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.

Monday, 29 December 2008

People of the Year 2008

Photo: Mila Maksimova and Viktor Ribas
From the hallowed halls of the Central Bank to the somewhat less sober surroundings of cyber space, Russian server has also offered its nominations for People of 2008. It has just published a list of the most popular searches of 2008, divided into a series of categories, creating a more representative, if less salubrious, list of who really shaped 2008 for Russians.

Singer of the Year
Narrowly beating boy-band hero, Dima Bilan, sentimental singer MakSim wins the accolade of most searched for Russian singer. Citing her main musical influences as Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, you can probably guess what kind of music she makes. However, here's a clip of one of her best selling songs, if you really must have a listen:
Скачать mp3 МакSим - Лучшая ночь с
And the lyrics go: I don't know how to tell you, but this is the best night/ I don't know you to tell you, but with him was the best night/ I don't know what's true or what's false/ I sing about the sky, but rain falls from the sky/ I don't know how many faces I have seen/ In my book, life has fewer pages.

Size of the Year
Can’t work out what size they’re referring to? Take a look at this year’s winner, Anna Semenovich and all will be revealed. A one time ice-skating star, Semenovich is now described on her website as an 'athlete/singer/beauty', however I think we all know what she's really famous for. And they say size doesn’t matter…

Jokers of the Year
A Western import, but with a decidedly Russian twist. Our Russia is the Russian take on Little Britain, giving us a whole new host of national stereotypes to laugh at. Potentially even less politically correct than it's English mother show, Our Russia's most beloved characters include Snezhana Denisovna, a scamming provincial school teacher, and Ravshan and Dzhamud, poor immigrant workers from Central Asia who don't speak a word of Russian and are constantly abused by their irrascible, but apparently loveable, Russian foreman. Perhaps a little close too close to the bone?

Factory of the Year
Don’t you just love reality TV? This year’s top “star factory” is House Number 2. A barrel of laughs, in which contestants attempt simultaneously to build a house and find a life partner. Presented by Russia’s answer to Paris Hilton, Ksenia Sobchak, (see below) this really is reality TV at rock bottom. Nevertheless, it is currently in its second and a half year, and the original house has ballooned into a lavish mansion complex.

Our Everything of the Year
Putin. Boring. (Pushkin was in second place though. Nice.)

Black PR of the Year
Any fame is good fame? So might argue Russian socialite Ksenia Sobchak. Compared alternately to a horse or Paris Hilton, this darling of the Russian tabloids is at the same time a national joke and a national treasure. She's impossibly well connected (Daddy was mayor of Petersburg and Putin's mentor), hosts Russia's number one reality TV show and even has political aspirations. In 2006 she set up her own youth organisation All Free, which ostensibly seeks to help deprived youths, but is considered by many as a not very covert attempt to extend Kremlin influence, by preventing the anti-government uprisings that have caused havoc in neighnouring Ukraine and Georgia.

However, despite being the host of one of the most popular TV shows in Russia, she is far from universally loved, and consequently travels at all times with an armed body guard. When asked if the animosity she arouses bother her, she replied: 'No. What I really dislike is when anyone is indifferent. As long as I'm getting a reaction, it's OK. When people are nasty I don't feel anything.' Indeed, any PR is good PR.

Before writing her off completely, I'd just like to draw your attention to an event that happened in Moscow's Sheremetevo airport yesterday afternoon. Ksenia and her fellow 300 passengers were waiting to depart on an Aeroflot flight to New York, when the pilot made a rather unusual address to the plane. Ever alert, Ksenia realised that something was amiss and marched up to the cockpit, suspecting the that pilot was not 100% sober. She told a Russian magazine:" When he started speaking in English I immediately knew. I speak pretty good English and can tell when someone's under the influence. He wasn't definitely drunk, he was slurring all his words. I was furious and marched up to the cabin... which stank of alcohol."
According to eyewitnesses, a struggle then ensued, and the flight was canceled. "Ksenia saved us all!", one overjoyed passenger was overheard to say. It would seem there's much more to Sobchak than meets the eye...

So, there we have it: blondes, boobs, poetry and Putin. The Russian web in a nut shell.

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Friday, 26 December 2008

Person of the Year 2008

Photo: Oleg Videnin
Every year, Expert Magazine, a business weekly, nominates its own Person of the Year a la Time Magazine. The award recognises the individual that the editorial believes has had the greatest political, economic or social impact in Russia throughout the preceding year. Previous winners have been (surprise, surprise) Putin (2007) and Medvedev (2005), as well as Abramovich and Khordokovsky (2003) and the Minisiter of Defense, Sergei Lavrov (2006).

