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.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Oh mamma!

Photo: Ruslan Shamukov
Amongst numerous other things, the Russian authorities do not like demonstrations, protests, unsanctioned parades or any other form of public dissent. This was clearly indicated by the swift and high-handed termination of the recent “Dissenters’ Marches” of members of the political opposition by police. The forceful suppression of the latest demonstrations against the tax on imported cars served to show that any public display of opposition to the Kremlin’s policies, even by those not officially involved in the political sphere, would not be put up with either. Now, as this most recent incident demonstrates, the government’s intolerance extends to any form of protest however small, harmless and comical it may be. (Extracts from Kommersant 21 Jan.)

30 People in Mummy Costumes Arrested in Moscow

Approximately 30 people attempting to carry out an unauthorised demonstration demanding the removal of Lenin’s body from the mausoleum on Red Square were detained on Manezhnaia Square in Moscow on Monday. Approximately 30 members of the “Orthodox Monarchists” group had previously declared their intentions to organise a “flash mob” dressed in Mummy costumes on Red Square on the 85th anniversary of Lenin’s death.

According to the representative of the city’s police force, “A group of around 25 young people carrying a cardboard coffin were arrested by members of the police force."
Before the event, the organisers had stated that “this will not be a mass demonstration. There will not be crowds of people standing round and creating a scandal and so we hope that we will not be dispersed. The mummies will join onto the Communist’s march... Our demonstration is to demand that the government and communists rebury Lenin in a modest grave at Voklovskoe cemetery in St. Petersburg where there is enough space for him to be placed and where the communists will be able to come and pay their respects to Vladimir Il’ich (Lenin) in peaceful surroundings.”

... more

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Chocolate Alenka
As pretty much anyone who has ever read a newspaper will know, Russia’s main exports are industrial: gas, oil and other natural resources. Exportation of domestic goods is rare – ask most Westerners to name five Russian domestic goods and they’ll probably struggle. After Baltika and perhaps the odd obscure brand of vodka, they’re likely to draw a blank. Nevertheless, Russia’s homegrown food industry is thriving. Certainly, Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonalds et al. have made their (dramatic) mark here, however Russia’s domestic food industry remains one of the fastest growing within the market sector.

It should be no surprise then that most food brands dominating the Russian market at the moment are relatively new, having sprung up throughout the nineties, filling the gaping economic void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian brand names may make up a substantial proportion of the market, however they are yet to build up the sentimental consumer base enjoyed by their counterparts in the West. There are few equivalents to the likes of Cadburys, Hovis and Bisto, whose branding and packaging evoke feelings of nostalgia across generations of Brits. In Russia, brand-based nostalgia is reserve for Soviet goods, most of which are now defunct or mere shadows of their former selves.

This is where Alenka comes merrily skipping in. Alenka (a fairly common girls’ name) is one of the most successful brands of chocolates in contemporary Russia. Described on the official website as a symbol of a happy childhood for several generations, they’re of the few Soviet products to make it through the collapse of socialism and ensuing economic chaos and still come out smiling. First produced in 1966 in Moscow’s Red October Factory following a Kremlin directive to create a new brand of milk chocolate, Alenka became a sign of the good times. Following the austerity of post-war years, the Brezhnev years (1964 – 82), when Alenka first appeared, were embraced by many as a period of relative stability and prosperity. Alenka fitted right in with this general mood and is remembered fondly by Russians of this era, as well as my contemporary Russians. The brand (along with several others) is still made by the Red October factory, which, uner a different name, both predated and outlived the Socialist experiment.

The story of how the Alenka packaging came about adds a further later of whimsy to the brand, giving it a cockle-warming quality that many of the new brands, whose teeth were cut on the brutality of the 90s market lack. The packaging shows a smiling Soviet child, a character as instantly recognisable to Russians as the Coco Pops monkey or Tony the Tiger. Unable to come up with a suitable mascot, Red October launched a competition to find the face of Alenka, whose image would adorn the chocolates. Entries arrived in droves and unable to decide on an overall winner the company initially used several in rotation. And then came an entry from an photographer who had rendered his daughter, Elena, who was to soon become a household face.

In the 1990s, as part of an advertising campaign, Red October ran a feature, 'Alenka, where are you now?' to find the original little girl. Again, respondants replied in droves, but eventually the scores of pretendants were whittled down to just one – Elena Gerinas, the daughter of a famous Soviet photographer. The company greeted her with open arms, lavishing chocolates upon her and feting her in the media.

