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.