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.

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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Monday, 12 October 2009

Good cop, bad cop: a sovereign tandemocracy

Image: Sinye Nosy

A Sunday afternoon in autumn pottering around at home. Or perhaps at the dacha. Time to relax, to reflect. What is on Dmitri Medvedev’s mind as he sits and sweats in the banya? Is he smugly chuckling at those stooopid political commentators who have been scrabbling over his every word this month after the publication of the article and a few other provocative hints let slip that he is making a move away from old Putin? Ho ho ho, keep fobbing the liberals off with words and in the meantime I can get away with anything! Or is he making a mental note to change his locks and get a restraining order out on some of his administration staff after making that scathing critique of Putinism and a bold assertion of his own power?

That same old mystery that has got everyone guessing for the past year has popped up again, namely: who’s really in charge in Russia? And now - is there a split between the gruesome twosome?

A popular theory in Russia of the power-sharing arrangement between the two men has been one of a “tandemocracy”, where Putin has consciously taken on the role of “bad cop”, leaving “good cop” Medvedev to show off his shiny liberalism. But what would explain some of Medvedev’s more harsh comments – his complete writing-off of the possibility anywhere in the near future of bringing back elections for regional governors, for example?

Dmitri Kamyshev, writing in Vlast’ magazine, points out that rather than simply a good cop/bad cop scenario, the current set up of power in Russia is in fact almost perfection of the American two-party system that the country has been striving for since the 1990s. Since attempts at raising an acceptable second party up to standard have failed, Russia has settled on replacing the two parties with two lone figures. And so “Party # 1” defends Putinism, whilst “Party # 2” criticises it: between them the tandem has occupied the positions of both ruler and opposition. This neatly keeps any criticism within the two-figure framework and, most importantly, allows them to define the key issues that neither side can criticise.

And these key issues are clearly stated in Medvedev’s “breakthrough” article when he emphasises the need for “cross-party consensus on strategic foreign policy issues, social stability, national security, the foundations of the constitutional order, the protection of the nation's sovereignty, the rights and freedoms of citizens, the protection of property rights, the rejection of extremism, support for civil society, all forms of self-organisation and self-government.” When you put it like that there’s not much left for opponents to get their teeth into.

So what is it that is keeping us Westerners convinced that the doors of democracy in Russia are already ajar, and sooner or later to be thrown wide open? What is it that’s making us imagine the second image of Medvedev in the banya – the one of a man sweating it out to bring about the dawn of democracy?

Yuri Zarakhovich posting on the Jamestown foundation blog called the West’s reaction “liberal wishful thinking”. I think he’s hit the nail on the head. We want him to be the liberal saviour and we can’t get it into our democratic Western heads that there’s an entirely different mindset at play. We can’t quite understand that someone can use the same words – democracy, for example – and have in mind something rather different to what we want them to mean.

In comparison to Putin, Medvedev’s talking the talk and dressing the part. Put it this way: with Putin doing the evil spy eyes and the evil spy face in the background all the time Dima looks a darn sight more like someone you’d want to have drinks with in the hotel bar after a G8 summit. But these outward appearances have combined with our wishful thinking to lead us to get the wrong end of the stick. The Kremlin is probably patting itself on the back for this clever move: it turns out you can have a war with Georgia, chummy up with Iran, sell tanks to Chàvez, cut off gas to Ukraine and Europe, restart military exercises in European airspace and get everyone’s backs up over the Arctic and the Second World War and still get the West thinking your leader’s a closet liberal just by him being short, smiley, dressing smart cas and looking in Putin’s direction when things get a bit iffy.

Maybe I’m a sceptic, but I think if we try to image what is really going on in Medvedev’s mind on a lazy Sunday afternoon at the dacha it might help us snap out of this wishful thinking. He might be modern lawyer in a leather jacket, but he did not get to being President of the Russian Federation on his own. He might differ in style to the others, he might criticise where no-one has criticised before, but at the end of the day he’s a part and product of the same system. “I don’t think he cries himself to sleep at night because he can’t realise his democratic calling,” said one of my equally sceptic Russian friends. There’s an almost comforting thought.

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Thursday, 1 October 2009

Little Bear Cubs

Victor Shreider, Mayor of Omsk, has just announced a plan to create a children's organisation of 'Bear Cubs' to instil ideological values into little children. The Russian translation of the name, medvezhata is, as the astute amongst you will have already noticed, very close to the surname of dear, respected Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev. Yes, that's right, the president's surname is a derivative (not sure that's linguistically the correct term, but you get my meaning) of the word 'bear' and so the proposed name for the group is a wonderfully witty word play. And of course, the leaders of the little Bear Cubs, will seek to imbue their charges with the values of the party of the big Daddy Bear: Edinaya Russia. Gives a whole new dimension to the Brownie movement in the UK. (Sorry, terrible joke!)

To continue. In a recent press conference, Shreider decried the lack of ideology in the modern child's upbringing: "It's all very well to organise sports clubs, but what's the point if they're not accompanied by some sort of ideological upbringing?", he asked. According to the plans, the Bear Cubs would be a voluntary organisation incorporating sports, arts and craft and 'cognitive' activities – all with a propagandistic element.

The organisation will be based on the Octobrists, a children's group in the Soviet Union that prepared younger children for the much better known Young Pioneers. "The socialist period has been much criticised – and with good reason. But there was one well thought out element there – the patriotic upbringing of the youngest generation. We were all Octobrists, Pioneers, and Komsomolists. Whether we like it or not, today this task must fall on the leading party." According to their motto, the main attributes of a Little Octobrist were to be active, brave, hard-working, honest and cheerful. Not so different from our scouting and guiding movements, it would seem. Although, given the state-sponsorship of the movement, presumably some impetus to become a good little Communist, graduate through the Pioneer and Komsomol movements before getting a good Soviet job supporting the status quo, would have been tacked on the end. And now the mayor of Omsk would like to employ the same totalitarian technique on the little Omsk kiddies. But this time round participation will be voluntary, of course.

And what will the ideology of the Bear Cubs be? The Mayor's press conference wasn't too clear on this issue, although we can assume it will retain the same emphasis on good, clean (honest) fun. Probably with some sort of inculcation of Edinaya Rossiya's values and aims, which are defined on the party's official website as the assurance of a stable future for Russian citizens, rooted in the psychology of success and recognition of the history of the people. Mind boggling, and I'm not at all sure how that would translate to the level of children. Any ideas of what the Bear Cubs might be learning about (always through play, mind) please let me know!

Unfortunately, however, the chairman of the local authority predicts a few difficulties in the implementation of the group since in the current situation, youth workers are not trained in ideological propaganda. However she is currently in Moscow discussing the issue, so this can surely be resolved soon. Wouldn’t want to keep the poor ideologically-deprived kiddies waiting too long, surely. Watch this space for further news on the movement and it's eventual realisation. Long Live the Bear!

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Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A Weekend Break for Two in Borovsk

OK, so for my first post after a rather long break this is not exactly pressing news, nor the height of journalism, but it will make my fellow bloggees smile. What happens when you book a cheap flight on Kaliningrad airlines and the day before you’re due to fly the company goes bust? If you’re lucky you'll get transferred onto Aeroflot and get a chance to flick through their onboard magazine where you will discover (in the English language section, nestled between a review of Vladimir Pozner's latest book and a guide to a weekend in, erhem, Borovsk)… News from the Eastern Blog! (Thanks to Johann for this!)