And then the story turns a little sour. In 2000, the real Alenka, who had inherited rights over her father's estate decided to try and make some money, demanding recompensation for the use of face on the company's packaging. In her opinion, the brand's success was in no small part due to her and her father's work, and she was determined to receive some sort of payment for her participation. She initiated a costly dollar law suit against Red October for violation of author's rights, but was unsuccessful due to lack of evidence that it was really her, or even her fathers' work. Since then other 'Alenka's' have appeared, but it has not been decisively resolved who the real Alenka is.

In any case, Alenka remains a cult brand with spin off versions popular in lots of ex-Soviet countries. You also know you’re successful when parodies appear, and Alenka land is full of them. Here are two of my favorites: Voldoka (diminitive of Vladimir) and Bono…

... more

Saturday, 17 January 2009

The New Brits Abroad?

Artwork: Diana Machulina
Us Brits are well known for our shameful reputation abroad. There’re the all-day drinking sessions, complete lack of cultural awareness, inability to muster up enough linguistic ability to pronounce a simple “merci” or “gracias”. Then there’s the peeling lobster red skin as we get our once-a-year exposure to the sun... It’s probably best not to even get started on our football supporters. However, as this article from the December issue of “Russian Reporter” magazine seems to indicate, the Russians may be trying to beat us at our own game. The shame of it!


A Cultural Break
Sasha Denisova

Like all Russians, I’m on the edge of a nervous breakdown by the time I take my yearly vacation. I head to Egypt, to a hotel where Italians and Russians along with a couple of Swedes and English are holidaying. However, the hotel staff know exactly who to say “buongiorno” and who to say “dobry dyen” to. I decided to master this art.

In the pool the men are playing water polo. Three of them are throwing themselves after the ball in a particularly violent manner, making the water overflow. During lulls in the game they manage to make a dash for the side of the pool, pour themselves some “Absolut” in plastic cups and with the cry “Vovka, you’re being marked!”, block the goal with their chests, all without spilling their precious liquid. One manages a one-handed save; this, of course, calls for another drink.

The Italian referees whistle and the Swedish players are frozen with shock. The Italians try to grab the vodka off the Russians and only then do they slither out of the pool on their own accord and set off to finish drinking on the sun beds, miffed. It’s midday.

You can tell a Russian a mile off from the glass in his hand and his outward appearance. Italians, without exception, are dressed like members of a golf club: summer jumpers, polo shirts and white sneakers. Italians are always well-groomed, even those on their pension.

A Russian man is noticeable from a distance. He’s sleeping with a cap on. He’s gloomily mooching along the edge of the surf with a pair of flippers hanging from his hand, like a dead fish. He throws himself like a deadweight from the jetty into the sea and swims three metres in a style that only he alone can identify as butterfly stroke. And afterwards, wheezing and panting, he lies on his back bobbing on the waves.

Russian women on holiday are a bit more active. At midday the zombies crawl out to the gym, to dance or do yoga - that is, to hopelessly drag their bluish legs up to their foreheads. Up comes an Italian and you can see straightaway that life is in full swing; she has a personal masseur, card club membership and her own vineyard. Up comes one of us; we have gastroduodenitis, thrombophlebitis, arthritis. Neither gold bracelets, nor self respect. All we do is violently wave our legs around whilst our grandchildren are sleeping and our husband is still out cold.

A Russian goes through two phases – self-destruction and self-realisation. In the city he smokes, drinks, and is completely immobile. On holiday he does his best to get back in shape. The personal trainer in the gym, having seen how I was dangerously teetering over a set of weights, darts over to catch them and, discovering that I was Russian, almost burst into tears; “You’re the very first Russian tourist we’ve had in here! They don’t come in the gym – only the sauna!” Out of a heartfelt pity he offered to let me use the gym for free.

In the sauna, the notices are displayed in Russian: “Dear guests, the sauna and jacuzzi may only be visited in swimming costumes.” They say that there were cases when a couple of stark naked Russians, sniggering, burst into the fitness club; the Swedes made a swift move out of there. A group of Italians sit in the jacuzzi merrily chattering about something or other. To the side – two men with stern expressions; you can just make out the words “payment” and “dispatched”.

The main thing that you don’t come across in a Russian’s face is relaxation. If he goes somewhere it’s on business. For example, going for a beer: he gets changed right there on the beach with a forbidding look on his face; the hotel is three metres away, but he wraps himself up in a towel anyway and gets tangled up in his underpants, hissing at his wife.

