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, 28 February 2009

Person of the Week: Mikhail Leont'ev

The first in the Person of the Week series I have decided to dedicate to certain well-known television presenter, political commentator, editor in chief of economic magazine Profile and all-round conspiracy theorist. For his uncompromising opinions on international affairs that range from run-of-the-mill America-bashing to outrageous and at times plain hilarious accusations, my choice this week is a public figure who is outspoken, not shy of controversy and not welcome in several post-Soviet states: Mikhail Vladimirovich Leont’ev.

Leont’ev is perhaps best known as the host of the weekly five-minute political commentary program “Odnako” (However). As host of a prime-time slot at the end of the main evening news on state-owned Channel One, you may think that he would have to be rather careful about what he says. However, careful would not really be the right word for it. Leont’ev’s weekly shows may come across to the Western ear as the unrestrained rant of what numerous Kremlin representatives are supposed to tiptoe their way round in public; a diplomatic disaster that has already happened, the fact that he does not hold any state position nevertheless gives the government just enough ground to officially avoid any implication in the event of a scandal.

And scandals are what Leont’ev does best. He is the proud holder of court rulings declaring him persona non grata in Latvia and banning him from entering the Ukraine for five years. In 2003 in an interview on Latvian television, he described the country as “wretched” and likened it to a tiny spoonful of tar spoiling the entire pot of honey that is the European Union. In 2006, a Ukrainian court ruled he pay $500 compensation and publicly retract comments made in reference to the former Prime Minister Victor Yushenko’s wife on “Odnako”, where he insinuated that she was influencing her husband’s politics with American ideas. Having refused to carry out the court’s demands, he subsequently fuelled further anger by questioning the legitimacy and sovereignty of Ukraine as an independent state.

Most recently Leont’ev has been devoting his attention to the financial crisis, observing the rack and ruin of Western economies with more than a hint of schadenfreude. His longstanding predictions of the West’s imminent downfall confirmed, he does remain optimistic as to the solution however, recently quoted as saying; “[t]he only way out of the current crisis is a world war. Who will start it and how is a mere technicality.”

Despite all the bravado and provocation, or perhaps because of it, Leont’ev remains fairly popular, in particular for past achievements in the nineties, having worked as a journalist and more recently on several popular documentaries. He may lack a little diplomatic finesse, yet he is not the only Russian public figure who could be reproached for doing so. Whether he makes any contribution to the pluralism of ideas that the country needs on television right now is certainly another matter however.

Do svidaniya!

This week’s issue of “Odnako” can be found here:

... more

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

What's in a Name?

Photo: Yuri Kommisarov
Since he was born six years ago, one young Muscovite chappie has been at the centre of a dispute between his parents and the Moscow general register office for births, marriages and deaths (GRO). The parents of “BOCh RVF 260602”, an abbreviation of “Biological Human Object born of the Voronin-Frolov families, on the 26th June 2002”, are adamantly refusing to rename the child, despite the GRO’s refusal to provide a birth certificate and officially register the child under such a name.

Several courts, including the European Court of Human Rights have refused to examine the case. Russia currently has no law that would prevent a child from being given such a name. “This is in the child’s interests,” stated Tatiana Ushakova, deputy director of the Moscow GRO, which has taken the matter into its own hands, “the parents should be thinking about the child himself and how he is to live with such a name, rather than their own ambitions.”

The situation seems to have reached stalemate and the possibility of taking custody of the child in order to rename him as in the case of “Tula does the Hula from Hawaii”, a New Zealand girl with a similarly catchy name, has not been raised. Although in a country where paper documents are everything living without a birth certificate or official registration must be rather problematic, none of the reports that I found noted whether the child was nevertheless able to attend school or receive state medical treatment. I can only suppose that amongst the profusion of metro adverts offering everything from passport registration and university diplomas to medical certificates and driving licences his parents have perhaps found an alternative birth-certificate provider.

(Some excerpts from RIA Novosti.)

... more

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Village People

Living in Moscow it’s easy to forget that for much of Russia’s rural population who do not live in the excesses (or simple adequacies) of the country’s capital, life in the 21st century has not yet begun. A friend and I spent a night living like locals (well, almost) in the Siberian village of Tashtagol and understood rather quickly how male life expectancy out in the sticks of Russia can average as little as 46 years in the worst regions.