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Friday, 18 September 2009

So Long, Georgia

Last month on 18th August, Georgia finally withdrew from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an act of rebellion that was symbolised by the lowered Georgian flag at the CIS headquarters in Minsk, Belarus. The Georgian government first announced its decision to remove itself from the bloc following last year’s war with Russia, declaring that the status quo could not ensue while another CIS member refused to respect its territorial integrity and carried out ‘ethnic cleansing’ in its lands. As a matter of pride as well as principle, Georgia did not want to look like it could be bullied by the leader of the gang.

There are two main schools of thought as to why the CIS, which eventually came to include all the former Soviet republics bar the Baltic States, was set up in 1991. The more pro-Russian, pragmatic analysts see its creation as a means to cushion the shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union. With so much shared infrastructure and a network of interlinked economies – not to mention the threat of nuclear weapons being scattered all over Eastern European and Central Asian countries that had little idea of how to handle their new found sovereignty – the CIS was meant to provide a solid framework for dealing with a practical ‘divorce’. The organisation also offered support to those new republics, which had up until the fall of Communism, known nothing beyond dependence and centralisation.

However, those more critical of the inner workings of the Kremlin have always regarded the CIS as a means for Moscow to hold sway over the former Soviet sphere, denying the new republics their right to true independence. They see the bloc as a way for Russia to regain its old Empire and balance the power of the West, which in the 1990s was largely embodied in the form of an ever-encroaching NATO.

But whichever way you choose to view the CIS and its creation, it is worth thinking about the ramifications of the departure, considering that Georgia is the first country to make such a move.

What does this mean for Georgia?

The departure is likely to bolster the already Western-focused foreign policy, which some critics claim will damage ties with other CIS countries. However, the lack of reaction from these states indicates otherwise. It seems that there is a silent understanding of Georgia’s exit amongst the former Soviet states.

Even Russia’s reaction was surprisingly muted. Rather than condemning the actual move, the Kremlin simply mentioned that the withdrawal would have adverse impacts on Georgia’s citizens, as important economic links have been broken.

However, this ignores the fact that Georgia still remains part of a subunit of the CIS, known as GUAM, a supposedly anti-Russian group set up in 1997 comprising of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova (Uzbekistan was a fleeting member from 1999-2005, adding an extra ‘U’ to form GUUAM). Georgia still has the opportunity to pursue multi-lateral trade links within this organisation. Furthermore, there is nothing stopping the Georgian government from setting up bilateral agreements with CIS members.

And for the CIS?

Despite the loss of a member, the CIS is still looking robust, with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan still part of the club. However, if Georgia can walk away relatively unscathed, the question then arises: what purpose does the CIS serve?

Whichever side you took with regards to reasoning behind the organisation’s birth, both arguments look redundant now. On the one hand, the shock of the USSR’s collapse is no longer rippling through the region with force; although countries such as Belarus have failed to make the transition to liberal democracies, it has been two decades since the fall of communism and the former Soviet Union is making tentative steps towards integration with the rest of the world. On the other hand, if Russia is set on reasserting its power in the region, the flaky framework of the CIS bears absolutely no weight compared to the Kremlin’s use of ‘petro-politics’.

Does Georgia’s swift exit indicate the beginning of the end of the CIS? After announcing the withdrawal, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili stated that he was waving the final goodbye to the Soviet Union. He may not be right about many things, but Saakashvili seems to have hit the nail on the head. It is time to let go of Soviet-style relationships, which serve only to hinder these countries’ economic development and march towards democracy. This rusty framework needs to be forgotten, and if – as many will argue – some kind of multi-lateral agreement needs to remain, it should be one that is fresh and relevant to the twenty-first century.

What Next?

It seems unlikely that any other members will follow suit in the immediate future, but the potential is there. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Russian-Belarusian partnership is looking decidedly rocky and the relationship between Russian and Ukraine is hardly a match made in heaven. The Central Asian states are also showing signs of rebellion against Russia; for example, Turkmenistan is considering diversifying its energy supplies. It would appear that the former Soviet republics, after almost two decades of taking a lead from Moscow, are really beginning to assert their independence. How much life is left in the Moscow-dominated CIS?

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Monday, 14 September 2009

Not Quite So Eastern

Photo: "Palace Square, St Petersburg", Andrew Moore
None of us have been on the blog recently, as we’ve all been very busy. To update you: Caroline successfully completed her year in Moscow and, despite a couple of near scrapes involving loose man hole covers and dodgy roads, has also survived a summer interning in Uzbekistan. She is now studying in Paris, but will continue blogging on all things Russian as her Masters course will be focused on Russia and Eastern Europe. Helen has finished her dissertation on Russian/Belarusian relations and is now job hunting, so hopefully will have lots of time for writing lovely blog posts. And I am now living in Warsaw, attempting to learn EU law and economics, whilst feeling horribly homesick for St Petersburg. Nevertheless, as my Masters thesis will be looking at Russia-EU cooperation, I’ll still be blogging all thing Russia. So, whilst we may not be in Mother Russia anymore, we’ll try our best to keep on writing, giving our thoughts and observations on Russia, as seen from our various locations across Europe.

At the moment I’m up to my ears in introductory courses so no time to write a real post, but I just found out that this is the first year that Russia will be celebrating Programmers’ Day. Yes, that’s right – 13th of September is officially the day for celebrating the work of all Russia’s dedicated computer programmers. Given that pretty much every third Russian man I know is a programmer, I imagine there will be a fair few celebrations going on tonight!

This Russian habit of commemorating almost every profession is something wonderfully Russian. There's public prosecutors' day, a service workers’ day, a geologists’ day, an astronauts’ day, a miners’ day, a chemical industry workers’ day, a power engineering specialists’ day… I could continue! I don’t want to be cynical or perpetuate drunken Russian stereotypes, but I came across a Russia joke that perhaps explains the popularity of all these days:

A Russian grandfather is asked how often he drinks vodka. He replies, "Not very often - only when it is a holiday or after a sauna. For example, what holiday is it today?" No one can recall any holiday today. The grandfather ponders, "Hmm, sounds like a good day to go to a sauna."

Anyway, Happy Programmer’s Day to all of you out there!

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Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Media Battle Continues

Picture: Afhgan "War Carpet"
It hardly takes a genius to realise that there is little love lost between Russia's piarchiks (PR management) and most Western journalists: 'Putin: the brutal despot who is dragging the West into a new Cold War', the Daily Mail was heard to scream back in 2008. Hardly balanced journalism, and not an isolated incident either - rather just one (admittedly rather extreme) example of the British media's tendency to label any Russian activity not corresponding with British desires as anti-Western. Similarly, Russian media outlets (particularly TV news shows) rarely do the West any favours. I have lost count of the amount of times bewildered Russians have asked me why the Brits (and especially Alistair Darling) hate Russia so. Surely a product of over-hyped media representation of political manoeuvres?

