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...