---- ---- ---- ----

The plan to stay at the datcha for three nights doesn’t get off to a good start. “Firewood’s in the barn and the toilet’s over there,” says Andrei, the next door neighbour enlisted to help us out, nodding over at a small wooden hut around 20 metres away yet separated from us by untouched snow nearly 6 foot deep. “You’ll have to dig your way over,” he adds, with a chuckle. I have other priorities in mind - the temperature outdoors is minus twenty something and although the stove is doing its best, indoors it is still averaging a good ten degrees on the wrong side of zero. “How cold is it forecast to be tonight?” we ask tentatively. “Ooh, around minus 48 I should think,” is the unwelcome reply. I hope that is a rural Russian joke.

Left to fend for ourselves and having quickly assumed traditional gender roles Johann is shovelling snow to clear a path to the barn outdoors and as the female hunter-gatherer I pay a passing motorist to give me a lift to the local shop to buy supplies for the night. Admittedly, had I been true to my Russian villager role I would have braved the wait for a bus, but then my English feet are freezing and my English patience exhausted. My groceries, however, are decidedly “local” (in ‘the League of Gentlemen’ sense and admittedly not out of choice); some dubiously-looking sausage, cheese, black bread, a pot noodle and some instant smash.

On my return it’s already dark outside and the hut has heated up to a tropical minus two; I even have a go taking my coat off. In preparation for the night ahead Johann does some frozen wood chopping and does his best to fill a bucket, which is more hole than bucket, with some frozen coal. Our supply of frozen wood and frozen coal does not fill one with optimism. The buckets of water collected earlier from the village’s only tap have begun to freeze over despite being next to the stove. So has the water that has emptied straight onto the floor from a hole in the sink and that has collected near the entrance. My ideas of a steamy-hot banya and hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire are gradually being replaced by a somewhat colder reality.

Having eaten a dinner of all the above-mentioned ingredients fried together in a pan, exhausted any frozen wood chopping opportunities and even having stomped our way through shoulder high snow to the outside loo, we find ourselves at 6pm and at a bit of a loose end. With no transport, and nowhere to go to in the near vicinity even if there was, we quickly understand the allure of drinking oneself into oblivion and thus the crux of Russia’s rural demographic crisis. Hacking at the ice that has formed around the entrance provides some brief entertainment but we’re freezing in bed by 8pm; the thermometer inside our hut is has reached two degrees. Hourly efforts at keeping the stove alight prove futile; our two degrees Celsius average doesn’t get any better. By morning we decamp to an apartment in town – I’ve already had enough of the “real” Russia.

The most surprising thing about this experience was not our complete ineptness at keeping a stove lit, nor my reluctance to use an outside loo in subarctic conditions but rather the fact that 27% of Russia’s population of 140,000,000 live in rural areas with many in conditions largely similar to that from which we had quickly fled. In Abakan and Krasnoyarsk, two other Siberian cities we visited, just outside the city centre one finds clusters of these traditional wooden houses, which, despite being so tantalisingly close to civilisation have sporadic electricity supplies and no access to running water. Moreover, a large proportion of those living in such conditions are not sturdy youths who can chop wood and fetch buckets of water with relative ease, but the older generation who have nowhere else to go – living in rural poverty since time immemorial, excluded from the Soviet Union’s modernisation drives, brushed aside under capitalism and condemned to an existence below the breadline.

Such impoverished living conditions for so many of Russia’s citizens have clear implications for the country’s pretensions to superpower status on the world stage. The facts are contradictory; a member of the G8 that is, in parts, a third world country. A UN report published in 2006 presents some sobering statistics; the poverty rate in Siberia averages 35%. In one district this was as high as 77%. In another, nearly 16% of housing was classed as being in dilapidated or dangerous state of repair. Progress has been made over the past ten years yet many households remain excluded. The future prosperity of the country as a whole depends on lifting the most backwards areas into the 21st century and providing running water to rural communities is one of the important tasks that Russia faces today.

... more

Monday, 9 February 2009

Why I'll Never Understand Russia

Photograph: Aleksei Petrosian
There are many, many things that I don’t understand about Russia. Clichéd as it is, I still find it difficult to get away from Churchill’s old description of a ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ Nothing seems more apt to describe a country that is so inexplicable, so full of contrasts. A country that professes to hate US culture but glorifies McDonalds, that claims to have the most beautiful women in the world yet celebrates Western pinups; that pays lip service to democracy but, well… quite. Even beyond this, on a day-to-day basis there’s so much I don’t understand. Why, for example, do the hand runners on escalators in the metro go faster than the escalators themselves? Why the hysteria over an unpolished shoe? And just why will girls insist on matching their hair colour, boots and bag?

