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

Monday, 23 March 2009

Person of the Week: Maria "The Mashka" Sergeyeva

During the American presidential campaign our flat used to enjoy ‘Palin Watch’ - a daily ritual that involved scanning the papers for gems of the vice-presidential candidate’s (non)wisdom. And there were so many of them! Since then, following politics has been pretty dull. The likes of Obama, Putin and Brown et al., are just so sensible in comparison. They lack the, well, complete ridiculousness of Palin. But now we’ve discovered Maria Sergeyeva, Putin’s pink bikini wearing, foreigner-hating, Russia-loving pin up girl. And she has more than filled the ridiculous-things-said-by-people-who-may-one-day-become-very-powerful hole that Palin left behind.

A 24-year-old philosophy student, Sergeyeva does not hold an official political position. Yet. However she is already tipped to become a minister and has expressed her desire to one day become President, or at least Prime Minister. As a member of The Young Guard, the youth section of Putin’s party, her pro-Kremlin speeches and blog posts have become legendary. Indeed, a video of a speech she made in Red Square at the beginning of 2009, in which she shouted out to a crowd that she knew ‘Putin will protect me’ from the crisis, had to be removed from the political site it was posted on, after it attracted so much attention (over 140, 000 hits) that it caused the site to crash.

With her long blonde hair and glamorous good looks, she has become quite the celebrity on the political circuit and, judging by her internet popularity, is responsible for igniting an interest for politics amongst Russian youth. Her speeches, which are generally over-exciteable, unpolished but strangely addictive to watch, without fail praise the current administration, ever underlining that they, and they alone, can get Russia through the crisis.As such it has been suggested more than once that, like Nashi, she is on Putin's payroll as a gimick to win over the largely politically-apathetic Russian youth - a charge which she vehemently denies.

Her politics are firmly to the right and would, perhaps, even make the Daily Mail blush; at a political rally, she infamously held up a checked plastic bag, an object associated with immigrant market sellers from Central Asia, and told all immigrants to go home. Russia is for the Russians, she said. She’s vehemently patriotic (she only buys Russian products and her cause celebre is the protection of the Russian car industry) and believes that America is out to get her beloved motherland: “My love for Russia came with my mother’s milk. I loved listening to my grandparents’ heroic tales from the war. Putin has given us stability and economic growth. It’s good that he’s hardline and tough. That’s what Russia needs. America, of course, wants us to be weak.” Surprisingly she is also currently championing ecological causes, namely the opposition to the construction of a new waste-disposal unit in Moscow.

Judging by her huge popularity, it looks like Sergeyeva is here to stay. Political commentator Alexander Morazov told the Moscow News that he didn't see her going anywhere soon: “I think she will be become a new media figure... she will develop her activities not in the direction of pure politics, but will become ... a Ksenia Sobchak [it-girl presenter] not for the rich but for the poor.”

Here are some of Sergeyeva’s best (worst?) moments. Look out for more Sergeyeva-Watch in the future.

On how to solve the population imbalance in Russia - there are ten million less men than women.

Take men from abroad and bring them to Russian. It’s most important that women look after the family home and bring up children. Russian women are the most beautiful and tenderhearted in the world. We can lure the best specialists from the West with the help of our women’s beauty. That’s how to solve this demographic problem.

In response to the Georgian Eurovision entry, “We Don’t Wanna Putin”

If you don't want Putin, Medvedev will fuck you over. They're a TANDEM, you know.

Proof that she is an internet celebrity, if ever there was one. The caption under the video comes from a speech she made and essentially means that a crisis begins with your attitude towards it.

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Saturday, 21 March 2009

Spring Has Sprung - Conscription Has Begun

Photo: Alexei Petrosian
It’s that time of year again when no young man is safe from the roaming militia. Take a trip on the metro at the moment and everywhere you’ll see men aged between 16 and 25 being stopped, searched and questioned by the Militsia. And not, as per usual, just those from ‘the southern countries.’ That’s right, it’s conscription time, and this spring, following a series of military reforms, the army will take in more than 300 thousand young men - twice more than last year, making this year’s conscription period the largest in modern Russian history.