Soviet holidays have left us permanently damaged. Once upon a time our holiday-makers had to fight claw and nail to obtain their little piece of happiness from the state. A holiday permit, hotel voucher, canteen meals and a deckchair in the sun. That’s why to this day we still get up early in the morning to reserve the sun beds. It’s not so easy to get us out of that habit.

A Russian is an untrusting type. He doesn’t know any languages and that’s why he’s so sullen. He wants to get what he wants without beating around the bush. So arrogantly, in his great and powerful native tongue, shouts in the Egyptian chef’s face: “You worried I might get fat or something?” The chef doesn’t understand a word of course, but places another burger on the Russian’s plate just in case. A three-year-old boy with a threateningly barrelled tummy hides from his dad under the table. Dad wants to feed him kebab and fried aubergine. But the young organism is no fool – he’s trying to survive. “That’s the fourth day he’s not eaten anything,” complains the inhabitant of the Central Russian Upland to the Egyptian waitress, “only drinks that kefir of yours!”

In general, all hope lies with the children; it’s possible that they’ll manage to survive the aubergines and learn how to take a real holiday. They’ll take peaceful walks in Baden-Baden with dignity, just like Turgenev, Gogol’ and Russian aristocrats used to do.

Contemplating our national way of holiday-making, I look down at my compatriots with a feeling of superiority, and, in a fit of healthiness, jump into the sea and onto a rock hidden beneath the surface. Result: five stitches in my foot.

The rest of my holiday I sit off on the bank, sipping beer and pondering the fact that holidays are generally dangerous for Russians. In any case, in the form that they take at the moment.

... more

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Happy Campers

Photograph: Oleg Klimov
I’ve just got back from a week at that thoroughly Russian institution – the children’s camp. Present all across Russia, from St Petersburg to Vladivostok to the Black Sea, most Russian kids will spend at least one week of their lives at a children’s ‘rest camp.’ This seemed a pretty good opportunity to see Russian children’s life firsthand.

Today’s camps morphed out of the old soviet system of Pioneer Camps, which were initially dreamt up by the Soviets - partly as a means of rewarding parents (factories and organisations would send their workers’ children to camps throughout the USSR) but primarily as a form of ideological indoctrination. The Young Pioneer movement sought to educate Soviet youth in the ways of Marxist-Leninism and so mould future socialist society. The camps were a residential extension of this aim. As such, they were organised around the entire rigmarole of Communist propaganda: morning marches to rousing Soviet music, an oath of allegiance, walls adorned with absurdly large portraits of Lenin and other Soviet heroes and successes, and an extensive program of good, clean Soviet fun.

The Pioneer Camps are remembered in scores of memoirs and novels, which recall a whole host of different experiences, ranging from nostalgic recollections, to vitriolic tirades describing force-fed ideology, terrible accommodation and horrific food. I wonder what all the legions of former Pioneers (most of today's Russians aged over 30) and indeed, Lenin and co. themselves, would make of today's children's camps?

Camp Day Break, where I was working, is a direct descendent of the Pioneer Camp system. Located about 80 km from Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, the basic infrastructure is left over from its former days as a genuine Pioneer camp, although, as it is keen to point out, all its rooms are newly renovated to 'European standards'. Certainly, despite the rackety buildings, it no longer looked Soviet, but rather similar to children’s camps I’ve been to in the UK (if somewhat colder). So far, all change.

Then I was taken to the cafeteria. Manned by unsmiling matrons dolling up mass-portions of tasteless stodge, the cafeteria seemed to fulfil every stereotype of carb-heavy, Soviet cuisine. Next, I was presented with the camp timetable: wake up at 8 am sharp; callisthenics at 8:10; room tidying; breakfast (probably half-solidified porridge); lessons; walk; lunch (carbohydrates and something pretending to be meat); activities; break (teeth-rottingly sweet tea plus some variation of cake); more lessons; dinner (same as lunch, but less); activities; svechka (a bizarre occurrence, where the entire camp sits in a circle and a candle is passed round as everyone recounts their highs and lows of the day); lights out at 11 pm. It looked like a strict return to discipline, with little time left for just messing around. Perhaps, despite appearances, something of the Soviet era lingered on?