Both Western and Russian journalists are guilty of, at best, selective editing and at worst, down right factual distortion, when reporting on the sensitive relationship between the West and newly-resurgent Russia. This tension was never clearer than during the so-called 'information war' which took place at the height of last year's Russian-Georgian war. Both Russian and Georgian officials criticised Western media for biased coverage of events. “We lost the information war in the first few days”, lamented Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Andrei Klyuchnikov, while on the other side of the border, Malkhaz Gulashvili, President of The Georgian Times Media Holding opined how: "Georgia has lost the information war since, unfortunately, foreign agencies frequently relied on Russian news sources controlled by the Kremlin. These would spread inaccurate news which foreign media had to reject later." Meanwhile, western commentators had their own suspicions about domestic portrayal of events accusing both Moscow and Tbilisi of being involved in a game of 'mythmaking.'

In September last year, Vlast’, (Kommersant’s weekly magazine) published an article detailing a series of ‘falsifications’ in the Russian media’s coverage of the Georgian war. Particularly interesting was their focus on the rehashing of a program first aired on the American TV channel Fox News, in which an Ossetian girl living in San Francisco was interviewed about the war. The girl, an American citizen, had been visiting relatives in Ossetia when bombs started to fall. She managed to escape back to the US via Moscow and had been invited to speak on the news program as an eyewitness to the events. During the broadcast she thanked the Russian troops, who, she said, had invaded South Ossetia to defend the people living there from Georgian aggression. Her aunt, who was also present, added that she believed Mr Saakashvili was entirely to blame for the war and for the deaths of many innocent people. Both the Russian version and the original American version have been subject to much criticism regarding honest portrayal of the facts. In the original version, the visibly ruffled American news anchor responded to the girl’s comments by quickly switching to an ad break, whilst promising the aunt that he “would never cut her off.” She was then given just 30 seconds to wrap up. His actions caused a furore about freedom of speech in America and criticism of attempts to distort events to fit a political agenda. Meanwhile, back in Russia, the clip was aired as evidence of American bias. In the Russian version, however, the clip was edited to make the anchorman appear ruder. Moreover, his final words, which were in response to the aunt’s assertion that Mr Saakashvili must be punished, “that’s what Russians want. There are many grey areas in war time” were edited to: “that’s what Russians want to hear.” A clear case of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black in terms of accusations of media bias?

Nearly a year on, Vlast' is revisiting the information war. In an article entitled "A Jubilee of Falsification", the publication addresses a more recent battle in this alleged 'information war.' This time the focus of media attention was a photograph of a heavily wounded young soldier allegedly taken by American journalist and war photographer, David Axe. On 8th August, Pervyi Kanal (Channel One) featured the picture in a documentary entitled "Live" War which purported to expose how Western news agencies falsify photographs taken from war zones in order to try and discredit the Russian army. Axe's photograph, which Pervyi Kanal alleged had been part of a series of photos depicting the Georgian war, was shown on the program alongside a voice recording of Axe, stating: “I took this photograph in Iraq.” Proof of Western duplicity, Pervyi Kanal exulted smugly.

But the plot thickens. Two days later, Arkady Babchenko, a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta wrote a blog entry, laying claim to the photograph stating that he had shot it himself. Elsewhere across the blogosphere pictures appeared showing an un-cropped version of the photograph in which the orthodox cross and emblem of the Russian army were visible on the 'Iraqi' soldier. Bloggers were even able to get hold of Axe via email and received the following response: “I never claimed to have taken this photo. I just said that it was an example of a picture that clearly hadn't been faked.”

And so the media war continues, as a variety of different news agencies vie for the hearts, minds and loyalties of a wide spectrum of readers and watchers. It would be interesting to know how many people reading and watching these articles believe a word of what they're learning, in both Russia and the West. I hope that if even a small proportion of Russians feel even half the contempt for Russian news channels that a large proportion of Brits feel for The Daily Mail then the realm of media distortion can never take total control.

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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Lady-killer in a Kimono

As I was saying yesterday, Putin’s been knocking around right at the top for the past decade. Kommersant took a look back at what journalists in Russia and abroad were writing about the mysterious judo enthusiast just after he was first appointed Prime Minister in August 1999.

“Quiet, like a shrew” – the view from Russia

“He is considered to be very cautious. One of Putin’s constant expressions is: “But is it legal?” (News report on TV channel RTR, 9th August 1999)

“Putin’s appearance – that of a man as quiet as a shrew – right in the centre of the Russian catastrophe will go unnoticed.”
(Zavtra newspaper, 10th August, 1999)

“Appointing the chief of the security services - Vladimir Putin – as the official successor to the presidency can be called nothing other than yet another crazy whim of the President. Putin is a man who is almost unknown in the country and although he seems to be intelligent, he is a military man through and through and devoid not only of charisma, but also of any experience of managing state affairs,”
(Parliamentary Newspaper, 11th August, 1999)

“No other civil servant has ever created so many problems for journalists than Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. VV, as they used to call him in Petersburg, is one of those people about whom nothing is known except for the things that he wants to tell you.”
(Komsomolskaya Pravda, 13th August, 1999)

“A retired colonel, an essentially non-military man with the reputation as a playboy no worse than Yury Skuratov [ed: then-Prosecutor General, who had recently been discredited after apparently being shown on a secret tape participating in an orgy with prostitutes]... he is only capable of scaring (although he wouldn’t like to admit it) a dissident with memories of repression 30 years back.
(Kompaniya, 16th August, 1999)

“It is well known that Boris Yeltsin has always preferred his politicians big and strong, with fists, wide shoulders and booming voices. Vladimir Putin breaks down the boundaries of the President’s pets. He’s short, balding and generally somewhat unnoticeable.”
(Argumenty i Fakty, 18th August, 1999)

“Women have always liked him: blue eyes, sporty (they say he often used to stay late at work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and sit in the office in a kimono to relax). The blue eyes obviously had a hypnotizing effect on women – despite his bald patch, they still call him blond. When Sobchak lost the elections and Putin bade farewell to the collective, women cried (actually cried, this is not an exaggeration or a metaphor – they actually sobbed en masse).”
(Profil, 30th August, 1999)

“A man with the face of a rat and mousy-coloured hair” – the Western media have their say
“Always obliging, but not exactly hospitable… he has an unrivalled ability to say everything by saying nothing. He has not one charismatic character trait, not even a negative one.
(La Stampa, Italy, 10th August)

“Vladimir Putin – is rather surprisingly faceless bureaucrat with a background in the security services and who dreams of their rebirth. His most remarkable character trait is his complete interchangeability with his predecessor.”
(The Times, UK, 10th August).

“Before resigning Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin returned from the conflict (in Chechnya) and declared that Russia could potentially lose the region of Dagestan… It is precisely for this reason that Yeltsin summoned a “grey cardinal” and “imperialist” to sort out the situation.”
(The Baltimore Sun, USA, 10th August)

“Putin is a supporter of taking a hard line and his devotion to the President will without a doubt be ruthless. The question is – how far can he go?”
(Japan Times, Japan, 11th August)

“Putin remained in the shadows for 17 long years serving the security services. A man with the face of a rat and mousy-coloured hair, he has a dull, grey outward appearance of a real spy.”
(The Jerusalem Post, Israel, 11th August)

“The 46-year old newly appointed Prime Minister is a little man with a downcast gaze, who cannot stand being in the press and remains unbeknown to the majority of people.”
(Le Monde, France, 11th August)

“The world has been confronted with two, entirely different perceptions of a man who will shape Russia’s 21st century agenda – a spy, planning on trampling freedom of speech, or a valiant pro-democracy, pro-reform warrior.”
(Los Angeles Times, USA, 11th August)

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A Collection of Rare Freaks

Vladimir Putin

Ten years ago, on the 9
th August 1999, a young, little-known ex-KGB major was appointed Prime Minister by the ailing Boris Yeltsin. Who could have foreseen what was in store for that “short, balding and generally unnoticeable” spy from Leningrad and the country that once in his grip, would never be let go.