In contrast to Time’s nomination of Obama as a ‘wind of change’, Expert chose Sergei Ignatev, head of the Central Bank of Russia, who they characterised as a rock of stability, working to prevent Russia from descending into total financial collapse. In an extremely balanced article, Expert argued that, whilst the Central Bank’s policies are far from perfect, it is this institution alone that holds the potential to ensure Russia's economic stability.

The main bulk of the article constituted an appraisal of Russian economic policy this past year, emphasising both its highs and lows. Expert neither blindly praised the bank’s handling of the crisis nor too harshly criticised it. The message was clear: despite its many mistakes, the Central Bank’s actions were instrumental in avoiding total economic meltdown. But it’s leader must not relax – difficult times lie ahead and the bank must act carefully if it wants to ride out the storm intact.

Below is the introduction to the article, which sets out why Expert chose Sergei Ignatev as Person of 2008.


He Must Find a New Equilibrium

By nature, employees of the Central Bank are curt and enigmatic. The High Priests of liquidity do not have it in them to be loquacious. Sergey Ignatev, head of the Russian Central Bank takes this maxim to new extremes - he is simply silent.

Once or twice a year, he delivers the Central Bank's positions and predictions to an exclusive audience consisting of the President and Prime Minister. General communication with the wider public and mass media is left to his vice, Alexei Ulyukaev. Heavy chinned, peering gloomily out through old-fashioned, heavy rimmed, thick-lensed glasses, Ignatev's silence is unreadable and can thus mean many things. He, more than most, can be judged by his actions alone.

Following his appointment as head of the CB in March 2002, he set about assembling a quality team of financial professionals, who would shape CB's policies in the years ahead. Let us examine three of them.

First, there's Oleg Vyugin, who determined macroeconomic regulation of the CB: strengthening the accumulation of international resources and sterilising links with the Ministry of Finance through the establishment of the Stabilisation Fund (2004).

Then there's Andrei Kozlov, who used his strengths to create our system of insurance payments, to introduce new controls and to implement a large-scale purge of scammers and pseudo-bankers within our banking systems - work that he paid for with his life.

Finally there's the aforementioned Alexei Ulyukaev, who replaced Vyugin as the first deputy of the CB in 2004, and set in motion a new system of refinancing banks, the durability of which is currently being tested.

Despite the importance of the actions of these individuals, our choice of the main banker as person of the year represents the flexibility and decisiveness with which the Central Bank has so far faced the current crisis. We want to point out straightaway that we do not judge all elements of the Central Bank's strategy for dealing with the crisis as effective, or even successful. Furthermore, in our opinion, the acuteness of today's crisis is, in many ways, due to mistakes made by the Central Bank at an earlier stage. For example, what was the point in raising interest rates and norms of the essential reserves at the start of this year, when the means of saving Russia from the global liquidity crisis had already been neglected? Likewise, the greatest weakness and vulnerability of our financial system springs from the failure of the main bank to devise a strategic plan for its development.

Nevertheless, the main event of this year has been the crisis; the person of the year must therefore be the most important actor in the struggle against the crisis. We consider the Central Bank to be the most important actor in the crisis, and, as the head of the bank, Sergey Ignatev symbolises the bank’s policies.

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Sunday, 21 December 2008

Protest, what protest?

Photo: Andrey Kremenchuk
Everybody in Russia loves their government; the Kremlin enjoys universal support, as all citizens rejoice that their authorities are working together to ensure a bright and prosperous common future. Right? Of course not, although you’d be forgiven for believing that, if your only source of news was the state-owned media.

A couple of weeks ago the Russian government announced plans to raise customs duties on imported cars, in a protectionist move to defend the struggling Russian auto industry. The decision, which many say will have a direct and negative impact on their income, caused uproar in cities throughout Russia, although noticeably in Vladivostok, where hundreds of people turned up bearing banners saying ‘No to import duties.’

What’s interesting here is not the fact that the government has decided to raise import duties - I’m not an economist and I couldn’t say whether the raised taxes are a good or bad thing. What caught my attention was the way the incident was dealt with in the media; whilst the protests were covered by a few independent papers, not a word was breathed about it on Pervy Kanal, the main state channel, and coverage of the protests in most other papers and on other channels was patchy, at best.

Particularly telling was how the incident was reported in Rossiskaya Gazeta, the official state paper, in which state proclamations and new laws are announced. On 9th December the paper announced the government’s plans and then… everything fell silent. Despite people protesting across Russia, the editorial of RG saw no need to mention the disturbances. A few days later readers were told about demonstrations in support of the new duties, and were assured that, despite a global crisis, the Russian car-production industry remains the strongest in the world. But what of the protesters? Eventually their activities were recognised, when RG reported that grievances against the new taxes would be registered by federal agencies. Nevertheless, the way in which we were told about these protesters suggested that they were a minority, almost extremist group, whose protests should not be of universal concern.