At first I thought my inability to understand Russia was just because I was a foreigner, an outsider. Just as I couldn’t understand Russia, nor could my Russian friends understand the UK. “Why do you have two taps instead of one”, I have often been asked. “What does the Queen actually do?” is another. Or just simply, “House of Lords?” To none of these questions could I give a proper answer. Maybe all countries and cultures are just totally incomprehensible to any other, anyone not born there.

Then I read an article entitled “Why we don’t understand our own country” by Igor Chubais, director of the Centre for Russian Studies. The article expresses the identity crisis that Russia is currently suffering and tries to answer those questions so often tackled by the good and great of Russian literature: ‘What is Russia?’; ‘What does it mean to be Russian?’ Somehow I find it difficult to imagine an English equivalent.

Chubais suggests that, since it’s generally not acknowledged that today’s Russian Federation is entirely different from its predecessor, the Soviet Union, (he argues that the two states are equally as contrasting as, say, the Third Reich and the Russian Federation), today’s Russian citizens find it difficult to construct a certain identity. When, in 1917, Old Russia ceased to exist to be replaced by the Soviets, propaganda and intellectuals took great pains to emphasise the novelty of the new regime – it was an entirely new system, with its own government, symbols, morals even. By contrast, no such line has been drawn between today and the not so distant Soviet past. It is this ambiguity, Chubais argues, that has deprived current Russians of reference points to construct a new identity: Who are our ancestors? Were we born under the salvo volley of the Aurora or does our history start with the VIII century? Who are our heroes, where are our ideals, which rules guide us? Between historical Russia and the USSR there have been armed seizures of power, a Civil War, tens of millions killed and repressed, 70 years of totalitarian censorship… What Russia does our army defend? Soviet or Anti-soviet?

Russia is left in limbo, uncertain of her direction, equally incomprehensible to her citizens as to visitors. Of course in Britain we have our own soul searching (since the fall of the Empire could anyone really say what we are? Part of Europe, stand alones or just America’s special friends) but our search for identity knows nothing compared to the anguish of Russia, and the situation described by Chubais. How is it possible to face up to the past, the litany of repression and change that the country has seen, and assimilate it into today’s history. In short, it doesn’t: We live by rules that are at the same time both Russian and anti-Russian, Soviet and anti-Soviet, Western and anti-Western. [A situation] that destroys any general rules.

The question of what Russia is today and how this relates to her past has obsessed academics ever since the tanks rolled on to Red Square in 1991. Even before that, the difficulties of acknowledging the repressions of the 1930s and other atrocities of the twentieth century taxed a host of Soviet leaders. It is only now that this question of how to relate to the past is coming to the forefront in public (public, here being a very narrow space – the readership of fairly marginal newspapers and websites) and political debate, as the ministry of education seeks to define broad guidelines of how Stalinism is to be remembered in school textbooks. It is only when Russia has decided on what its past is, that it will be able to know its present. And then, maybe, I might start making some headway on working out why so many Russian men feel the need to sport the unattractive-on-everyone mullet.

... more

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Siberian Ski

Photo: The Big Soviet Library (
Despite the financial crisis, this winter has seen a record number of Russians taking ski holidays in Courchevel – over 10,000 so far this season. But don’t the Russians have enough snow at home to keep themselves occupied? Whilst Krasnaia Poliyana, a key destination for the Sochi winter Olympics 2014 might currently be a bit of a building site, further East into Russia Siberia’s freezing temperatures combine with a picture-perfect mountain range to give the ideal natural conditions for a jolly good ski holiday. I’ve just got back from Sheregesh, Siberia’s most developed downhill skiing resort and was able to see how skiing in Russia can give the Alps a run for their money.
Squint a little on the approach to Sheregesh and all those little wooden dachas look a lot like chalets. As the bus winds its way thorough the snow-covered mountain roads one could be forgiven for failing to notice the profusion of fur hats on board, or for overlooking the telltale abundance of birch trees in the surrounding forests; all signs that indicate that you’re not actually in the Alps, but in the depths of Siberia.

On arrival at the base of the pistes the ski rental shops have the same up-to-date equipment as one would expect from any European ski resort; the ski techs are helpful, professional and (unusually) smiling. Look around you and there’s the very same chairlifts, cable cars, long winding slopes and latest ski suit fashion as further West.