Vlast’ magazine claims to have somewhat foreseen the whole process. In spring of 1999, the magazine ordered an opinion poll to find out what Russian citizens thought an ideal president should be like. With most of the population lacking in real-life examples, the poll instead asked Russians which film characters they would vote for - if they had the chance - in the presidential elections. The results were somewhat unexpected at the time, but, according to Vlast', rather telling for what was soon to come.

Based on “Ten Years under Putin” by Dmitri Kamyshev in this week’s “Vlast'” magazine.

The film characters that proved the most popular choice for president shared one common trait – they were all authoritarian strongmen with a penchant for violence. Peter the Great as played by Nikolai Simonov came in first, closely followed by three members of the security services: Marshal Zhukov, celebrated Red Army officer; Gleb Zheglov – the ruthless “bad cop” in a 1979 detective series known for his disrespect to the law and belief in the ends justifying the means; and Shtirlitz, the ideal NKVD (Stalinist secret police, later to become the KGB) officer in a televised series. Although one could suppose that the actors in these roles may have influenced their popularity (Vladimir Vysotsky played Gleb Zheglov, for example), as a choice for president it is fairly clear that they are all rather lacking in democratic management skills.

Opinion poll analysts concluded that Russians wanted an aggressive, rather than attentive president, and that they believed that only such a leader would be able to restore order in the country. This is fairly interesting, though far from astounding in retrospect. What is more curious is that according to
Vlast’, one day after they published these results, Boris Yeltsin sacked Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov and, contrary to all expectations, three months later appointed Vladimir Putin to his post. Whether or not the opinion poll played any roll in this is anyone’s guess, but, again according to Vlast’, an advisor in the presidential administration earlier this year claimed that at the time such a poll had indeed been discussed within the government.

Two weeks before Putin’s surefooted victory in the subsequent presidential elections,
Vlast’ magazine returned to the results of the opinion poll. It noted that from the outset Putin’s KGB roots allowed parallels to be drawn with NKVD officer Shtirlitz. What’s more, he had begun to take on qualities of the other characters named at the top of the poll. Marshal Zhukov’s military victories were mirrored in Putin’s (apparently) successful war in Chechnya. His similarities with Zheglov were clear by his legendary declaration “if we catch them in the toilet, we’ll flush them down the toilet” [referring to terrorists in the Caucasus], which sounded particularly like Zheglov: “a thief should sit behind bars”. His recognition of the necessity of Russian cooperation with NATO harked back to Peter the Great’s “window to the West”.

Continuing the Peter the Great line,
Vlast’magazine ended with a prognosis of Putin’s path in the future: “Peter the Great also forced the people to love everything German, created a Navy and the city of St. Petersburg, cut the beards off the boyars and the heads off the riflemen, undertook successful (against Sweden) and not-so-successful (the Persian campaign) wars and started a collection of rare freaks.”

Ten years into the Putin era,
Vlast' magazine thinks that the Peter the Great parallel did indeed come true. Many famous and not so famous Russians have had firsthand experience of the second President of the Russian Federation’s love for everything German. Support for the Navy, just as for the Army as a whole, has been a main priority of the state, whilst St. Petersburg has become the authorities’ favourite city and source of cadres. Almost all boyars (regional governors and oligarchs) have had their beards cut off, whilst some lone riflemen (critics of the regime) have even lost their heads. The war in Georgia turned out to be simultaneously successful (according to the Kremlin) and unsuccessful (according to independent experts). The only thing that Putin did not acquire was a collection of rare freaks, although several experts with experience of working with the government and parliament may not necessarily agree.

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Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Under A Nuclear Cloud

Photo by Ed Ou

In a sobering reminder of the Cold War legacy, the New York Times website this week featured a photo reportage by Ed Ou entitled 'Under a Nuclear Cloud', which examines the lasting consequences of radiation due to secret nuclear tests by the Soviets on the population living in areas surrounding Semipalatinsk in northern Kazakhstan.

The haunting photos capture with a striking simplicity the everyday life of the children of an intentional Chernobyl that everyone forgot. We think it’s worth remembering: Under a Nuclear Cloud by Ed Ou

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Saturday, 25 July 2009

A Serious Move from Lukashenka?

Aliaksandr Lukashenka

Another day, another provocative comment from Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka. On Thursday he announced to the world that the Russia Belarus Union is an ‘incomplete project’ and should be shelved. He confirmed that he would like to establish trade links with the US and that he is seeking further co-operation with the EU, as reported in the Russian newspaper, Kommersant. This comes after a somewhat dubious outburst a couple of months ago following a bitter spat over a loan instalment. Lukashenka then claimed that Belarus would have to try its luck in other parts of the world if things didn’t work out with Russia. Thursday’s comment, however, gives more reason to think that Lukashenka is actually serious about making concessions to the West.

Following the squabble over the loan and the subsequent ‘dairy war’ it could be said that Lukashenka’s proclamations were little more than an effort to get noticed by the international community. Belarus is neither politically nor economically prepared to integrate with the West despite its promising, albeit cosmetic, democratic makeover. There is also good reason for both Russia and Belarus to continue co-operating despite the limp state of the union, namely Belarusian dependency and Russia’s enjoyment of a buffer to the ever-encroaching NATO. Furthermore, Belarus is an important energy transit country whilst Nord Stream remains a project on paper. For the time being, it seems like these squabbling brothers will have to like it or lump it.

However, there appears to be more weight backing up Lukashenka’s latest attempt to woo the West. Last year, the Belarusian government refused to tow the line following the war in Georgia and did not recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. This indeed seemed like a very bold – and also brave – step away from Russia. Alongside Thursday’s announcement, Lukashenka pushed this highly sensitive issue further by telling Belarusian citizens not to enter the Georgian enclaves via the Russian border.

Although once again this has served Lukashenka’s aim of achieving international press coverage, it really does show that he wants to establish ties with the West. Georgia remains one of the most important obstacles in the way of Russian/Western co-operation and if Lukashenka insists on sticking his oar into the somewhat heated debate, then he is certainly taking his chances by rubbing the Russians up the wrong way. Other more credible evidence of steps towards the West include the release of a US lawyer from prison at the end of last month and an official pardon from the Belarusian government.

But why would a small-town dictator want to pander to the West? After all, he secures his leadership election after election using highly undemocratic methods and yet still enjoys popularity amongst a substantial amount of Belarusian citizens. Other than the fact that Russia is beginning to look untrustworthy following the milk disputes and the loan squabble, Lukashenka has realised that total dependence on Russia is a strategically unsound option.