This tactic of turning a blind eye to anything unpleasant is symptomatic of how much of the Russian media deals with anti-Kremlin protests. Rather than risk offending the Kremlin, it’s easier just to sweep everything under the carpet and not mention it all. But what opportunity does that allow for the expression of oppositionist ideas?

At the same that people were protesting the increased duties, a series of opposition marches expressing discontent with Russia's general economic and political situation were taking place across Russia. 15th December saw marches in 30 cities across Russia, organised by opposition political parties. The marches, however, didn't have an opportunity to take off, and were quickly broken up by the riot police, with participants being detained or whisked off into waiting trucks. Again, these riots were barely noted in the media. If its not reported, it didn't happen. And in a country as big as Russia, by not giving something adequate reportage you allow it to become an isolated event, effectively preventing further discussion on a topic.

As I was following all this, I was interested to come across an article in the St. Petersburg Courier, a free Petersburg weekly, which addressed media coverage of popular demonstrations. The author, Maria Shilova, noted the absence of media coverage of the anti-import and non-agreement marches, remarking how such protests provide the sole arena for citizens to express non-conformist opinions or a place to express constructive criticism. However, as the breaking up of the opposition marches illustrates, as a democratic pressure valve such marches are far from ideal: any attempts to express discontent will be immediately cracked down on. Shilova ended her article with the following question: And, if you’ll forgive me asking, how will the authorities know what they need to do, if we don’t have an arena for legal Constitutional marches and meetings? If we don't have freedom of speech, social discussions and transparency of information? If the authorities don't have to answer for their actions?

I can’t think of a better way to express the problems Russia faces if it really wants to develop the mechanisms necessary to create a solid civil society. If the country can't even recognise a plurality of opinions by reporting protest, then how can it ever hope to have a truly representative democratic society?

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Saturday, 20 December 2008

You might laugh... but you should probably cry

Photo: "Swimmer 3" by DOU, finalist of the 2008 Kandinski prize.
This article was published on December 18th in the paper and online edition of the weekly newspaper “Argumenty i Fakty” [Arguments and Facts]; further down is a selection of comments that were posted on the newspaper’s website in response to the article. In 1990 Argumenty i Fakty was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for its massive print-run of 33.5 million. It currently stands at (a still impressive!) 7 million. Despite its scholarly origins, the newspaper has always been rather inclined towards general muckraking and sensationalist reportage; the content and quality of writing seem now to be on an increasingly slippery slope, with ever more thinly-veiled nationalism seeping through and a rising frequency of resorts to immigrant-bashing. A bit like the Daily Mail then.


You’re going to laugh, but Saakashvili has been declared the 13th most “influential” leader in the world.
Tamara Miodushevskaia

US Time magazine has gone rather over the top with flattery towards the leader of Georgia. The publication paid respect to those who, in Time’s opinion, are the main political figures of the year. Barack Obama of course headed the list of 18 nominations. No-one could have thought that they would nominate anyone else but the “ambassador of the wind of change”. Even more so given that his “favourable breeze” has evidently not done the publication any harm during the global economic standstill.

Time dedicated the front cover of the magazine to a poster of Obama in celebration of his election win. In the past two years the newspaper has managed to publish 15 whole issues with Obama on the main page. The Person of the Year 2008 was indescribably happy with this, which he let everyone know in a lengthy interview to the magazine. He promised to do everything necessary to pull America out of its financial instability and yet again mourned the fact that, although it is of course good to be the president-elect, he still misses simple human pleasures.

Mournful comments on the fact that he is no longer an “average guy” have become ritual for Obama. In several subsequent interviews wistfully gazing into the distance he remembered how he could once simply run down the street, go to the shops, take his wife out to dinner or smoke when and where he felt like it. Now all that’s come to an end: it’s now all protocols, conferences and a healthy way of life.

Obama’s been left with only one outlet: basketball.

“On the court, you can tell who’s a selfish jerk”, said Obama, quoting the words of his father and trainer and implying that instead of “jerk”, he had a stronger word in mind. [This is in fact a misquote, which was taken from an interview in Time not with Obama but with his brother-in-law, Craig Robinson (and was clearly written by Robinson and not Obama) - Ed]

Soon a basketball court will be installed in the White House. It hasn’t yet been précised whether the US president is planning on organising matches for his colleagues to vet them for “egoistic” tendencies.

