full timetable (unlike the couple of hours a week they tend to get at British universities). A university day consists of 3 or 4 para (pairs), each of which lasts one and a half hours, but with a five minute break after 45 minutes, and 10 minute breaks between classes. It seems to work quite well – enough time to cover a subject properly, but with a well placed break to help you concentrate.

Most aspects of the Russian education system are left over from the Soviet Union, in which education was one of the few areas where they really excelled. Of all the countries I’ve visited, I’m fairly convinced that Russians are the best educated of them all. Indeed, for decades over 50% of the population have been getting university degrees, and pretty much everyone seems to be able to recite Pushkin, has an opinion on Dostoevsky and appreciate things like ballet and opera. This ought to be a recipe for fantastic scientific innovation, artistic creativity, social progress and economic growth, but alas, like so many things in Russia, things don’t work as they ought to. But more on that another time. 

PS - Just a caveat in case I've misrepresented anything - Our teacher explained most of this to us today in Russian - I may not have understood everything correctly, and I might have filled in a few gaps myself! So don't quote me on anything! And Russians out there - correct me where I've gone wrong please. Thanks.

Sep 25, 2011

This is Russia... Part 2

One big temptation travel bloggers face is to lean heavily on moments which, though amusing, reflect badly on their host country. If “This is Russia” becomes a series, which it might, it may well be dominated by those weird moments where something strange happens and I’m left thinking “This is Russia”. On a day when Putin pretty much confirmed his intention to be President until 2024, I hope this edition of This is Russia will cast the country in a more positive, hopeful light.

In Russia there is a saying “sto drusyej lusche sta rublej” (100 friends are better than 100 roubles). When the phrase was coined, 100 roubles was quite a lot of money. Now, although 100 roubles is barely enough to get you a meal in MacDak, Russia’s dire McDonalds spin off, the same spirit remains. Russians take friendship seriously.

This is not to say that the stereotype which portrays Russians as unfriendly, cold and rude is completely unfounded. People don’t seem to talk to their neighbours. They certainly don’t chat on buses or in the street, and you’ll be lucky if you get a smile from a stranger. When I first went to church, noone came up and spoke to me. However, once you get past this, and it doesn’t take much, the coldness seems to melt away.

For example, last Sunday I met a guy called Stepan, who is friends with two girls I met at church the week before. As it was his birthday, they were going to spend the afternoon together, preparing a meal to eat in the evening. Though I’d previously spent about 2 hours in total with them, they gladly let me come along, and even moved the meal forward so I could eat it!

Then, on Wednesday there was a performance with the choir. It had been explained to us that the choir wore black for performances. Although I don’t have any black clothes, I hoped that borrowing a friend’s black jumper to go with my jeans would do the trick. The look on the conductor’s (who was dressed in suit and bow tie) face when I showed up told me I was wrong. Feeling a bit embarrassed, my friend and I apologized and suggested that we didn’t sing, but they were having none of it. One guy was made to hand over his black shirt, and bit by bit a suit materialized. It even fitted! I’d love to say that they were desperate to dress me up because my singing ability was sorely needed, but that is far from the case. In fact, I didn’t even know 2 out of the 3 songs we sang. Instead, they were keen to include their enthusiastic but slightly buffoonish foreign guests!

On Friday I took two English lessons at a school. Since my lesson the previous Friday, the second group, which I only taught for 20 minutes, had been on a day trip to a “nearby” “canyon”. Both those terms need qualifying – ‘nearby’ means 4 hours drive, and the ‘canyon’ is only 35 metres deep! Anyway, they not only presented me with a pretty rock which they found there, they also bought me a giant ornamental pencil. Too kind!

Finally, today was my birthday. Before I arrived in Russia, I’d been semi-expecting to let my birthday slip by unnoticed, not daring to hope that I would have made friends in time for a party. However, this morning I hosted a birthday brunch in my flat (Tamara is still at the dacha, and I asked her permission!) and 6 of my new Russian friends came – 3 from choir and 3 from church. They gave me a cake, a Revolutionary war hat, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (in Russian – might manage a chapter a year!) and another book (also Russian…), and they didn’t mind putting up balloons and cooking sausages, eggs and bacon once they’d arrived. Three friends from the UK came as well and we had a lovely, bilingual time eating breakfast butties for lunch.

One Russian friend asked me this evening if I was tired of Russia yet. I was surprised to be asked – of course I’m not! Actually, I’m quite overwhelmed by how good these first three weeks have been – even though it has rained for most of every day. And it has been so great because of the warmth and friendliness of the Russian people I’ve met. “This is Russia”, and I love it.

