This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Copy of a Sham Reality

Photo: Andrei Shchukin - Kopia mnimoi realnosti

So the three of us should be ashamed. All this talk of re-launching the blog and the along comes final exams, new jobs, travels and everything else gets pushed to one side. But I thought I should comment on the video below that has been doing the rounds on the internet.

For those who haven’t yet seen this - an explanation. The Russian parliament, like, I imagine, many parliaments, suffers from a certain degree of absenteeism. Now I wouldn’t like to speculate what MPs do when they’re skiving from their official duties, but this time in the State Duma it’s rather what those who are present are doing that has caught everyone’s attention. It turns out that whilst Russian citizens thought that their MPs were unswervingly representing their interests they were in fact all along replaying their own childhood fantasies of being a contestant in the Crystal Maze, collecting as many golden tokens as possible before the time runs out. In other words, it’s possible that someone may be falsifying the vote.

What I want to dwell on here is not the levels of absenteeism in parliament, but the brazen manner in which MPs feel able to fix votes, on film, without a red face in sight (not talking about the drinking here), and with full complicity of the Vice-President of the Duma. In a land of extremes someone took the idea of voting on behalf of an absent friend just a little too far. Yes, in other countries MPs are also too busy travelling back and forth to the Canary Islands to be present for every little vote, but they don’t film themselves shamelessly perverting the course of democracy and then joking about it. The difference is all in the way you go about it. (Or is it? Is it better for politicians to openly show that they’re barefaced liars and good-for-nothings than to pretend that they’re not and us to know anyway?)

Maybe it’s the electronic voting system that’s at fault. Perhaps the Duma should consider regressing to the UK parliament-style of voting. President Medvedev thought that hi-tech buttons were part and parcel of his beloved “modernisation” drive when really he should have realised long back that shouting “aye!” louder than those shouting “nay!” and then having an old bloke in a black silk gown and optional knee breeches decide who wins is in fact the epitome of a flawless, foolproof, democratic voting system.

The law in question is President Medvedev’s pet project to lower the drink-drive limit; effectively reducing the amount of drinking you can do before legally driving to nil. This has created quite a furore. It turns out that Members of Parliament like to have a lunchtime tipple as much as the rest of us. Unlike in Britain, budget cuts won’t be soon forcing them to take platzkart from Krasnoyarsk when parliament is in session (or will they? That would be great). Furthermore, claims that drinking refreshing yet mildly alcoholic kvas or even eating black bread can be enough to push you over the limit have bolstered opposition to the law.

Some of my Russian friends claim that it has been scientifically proven that some people naturally have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood, even if they don’t drink. Naturally, I have had great fun winding them up about this. What was the alcohol level in the blood of the control group? “Are you sure you haven’t been drinking this morning Boris?” “Nyeeeet! Znachit, (hic) - it must be naturally occurring!” Russian scientists have proven a lot of things that my British brain has difficulty accepting. It’s like the time doctors diagnosed my friend’s recurring dizziness as a potential brain tumour, subjected him to a cocktail of drugs and brain scans for a fortnight before he went back to the UK and discovered he had a mild ear infection. But, really, digression over.

Whatever the dangers of bread-eating and driving may be, will a law like this actually do much to lower the number of deaths on Russia’s roads every year? Will reducing the permitted alcohol level from low to nil make people think twice about having two drinks instead of one, or will it just push more people “over the limit” and fatten the wallets of the gaishniki (traffic police known for their high moral qualities)?

And as I pointed out in a post last year, the problem is not always in the drinking. A closer look at the road traffic statistics for 2009 shows that of 203,603 road traffic accidents, 12,326 were caused by drunk drivers. As a result, 2,217 people were killed, out of a total of 26,084 deaths that year on the roads. This makes drunk drivers responsible for around 8% of deaths on the roads. To compare, 21,921 deaths were caused by sober drivers “not following the rules of the road” and 5098 were killed in accidents caused by “unsatisfactory road conditions” (seems to be some overlap in the statistics, but you get the idea). So is this yet again a case of politicians simply missing the mark?

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Sunday, 14 March 2010

Swedish Short Circuit

Image: Alexander Blosiak,

From IKEA’s Russian woes to maniacal cops on a deadly rampage, Andrei Loshak sees today’s Russia as a state of the absurd, a wonderland where Alice (the population) is up against the madness of the authorities. Both sides have been pushed to the edge, and both are beginning to snap.


Extracts from the article “Short Circuited” by Andrei Lokshak, full original version available on, translation by me (sorry for any mistakes).

State of the Absurd

“We were born to bring Kafka to life,” has been a famous saying since Soviet times. Submerged in the absurd since childhood, we Russians have become experts in it. From our position on the other side of the looking glass, we manage to get by despite it. And it’s only Europeans, with their tiresome rationalism, that arrive in Russia and immediately start trying to find a comprehensible logic in what is happening. But in the end most of them get used to the way things work here and some of them even start to obey the laws of etiquette that require that the cake is shared out, and then sliced up – the laws of the other side of the looking glass – Russian wonderland.

