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.