Let’s suppose that Obama was to also move his mother-in-law into the White House with him, and not only that, but to culturally enrich his compatriots by organising charity concerts on the walls of his temporary hangout. In that way, after the 20th January 2009, an inexhaustible crowd would be making their way to Washington: some to play ball, some to listen to music, some to pour their hearts out to the president’s old mother-in-law.
Let’s remember that in 2007 Time magazine nominated the then president of Russia Vladimir Putin. This time round the magazine did not take the pains to include one single Russian on the list of influential people. But Putin did nevertheless get a mention; in the article dedicated to the Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili.

Mishiko [diminutive for Mikhail - Ed] was nominated to the honourable place 13 on the publication’s list. Although the country is indeed superstitious, they didn’t place him in position 12A like they often do. However, it’s worth reading what was said about this; as you will see there’s not a jot of irony [with regard to Saakashvili], just overt sympathy.

“He poked the Russian Bear,” starts the article, almost in the style of a Hollywood blockbuster, “and his tiny nation got flattened under its heavy paw [The original text reads: mauled” - Ed]. But Saakashvili, President of Georgia, stood out as a beacon of hope for former Soviet states now menaced by the imperial ambitions of 2007's Person of the Year, Vladimir Putin. Outgunned on the battlefield, Saakashvili, a U.S.-trained lawyer, used superior media savvy to cast himself as a modern-day democratic David, fending off the monster from Moscow.” Under this flowery turn of phrase was the modest signature of the author: Bobby Ghosh


Comments posted on Please note, all comments by myself from this point onwards are in italics.


The lonely sceptic;

Oh, AiF-AiF [Argumety i Fakty - Ed] … I just can’t read or even look at you without pity any more. I get the impression that you have turned into an evil lunatic-asylum attendant who carries out every directive from his boss without questioning and even tries to outdo him demands, by thinking up his own horrors for the readers (patients). Of course someone’s going to say “Why are you reading it then and what’s more even writing on the forum?” I’ll answer this – to laugh at your cowardice and stupidity. Although I’ll have to admit, that laugh is coming through tears.

Although this was one of the most extreme cases, there was a predominance of this general opinion;

Time has obviously overdone it, even though in the past the magazine has always promoted a good-neighbourhood policy. Saakashvili – the 13th most influential politician? Now you’re making me laugh. He’s just an unfortunate local mini-fuehrer, a pallid shadow of those much more successful Georgian vampires Beria and Stalin. He freeloaded scrap metal from the whole of Europe and then decided to make a name for himself by creating a micro-empire, forcibly annexing obstinate yet weak neighbours to Georgia. […] And this “influential” person calls his misadventures “democratic rule”! “Mr. Democratic” you’re our “genocide- Tskhinvali”, the great Georgian “David-democrat”, the Emperor who wears no clothes, covering your nakedness and cowardice with EU and US flags. It’s a pity that Putin made the mistake at the very last moment not to send the tanks into Tbilisi [… another paragraph of the same rant that I won’t publish here; generally anti-Georgian, anti-American, anti-Semitic - Ed]
And you know what? Russia picked the Georgian nation up, saved it from extinction when there was only around 75,000 of you left. You went forth and multiplied well, and in the USSR you lived better than the Russians, at our expense. Now there’s a saying that’s justified for you: no good deed goes unpunished. In the USSR Georgians paid off the Russians with flowers and mineral water, but what’re you going to pay Uncle Sam back with now? He doesn’t do owt for nowt! You’re probably going to continue putting your own people on the line.

A view from Georgia; outraged, but still hopeful.

Since the war I’ve been reading a lot in your press about us. Every time I get the impression that you all think the same about us. Like 99,9% of all comments posted on here. It reminds me of the socialist times when everyone had the same opinion. Our government is not important, but we have more freedom. We’ve begun to live a lot better, we curse Mischa [Saakashvili] but he’s done a lot for Georgia, I’ve got my own business and don’t even have to bribe anyone. You all curse America and Georgia in unison; we didn’t start the war, it was you that brought us into it. Abkhazia and Ossetia are just your Chechnya, Dagestan and Tatarstan. […] you’ve already started breaking up from within. What is it you say over your way? What you reap is what you….? One day soon when the politicians on both sides are gone we will be good neighbours again.

And finally, although to a slightly lesser extent, the idea of Russian-Georgian brotherhood (often united against the US) was still present, if just eclipsed by the more sensationalist racist rants.

A Russian
It’s simple – America plays the music and we all listen and marvel! Russians and Georgians are brother-nations! It’s only politicians, with their personal ambitions that have separated us. And like idiots we listen to them and then curse one another.