But then again, perhaps not. As with many of my experiences in Russia, there was little correspondence between the official description and how events really unfolded. Sure, we were woken up at 8 am sharp and dragged to the hall for exercises, but in the face of mutinous teenagers, brought up under capitalism and do-what-what-you-want culture, these were half hearted and mainly consisted of the camp counsellor prancing about in front of a horde of sullen teens. By the end of the week they had been scrapped, to be replaced by a lie-in until 9 am. The meals did take place, but were not to the taste of most of the kids, who preferred to pick at it, before begging a leader to take them to the local shop so they could stock up on junk food. Whether or not camp food has got worse since Soviet times I couldn't say, but certainly, Pioneers would not have access to coke, snickers and pot noodles, so would have had to make do or starve. Attempts at making the children study or participate in any of the activities were fairly futile and the camp quickly descended into 'free time' – i.e. playing Nintendo, fighting or flirting. Not to mention the one thirteen year old who some how got his hands on a bottle of vodka, which he promptly downed, giving himself dramatic alcohol poisoning and a nasty, nasty hangover the following day. Dear oh dear, what would Lenin say?

The modern Russian camp is a far cry from its Soviet counterpart. What was once fuelled by ideology is now powered by e-numbers; pop songs have replaced Soviet anthems; the focus of the camp is now fun, not ideological training. Of course, this has resulted in a break down of discipline within the camps, as kids are allowed to pursue their own agendas rather than conform to a state-wide pattern, unanimously imposed from a central, Moscow location. This transition and break down of order can be seen as positive or negative depending on your viewpoint, but in any case the departure from ideological brainwashing can, in my opinion, only be a good thing.

There has been much written about the revival of children's camps as a form of ideological brainwashing under Putin, with special Nashi (the pro-Putin youth group) run camps being hailed (if that’s the word) as an example of a Kremlin plot to inveigle its politics into innocent young minds. Certainly these camps exist, but it should be remembered that they are the exception, not the rule. My experience of camp (admittedly, nothing to do with Nashi, or indeed any political organisation) tells a very different story. Here, kids are just kids and there is no agenda. For the vast majority of Russian youth this is the reality of camp, not an ideological experience.

... more

Monday, 5 January 2009

New Year... New War?

Photo: Oleg Klimov
Since the war in Georgia this summer and the declaration of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia, there has been a lot in the Russian news about events in these areas. We’ve seen the newly-appointed Russian ambassador to Abkhazia show us around the planned site for the Russian embassy, the tangerine farmers from towns along the Russian border queuing to daily cross the border to sell their harvest for a better price (a terrible daily wait to pass customs – wouldn’t it just be easier if Abkhazia and Russia just… shh, don’t say it!), the rebuilding of the ruins of Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia, courtesy of the Russian taxpayer. With the amount of news coverage that has been dedicated to these two regions, one could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that they were already another part of Russia. A new threat from Georgia might be the last push needed for Abkhazia and South Ossetia to finally unite with Russia. Such a threat might arise in the very near future if we were to judge by the article below, published on 28th December in “Kommersant”.


The Ministry of Defence of South Ossetia has issued a statement claiming that Georgia is amassing military equipment along its border with the state. Georgian armoured personnel carriers have been sighted in the village of Nikozi, situated in the immediate vicinity of the border with Ossetia. Georgia has claimed that the tanks in the Tskinvali region are needed to monitor the situation in the area and that EU observers have already been informed of this.

According to the Ministry of Defence there are now 28 tanks situated in the town of Gori, where Georgian tank battalions are based. There are now also “Cobra” armoured police vehicles in villages in the Tskinvali region. The Georgian Home Office has confirmed these claims, stating that EU observers have already been informed. According to Shota Utiashvili, head of the Georgian Home Office Department for Analytics, the vehicles are being used for patrols and monitoring.

On the 22nd December the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe announced its decision to withdraw its observation mission from Georgia by the 1st of January 2009. At the same time, the deputy head of the Central Command of Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Lieutenant General Anatoli Nogovitsyn noted that a new military undertaking by Georgia against South Ossetia and Abkhazia could not be ruled out. According to the lieutenant, this would be possible should Georgia restore its military potential with the help of NATO.

“That Georgia is amassing military equipment close to its borders with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, indicates that her leaders have not renounced their plans and intentions of restoring at any price the so called “constitutional order” in these newly independent countries and restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity that was lost as a result of the August war”, claimed Nogovitsyn. He has indicated however, that it was unlikely that Georgia would “again undertake such a wide-scale military operation against South Ossetia and Abkhazia, after Russian soldiers and officers had crushed the Georgian Army.” In Nogovitsyn’s opinion, “if Tbilisi decides to go for all-or-nothing (to restore the situation to its pre-war status) then they would most likely resort to some kind of secret military operation led by the Georgian army and special task forces.”