This is particularly evident with regards to energy following the 2006/7 gas dispute. It is clear that Belarus is keen to diversify its energy supplies away from Russia, shown by plans to build a nuclear power plant. However, it is ironic that Lukashenka has asked for the $9 billion loan to pay for the plant from exactly those whom he is trying to lessen his dependency on; the Kremlin. The desire to diversify has also been shown by the claim that Belarus wants to start trading with the US. A nice idea, but Belarus will have to start producing something that the US actually wants to buy. Nevertheless, the Belarusian leader has identified an important area of weakness and is setting about rectifying this through his concessions to the West.

So, for arguments sake, let’s say that Lukashenka is serious. He’ll make democratic reforms. He’ll stop being a megalomaniac. He’ll release political prisoners and shake up the economy. But should the West trust him? Can a dictator really shave off his moustache overnight? The constitution still states that Lukashenka can run for presidency indefinitely. It is still highly unlikely that the West will embrace Lukashenka, but will simply welcome the move and try to encourage democratic reform with a series of promises of economic help.

And how will those on Belarus’ eastern border react? It is reasonable to think that many Russian politicians will be glad to see the back of this parasitic embarrassment. However, the Belarusian government seems keen to maintain ties and it is also likely that Russia will want to keep a working relationship ticking over. Lukashenka stressed that co-operation with the West was not to be developed at the expense of relations with Russia. Lukashenka is hedging his bets; he wants to lessen his dependency on Russia, but realises that he still needs their help – financially more than anything.

But one shouldn’t knock him too much for such a move. He is simply being realistic; Minsk needs to emerge from its isolationist state, but links with Moscow are too important to make a break. However, Lukashenka seems to think that the only way to please the West is to display animosity towards Russia; the instruction concerning travel to the Georgian enclaves has provoked outrage in Moscow. If he still wants to keep receiving his billion dollar loans, then Lukashenka will have to tread more carefully.

The move should be welcomed, but with caution. Much more needs to be done to improve the state of Belarusian politics and Lukashenka could be in danger of deepening dividing lines if he continues to aggravate the Kremlin. But if making concessions to the US and the EU can invigorate Belarus through increased trade, a more diverse economy and democratic reform, then it will be the people of Belarus who should ultimately reap the benefits. Opening up to the West will also hopefully mean that more aid will be directed to Belarus and those who need the help of the international community – particularly Chernobyl victims.

It would be even better if Lukashenka were to move on, and a trustworthy, democratic reformist were to take care of this oft-forgotten and economically stunted country. However, this really is the stuff of dreams.

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Thursday, 23 July 2009

All In It Together

Photo: still from 2008 French documentary Kommunalka directed by Françoise Huguier
It is the 1950s. You are in Moscow. You are walking through a series of rooms, all joined on to one another. In the first, a couple of kids are sleeping; in the second, a group of women are having their morning wash. You enter the kitchen, where a pair of matronly women are standing face-to-face, cooking porridge on identical, shabby stoves, before arriving at the final room, where you are greeted by an elderly man dressed in a white vest and black boxer shorts, merrily playing an accordion, as a pair of adolescent boys perform their morning exercises in the background. The man grins at you before setting off through the apartment, breaking into song as he goes. He is joined by the other inhabitants of the flat, a motley crew made up of men and women of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds, who follow behind him, parade-like, dancing and smiling in his wake. Welcome to the kommunalka, as romanticised in Todorovskyi’s hit 2008 film, Stilyagi.

The kommunalka, or communal apartment, is one of the iconic symbols of the Soviet era. Dreamt up and implemented during the early years of the Soviet Union, the kommunalka, a pre-revolutionary, bourgeois apartment converted for mass living, was the predominant form of housing for much of the twentieth century. Ask most Russians above a certain age, and they will recall their early years, spent packed in amongst their neighbours, a group of people with whom they had previously had no connection, but whose lives they became to know in the most intimate detail: their dreams, failures, cooking and even toilet habits. The kommunalka was both pragmatic and idealistic, serving the dual purpose of solving the drastic housing shortage caused by rapid industrialisation, whilst simultaneously fulfilling the Bolshevik dream of abolishing that horrible bourgeois habit: private property. It was also hoped that the experience would help construct the new Soviet Man – a tolerant, selfless comrade, who thought only of the collective.

In the 1960s, Khrushchev sought to replace the much-hated communal experiment with individual housing. Large grey apartment blocks (the ones most westerners think of when they picture even modern Russia) sprung up across the USSR. Nevertheless the kommunalka was not to be thwarted and it persisted right up to the present day, still existing today, albeit in a diminished form.

Statistics for 2008 show that, in Moscow alone, there are still 58,000 functioning communal flats. This is a dramatic decrease from 1997, where the same survey showed 148,000, nevertheless it is still 58,000 more than you would see in any other non-ex-Soviet country. Earlier this year, Vladimir Putin promised to rid Russia entirely of the communal curse by the year 2014, a promise he evoked again last week when he stated that it was time to stop “encouraging the communal flat”. His renewal of the promise was in response to proposals that those living in unsafe housing in the Samara region could be re-housed in communal apartments. Putin was adamant that the communal flat was not appropriate in modern day Russia – an idea echoed by many. “In my opinion communal flats serve to humiliate the individual by always forcing them to limit themselves. Any indiscretion can lead to a scandal, if not an all-out fight. Sadly there are still far too many communal flats”, raged Yuri Shevchuk, who lived for ten years in a communal apartment, where he was accused on a daily basis of washing in dangerous chemicals by a paranoid elderly neighbour.

On the other hand, the kommunalka still has its supporters. As the opening sketch of Tardokovskyi’s film suggests, for many the communal flat retains a rose-tinted aura. In such accounts, the daily degradation of human privacy is forgotten and replaced with nostalgic reminisces of the all-in-this-together-folks variety: “I spent my entire childhood in a communal flat and, despite the lack of space, I don’t consider my time there a negative period… We had very friendly neighbours. What’s more I think the experience of living in a communal flat teaches you a valuable lesson in tolerance towards one’s neighbours”, recalled Nikolai Bordyuzha, General Secretary of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Many recollections and memoirs similarly recall the comradeship between inhabitants, describing how, on receiving individual apartments, alongside the huge sense of freedom, people missed their former neighbours, continuing to see them and socialise with them on a frequent basis.

Where does all this leave the modern kommunalka? Despite an article in the trendy Afisha newspaper, pronouncing the birth of the ‘modern kommunalka’ – a small-scale, bohemian commune inhabited by arty types – for the majority of those living in Soviet-style communal apartments, the experience remains an ideal. It is almost unanimously agreed that in modern Russia, there is no place for communal living. Unless, of course, it is a lifestyle choice.

I’ll leave you with the sketch from Stilyagi and a link to an academic project charting the existence of kommunalki in St Petersburg. You decide which is more realistic.

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Monday, 20 July 2009

The Law of the Mountain: Chechnya under Kadyrov

Ramzan Kadyrov

Sloppily dressed, crudely spoken and more at ease with a Kalashnikov in his hands than with questions on what he does with it, Ramzan Kadyrov is not exactly someone you’d want to take home to meet your parents. The 32 year-old President of Russia’s Chechen Republic is again at the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons following the murder of yet another of Russia’s human rights activists: Natalia Estemirova, a staunch critic of Kadyrov who was snatched outside her home last Wednesday morning and found dead and dumped at the roadside in neighbouring Ingushetia the following day.