The Russian branch of IKEA is a perfect example. IKEA declared from the outset that even in Russia it intended to unwaveringly uphold its clear Swedish rules, based on a protestant work ethic and strict logistics. As a result, before the opening of IKEA’s first store in Moscow the local authorities cut off its electricity supply. For no practical reason whatsoever – just in order to “rough up” the company as payback for its excessive integrity. Ever since, the Swedes knew their stores were going to be needing their own generators and have tried to do everything in order to depend as little as possible on the mood of the local authorities. The store in Samara built three years ago has proven more problematic - the opening has been postponed nine times. IKEA, a company that has launched 230 stores around the world, just couldn’t break through the unflinching greed of the Samaran bureaucrats, whose last issue in a long line of grievances was that the building was “insufficiently hurricane-proof”. The Swedes, lacking any information about the destructive tornadoes that wreak devastation on the left bank of the Volga, finally took offence. The legendary founder of the company Ingvar Kamprad declared that investments in Russia would be curtailed. But it’s doubtful that such a scare will have any effect on local bureaucrats. For they act not in their own greedy interests. They support the normal functioning of an irrational system.

A few months later another blow was in line for Kamprad. It turned out that in using the generators – the idea that IKEA was so proud of – the company overpaid 200 million dollars, which practically reduced the profits of the whole eastern European division of the company over the past few years to zero. The Swedes thought themselves such Lancelots, having cut off the head of the dragon of corruption, but had forgotten that according to the laws of wonderland a new head quickly sprouts. An official investigation revealed that the Russian IKEA employee responsible for renting the generators had been receiving a cut from the leasers and had been significantly raising the cost of their services. IKEA cut its contract with this firm and as a result was fined another 5 million euros by the Russian courts for breaking the conditions of contract.

Then – the final blow. A couple of weeks ago the Swedish tabloids revealed that the director of IKEA for Russia and Eastern Europe, Per Kaufmann, famous for his public criticism of Russian corruption, had been turning a blind eye to evidence of backhanders being made to contractors of the regional administration. Kamprad stayed true to his principles and immediately sacked Kaufmann, who had been his closest colleague for the past 20 years. He admitted defeat. Maybe for the first time in his life. The Swedes repeated the mistake of land surveyor K in Kafka’s “The Castle”, who tried to conquer the absurd by the strength of reason. It turned out to be a crazy plan. The possibilities of reason are limited, but the absurd knows no boundaries.

Operating system

Corruption is irrational, as its very existence is deadly for a state. This is precisely why it ideally suits a state of the absurd, and is its operating system. The survival strategy for those living in such a state is not to look for the sense in anything. For those who dare attempt it, a glace at the Russian newsreel quickly turns into a psychedelic bad trip. A person will experience a cascade of dazzling negative emotions: fear, horror, shock, indignation, but meanwhile cannot find any logic: “Managers of the state bank VTB pulled off fraud, stole from the state and shareholders millions of dollars. One person has been fired.” , “Commander of the airborne forces of Russia General Shamanov will not be brought to trial due to no crime having taken place. The General tried to obstruct the work of a police investigator who was investigating a case concerning the General’s father in law, a criminal heavyweight who goes by the name of “Glyb”, for whom an international search warrant has been issued. The General called upon two squadrons of the air force special task force to deal with the police officer. The case has been closed because, as Shamanov himself explained, he later personally called off the order to capture the investigator."

It is the most Orwellian oxymora heard from the highest levels that are the final straw in the waves of paradoxical information and are enough to drive you insane: “conservative modernisation”, “sovereign democracy”, “parliament is not the place for discussions”. Such apparent contradictions are regularly thrown at our consciousness and heighten the feelings of disorientation and existential weightlessness which lead to a person being prepared to accept any information from above, however monstrous and contradictive it may be. As a result no one is even mildly surprised to hear that United Russia has won 102% in the elections. For what could surprise a nation where the title of main liberal democrat has been held by Vladimir Zhirinovsky for the past 20 years? The most ominous oxymoron of our time? “Law enforcement authorities”, in other words - organised crime. But, as strange as it may seem, it is precisely the police, in pushing the limits of moral decay, who can save the country. At some point in time the absurd, when it reaches critical proportions, transforms into outright nonsense, that is - utter insanity.

The State vs. the People

The turning point came with the massacre committed by Major Evsyukov. The shooting of shoppers in the supermarket didn’t just contradict common sense – it was devoid of it whatsoever. It was just after this massacre that the law enforcement went on the offensive against its own people. Every day we now hear about how someone in uniform has killed, robbed, run over in a car, or violated someone. For me, personally, what topped this all off was Evsyukov’s court case: “Former officer of the criminal investigation department of the district department of internal affairs Roman Potemkin, who participated in the arrest of Evsyukov, took a stand as witness. Potemkin was brought to court in handcuffs as he himself has been under investigation for extortion since October.” The collapse of the law enforcement system has actually already begun.

As is often the case, in the individual insanity of Evsyukov there was also the cast-iron logic of social processes. The system had to go mad. National security services in a healthy state, as Lenin once wrote, are steamrollers, unquestioningly carrying out the commands from above. As machines do not have and should not have brains, and commands are not given to them every day, their daily life is strictly regulated by instructions and rules. A malfunctioning occurs when commands from their owner dramatically contradict the rules of their maker. A short circuit occurs that causes over 2 million evil robocops to unleash terror against the civilians.

It’s strange – did the ruling elite really seriously assume that the law could be broken selectively? That whilst some carve up, squeeze dry, racketeer and topple the country, others, like complete idiots, will start to honestly carry out their duties under the social contract? This lie, taken to the absurd, has infiltrated the state apparatus from the top to the bottom, poisoned the heads of the junior and middle-ranking personnel. Our police force is now a massive army of bad lieutenants, ready at any moment to turn into insane majors.