According to Russian law, all Russian men aged from 18 – 27 are supposed to serve a twelve-month period in the army, unless they are exempt for medical or educational reasons. In the past, men with pregnant wives or children under the age of three; doctors; students at specialised secondary schools; rural school teachers and those training to be priests were all officially exempted from military service, but new rules introduced from the beginning of this year mean that they are now all compelled to do military service. Students in full time education can still postpone until they have graduated and receive full exemption if they continue to PhD level.

The Ministry of Defence has justified the increase on the grounds that the army is currently suffering from a severe lack of non-commissioned soldiers, following the 2008 decision to cut the length of military service from eighteen to twelve months. Moreover, the army is also battling against the general trend of a declining population; during the l980s birth rates dramatically decreased, meaning that the number of Russian eighteen year olds is much smaller than 5 – 10 years ago. So to combat this the army will be stocked by masses of young men who don’t want to be there.

To put it mildly, the reputation of the Russian army is not great. In 2007, the BBC reported that 341 Russian soldiers committed suicide, which is about the same as one whole battalion. The practise of Dedovschina – literally rule of the grandfathers – a kind of ritual bullying where older soldiers ‘initiate’ newer recruits can in part be blamed for this. Myths and rumours abound within Russian society about this practise and are believed to different degrees depending on your viewpoint, but human rights groups estimate that it’s highly wide spread and has caused not only suicide attempts but also occasionally results in the murder of young conscripts. Moreover the psychological pressures of being a conscript are well known, however the Russian army offers no therapy or help to those entering or leaving the army.

The result? Logically, such a brutal regime will serve only to brutalise those who experience it, and social analysts and human rights groups have long commented on the fact that young men returning from conscription often find it hard to readapt to civilian life following the harsh demands of military life. Violence, alcohol and drug abuse are prevalent amongst Russian men and it seems probable that there is some sort of connection between this and the brutal regime of military service.

Of course, just because the state has decided that more people will join the army doesn’t mean that there aren't unofficial ways to get out of service. Bribing doctors and military officials in order to get out of military service has been commonplace for years (I’ve lost count of how many of my male friends have ‘flat feet’) although this is something that the authorities are trying to cut down on. Official statistics show that the number of arrests connected to bribe taking in order to avoid military service doubled from 2007 to 2008; however given the level of corruption and the popularity of bribery in all spheres of Russian public life it seems unlikely that it will stop completely any time soon.

What I find particularly scary about all this is the massive divide emerging between those who can afford to bribe (or educate) their way out of military service and those who are forced to enrol because economically, politically and legally there’s no way out. Russia is already a hugely divided society this two-tier system can only serve to accentuate existing social problems.

Some links about Russian military life:

At the end of this article the author prints some comments by Russians about military conditions. They’re pretty different from my (admittedly very Western) viewpoint, but also anything I’ve heard from my friends; but I guess they show the other side of the story.

The website of the Union of the Committee of the Mothers of Soldiers – a human rights groups that seeks to protects Russian soldiers lives.

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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

We Don't Wanna Put In

What ever happened to Eurovision as a happy, shiny vision of a united Europe?

As Russia prepares itself to host the annual music competition in May this year, political differences between Russia and its neighbours look set to threaten the organisers’ vision of the show as a happy manifestation of united Europe. And not just because of tactical voting and deal making to ensure another Russian win.

The Russian entrant, Anastasia Prihkodko, winner of Star Factory (other famous alumni include Dima Bilan, last year’s winner) has come under fire from the Russian media for singing in a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. Although the singer won at the preselection committee with over 25% of the votes, the choice as been dubbed a scandal, with many echoing the opinion that «a song performed in Ukrainian can't have anything to do with Russia.» As Russian relations with Ukraine are decidedly frosty at the moment it does seem a slightly odd choice, but pretty suggestive that the Russian public is rather less anti-Ukraine than their leaders.

Rather more scandalous is Georgia's choice of Eurovision entry, 'We don't wanna put in' by Stefane and 3G. (See video clip above.) The group, which is made up of Stefan and three sparkly-hot panted girls, hotly deny that the song has any political implications: « Those who can speak English language at least at the level of 5th grade of school should realize that lyrics has absolutely nothing to do with Russia.» However the lyrics «We don't wanna Put in» when sung in strong accented English do sound remarkably like «We don't want Putin», and have already got the Russian's knickers in a bit of a twist.