Kadyrov, son of the late Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in May 2004, has been in power since 2007. A former separatist fighter who switched sides, he has been chums with Putin ever since. Earlier this year and following the end to the anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya he promised to bring prosperity to the republic within 10 years and then resign. Although he has been upbeat about the republic’s potential (sometimes delusionally so after envisaging Chechnya as a “safe place to invest”) he has a tough job ahead of him; Chechnya is plagued by high unemployment and restlessness on its borders as well as within.

At what price stability?

A drive round Chechnya reveals posters and billboards bearing patriotic slogans and photos of Ramzan and his late father. Traces of the war that lead to Grozny being declared the most destroyed city in the world have all but been erased. On the outside then, perhaps, life is on the mend. But scratch away some of the newly painted surfaces and a more harsh reality, one where those who question Kadyrov’s rule are silenced, becomes all too clear.

In Kadyrov’s large repertoire of outlandish comments one finds the necessity of reintroducing polygamy in the republic to boost the population after the wars. Men should take up to 4 wives if they can afford it, he once suggested, although he has been yet to follow his own advice. However, comments with more serious implications are also commonplace: ones that reveal a reverence towards old, lawless “traditions” and indicate a systematic and essentially officially-sanctioned undermining of the already-fragile rule of law. On Friday, another of these comments came out. Kadyrov was reported in Kommersant as saying that it would not be only Chechnya’s law enforcement agencies that would be involved in the search for Estemirova’s killers, but that they would be dealt with by the “law of the mountain”. “In accordance with centuries-old traditions and the mentality of the Chechen people, others will also be searching for the criminals, using local methods, which are sometimes very effective,” he said.

The reality behind such comments has been at the centre of Human Rights Watch’s attention in recent months. Constitutional law is often pushed aside in the republic whilst Kadyrov’s own ideas of justice and order take priority. Investigators have reported being refused entry to a local government building without wearing a headscarf. This is despite the facts that she is not Muslim and that by law Russia is a secular country.

Further accounts reveal the reality of the “law of the mountain” when put into practice. These were published earlier this month in the report
What Your Children Do Will Touch Upon You': Punitive House-Burning in Chechnya (click to view) and were added to by further reports last week. Families of those alleged to have links with insurgents are subject to persecution and punitive house-burning. Reports were given of the police visiting distant and often aging relatives of the alleged criminals and blaming them for not having brought their child up well enough. HRW document an example of such “justice” that occurred earlier this month (abridged version).

On July 2, Madina Yunusova had been critically wounded in a special operation carried out by Chechen law-enforcement agencies in a house where she was staying. The law-enforcement personnel surrounded the home and killed a man reported to be her husband [and allegedly involved in a plot to assassinate Kadyrov].

Yunusova was taken into custody, placed under surveillance in a prison-type room of a hospital in Grozny, and reportedly underwent successful surgery for her wounds. However, she died under suspicious circumstances less than three days later.

On July 4, between 3 and 4 a.m., a group of armed servicemen broke into the Yunusov family compound, locked Madina’s parents and two younger sisters, ages 4 and 6, in a shed, doused the house with gasoline from inside and set it on fire. Soon afterward, they unlocked the shed and left. The Yunusovs fled several hours after the burning.

The next day, July 5, soon after dawn, Madina's corpse was delivered to her parents already-burned home. Law-enforcement officers reportedly said to neighbours, "Where are your neighbors? We brought a corpse for them."

When informed that the Yunusovs had left, the officers took the body, which was wrapped in a shroud, from their vehicle and gave it to the neighbors, cautioning them not to unwrap it. The neighbors notified the Yunusovs, who buried the body.

Add this to the further murky territory of public extra-judicial executions, such as one of a man accused of giving a sheep to insurgents being shot by law enforcement officials in front of a group of young men they had forcibly gathered to watch and the justice brought by the “law of the mountain” doesn’t really seem as such.

Reports in Kommersant of the reactions of witnesses to Estemirova’s abduction sum up everyday life in the republic. Those standing at the bus stop at 7:30am when Estemirova was bundled into a car by several armed men shouting “I’m being kidnapped” did not bother alerting the police to this event, which – one might have thought – appeared rather suspicious. Why not? They thought she was “just being arrested by some local security officials (kakie-to mestnye siloviki)”. Is this the face of Chechyna’s return to normality?

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Thursday, 16 July 2009

Cheating the System

Artwork: Alex Brodsky

The student sitting in front slips folded 1000 rouble (£20) notes in between the pages of his end-of-term coursework paper; students whisper, text, check their iphones and sit with open text books during a mid-term exam; a girl in the toilets adjusts cheat-notes (shpargalki) pasted over her thighs, hidden under her skirt and held in place with semi-opaque tights – just a few examples of my first-hand experience of corruption in the Russian higher education system over the past year.

Over the past few years in Russia there has been a lot of debate over the introduction of the new General State Exam (Edinnaia Gosudarstvennaia Examen, or EGE). A computerised, standardised test such as the SATs we have in Britain, this is aimed at rooting-out corruption in university admissions and improving accessibility for students from lower-income families. This year the EGE is to be fully implemented across Russia, yet it has come up against tough opposition since the idea was first mooted. The argument against the test’s corruption-busting potential indeed seems to have been prophetic. For a kick off the federal department responsible for the EGE is itself suspected of embezzlement of over 33 million rubles. Not exactly setting an example from above. Furthermore, there have been numerous discrepancies with EGE results, including cases of answers being known beforehand and posted on the internet or of concentrated levels of suspiciously high or low results in certain regions of Russia. Other criticism has been based on the unsuitability of a one-test-fits-all style approach to evaluating students’ knowledge.

How many, how much… and how?

The extent of corrupt practices is difficult to measure due to the nature of the problem and corruption within universities can take on many guises. The most common - and all of which I witnessed - include bribery, cheating, plagiarism, preferential treatment and discrimination. On higher levels, we’re getting into the realm of embezzlement, extortion and fraud. According to Ararat Osipian in his paper “Corruption and Reform in Russian Higher Education”, in 2005 over 3000 economic crimes in the education sector were reported, of which there were 849 cases of bribery and 361 cases of embezzlement of central budget resources. 20% of students used corrupt practices to gain admission to university. This is certainly but the tip of the iceberg.

The magnitude of the problem is also reflected in the population’s perceptions. A survey by the All-Russia Centre for the Study of Public Opinion last year showed that whilst 33% of respondents considered that knowledge was the most important thing needed to get into a higher education institute, 49% considered that it was money. Meanwhile, 13% of those who had a child in education said that they had had to pay admissions tutors for their entry. 27% had been forced to hand over money to teachers to ensure the necessary results during exam time. A study by the Higher School of Economics in Moscow showed that during the 2002-2003 academic year Russians spent around 21.4 billion rubles on bribes in admissions and in grading at university. It’s worth nothing that the abovementioned opinion poll showed that only 14% of respondents thought that the EGE would help combat corruption.

Greasing your tutors palm may be an age-old trick, but new, elaborate ways of cheating are also becoming commonplace. Friends of mine told stories of a radio earpiece worn hidden under the hair. As they pull their exam question at random from the pile students read it out loud, and those on the other end of the radio look up the question in the textbook and recite the answer into the earpiece. Add this to the hundreds of adverts posted round university buildings offered ready-made coursework on every topic imaginable and one gets the distinct feeling that education irregularities are a profitable business.