People vs. the State

When the absurd grew into insanity the system hit the self-destruct command. The impenetrable fortress started to crumble from within. The eagle’s two heads are tearing one another to pieces and feathers are flying. But here’s the strange thing: the direr the state entropy, the faster everything falls apart and the easier it is to breathe. It’s as if there is now more air. I think that fear in society has disappeared. In the inability of the authorities to control their own kind the people have seen weakness. Such a state cannot have power to repress. The wild bites of the crazed system brought people out of their hypnosis. In the place of fear and apathy has come anger.

Mikhail Bakunin once wrote “Nothing is more dangerous for man’s private morality than the habit of command”. When the authorities start to degrade, you want to be higher than them, to counter cynicism with dignity, moral degradation with composure and humanity. The philosopher Murray Bookchin called this “self-organised reconstruction of society”. The vestiges of this process are already observable. Whereas before people only participated in public rallies when the bulldozers were already driving up to their house, now expressing protest has almost become fashionable. People have started standing up for one another. A couple of weeks ago a drunken police officer in a Mercedes ran over a woman standing at a bus stop. How did the officials act? The cop driving was incapable of stringing two words together; the man in uniform next to him hopped out of the car and ran off. Then their colleagues from the district department of internal affairs turned up and together with the road traffic police tried to sweep it all under the rug. How did people act? Three top bank managers who happened by chance to have seen the accident gave the woman first aid, called an ambulance, and when they noticed that the number plate was being unscrewed from the car, they called some journalists. It was only thanks to the noise they made over the matter that the public prosecutor found out about what happened. A scandal broke out. Heads went flying again (as if in their place new ones aren’t going to grow). A small victory was won over the system. The idea that a people deserves the government it has is a foul lie. At moments of great difficulty, simple people who have not been maimed by the “habit of command” don’t tear at each other’s throats, but hold out a hand of help.

As soon as the “steamroller” stops inspiring fear, out comes the age-old opposition of the Russian people to the state. The philosopher Berdiaev wrote, “Russia is the most un-governable country in the world. Anarchism is a characteristic of the Russian soul, it has been inherent in different ways both in the extreme left and the extreme right. Both the Slavophiles and Dostoevsky are also, essentially, anarchists like Bakunin, Kropotkin, or Tolstoy.” All imperialists and supporters of sovereign power in Russia are enemies of the people – and history just goes to show this. Our interests are diametrically opposed, “when the state gets stronger the people feebler” was the reverse dependency observed long ago by Kliuchevsky. Nothing has changed since. The popular teenage band “Lumen” sings, “I love my country so much, but I hate the State”. You couldn’t put it any better.

The most interesting thing is that those who work for the state are also anti-state in spirit. Just try talking to any cop or civil servant off the record. You’ll find more deception and cynicism than the classicists could ever have dreamed of. And the ruling elite similarly hides under patriotic rhetoric whilst carrying out its daily ritual of the absurd. As soon as the time comes they’ll scarper to Antibes and Marbella. They say that the Prime Minister’s daughters live in either Germany or Switzerland. In any case, not in Russia, that’s for sure. He’s no enemy to his own children.

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Saturday, 6 March 2010

Medvedev and his Mistrals

This year is the year of Russia in France and France in Russia - an “année croisée”, marked by around 400 events in the political, economic and cultural spheres. As both a Russophile and a rosbif (won’t extend that to Francophile quite yet, sorry) studying on a Franco-Russian programme in Paris, Dmitri Medvedev’s 3-day official visit here this week should have been just my cup of tea.

“Operation Charm” was what Le Monde chose to call the Sarko/Dima schmooze-fest, referring to the abundance of PR companies on hand to promote Medvedev and his country in France and Europe. But who was trying to charm who more? A quick glance at the snippets of the press conference on TV and I wanted to shout “get a room!” as Sarkozy spieled: “I know, Mr President, the extent to which you have engaged yourself for modernising Russian society. […] Your attachment to a state with rule of law, respect for the law, judicial security and defence of human rights, very much facilitates the rapprochement between our two countries […] Russian culture, the Russian language, the Russian people need freedom. You are currently giving and building this freedom and modernity for them.”

Bleugh. Had the debate surrounding the level of continuity or rupture in the Russian political system with Medvedev’s coming to power eclipsed the French President? Or had someone forgotten to point out the figures that show that the largest number of refugees accepted by France every year for the past few years have been those persecuted and unable to benefit from the protection of their own state… Russia? And, wait a second - can it be that the French president’s memory is so weak that he forgot the circumstances surrounding his last visit to Moscow – to negotiate a certain ceasefire?

Some of us have a tendency to forget, though the prospect of the sale of four warships to Russia - a much-needed boost for France’s ailing military industry – obviously has memory-loss-inducing qualities. I should probably point out here that I am not making any judgement on the sale of the warships, but just the vomit-inducing diplomacy that is surrounding it. The whole situation is also rather interesting as many commentators have pointed out - the sale of the ships is the highpoint in the two-year about-turn in French-Russian diplomatic relations, smoothed out by PR whitewashing to sell Medvedev as the “new Gorbatchev”.

Around two years ago I wrote a university presentation on France’s diplomatic relations with Russia (amongst others). At that point, ten months into his presidency, Sarkozy, who had presented himself in the run up to the elections as the candidate for human rights, was having trouble staying true to his loudly-defended principles. Criticising countries that favoured contracts over defence for human rights he was meanwhile getting chummy with Colonel Kaddafi. Then he jumped to felicitate Medvedev with his presidential victory, (foreign minister Bernard Kouchner contented himself with the comment that the election figures were “very surprising, not quite Stalinist, but 70% ain’t bad!”).