Sep 20, 2011

"This is Russia"

A funny thing happened on Sunday. During my first week in Russia, I didn’t dare travel on a marshrutka, preferring instead to travel on the more dependable (and less intimate) trolleybuses. Marshrutkas look like converted Ford transit vans, but with a lower ceiling and an assortment of seats fixed in peculiar positions in the back. As such, you feel every bump (and there are a lot of them…) and you certainly don’t get the sort of personal space we Brits love so dearly. A further deterrent for the nervous foreigner is the need to shout out when you want the driver to stop. This task is made harder by the fact that you can’t really see out of the windows, which are caked in what appears to be years of dust and mud, so you don’t know where you are! Anyway, eventually I overcame my fears and at first, it seemed that I had been making a fuss about nothing. But then on Sunday, as I came back from church with some friends there was a shriek from the front and I looked up to see a heavily pregnant woman so desperate to get out of the bus that she was climbing head first over the seat she had been sitting on in order to get to the back door. I was confused at first, but then I saw that the front of the bus had filled with smoke! We quickly followed the pregnant girl out of the door. I assumed it must have been something serious, and that the driver would call up the Russian AA or something, but, as I was reminded at the time “this is Russia”. The driver seemed utterly unperturbed by what had happened. He got out, fiddled under the bonnet, and 2 minutes later asked us to get back in. Perhaps foolishly, we obliged, and the rest of the journey passed without incident, as the driver continued to pick up new passengers blissfully unaware of what they might be letting themselves into. We even paid him the full fare!   
A Marshrutka. I presume this is the only way they get cleaned!

Sep 18, 2011

Making myself at home...

I’ve just finished a Russian TV dinner - Borshch (the classic Russian soup, in which beetroot features strongly), kutleti (a bit like burgers) and rice in front of the European Volleyball championship semis. Russia just lost to Serbia after blowing about 6 match points. Serbians seem to be quite good at coming from behind… I managed to get tickets to the Olympic men’s volleyball bronze medal match, so I’m cultivating an interest. One of my favourite things about it is that every team has to have a token ‘small guy’ who wears a different colored vest to the others…

I don’t usually eat in front of the TV, but Grandma Tamara is away at the Dacha harvesting more cucumbers and marrows, so I’m by myself. I don’t mind being alone, but I miss coming home every day and being presented with more food than I could possibly eat. Tamara was born in the 1930s in the Ural mountains (central Russia), so she has lived through a lot. I asked her about the war this week, and although she was very young at the time she clearly remembers it vividly. She told me about her father going away to the front and coming back with blind in one eye. He was one of the lucky ones though. One brother didn’t come back at all, and the other lost both his legs. She told me about how hungry they were, and how she couldn’t understand why there was no bread, and how, even though they lived deep in the interior, they still had to shelter from occasional air raids. Although the USSR ultimately won the “Great Patriotic War”, as they call it here (it can’t be WWII, because WWI doesn’t really feature in Russian history books… maybe because it went so badly for them), they lost 23 million citizens. In every Russian city an “eternal flame” burns in memory of them. Petrozavodsk’s memorial is flanked by red flowers (blood) and overlooked by an enormous statue of Lenin. I walk past it them both on the way to university - humbling reminders of how much Russians have suffered.

On a lighter note, I tried out the university tourism club this week, expecting them to organise a few relaxed walks in the forest or trips to St Petersburg. However, I was wrong. Tourism in Russia is not for the faint hearted - indeed, their trips are so extreme that those who survived were all awarded certificates in the meeting! From what I understood (which was not a lot…) they go on multi-day rafting, mountain biking and cross country skiing trips. From their photos, it looked pretty intense. However, more impressive than this was their trip to Kamchatka. For those of you who don’t share my obsession with remote places, Kamchatka is a peninsula in the Russian far East, sort of north of Japan. As well as being one of the world’s most beautiful places, it is also one of the most remote, only accessible by sea and air. Last year the tourism club not only went there, they climbed an very high active volcano. I was well impressed.

I’m settling in to the choir - we have concerts on Monday and Wednesday next week which should be fun. We’ve been singing an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah, and it’s been entertaining trying to teach them to pronounce words properly (Ze Keengdom of zis vorld etc). Still, I should’t criticise - we sang in Russian yesterday and I was hopeless! Encouragingly, I can now understand about 50% of what the conductor says, so I am less likely to come in before everyone else and make a fool of myself, like I did on Wednesday!

I also had my first (and hopefully only) experience of a Russian medical centre this week - in order to renew our visas we had to have a HIV test, regardless of the fact that we had to have one in the UK in order to get our visa in the first place. Still, as long as we make it difficult for Russians to get to Britain they’ll keep making it hard for us.

I’ve been here two weeks now and it’s been so much better than I could have expected. Though Russians are often cold and impolite in public places - if you don’t fight your way through a door you’ll never get through, and you only get a “thank you” once in a blue moon - their friendliness and warmth in other contexts has been amazing. I’ve made friends at choir, at church (where I even met a Bolivian missionary) and at the Christian centre. I might be able to have a birthday party next Saturday after all!

Posing in front of another Revolutionary's statue.

A revolutionary in his own way! He toppled Lord Farquad and he got his swamp back!
After the war Petrozavodsk's main factory, which used to make weapons, was converted to make tractors like this one!

Can you see a rainbow?

It really rained - gave me the chance to teach my Russian friend about the phrase "raining cats and dogs."
And the main street (Lenin street - no prizes for originality) became a river.