... more

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Medvedev: 2008

On Christmas Eve, Russia’s three main state-owned television channels; Channel One, Channel Russia and NTV interrupted their normal schedule of programmes to air President Medvedev’s round up of the events of 2008. In a live interview with one leading journalist from each channel Medvedev spoke extensively on the war in the Caucasus, the financial crisis, his relationship with Putin, Ukrainian-Russian relations, Russia’s national interests and Russia’s position in the world today. The questions were uncontroversial, the journalists understanding and sympathetic; Jeremy Paxman it most certainly was not. Below are a few bits from the interview that I thought were particularly interesting (original transcript from


Kiril Kleimenov (Channel 1): Dmitri Anatol’evich, were you sure that the military operation (in Georgia / South Ossetia) would be successful?

Dmitri Anatol’evich Medvedev: We had of course supposed that our neighbour (Georgia) wasn’t quite right in the head, but we had not realised to what extent. In retrospect, I think at some point I had begun to feel that our Georgian colleagues had simply stopped communicating with the Russian Federation. Before that they had been asking to meet us in Sochi to discuss matters, but then they simply disappeared off the radar. At that point I started to suspect that they were thinking of carrying out a military procedure.

So we were prepared for the event. And I think that as a result of our preparation the costs of the operation were minimal. The Russian army destroyed Georgia’s military infrastructure and still managed to avoid any acts that would have been of an inhumane character.


Tatiana Mitkova (NTV): Recently you have been in close contact with other world leaders. Do you feel that Russia as a country sits comfortably in the world today? I’m referring in particular to our return to defending Russian interests in such a practical, if one can use that term, military way.

Medvedev: Russian interests should be guaranteed by all available means; that is my deepest conviction. First and foremost they should be guaranteed by international law, by international institutions such as the United Nations and by regional institutions. But when necessary they should be defended by military means. The world is a very contradictory and complicated place; there are a large number of internal conflicts, a very significant number of threats such as terrorism and international crime. We need to be ready to respond to all of these threats and, when necessary, our response should be strong and forceful otherwise we will not be able to guarantee our state sovereignty. However, this does not mean that we should resort to only one of the available means; on the contrary, we should try to come to a compromise, to an agreement with various world powers, so long as they do not present an open threat to the Russian Federation. In this sense, we are most comfortably placed to talk with our colleagues abroad.

The thing is that nowadays, sometimes I really do feel that there is an attempt to cut Russia down to size. And whilst not so long ago, when Russia was in a different situation, such attempts were to some extent successful, now such attempts are impermissible. We do not like in any way the desire, for want of a better word, of our colleagues and partners in NATO to infinitely extend its limits; we have told them this clearly. We think that this does nothing to improve international security; on the contrary, it is necessary to take a different approach, it is necessary to create new mechanisms, modern mechanisms and this is what my idea of creating a pan-European agreement on security is aimed at achieving. There are different opinions on this; some, such as our biggest European partners say, “Yes, it’s an interesting idea, we want this, we are ready to take part in this,” whilst some are wary and say “What do we need this for? We’ve got NATO and that’s fine as it is.” But then not every country in Europe and most certainly not every country of the world is a member of NATO. The time has come to create mechanisms that will guarantee the security of all states. And I, as president of the Russian Federation, will always, as a matter of principle, take such a position on this subject. Even if some people don’t like it.

There are also other situations. We have spoken quite a lot today about the conflict in the Caucasus, of Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia. If the lives and dignity of Russian citizens are going to be threatened then Russia’s position will be most simple; we will be rational yet forceful. We will, and I have said this on numerous occasions, assert and defend the interests of our citizens wherever they should be. And this does not infringe international rule of law; it is the responsibility of any country and any leader.

So all in all I have good and perfectly comfortable relations with my colleagues worldwide, but we should not forget about our national interests; that is absolutely clear.

Tatiana Mitkova (NTV): The United States of America have always been one of the priorities of our foreign policy. Next year, Barack Obama will become president. How do you see the future of US – Russia relations?

Medvedev: You know, I want nothing else than our relations to be one of a partnership. As for priorities - when I was on the phone with president elect Barack Obama he told me that he sees relations with the Russian Federation as one of the highest priorities of American foreign policy. I agree with this 100 per cent and I hope that we will manage to successfully build a much more effective and more reliable relationship than what we have had previously, because although we have done a lot in recent years, many possibilities to develop normal relations with America were still neglected. In our opinion this was not Russia’s fault.

... more