So the problem is widespread, yet with all this in mind let’s spare a thought for those who really do knuckle down to make the grade. Is it possible to get through the system with your conscience clear? Anything is possible, but even those with the best intentions in the world may end up getting out their wallets when faced with a “fail” from an exam official after sitting an exam they, and everyone else, knows they passed.

Why does the geek peek?

Which all leads us to ask – why? Professors’ salaries are often pointed to by means of one explanation – pay them more and they’ll do their job properly, right? Yet the institutionalised nature of this phenomenon points to deeper-rooted issues. Where do you draw the line between a lecturer turning a blind eye to whispering during a final-year exam, bumping up his friend’s son’s marks and accepting £200 to pass a lazy student? At MGIMO, depending on the extent of the tutor’s apathy or how much he was in need of a new washing machine for his wife either goes; a soviet-era mentality valuing personal relationships and links – svyazi – continues to prevail. In Britain, free from a burdensome past of pervasive corruption, the system is clear: exams are presided over by strict external moderators; students sit apart from one another, and write on official-use paper only identified by a candidate number. The slightest suspicion of unfair play leads to immediate disqualification from all exams that year and possible permanent exclusion full stop. Although favouritism can undoubtedly play a part, coursework papers are double-marked, checked through an electronic system for plagiarism and periodically sent to external moderators. A system that I would say is fairly effective (I can safely say that neither I, nor any of my friends would have even dreamt of attempting to cheat at university in Britain).

But apart from habit, and, well, just because they can, in my experience, honest students are often forced to cheat because of the set-up of the education system itself. Take high contact hours (compare approx 30 hours/week in Moscow to my 11 in London) and a heavy work load and add a demanding administrative system and often chaotic (or lack of) programme/workload/course coordination, even the most hard-working geek might be tempted to, say, sneak a peek at their notes in order to pass an un-announced exam that requires regurgitating hundreds of facts on a topic that the programme has not actually covered. Eventually a briber-bribed relationship is constructed; as both sides settle into the unspoken arrangement each is increasingly dependent on that system continuing to work for them.

Paying your way from the cradle to the grave

The implications of corruption in the higher education system are as serious as the problem is widespread. As a recent study by the Institute of Economics of Education in Dijon, France shows, corruption in higher education institutes seriously damages their competitiveness. The cost of corruption in higher education is analogous to reducing the economic productivity of a university and thus its rate of return by 2 – 15% as its quality is reduced.

Furthermore, corrupt practices in higher education institutes nurture corrupt attitudes in students that they take with them into the professional world. At a time when Russia is in dire need of modernisation and innovation, efficiency-crushing corruption is a two-sided sword, creating extra costs and undermining a healthy work-ethic. It will ultimately serve to completely devalue degrees from Russian universities.

Finally, a widespread acceptance of corruption feeds the image – and reality – of Russia as an increasingly polarised society: one of have-nots, still marginalised by years of cut-throat capitalism, and good-for-nothing haves living an empty existence, producing nothing and continuing to deprive the country of some much-needed real creativity and innovation.

But I think that my smart Russian pals who have worked their way through this quagmire of a system with their consciences still (as) clean (as is humanely possible) would agree with what our grannies in England would remind us – at the end of the day if you cheat, you’re just cheating yourself.

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Monday, 13 July 2009

Poor Show in The Commons

Artwork: Claude Monet, "Houses of Parliament, London"

Last month I was invited to a discussion panel at the Houses of Parliament entitled Russia A Year On – Testing Medvedev’s Democratic Credentials. Having never been inside that elaborate building dominating the Thames, and as a fan of both democracy and Russia, I was pretty keen to attend.

The evening sunshine soaked the busy streets of London as I made my way through the heartland of British politics, dodging both tourists and traffic at Parliament Square. I was in good spirits and looking forward to a constructive debate. But the feeling did not last long past the moment that I entered Committee Room 11, where the panel was gathering. The event was oversubscribed, the bottle-green room was stuffy, attendees were tip-toeing not-so-subtly through the creaking door thirty minutes late, and those who were already sitting down were either texting away on their phones or kicking the back of my chair. Or so it seemed. But more importantly, the event turned out to be a no holds barred Russia-bashing session. And there was very little mention of either Medvedev or democracy.

The panel comprised of an exasperated Russian dissident, the hot-blooded prime minister of the resistance Government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and two Western foreign policy experts. It was only the dissident who actually referred to the intended subject matter. Some interesting comparisons were made between the expectations of Medvedev’s supposed liberalism and those of past leaders. He concluded that with every new leader there has been renewed hope for a Western-friendly attitude, but every time this has ultimately proved to be a disappointment. I particularly enjoyed his reference to Andropov’s understandable fondness for whisky and jazz.

As valid as his points were, he was more of a downbeat entertainer than someone who could open up fresh debate. But because of his experiences (he was arrested and imprisoned for defending human rights in the 1960s and his application to run for the Russian Presidency was rejected in 2007), I found it hard to blame him for his cynicism. Nor did I blame the Chechen for his anger, having learnt what he had seen and experienced. But the attitude of the foreign policy buffs was another story. These were young, Western academics at the forefront of their field who should have taken the opportunity to lead a well-balanced discussion in order to make some progress in what sometimes seems to be the ‘inevitable’ confrontation between Russia and the West.

However, these two experts simply rehashed the same negative views about Russia, poorly justifying their opinions with unhelpful, sweeping comments such as ‘Russia refuses to co-operate’ and ‘Russia is dangerous’. Not only was this something that I had heard countless times before, but the speakers also made no attempt to propose what could or should be done to improve relations. Comments from the audience, which questioned Western policy towards Russia, were ungraciously slapped down. Such one-sided discussion serves no purpose other than to entrench mistrust in the West and hostility in Russia.

Certainly, Russia is far from perfect; it has many serious issues to address and the Georgia story has rightly provoked a wave of jittering. But if foreign policy experts working in think tanks and academic institutions continue to promote an attitude that smacks of Cold War divisions, then Russia will simply retreat further away from what is already a quasi-democracy and continue to regard the West with suspicion. Fortunately, there was someone last week who successfully managed to avoid such hackneyed rhetoric.

Although US President Barack Obama’s visit to Russia did not go down with the frenzy of hope and expectation as his presence has done elsewhere in the world, it was a positive step forward and one that should be emulated by all those dealing with Russia. His discussions with the Kremlin were positive, yet honest. He admitted and highlighted points of contention – namely the US proposed missile defence system – but made it clear that this would be worked around, as the issues of Georgia and NATO expansion will have to be. The summit converged on important areas of co-operation – nuclear warhead reductions, US transit to Afghanistan and combating terrorism – that can be built upon in the coming years and hopefully be used a basis to improve relations.

I honestly believe that Obama has it right here. There is little point trying to impose on Russia what we deem to be correct or right. The West needs to accept the differences and cope with them accordingly, but without selling out. Areas where interests do overlap must be emphasised and used as the point of departure for a relationship to be developed. Although it may not be for many years to come, the bitter aftertaste of the Cold War may finally be sweetened as co-operation progresses and the barriers of mistrust are broken down.