The Russian prime-minister press secretary, Dmitry Peskov stated: "If this information is true, we regret that participants from Georgia do not intend to concentrate on musical quality, trying instead to use this popular European competition to showcase their pseudo-political ambitions, or, more simply, for mere hooliganism. We hope that these Georgian guests of the Moscow Eurovision will decide to perform a real, beautiful song, since… Georgian culture is very rich in these"

It is not yet clear whether the Eurovision committee, which forbids the performance of any politically motivated songs, will allow Stefan and his girls to go ahead with their entry. In any case, we can be fairly sure, that the song will be receiving nul points from the Russian hosts.

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Saturday, 7 March 2009

A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words

So I'm a little snowed under with work and Katie's out of action with visa problems, so how about a little cultural break away from the doom and gloom of politics. Russia has a photo opportunity hiding round every corner. Here are some that I took over the past month. Hope you enjoy.

Miles of snow, the trans-siberian

Miles of snow, view from the trans-Siberian

Icy kopecks

Fur hats

Fur Hats

Ice fishing

Ice Fishing

A bit nippy

A wee bit nippy

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Friday, 6 March 2009

Successes of a Managed Democracy

Artwork: Konstantin Latyshev "GDP doubled"
Below are two articles that were published over the past fortnight, providing quite contradictory evaluations of the current political and economic situation in Russia today. The first is an editorial published in this week’s edition of “Expert”, a political economic magazine sympathetic to the Kremlin. It expresses the official line concerning events of Medvedev’s first year as President. The second article, also an editorial, was published a fortnight ago in “Nezavisimaia Gazeta” and casts any evaluation of Putin’s first year as Prime Minister in a rather different light.


- Expert -
A Test of Stability

When Dmitri Medvedev won the presidential election on the 2nd March 2008, no one would have guessed how difficult his presidential term was to become. It looked like Medvedev would slowly yet surely continue the excellent developments initiated by Vladimir Putin, and set about fine-tuning those spheres, where noticeable results might have for whatever reason not been achieved.

In a pre-election speech in Krasnoyarsk, Dmitri Medvedev outlined some of his priorities: a significant degree of independence of the judicial system; completion of changes to administrative regulations; handing over certain government functions to the private sector. The main assertion of his speech sounded almost like an aphorism: “Freedom is better than non-freedom.” The plan for the economy was to lessen the tax burden and place the emphasis on “building an independent, powerful, yet open financial system.”

Life, however, made a few amendments of its own. Medvedev did not get an easy ride and he, just like Putin before him, had to first win a war in the Caucasus. The peace-enforcement mission in Georgia showed that Medvedev was a tough politician, capable of making difficult decisions, whilst the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement demonstrated his ability to succeed in rather precise diplomatic manoeuvres.

It was an unpleasant surprise for Moscow’s Western partners when Russia recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet this was absolutely necessary in order to remove the threat to the republics of another attempt to end the dispute by force; an attempt that Tbilisi deemed inevitable after having lost the first war in August. The recognition of independence showed that Moscow is capable not only of reacting on the actions of its adversaries, but also of playing a deterring role. The Kremlin’s next step was to make yet another proposition to the US, EU and NATO about starting work on a new system of security for Europe, which would also take into account Russia’s interests. It is indeed rather showing that after the war our Western colleagues turned out to be much more susceptible to Moscow’s initiatives.

The ensuing economic crisis turned out to be an even bigger problem. A drop in the price of raw-material exports and a drain on capital subjected the Russian economy to a great shock. The rouble had to be devalued by almost a third, and cash reserves dropped by 36% (216 billion dollars). The events showed that the president was entirely right in his intentions to develop the country’s financial system, but that the crisis would make realising such plans significantly more difficult.

Political reforms were of utmost importance during Medvedev’s first year as president. The initiative to extend the presidential term to 6 years and the term for Duma deputies to 5 years was the proposition that attracted the most attention within society. However, under the current arrangement of the political system extending the terms would not have brought about any large changes, although it would have had a significant stabilising effect. Perhaps up until just a few months ago it seemed that there was even too much stability in Russia, so much, in fact, that reforms were unnecessary. However, as recent events have shown, such a backup plan would not have been for nothing.