And two years on Medvedev’s visit, with all it’s pomp and ceremony, shows how far the situation has evolved. Putin never forgave Sarkozy’s pre-election declarations: “It’s not because Russia is a superpower that we should prevent ourselves from denouncing human rights violations that are committed there”; “the France of human rights cannot be silent faced with the assassinations of journalists, with the 200,000 war dead in Chechnya; the time of realpolitik that crosses our humanitarian principles for contracts is over” (from Le Monde). But Medvedev is the perfect excuse for France to patch over relations – and (supposedly) save face. The new democratically reform-minded President ticks boxes both home and abroad – allowing Western countries, like France, to justify a rapprochement. This “western wishful thinking” that we spoke of back in October takes on another, more cynical tone – not only does Europe want to believe that Medvedev is one of the club, but it is also prepared to actively pedal the myth in an attempt to avoid criticism when business relations come into question. Meanwhile, the reality is that a big fat question mark still hangs over many aspects of the new Russian presidency - 2009 was the worst year in recent times for politically-motivated assassinations and what will come of the Ministry of Internal Affairs reforms is, at least at this stage, anyone’s guess.

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Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Pipeline Prejudices

Photo: Fitar Gubayev

As a British student studying European Integration at what the FT recently dubbed “the Eurocrat College,” I feel I spend a large part of my live defending “the baddie”: Britain.* As a non-Russophobe studying the EU as a Global Actor (would I go so far as to say Russophile? Probably not, since we’re talking politics), I spend the rest of my life defending the even badder baddie: Russia.

This semester I have been taking a course in EU energy policy. Right from the start, the professor warned us that this class would not be about geopolitics: we were not going to be taught that Europe was currently being held hostage by Russia. Or that this was likely to happen in the future. Sure, security of supply is essential, and Russia does have the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. However, we should forget everything we have ever read about Russia in our European media. Russia, you see, needs to export its gas just as much (if not more) than the Europeans need to buy it; and the only feasible place it can do this is in Europe. Instantly, the professor had lost most of the class: energy diversification and unbundling just isn’t as sexy as bond-style Russian villains presiding over pipelines. And nobody believed him anyway.

Last week, a colleague and I gave a presentation on ‘The 2009 Ukrainian-Russian Gas Dispute: A Russian Perspective.’ An opposing presentation went first, giving the Ukrainian point of view. The brief was to persuade the audience, why ‘our’ country was in the right. Since the class is more than half made up of Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians and other assorted Central and Eastern Europeans (not generally known for their love of Russia or Gazprom) the professor realised that we, the Russians, had a tough crowd. Accordingly, it was agreed that to give us a chance in hell we would have a vote to decide who was responsible both before and after the debate. The challenge would be to persuade some of our classmates to change their opinion.

After the initital vote, despite the professor’s repeated statements throughout the course that Russia was a relatively reliable supplier of gas, the results were 13 believing Russia was responsible; 5 abstaining or uncertain; and 3 holding Ukraine responsible. I won’t go into details about what each debating team actually said during the debate (the two sides’ positions have been articulated thousands of times before); but suffice it to say that we’d both done our research and given pretty comprehensive arguments. However we might as well not have bothered to present: the final opinions were exactly the same. Russia was overwhelmingly in the wrong. And Ukraine was absolved of all transit risk.

Now, before I am attacked for having an over-rosy, idealist view on Russia, I want to point out that I really don't! Russia certainly uses gas as an energy tool in its affairs with Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia, however it is not in a position to do so with Europe. This was the issue at stake and to confuse the two is to prevent open-eyed discussion about the Russian-EU relationship. Furthermore, to imagine that Ukraine was an innocent victim all this as it sat on stocks of gas as Europe froze, is utterly absurd.

Another class I have been following has been in Russia-EU relations. Following the class, you might think Gorbachev had never been elected and the Berlin wall had never fallen. It is ridden with alarmist rhetoric and Russia clearly emerges as the big bad wolf. Any talk about how the EU might engage with the EU has so far been non existent. All we have learnt is how awful the interior Russian situation is - so much so, that a Czech student who has never visited Russia asked me how I could possibly have lived there and wasn’t it the most depressive, repressive state in the world?

Domestically, Russia does face enormous problems: demographically, socially, politically and economically. Reading reports about Russia by Freedom House or Amnesty International are enough to make you cry; however, to write off Russia as a bullying, disaster-zone of a country, as many of my colleagues here seem to do, is not only incorrect but also hugely dangerous.

My college presents itself as an ‘incubator for Europe’s future elite’ (yes, a professor actually used those cringe-worthy words), however if this is what we are being taught (or what we are choosing to understand, in the case of the energy course) then this spells very bad news for the future of Europe. Simply being told (or simply choosing to believe) that Russia, or any other country is bad (what a ridiculously normative word, but it sums up so many attitudes here) will lead us nowhere. If Europe is ever to develop a meaningful relationship with Europe, we need a certain open mindedness.
We must abandon our Eurocentric view of the world and realise that it has been a long time since we were at the world's centre. We need the ability to understand and enter into dialogue with tomorrow’s great powers.

And now my rant about College attitudes to Russia is over, please see below for a justification of my opinion on Britain!