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Friday, 19 December 2008

Lugovoi proposes a new explanation for Litvinenko’s death

The following events were reported on in this way or very similarly by most newspapers in Russia a couple of weeks ago, I didn't notice it in the British press, but I thought it was quite interesting nonetheless. With his work in the State Duma, Lugovoi is quite often on the news here and his political activities do not seem to have been tarnished by the British authorities’ demand for his extradition.

The businessman and LDPR [ed: “Liberal Democratic Party of Russia”] deputy of the State Duma Andrei Lugovoi has declared that ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko’s death in November 2006 was most likely caused by imprudent handling of radioactive polonium that he was storing.

“Litvinenko was by nature a risk-taker; he always tried to live on the edge. It’s necessary to take into account his real hate for those authorities who were in power in Russia at that time, hate for the secret services, for anything Russian”, Lugovoi noted. Earlier he had claimed that London had something to hide; “the State machine of Great Britain has direct links with the Litvinenko’s murder”. The Law Enforcement agencies of the United Kingdom, on the contrary, accuse Lugovoi of Litvinenko’s murder. The British courts have put in a request for his arrest, but the Russian authorities are refusing his extradition, demanding proof of his guilt. This refusal has lead to the serious worsening of London-Moscow relations.

Having fled to Britain in 2000, Litvinenko passed away in November 2006. NHS specialists claim that they discovered a significant amount of radioactive polonium-210 in his body, however they are refusing to give an official cause of death and two years on the results of the investigation have still not been made public.

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Sunday, 14 December 2008

Miss Constitution

Photo: Igor Miukhin
It’s not all doom and gloom in Russia. Turn on Channel One, the state owned television channel, and there’s always something to lift your spirits. This Friday (12th Dec), Russia celebrated “Constitution Day”. The event was reported in a rather amusing manner. First there was the speech by President Dmitri Medvedev; rather ironic on the backdrop of his recent constitutional amendments to increase the presidential term:

The constitution is not, of course, a canon law given from above, but the result of a social contract; and contracts can change. But the fundamental articles of the constitution should not change; they should not change because this would be dangerous for the very existence of the state. Everything that is laid down in the constitution and everything that determines our fundamental rights and freedoms, the presidential character of our state, the federal system, this is what in all likelihood should never change, or, at any rate, not in the near future.”

In case things got too serious however, “Nashi” the pro-Kremlin youth organisation, had organised a “Miss Constitution” event which was held on Red Square. As Channel One reported:

The girls sang, danced, demonstrated their intelligence, answering questions on the content of the Russian constitution and expressing their personal opinions on the country's politics… The girls also took part in a catwalk wearing mini-bikinis. The organisers of the event noted that these would be “fur swimsuits, like Snow Maiden’s outfit.”

To top it all off, yesterday the world’s largest felt boot was on display in a park in central Moscow. Never a dull moment I tell you.

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Saturday, 13 December 2008

But Men Are Always Right

Photo: Viktor Suvorov
Further to my last post, I remembered an incident that occurred the other day:

I was teaching a class and asked my students to pair up and role play a business meeting: each student was given a different goal and the aim was to discuss the different possibilities and then come to a decision. Normally the exercise takes about twenty minutes, but on this occasion it was over within two. Surprised, I asked the couple in front of me (a man and a woman) how they had come to a decision so quickly. The girl replied, “I gave my opinion, and then he gave his. He’s a man, so obviously he knows more about business, so we took his decision.”

Infuriating. The woman works as a manager in an engineering company and is highly educated.

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Remember: Women are People Too!

Photo: Aleksandr Petrosyan for Russian News Week
So ends an article entitled, ‘Things Never to Say to a Woman’ written by Sofia Wagner, and published on (School of Life), an internet magazine, describing itself as a ‘forum for all unanswered questions.’ The article, which is ridiculous, almost to the point of parody (excerpts published below) reminded me of everything I find infuriating about male-female relationships in Russia.

Of course, it’s difficult to make blanket statements about this subject, as I discovered as I tried repeatedly to write an introduction to Wagner's article. Attitudes to male-female relationships differ vastly according to age, socio-cultural background, personality type, etc. and Wagner's opinion is just one example of a rather provincial attitude to men and women, which assumes that a women’s place is necessarily in the home.