The most significant changes with regards to the development of democratic procedures are those made to the appointment of regional governors (now only parties that have won in the regional elections will be allowed to present candidates), and also the changes to the procedure of forming the Federative Council (members will be chosen from elected deputies of the regional legislative assemblies). Additionally, moves have been made to encourage involvement of smaller parties in parliamentary affairs – those who did not obtain the minimum amount of votes, but received between 5 and 7 percent will now be represented. All in all, these steps should facilitate the development of a party system – all within the course that has been set out to make the transition towards a proportional election system.

Finally, we must also recognise the successful Medvedev – Putin duumvirate. The numerous speculations on the supposed division between the two leaders have remained for the time being just that – speculation. It is obvious, that however politically different Putin and Medvedev may be - they are two different people, and this will always result in differences in their views and approaches. But the differences are not that great.

Playing on disagreements between the president and prime minister it is a game that bureaucratic clans like to play; clans that see the existence of two decision-making centres as giving them the opportunity of attaining their own egoistic goals. And it is this game that during the global economic crisis Russia’s foes abroad would also very much like to play.

- Nezavisimaia Gazeta -
The limits of the usefulness of “managed democracy”

Legislators are scared of asking the executive inconvenient questions

The state Duma (lower house of parliament) took three weeks to mull over the first report appraising the government under the leadership of Vladimir Putin’s “Edinaia Rossiia” (United Russia). On the 30th January an evaluation report undertaken by the ministerial cabinet and carried out as part of a presidential initiative was presented to the Duma by first deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov. The result of the long reflection by parliamentarians on the content of this report was a ten page resolution.

The idea was that the state Duma would give a much needed evaluation of the anti-crisis policies of the government. There would be the opportunity to ask as many questions as needed during the meeting with the cabinet ministers. Then the Duma would take the report to bits and examine the Igor Shuvalov’s answers. This would be followed by an appraisal of the effectiveness with which measures that had been undertaken by the government. The plan was to then name those deemed guilty for the failure of any of the initiatives, whilst assigning certain figures the task of carrying out any urgent measures necessary to put the system to right.

However, the deputies did not set about asking difficult questions. The resolution that ensued confirmed the position of the parliamentary majority (United Russia): not one mistake committed by the ministerial cabinet was noted. Deputies got around the trickiest bit in their relations with the government with amazing simplicity. In order to answer the question “who’s guilty?”, whilst at the same time taking their own leader out of the equation, they thought up complex turns of phrase, with the only thing eventually criticised being the wholly abstract “insufficiently high level of discipline in many federal organs of executive power, resulting in bogging down of the timescale of carrying out the President and Prime Minister’s orders”.

And that was the end of the critical section of the Duma’s resolution. What followed were a series of requests made to the executive. Among them is the wholly astonishing remark expressing the need to organise and set up a government programme to encourage the unemployed to undertake work in the social sphere. That is, instead of demanding the government (and themselves for that matter) why on earth, a full half year into the crisis, such programmes do not already exist, deputies preferred to simply meekly express the desire of creating them. They did not even dare to mention the timeframe or name those who would be involved in their implementation.

It seems the deputies’ attitude can be summed up by the age-old saying “good Tsar, bad boyars”. It’s true, that there are now in fact two Tsars, but this is not important for state Duma deputies. It is much more important that the party leader receives the same respect as the president. However, the situation is not quite as amusing as it may seem.

Firstly, such a process devalues the very idea of an evaluation – what was the point of going to such trouble to produce a report just to end up making some insignificant suggestions to some insignificant people? Secondly, this trivialises the workings of the Duma. Tax-payers provide 5.5 billion roubles a year to keep the lower house of parliament running in the hope that its deputies will stand up for their interests, regardless of who they have to confront. Meanwhile, the majority of representatives are worried about only one thing - how to find sufficiently pleasant and inoffensive turns of phrase to describe the difficult relationship between the legislative and executive.

The problem is not just the declarational character of the Russian parliament. The problem is the removal from the political arena of one of the most important mechanisms of democratic control over the executive. It is necessary to have a real division of power not only on the surface, but in reality too. It has a practical use – improving the country’s anti-crisis programmes.

When times are tough, the natural limitations of a regime that calls itself “managed democracy” become plain to see. Sooner or later however the danger will arise that there will be no-one in this “democracy” left to govern.

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