It simply serves no purpose whatsoever for us to discuss Russia in the terms that were used at the Houses of Parliament that June evening. However, an about-turn in the West will not be enough. Introspection from Russia is also necessary if genuine co-operation is to occur; many cite Obama’s cool reception as the result of anti-Western propaganda in Russia, which has only been exacerbated by the Kremlin pointing fingers at the US as the financial crisis has engulfed the world. A renewed relationship requires a change in attitude from both sides.

Perhaps these ideas are a little naïve and I know that many believe this summit will change nothing (and admittedly I do find Obama somewhat charming). But the Russian-Western partnership has failed over the last twenty years and it is certainly time to try a new, open, positive approach. And if we fail, at least we tried.

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Sunday, 28 June 2009

A Year in Russia

Artwork: Viktor Pivovarov, "Bread roll to have with tea"
I’m back in England for a short while and it has given me the chance to reflect on the past year spent living in Moscow. Russia itself has certainly changed in this time, but I was wondering – how has it changed me?

The automatic reflex to put on my seatbelt as soon as I sit in the car has been completely lost. Not only do I no longer feel uneasy not wearing one, but when I do buckle up I feel my personal freedom is being compromised and worry that the driver may interpret such an action as a snub to his driving skills.

If the car I am in does not weave its way through traffic or drive flat out whenever possible I get impatient. The idea of undertaking or cutting someone up has faded from memory. For this same reason I now never attempt to cross the road without using the underground pedestrian crossing.

Although I still adamantly refuse to believe in “cross draughts” and their supposedly illness-inducing qualities I do now think twice before sitting with my back to an open window.

I only now realise why when I first started learning Russian the main thing we learnt all year was how to say “Russians like going to the forest and collecting mushrooms in their spare time.” And I like it.

Not only can I name all the countries in Central Asia but I can now tell an Uzbek from a Tadjik and a Kazakh from a Kyrgyz.

The pub has been replaced as my favourite hobby by going for a walk (“pogulyat”) and taking photos of myself and friends (“fotografirovatsa”).

Consequently, although I still find it amusing I no longer find it bizarre to walk through a park and for it to be full of girls in miniskirts and stilettos taking photos of themselves in compromising positions next to a tree or, say, writhing on the grass near some flowers.

In the same way, I never, ever have to ask myself the question: “Am I overdressed?”

I am no longer shocked or surprised to see fellow students at university with cheat notes up their skirts/sleeves/blatantly lying on the desk or shoving 1000 rouble notes in between the pages of their coursework before it is handed in (more on this in a separate post soon).

It now seems perfectly normal that my university professor’s mobile rings during a lecture… and he answers it… several times in one lesson... sometimes proceeding to have a conversation right there in front of the class. Although it’s still distracting, I no longer pay much attention to the fact that students also receive several phone calls during class and will get up to answer every time.

“Going for an Indian” has been replaced by “going for a Georgian” in my Saturday night out vocabulary.

My skin has become extremely thick against any type of abuse coming from a middle aged woman in a position of “authority”. My ears are deaf to her rants.

I cannot be sure that a rule exists unless I try breaking it. Even if I am ranted at by the above-mentioned middle aged woman in a position of “authority” whilst breaking this “rule” I still cannot be sure that there is a rule or whether she just wants something to rant about and thus I will continue doing whatever I am told I am not allowed to do in the expectation that she will quickly get bored and give up.

My English attitude towards queue etiquette has taken a rattling. Although I still often feel that my personal space is being invaded, I am no longer shocked when someone pushes right in front of me. I certain situations I find that it’s even me doing the pushing in.

I feel uneasy and self-conscious when my shoes are unclean. I feel like everyone on the metro is staring at the dirtiness and judging me.

I am not surprised to see policemen smoking, buying hotdogs, eating sweets and flirting with girls when they are in uniform and on duty.

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Tuesday, 16 June 2009


A friend of mine recently introduced me to Polittechno, a genre of music dreamt up by Petersburg-based musician/producer, Alexei Vishnya. The name, 'Polittechno', comes from a compound of the words 'political' and 'techno' and consists of putting politicians' words to techno beats. You're more than likely to have seen Vishnya's most famous clip, 'Kto mog by byt' Prezident' (Who could be President), doing the rounds on You Tube, but there is much more where that comes from.

Vishnya, a sound director who produced about half the albums of legendary rock group Kino, started experimenting with politicians' voices back in 2000, after hearing a news presenter talking about Putin: I was watching TV, listening to journalist Sergei Dorenko, when he said: “Putin and only Putin.” I thought to myself, “that's rap” and started experimenting with famous people's voice, putting them to music. My first song was called “Putin and Only Putin”, with Dorenko performing as lead singer.

Four years later, Vishnya released an album, “Viagra for Putin”, showcasing all the good and great of Russia’s political glitterati: Putin, Zhirinovsky, Gorbachev, Chubais and Irina Kharmada amongst others. Of the 11 songs on the album, my favourites are ‘Russian Pigs’ (see below) and ‘Who’s Boris Berezovsky?”, feat. V.V. Putin, in which Putin disses the disgraced Russian oligarch, currently residing in London despite repeated Russian requests for extradition.

Russian Pigs, featuring Irina Khakamada and Vladimir Zhirinovsky
Essentially Zhirinovsky talk about 'Russian Pigs' - drug addicts, prostitutes, alcoholics and disabled people(?) etc., amongst others. To which Khakamada replies: 'Vladimir Volfovich, you are a coward.' The two argue then argue throughout the song, as Zhirinovsky's accusations of who exactly is a Russian Pig become even more all encompassing: all opposition parties, Americans etc.

Vishnya claims to have no real political agenda, calling his political subjects ‘muses’, responsible for inspiring musical creativity rather than political expression. When asked in a recent interview about his attitude to the Putin-Medvedev tandem, he replied: As philosophers say, I experience total objectivity towards these people – they exist outside my consciousness. Towards the Putin-Medvedev tandem, I am also entirely objective… As regards Putin, I have been observing him for a very long time now – even as far back as when he worked for the Communist party in what was Leningrad. However politics really didn’t interest me at all during the 1990s… Then at some point it became impossible to ignore politics any longer The informational field became so multifaceted that the muses from this sphere came themselves to visit me. I’m sure you understand how funny it is to observe them, their laughability and all their ridiculous pre-election debates.

And what do the ‘muses’ feel in relation to puppet-master Vishnya? His videos attract a lot of attention which can come accross as either positive or negative PR. Vishnya related a story to the newspaper Izvestia about how Irina Khamada invited him to Moscow following her starring role in Viagra for Putin. On one of the songs, entitled Techno Woman, she sings, "I met the president and I gave it to him. This isn’t our first year in politics and we’ve been around." To which Putin replies, ‘She’ll no longer be any one’s political toy.’ According to Vishnya, Irina praised the song as ‘funny’ and described him as a ‘talented boy’ (he was 39 at the time!) but when he suggested she collaborate with him on further songs she retorted: “I’m not a little girl – I’m a representative of the state Duma!”

Although he is yet to release another CD, Vishnya remains prolific, regularly posting new videos on his You Tube channel and on a Live Journal blog. His most recent post, which stars President Medvedev singing about the stability of the Russian political system, has already been viewed almost 6000 times. Nevertheless, despite his popularity, the money is not rolling in - his music (including his album) remains a non-commercial project, distributed for free on the internet : "the fanatical project of a man who’s gone crazy for politics."

The album in it's entirety, if anybody is interested.

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