From my personal experience, however, the majority of male-female relationships in Russia are highly chauvinistic. Nevertheless, they are more complex than the straightforward dominant -oppressed power relationship. Men and women are expected to play certain roles in society, and these roles seem much more fixed than their equivalents in British society. So, whilst Russian men see themselves as protectors and are assiduous in looking after women, constantly opening doors, carrying bags, and always, always picking up the bill, woman are expected to look good at all times. In conversation women will often concede an opinion to their male counterparts, and men are seen as stronger leaders and more authoritative on most issues. On the other hand, women are definitely in charge in a social sense, and tend to have total control over the domestic scene - all this alongside working in high-powered jobs (definitely room for some interesting feminist exploration here, but this article is long already!). Essentially, there seems to be a kind of co-dependence at work, running along deeply sexist lines, whereby men and women are expected to play along to “rules” governed by their gender.

As a westerner living in Russia, these rules can prove a social minefield: never try to shake hands when meeting a man, don't offer to pay for a drink and never, ever question a man's facts in a conversation.

The question of male-female relationships is a massive topic, so I’m going to try and find more articles showing the array of opinions and attitudes out there, but here’s the original article. I thought it was a spoof at first, but I think it’s for real. It’s worth a read, if only for comedy value:

What Never to Say to a Woman

“My Mother does it better”
My mum is better at cooking than you, and her salads are better; she’s better at ironing shirts, and when she irons my trousers, the pleats stay in for weeks; when she cleans the house it’s like a dream – you won’t find a spot of dust in even the darkest recess!

Sometimes the mother is substituted for a sister, an acquaintance, an ex-wife (yes, this really does happen!), a childhood sweetheart etc. But most often its “Mother does it better”, a terrible phrase, responsible for the destruction of many families.

I don’t wish to criticise mothers in any way. On the contrary, I truly believe that most mothers probably were better housewives than their son’s wives. It’s just that telling a woman this doesn’t generally lead to domestic bliss. Indeed, when confronted with such criticism the response of the average exhausted, hardworking, contemporary woman will be, ‘if you’re mother’s so great, go back to her.’

“Finally, you’ve put something nice on!”
You hear this phrase quite often. I know men who are constantly telling their wives that they don’t know how to dress. They tell all their friends that if they didn’t buy their wives clothes then they’d be too embarrassed to walk down the street with her. Obviously this kind of talk inevitably leads to divorce.

"Where's my dinner?!"
This is particularly offensive if your wive is looking after a child, doing her own work, keeping house… Men only have to worry about their own work.

A better way to deal with this would be to ask why your wife hasn't managed to cook the dinner. If the problem is that she doesn't know how to do it (and this does happen, often in young families), then its best to find a course to help her. If its just that she is twoo over loaded with jobs to do then perhaps you could help her.

"Where've you hidden my tie/cigarettes/pen/hammer/glasses etc.?"
By asking this question, a man immediately demonstrates that he does practically nothing around the house. He is at home as he would be in a hotel, with porters, maids, etc. [who do everything for him].

"What are you, a fool?"
[It's possible that] you wife really is a fool. What of it? It simply means that she has other abilities instead of intellect. In marrying a woman you give over your heart and hand, so if your wife is a fool, what does that say about you?

"You don't know how to do anything!"
Possible variations of this are 'you don't know to sew/cook/bring up a child' etc. But, dear men, remember, if a woman can't cook – and this does sometimes happen – wouldn't it be much easier just to buy her a cook book? It's much more effective than wasting your time shouting and getting upset.

"Your son is a failure!"
As if he's just her son, and has got nothing to do with you whatsoever. Its very easy to criticse a woman, but in this case the only person you should be criticising is yourself, for not paying enough attention to the upbringing of your own child.

Dear Men, please remember, women are people too!

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Friday, 12 December 2008

Got car, can't drive

The Russian government announced a few days ago an amendment to bring the procedure of reporting road accidents into line with European standards. From the 1st January 2009 any person who dies up to a month after being involved in a road accident (as opposed to the current system that only counts those who die within 48 hours of the incident) will be considered a victim of this accident and will thus be counted in the official statistics.

The number of deaths on Russian roads recorded under the current system is already notably high. In 2008, according to official statistics, 24,200 people died in road accidents and 222,300 were injured. Impressive figures for a country with a population of 141,900,000. Just to put this in perspective, compare this number with that of road deaths in two countries with similar populations; Bangladesh, where in 2004 there was an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 deaths (adjusted from the official figures due to the rarity of such accidents being properly reported), and Japan, where the figure for 2007 stands at 5,744.

For those with macabre interest in such details, the statistics are updated daily on the Department for Transport's website (Russian only), so you can track one of the big contributors to the population decline on a day to day basis. Yesterday’s figures report 535 accidents causing 75 deaths and 594 injuries. Five of these accidents were caused by drink driving.