* For the record, I detest most British attitudes to Europe. The UK is far too full of ignoramus Europhobes – yes, I mean you, Nigel Farage, but you’re not the only one, even if you are the rudest – and I would love it if we could express a little more love for the Euro family; however, accusations that Lady Ashton is a British ‘submarine’ sent to sabotage the EU are frankly ludicrous. And De Gaulle was not the saviour of Europe – he was almost as rabid as Thatcher…

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Saturday, 13 February 2010

Whistle While You Work (If You Dare)

Artwork: 'Conversation' by Aleksandr Zhernokluev

Last November, Aleksei Dymovsky, a former Russian police officer from Novorossiik, publicly disclosed the widespread corruption that sits deep in the militsiia. His six-minute YouTube film has received over a million hits and caused quite a stir in Russia. These brave whistle-blowing tactics resulted unsurprisingly in his immediate dismissal from the police force, and last month, Dymovsky was arrested on fraud and corruption charges – revenge for his actions, some say. However, is there hope for this young policeman and others who want to disclose the dirty work of those entrusted with power?

Dymovsky’s bold but clumsy YouTube post has proven to be something of an inspiration. His arrest has led to a flourishing internet campaign, causing others to step forward in support and talk about their experiences of corruption. It would appear that this one whistleblower has lead to a newly assertive citizenry, unwilling to allow bribery and bullies triumph over integrity and truth…

Another hope for the battle against corruption lies with the Kremlin. President Medvedev has always vowed to address the issue more seriously and more concretely. Over the past year, several new federal laws have been introduced, namely ‘On Counteracting Corruption’. All these laws are based around Medvedev’s long-term national anti-corruption plan. In addition, the president’s State of the Nation Address last November pledged to stamp out this ugly problem. Surely there must be something of substance here?

As well as provoking an internet following, Dymovsky’s arrest has attracted much international media attention, forcing the rest of the world to address Russia’s appalling corruption record. Will lifting Russia’s shady profile onto the world stage shame the country’s leaders into addressing the situation properly?

However, neither Dymovsky’s case nor the battle for transparency is this simple. Although his arrest has inspired others to talk, this could be viewed simply as an online fad. The likelihood that Dymovsky will endure a long spell in Russia’s notoriously brutal prisons is simply going to deter others from speaking out in the long run. Many equate doing time in some of Russia’s worst prisons to a death sentence. The story of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who accused the Interior Ministry of corruption, died during a period of incarceration. Surely sometimes it’s better to sit down and shut up?

Furthermore, there is much criticism of the effectiveness of Medvedev’s grand anti-corruption plans. What has actually been achieved? Much of his electoral campaign prior to the 2008 victory was built upon promises to rid Russia of corruption and bring about change. However, as is seen all over the world, electoral promises do not always translate into policy. The death of Magnitsky and the arrest of Dymovsky are just two more chapters in the sad corruption saga that seems to have no denouement in sight.

It has also been pointed out that the successful media coverage of the case is nothing to celebrate. Since Dymovsky’s case converges with the Kremlin’s preferred policy of the month – championing the fight against corruption and reforming the Interior Ministry – the story has garnered much more interest and support than would otherwise have been the case.

What needs to be done?

Firstly, legislation protecting whistleblowers needs to be enforced. Future Dymovskys need to know that if they do speak out, they will not wind up in a prison cell.

Secondly, Messrs Medvedev and Putin need to act with true political will. As mentioned, anti-corruption policies are a vote-winner, but they need to be much more than this.

Thirdly, something must be done to alter the culture of tolerance that surrounds corruption in Russia. Last year, Caroline wrote an excellent post about university students achieving their grades by stuffing essays and exam papers with thousands of roubles. Even the young and intelligent are happy to buy their way through life, simply because this is the way that things are done in Russia.

This is not to say that Russians necessarily find corruption acceptable, but in order to survive and keep day-to-day living ticking over, people are prepared to put up with it. But how do you go about changing something that is so deep-rooted in daily life – the famous Russian byt’?

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Monday, 8 February 2010

In Capital We Trust

Art Work: Maria Dmitryeva
‘Money is the gateway to heaven. It opens up a world of travel and luxury shops, paving the way to an elite education and private medicine. A surplus or absence of money defines a person’s desires, needs, interests, thoughts and more – it defines what is in the soul and mind. Spare cash makes us satisfied, calm and level-headed: an absence of money leads to stress and despair.’
Taken from a 10th grade (ages 15/16) Social Studies textbook, recommended by the Ministry of Education and Research of the Russian Federation

What powers Russia? Money? Oil? Putin? (All on his own… a real superman!) The elusive Russian soul? According to Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, Russia is fuelled entirely by money. Or at least its foreign policy is. In an old article in a 2007 issue of The Washington Quarterly, he reflected on the rationale behind Russian foreign policy:

In stark contrast to its Soviet past, post-imperial Russia stands among the least ideological countries around the world. Ideas hardly matter, whereas interests reign supreme. It is not surprising then that the worldview of Russian elites is focused on financial interests. Their practical deeds in fact declare “In capital we trust.” Values are secondary or tertiary issues, and even traditional military power is hardly appealing. Fluctuating energy prices, not nuclear warheads, are what really matter to Moscow.

Attitudes to money in Russia are different to those in the UK. Perhaps its because I’m British and we have a horribly squeamish attitude towards money, but I’ve always been incredibly uncomfortable around Russians when talk turns to money. I blush and bluster and don’t know how to join in as wages, rent, the cost of your new shoes are openly discussed. There is no beating around the bush when it comes to money in Russia. People do not feel the need to hide their wealth. Nor do they pretend to have money when they do not.