Yet despite the similarities at first glance, Europe this is not and daily temperatures that range from a chilly minus 5 to a lung-freezing minus 40 and beyond are only the start of the story. Take the town itself for example. There may be some new chalet-style hotels appearing, but the main town of Sheregesh consists almost entirely of low-rise 1970s apartment blocks; those who are not so lucky to live in such luxury make do with ramshackle wooden dachas with outside toilets and no running water. In case you missed it on the approach, the view from the mountain reveals the town to be surrounded by active local industry with lone chimney stacks of small run-down factories bearing inscriptions such as “Work for the Glory of the Motherland” billowing black smoke into an otherwise pristine mountain air. On the short taxi ride to the base of the slopes you pass the army posts of the local high-security prison. That your taxi is an ice-encrusted lada with a cracked windscreen, no seatbelts and nothing but an orthodox icon glued to the dashboard for protection is also a dead giveaway that you’re not in St. Moritz.

On the slopes themselves, snippets of conversation between other skiers point to the fact that we’re rather east of Berlin. “What a pleasure it is to snowboard drunk,” exclaims one teenager, as he and his friends contribute to the collection of beer cans near the lift entrance. A skier stops at the side of the slope to answer his hands-free mobile, “it’s alright, I’m free to talk” he says, heading off down the slope, a fur tail (a bizarre fashion item sold at the base of the slopes) clipped to the back of his pants waggling in the wind.

On closer inspection there’s also something not quite right with the ski lift system. For a start, it is impossible to buy a lift pass for the whole ski domain. In fact, rather than a unified network, the lifts have instead been built by different private firms, each competing with each other and boasting the cheapest tickets or longest runs. “Each company fears they will miss out on some potential profit,” explains Konstantin, our ski tech, as we point out this fatal flaw in the valley’s coordination. What results is a rather annoyingly large proportion of time queuing at various ticket booths at the base of each lift in order to buy a ticket for that precise lift. Whilst some lifts have a top-up card system, others just provide a paper ticket to hand to the attendant and none offer unlimited ascents which, for those who want to do a day skiing all the slopes on offer means spending a lot of time rummaging in ones pockets for the correct bit of paper or plastic card for the particular lift that you want to take at any given time. Russia would not be Russia without its VIPs and so of course most lift queues offer a “VIP lane” for those oligarchs who just wouldn’t feel rich enough having to wait with the masses.

There are also indications that general health and safety may not be quite to European standards. The fact that none of the pistes are marked is the least of ones worries. A skier taking the chairlift in front of us gets tangled up as he sits on the chair and drops a pole. Already a metre or so in the air and with the lift attendant looking on disinterestedly and making no attempt to stop the lift, the skier takes his life into his own hands and leaps from the chair to retrieve the pole himself, ending up in a heap on the ground for other lift-users to try to avoid.

In certain areas the lifts are no longer functional due to the massive quantities of snow that has not been cleared and has been allowed to pile so high that the lift cables themselves are nearly submerged. In others, the chairlift is still just about high enough to keep people off the ground, but low enough to present a hazard for those forced to dodge their way between in order to pass underneath.

So all is not les Trois Vallées, but then if it was why would one bother hiking thousands of miles to Siberia for a ski break? Sheregesh’s geographically isolated location has both its upsides and downsides. Flights and transfers are not only costly, but also time-consuming. For the European market, a flight to Moscow (four hours from London) followed by a five hour internal flight to Novokuznetsk still only brings you three hours by bus from the resort. A trip to Canada suddenly doesn’t seem quite so distant.

Yet skiing in Siberia has its fair share of advantages. The remoteness of the resort means that during the week even in peak season (bar the New Year period) there are practically no lift queues and the slopes are uncrowded. You don’t have to get up at 6am to find some untouched powder to ski. The current ski area is big enough to keep an experienced skier occupied for a week, with some excellent off-piste and forest skiing. The surrounding hillsides look promising for further extension of the resort in the future.

The few foreigners that make it to Sheregesh every year will be greeted by metres and metres of light, fluffy powder in daily quantities that will astonish even the most veteran traveller. They may also be treated to an as-yet unspoiled and difficult to match dose of Siberian hospitality. And to top it all off, at the base of the slope - the chance to have their photo taken with life-size cardboard cut-outs of everyone’s favourite snow sports enthusiasts ready for action: Putin and Medvedev.

... more