According to the information published on the website, 80% of accidents are caused by drivers simply not following the rules of the road. If you’ve ever taken a taxi or tried to cross a road in Moscow then you’ll have been on either the giving or receiving end of this lethal threat and will know what we’re talking about here. For those who haven’t had this experience, take for example the general attitude to ambulances. Pulling over or slowing down to let an ambulance past may add a few vital seconds on to your journey, so it’s better to just drive faster. If that darn ambulance should manage to overtake you, then drive as close behind it as possible; at the next set of traffic lights you might be able to squeeze your way through with it.

However, to label Russia’s drivers simply as insubordinate and reckless would be missing the bigger picture (although it would not be a wholly unfair accusation). Taking a brief look at the current system to obtain one’s driving licence brings you closer to the heart of the matter. A driving license is impossibly difficult to obtain in an entirely official way due to a maze of rules, complicated theory tests and corruption amongst examiners. It’s much easier, cheaper and faster to reply to one of the numerous adverts on the metro that advertise “external exam inscription” (amongst other things such as visa registration and medical certificates on demand… but that’s another story).

A few friends of mine did the maths and proceeded to obtain their licences here as opposed to in Europe, where obviously you would have to spend a lot of money in order to… well... learn how to drive. The whole shebang costs around 600 euros. The situation unfolds thus; a private driving instructor who advertises “exam help” will show you the basics. This part brings to mind my granddad describing how he earned his driving licence whilst in the British army; you simply sat in a truck and should you manage to arrive at the designated mark a few hundred feet away with the truck in one piece then your driving skills were confirmed and you received your licence. This, however, was in 1944. It’s obviously no longer that easy and in any case, there’s now also the small problem of the theory test. But a bit of cash brings knowledge. Or a computer with the correct answers already conveniently ticked. You do have to at least look like you tried however, so turning up to fail first time is obligatory. The magic computer’s only there the second time and you still have to click OK, which is perhaps a sort of selection process to root out those who are really incapable of reading a road sign.

For the practical test everything looks above board; official test centre, test date booked in advance, proof of identity needed and a pile of paperwork to be stamped and signed. But in case he might have had any doubts, the examiner will have been informed by your private instructor how good you really are at driving.

So it would not be entirely fair to jump to conclusions and correlate the number of deaths from alcohol (more on that another time) with the number of road deaths; even if you do crash whilst drunk, bets are on you didn’t really know how to drive in the first place.

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Monday, 8 December 2008

Russia Receives an F for Media Freedom

Photo: James Hill
In September Reporters Without Borders (RBW) ranked Russia 141st (out of 179 countries) in its annual world press freedom index. Describing Russia as a ‘would-be great country’, the report lamented the Putin-Medvedev duo’s strict control over both state and opposition media, as well as the physically and mentally threatening atmosphere in which Russian media professionals work.

In a detailed report, RBW criticised numerous elements of the Russian media, including the abuse of journalists by the militsia during protest marches; searches of editorial offices and news agencies; the closing down of the Samara and Nizhni Novgorod branches of Novaya Gazeta (the left-wing paper, for whom Politkovskaya wrote); the change of leadership and editorial policy of the Russia News Service and the disappearance of the BBC from FM-broad wave. They also expressed further concerns about how the investigations of the murders of journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Khlebnikov are being carried out, and about the circumstances surrounding the death of Kommersant journalist Ivan Safronov.

Why then, if the media is so strictly controlled, are we choosing to base a substantial part of this blog on translations of articles written in the Russian press? Surely any ideas expressed there will be heavily censored and artificial? Well, no, not exactly. Certainly, as the RBW report highlights, it would be ridiculous to speak of freedom of speech within Russia. As the trial of Politkovskaya’s murderers progresses, a poignant reminder of the pressure Russian journalists face, to do so would be an insult to all those journalists facing constant harassment as they attempt to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of speech. However, as I hope the excerpts from following article shows, public opinion, as expressed by journalists, academics and bloggers, is not entirely homogenous. Despite the climate of fear and oppression, the Russian state does not hold journalists in a totalitarian grip. On the contrary, it is possible to find a huge range of opinion pieces in the Russian press, including some that vehemently attack the status quo.

This article, published 28th September in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Gazette), is an example of attempts to challenge the status quo and express genuine opinion. In the light of the RBW conclusions, the author, Stanislav Minin casts a critical eye over the state of the Russian media and how it is perceived within Russia.

“Many will argue that the conclusions of RWB are biased. Indeed, any ranking in which Russia comes lower than two thirds down the table is said to be biased. The question is not whether a rating is biased, but rather which bias underpins this particular ranking. Thus, in recent years we have learnt that there are two understandings of human rights: Western and Russian. Similarly, it is suggested that what constitutes freedom of the press is open to different interpretations. It follows that we should not therefore be worried about being ranked 141st in their list.

