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!