Quick parantheses: the various Russian attitudes to money are beautifully portrayed in ‘Rublyovka – Road to Bliss ’, a film by German-Russian director, Irene Langemann. The film looks at the various inhabitants of Rublyovka Shosse, the most expensive strip of Real Estate in Moscow. They include a bimbo party girl, a philosophising purveyor of fur coats, Shostokovich’s granddaughter, Tajik migrant workers and bohemian architects amongst others. I urge you to watch this film – occasionally the black-and-white portrayal of characters – rich = bad and studpid; poor = humble and good – grinds a little, however it is a realistic portrayal of all the different strata in today’s Russia.

To return to money attitudes: whilst uncomfortable and horribly wrong-footed by the Russian attitude to money, it is far less hypocritical than the British “shove-it-under-the-carpet” attitude. To return to money attitudes at the level of foreign policy: the Russian attitude is far less hypocritical than those of the EU or US. Trenin’s thesis did not necessitate a genius. According to the Russian Foreign Policy Conception, Russia seeks to protect the interests of Russian citizens. Clearly, this means protecting economic interests. (In the Russian mind, this may also mean preventing its near abroad from turning to the West, however that is another a story.) The EU, however, refuses to be quite so honest. Instead it couches all its external strategies in high falutin rhetoric about values and principles. Which it just doesn’t stick to at all!

Take, for example, the proposed Free Trade Agreement with India. This would be quite a coup for the EU27, who would have tariff free access to one of the fastest growing economies. For India, however, the benefits would be marginal (for a lengthy economic explanation see this report at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) and its impact on development would be negative.

Look at Central Asia – despite the EU’s continued insistence on the need for respect of human rights, after a brief moment of uproar it conveniently forgot about the 2005 Andijon massacre and resumed trade with Uzbekistan as well as allowing high officials (who were supposed to be banned from travel to the EU) to visit Germany for healthcare. And this goes beyond the EU. Kazakhstan is currently chairman of the OSCE , an organisation that seeks ‘to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; to abide by the rule of law; to promote the principles of democracy by building, strengthening and protecting democratic institutions; and to promote tolerance throughout the OSCE region.’ Is this the same Kazakhstan that Freedom House rates as 'not free' and which recently sentenced the country's best known human rights advocate, Yevgeny Khortis on charges of manslaughter and traffic violations in what is widely considered as a political set up?

These incidents are schizophrenic policy making at its very best!

In way of conclusion (I hope you’ve managed to follow – I think I’ve lost myself), I think Russian foreign policy makers are far more direct in expressing their external plans. Their belligerence towards the West is real; their desire to control Georgia, Ukraine et al. is not hidden; their desire and need to promote Russian economic interest clearly stated. Whether you agree with what they are doing or not (or not, as is often the case for me) it is refreshing to hear a real opinion for once, amidst the couched diplomacy and hypocrisy of western foreign policy makers.

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Thursday, 28 January 2010

Call for Contributions

Photo: Andrey Tarkovsky

As you may have noticed we’ve got a new look for 2010 and that’s not the only thing that’s changing: without compromising anyone’s territorial integrity we’re going for expansion. We’re looking for guest writers to feature regularly and are offering in return fame and glory, the chance to get published and read by a network of Russophiles, Russophobes and everyone in between, as well as to be a part in building and bettering the eastern blog. So are you a budding Luke Harding, or an Orlando Figes in the making? Could you give Jonathan Dimbleby a run for his money? Have you got something to say about Russia’s relations with Papua New Guinea, or the particularities of the Russian washing-up liquid market? Have you careered across Chukotka on a rusty dog sled wrapped in bearskin with nothing but a pot of caviar for sustenance and lived to tell us the tale? Can you tell your Lukashenko from your Timoshenko and your Vladimir from your Vladislav? Can you write something on this concisely in around 700 words? Then we want to hear from you!

Contributions and further information on: news.easternblog (at)

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Wednesday, 13 January 2010


Photo: By the group, The Fourth Height

Recently I came across a site dedicated to the weird and often wonderful world of google's autocomplete. You know those suggestions that pop up when you enter a search term on google? Well, those are autocomplete: the most popular searches corresponding to what you've entered so far. And my goodness some of them can be odd! Take, for example, the case of an innocent search for 'What do I do if I get swine flu?'. Half way through your typing, google will handily propose a number of suggestions of what you might be looking for. Top of the list? 'What do I do if a ginger kid bites me?' Says reams about our society. This got me thinking about how useful this function could be as a means of analysing popular opinion. With an estimated 100 million searches per day, surely google can tell us something about what people are really thinking about. And, whilst I'm sure it is lacking something in terms of real quantitative research, in a world where it is possible to study David Beckhamology, I think it merits further attention. So, I shall name this new science Autocompletology and my first area of interest will be Russia-related searches.

The most logical place to start is with 'Russia.' A nice simple search. Initially nothing too controversial pops up: in first place, thanks to Rihanna no doubt, Russian Roulette; then Russian translation. But in third place: Russian Brides. Third place?! Surely it is not normal for one of the most popular searches containing the word Russia to be connected to the (legal) purchasing of women? Even worse, if you begin to type 'Russian women', google's top returns are: Russian women personals/dating/scams/for sale...