Freedom of the press demands that journalists are not shot, beaten up, thrown into prison or expelled from the country; that journalists do not receive threatening phone calls; that the State cooperates with them and does not obstruct their access to important information; that undue political pressure is not placed upon writers, so that self-censorship turns into an absence of criticism; that the authorities’ activities are critically examined; that the government neither possesses a monopoly on the mass media nor strives to do so. In these requirements I see nothing specifically Western nor biased.

When we say that ‘Russia has an independent (i.e. independent from the government) press’, we are immediately highlighting the fact that Russia has a problem with freedom of the media. It is a question of word usage. Democratic countries have no need to proclaim that they ‘have’ an independent press, since in these countries the concept of a state media simply doesn’t exist. By claiming to have an independent press, we are immediately aware that there must also be a government-controlled press, against which the independent media is defined.

What’s more, when we say that ‘Russia has an independent press’ we sometimes forget to describe the conditions in which it exists. The independent media is owned by independent businesses, which are themselves often uncertain of their security. Consequently, the media is likewise left feeling unsure of itself. Neither the Russian government nor Russian society enjoys debate; they don’t know how to participate nor do they want to learn. Any alternative opinions are thus seen as marginal and those who pronounce them are dubbed ‘fifth columnists’. As a result, the idea of freedom of the press is not accorded much respect, a problem compounded by the impurity of those in power, their backwardness, their short sightedness and their one-sided understanding of the nature of the media and its complexities. [Given such conditions] it should not come as such a surprise to be ranked 141st in the press freedom index. Russia fails with regards to media freedom.”

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The Constitution is what States Make of it

Photo: Yuri Kozyrev
The following four comments were published in the “Letters” section of Russian Newsweek after President Dmitri Medvedev, in his first annual address to the federal assembly on Nov 5th, proposed extending the presidential term from four to six years. When asked what she thought of the proposition, a friend of mine simply rolled her eyes and shrugged. A gesture no doubt repeated country-wide and not just amongst the politically-apathetic; the friend in question is a masters student in global politics. She then simply summed up the situation in the common Russian saying: "закон - что дышло, куда повернешь, туда и вышло". Which is quite literally: the law is like the axle of a cart, whichever way you turn it, that’s the way it goes. Or in other words - you can bend the law any way you wish. Which is what has happened for as long as people here can remember; hence the recurring shrugs.


“Putin or Medvedev? That’s the question that begs to be asked. I think that speech’s content was agreed on in its entirety by the Prime Minister. Putin didn’t chance changing the constitution himself, as one of the conditions imposed upon him by Yeltsin during “Operation Successor-2000” was the guarantee not to change the constitution. In this particular case Putin kept his word. But now with Medvedev as President, Putin is no longer bound by any moral obligations.”

“In this political climate it’s not entirely understandable why it’s necessary to increase the presidential term to six years. What’s the difference, Medvedev or Putin: they’re playing for the same team, in which Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) calls the shots. A presidential term only needs to be increased when power changes hands, passes from one group to another during the elections, in order to give those in power enough time to change something in the country. But in the current situation, it’s unclear why it was necessary. I’d like to believe that Putin is running out of steam and will create a normal, democratic state.”

“Generally speaking, everyone who was expecting the “Medvedev-thaw” can calm down now that everything is set in stone for the long run. And in this situation, who’s going to be Number 1 and Number 2 doesn’t make any difference in the grand scheme of things.”

“Putin is a Tsar - that’s all there is to it! There are some profoundly unprofessional people in power, who are leading the country to isolation and ruin. They don’t care. Their bank balances are growing. Nothing else is important to them. I think any further commentary is unnecessary simply because these people have the right to do whatever they like in Russia: cut up the constitution, starve the country of information, murder Russia’s foreign policy, plunder our money.”

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Dobra pozhalovat... or Welcome!

Photo: Igor Starkov - "Vladikavkaz"
We’re bringing you news from the eastern… blog. Russia as it looks from within, and the rest of the world as it looks from Russia. There’s going to be their opinions, our opinions and experiences worth sharing. We’ll pass through the timeless, well-known stereotypes: queues, beetroot soup, fur hats and of course snow… lots of it. On the way we’ll encounter some new ones: the fear of the unpolished shoe, the omnipresent “VIP”, “facecontrol” and of course mayonnaise… lots of it. And then, gradually, the real Russia appears in all her complexity; a nation, made up of hearts and minds that have something to say, but that in the West we don’t always hear. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry and we’ll learn a lot. And hopefully that’s when we’ll begin to see both sides of the story.

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