Of course, this says far more about the western mentality (or perhaps that should be the english-speaking mentality? Actually no: on entering 'les femmes russes', French Google usefully suggested 'les femmes russes' after just entering 'femm', so I think it's fairly western) and perceptions of Russia, than it does anything about Russian women. (Who, I want to stress, are not the topic of this post.) I've been accused in the past of being overly sensitive with regards to (some) western men's attitudes to Russian women, but there is something about (many of) them that is just skin-creepingly horrible. If you go to the websites themselves, the way in which they objectify Russian women is blatant and frankly quite horrible. What I find even stranger is that this attitude isn't unique to dating sites, which I can generally overlook when I imagine the average profile of users (lonely, sad, delusional, sexist...) and given that most of them are scams anyway. No, a lot of the ex-pat crowd I knew in St Petersburg expressed similar attitudes when talking about Russian women. "Russian women are this" etc. etc. This constant generalisation and objectification of women that men just wouldn't dare use if talking about western women. Or, indeed, women they had ever spoken to.

To return to our Autocomplete studies: as a point of comparison, when I switched to Russian google and tried out 'британские мужчины' (British men), nothing happened! And then 'French men', followed by 'Italian men'... still nothing! Eventually when I typed American men, something did pop up, but way down the list and only when I'd almost completely finished the word. (Important Autocompletology note: the speed with which a word is suggested, i.e. how far through the word you get, is big indicator of the popularity of a search.) Ho hum. So, the sites probably are scams and the men using them delusional. Still, says a lot about how Russian women are presented in the West...

...Somehow this Autocompletology study seems to have been hi-jacked by another rant about sexist men but I have time for one last search. Next stop, 'Putin', since we do love a bit of V.V-watching on the Eastern Blog. And the results? Disappointingly quiet concerning those pictures (no bare chests, hunting or swimming, alas) but nevertheless a rather pleasing selection: 'Putin height/French/quotes/calendar/tiger'. And so, in the popular Google imagination, the mighty Russian president is reduced to a small man (various sites dispute exactly how small), whose name, when transliterated into French is amusing close to putain, who shot a tiger down with a tranquilizer and of whom a not insignificant amount of people (127, 000, 000 hits) wouldn't mind owning a calendar. And who came up with such blinders as: 'You must obey the law, always, not only when they grab you by your special place.' Worryingly not one one mention of his actual role, his politics or indeed anything beyond the banal. Autocompletology analysis: Is this the product of his much-famed PR (a rejection of it, perhaps?), of Western portrayals of the man, or just a sad indictment of popular engagement in politics and foreign affairs? (I fear the latter, looking at London's current mayor...)

That's all for now folks, however, I shall definitely be taking this new found social science further. And if you come across any, do please tell me about any good Autocompletologist discoveries!

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Sunday, 10 January 2010

A Fresh Start

С Новым Годом! Happy New Year, faithful blog reader! Yes indeed, if you are still out there, despite our prolonged absence, then thank you very much! As of today, I hereby resolve, in the spirit of the season, to write at least one post a fortnight on all things Russia. I wanted to kick off with a review of Russia's last year and some predictions of what might happen in the next. But then I logged on and read this by Sublime Oblivion, this at foreign policy blogs, and this blow-by-blow monthly account at RIA Novosti, and decided the topic had been well and truly done. Not to mention in detail beyond my wildest dreams. Or that it's already almost Old New Year... the time has definitely past! So instead I've settled for an attack on the use of the word Anglo-Saxon. Which is, I promise, tenuously linked to Russia and the Eastern Blog.

Since starting my course at my small European compound, I have repeatedly heard the term Anglo-Saxon. As in: "the Anglo-Saxon's believe..."; "with regards to the Anglo-Saxon model..." etc. Since I'm studying European integration, it's usually used to describe Britain and Ireland as being somehow linked with the US and so different from the rest of Europe. And when it's spoken about, it's usually accompanied by a knowing nod in mine and my fellow Brits' direction, as though we can confirm that, yes, indeed, that is what those Anglo-Saxons think. But, hang on a moment, just who are these Anglo-Saxons of which they speak? And am I really one of them?

I vaguely remember something back in primary school about the Saxon's invading and indeed, a BBC website confirms:

The term Anglo-Saxon is a relatively modern one. It refers to settlers from the German regions of Angeln and Saxony, who made their way over to Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire around AD 410.

So these Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic tribe, who arrived in the UK over a thousand years ago. So, where did it's association with the US et al. come from? Presumably from the spread of Brits back in our Atlantic-crossing, empire-building days. But surely we aren't all Anglo-Saxon? The word just doesn't seem right.

Firstly I thought it was a uniquely European idea. Perhaps even initially a Gaullist plot that stuck, designed to show how different those damn Brits were and so keep. them. out. Perhaps, I'm just a little paranoid here, but in any case, I didn't think this Anglo Saxon business was a real phenomenon. But then I saw it in a Russian newspaper. And then again! The poisonous term was spreading... everyone was seeing Anglo Saxons everywhere! Except, of course, these so-called anglo-Saxons themselves. According to wikipedia:

Outside Anglophone countries, both in Europe and in the rest of the world, the term "Anglo-Saxon" and its direct translations are used to refer to the Anglophone peoples and societies of Britain, the United States, and other countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The term can be used in a variety of contexts, often to identify the English-speaking world's distinctive language, culture, technology, wealth, markets, economy, and legal systems.

I couldn't quite put my finger on why, but there was something about the term that I had a strong aversion to. A quick internet search for "англо саксон" (that's 'anglo saxon' for those of you terrified by the sight of cyrillic) and the plot thickened. Google's third highest return lead me to the Anglo Saxon homepage, which belongs to a British band formed in the wake of the July 2006 London bomb attacks, which intends to write, record and release songs with a distinctly patriotic feel and a celebration of English/British culture and heritage. (Bizarrely, if you search for the English 'anglo saxon', the site doesn't appear, which is somewhat worrying from the point of view of how Russians must view British identity.) Despite the band's adamant insistent that it is not racist, I'd advise those of you not of a rabid, patriotic bent to stay well clear of the site (it'll just make you angry). Nevertheless, it's interesting just to show the total confusion surrounding this alleged Anglo Saxonism. The band in question seem to fully confuse the term with, I don't know what, Englishness? Britishness? They write:

Anglo Saxon is not part of any political party or organisation. I cannot believe in a country of 50 million people no one has used the name Anglo Saxon. Anyway we’ve got it, patented it and we are keeping it. There has never been any patriotic/nationalist music that has made it into the mainstream, we would like to be the first but hopefully not the last. If other musicians/songwriters can follow through the door we have opened then at least we have contributed something.

In whichever way they understand the term, their usage of it is far from it's orginal description of an invading tribe. BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has likewise used the term 'Anglo-Saxon folk community' to refer to the English member of what he calls Britain's 'indigenous population'. In this was we are witnessing the construction of another meaning to the word 'Anglo Saxon' that is confused, racist and fully exclusive of all the British citizens who are not of a white, Anglo-Saxon ethnic background, of whom there are very, very many.

The question of your average Brit's genetic make up is a hotly contested one in both political and scientific circles. Whilst nationalists might try to draw a marked distinction between the English (mainly derived from the Germanic invasions in the fifth century) and the Celts or Britons who occupied the Island previously (today's Welsh, Scots and Irish), the reality is that we're more likely to be a complicated ethnic mix of all the different invading tribes, probably further jumbled with some genes from other immigration. We're all a complicated bundle of ethnicity generated from our complex history of invasions, immigration and native birth.

To use the word Anglo Saxon to refer to all the western anglophone countries is quite wrong indeed! The word has far too many meanings, ranging from its historical and genetic origins, to the manipulation of it for nationalist and or/racist purpose and ending with its innocent usage by non-English speakers. (Which, I object to anyway, on the grounds that all the allegedly Anglo Saxon countries are culturally and socially very different from one another.) And so, I call on any Russians, Europeans or anyone else out there to abstain from using it. If we must have some phrase to describe a commonality between English speakers and systems can we use one which is less emotionally charged? Suggestions on a post card, please...

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Saturday, 21 November 2009

Go, Russia! Or Just a Piece of Pie?

Much of the coverage of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s State of The Nation Address has been fairly negative. ‘We’ll believe it when we see it’ crowed the cynics. ‘Nice ideas, but what about specifics?’ challenged the journalists. Other commentators have insinuated that the address from the vertically-challenged orator was nothing more than a rambling piece of PR used to placate the Kremlin’s critics. But should we give his plans for modernisation a chance?

Although not the most scintillating of reads, the address is worth a quick glance. The speech tackles many of Russia’s serious problems, reaching out to the old, sick, poor, jobless and homeless. Medvedev placed an emphasis on the menace of alcoholism and the need to improve the country’s efficiency, a commitment that seemed to hark back to the good old days.

In addition to these unremarkable government pledges and a overly intense fixation with broadband (has the Russian president discovered a love of downloading?), Medvedev has promised to implement far-reaching reform by embracing free markets, stamping out corruption, denouncing Russia’s notorious state corporations, nurturing the growth of civil society, reforming the political system, strengthening democratic institutions and challenging the judicial system.

Phew. It appears that Medvedev has lot of work to do. The length of this list alongside vague phraseology and lack of time frames makes it easy to see why there has been a media backlash. The speech also focuses more on the ‘what’ and much less on the ‘how’, revealing gaps and weakness in his grand plan.

I feel sceptical for another reason; his words seem to say exactly what detractors want to hear, both within and beyond Russia’s borders. Medvedev even puts the words of his critics into his own mouth:

‘We must not simply be full of hot air, as they say.’

This kind of pandering suggests that Medvedev’s modernisation plans may only be superficial improvements in order to silence his critics whilst preserving the status quo. Jailbird Khodorkovskii has unsurprisingly voiced an opinion that highlights this problem. In response to the address he stated that it was simply a way to justify modernisation without bothering to dismantle Russia’s authoritarian system.

However, I do not believe that there is no room for optimism. The address was not totally devoid of specifics, but more importantly, the man holding the top seat in the Kremlin has stood up in front of the world and made a series of important, and in certain cases, embarrassing admissions. Criticising the USSR and talking of 'chronic backwardness' has not exactly been the norm in recent years. Such a public and honest acknowledgement of Russia’s afflictions and shortcomings should be welcomed, not simply pooh-poohed as another piece of Kremlin spin. The fact that the president has thrown these questions out into the open in such a disparaging way, whilst risking the wrath of his prime minister, is commendable.

In sum, this year’s State of The Nation Address is a step in the direction of reality, if not a genuine movement towards a comprehensive plan to adopt the reform so badly needed. The economic downturn has exposed Russia’s weaknesses – mainly its over-reliance on energy resources – and brought a much needed wake-up call, which has been articulated in this speech. Still, whether Medvedev plans to implement his promises once he has polished off his humble pie remains to be known.

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