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, 30 May 2009

I live in Russia!

Picture: Film Poster for "Molodaia Gvardia"
Now the big raving Brit in me means that I have rather mixed feelings about England being dissed, especially when it includes having accusations of bourgeois-imperialism levelled at me. However, when it’s in a catchy song endorsed by a pro-Kremlin youth group and sung by one of Russia’s most notorious chanson artistes then I guess I can let it lie. “Ya zhivu v Rossii!” (I live in Russia!) is the latest single out by Sergei Trofimov and rather popular on the Molodaia Gvardia youth movement website. It won me over, see what you think:

(You can read by (very badly translated) transcript of the lyrics in English below. If anyone can do any better you are more than welcome!)

Somewhere in London it’s been pouring with rain since the morning
Pavements, streets worn out by cabs
You won’t find any place in the pubs, and on the stock exchange,
The game turns into the usual British gambit

The order of things here is unchanging and simple
Like the parliamentary throne of the Queen
And the influential pound continues the rise
Of the bourgeois-imperial tree

*** Chorus ***

But I live in Russia!
At the furthest point of being
I live in Russia!
It’s simply my motherland

In this untamed great power
Constrained by dreams of days gone by
It’s unlikely that life will become more substantial or simpler
But it’s my home


On the Saint-Claire Boulevard chestnuts are flowering
And in the Boulogne forest the cold wind has gone astray
And the glass turns red from Burgundy wine
As if the Holy Grail has been discovered again

Here a united people respect themselves
And their freedom attained through suffering
And they live from day to day, not bemoaning anything
Earning a profit from goods from year to year

I had a friend, he went away a long time ago
To that place which did not have shocks and misfortune in store
For him, our life is like a bad film
Where the budget can’t save the mediocre plot

Sometimes he calls to find out how things are going
And, having heard the latest gossip
Doesn’t understand why we are burning to the ground
In order to once again rise from the ashes

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Friday, 29 May 2009

News from the Caucasus

Photo: Sergei Maximishin, Kabardino-Balkaria
Russia is the biggest country in the world. Fact. And it’s with this in mind that I’m going to start blogging more news from the more far flung regions of the motherland. In the days to come I’ll be taking a look at the Russian Far East, Siberia, the Urals, who knows - I might even make it to Murmansk. But for now, I’ll start where I left off on Wednesday – down south, in the Caucasus. is an internet news portal for the Caucasus region with constant updates on breaking news stories. I read through the news posted over 24 hours yesterday and picked out 3 stories to tell you about.

A Gun Battle has Broken out in the Capital of Kabardino-Balkaria
May 28, 3:35am

The sound of explosions and gunfire can be heard in central Nal’chik, capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, near to the central market and bus station.

“Law enforcement officers have blocked militants into a privately-owned building on Mechnikov street,” explained one source.

The shootout in central Nal’chik started at 1:30am Moscow time. At the current moment single gunshots can be heard.

The situation in Kabardino-Balkaria has again escalated. On the night of the 10th of May in the village of Dugulubgia after a special operation by the FSB three fighters were killed. According to unofficial sources, one of those killed was later identified as a former Imam of the Kabardino-Balkarian Jamia, Mussa Mukozhev.

On the 14th May the vice chief of the pre-trial detention facility of the federal penitentiary service Vitalii Bogatyrev was shot dead nearby his home and 500m from his workplace, by a gunman in a passing vehicle.

On the 20th May in Nal’chik gunmen opened fire on traffic policemen in a police car. The policemen returned fire but the gunmen managed to get away.


Markov: strengthening Abkhazia’s border with Georgia will ensure security
May 28, 9:11am

Reinforcing the border between Abkhazia and Georgia with Russia border guards will allow a higher level of security for Abkhazia to be ensured, will improve the economy and raise the number of tourists to the region declared Sergei Markov, MP.

According to the Markov, the Georgia’s government, under President Mikhail Saakashvili “has not let go of the idea of bringing Abkhazia back under control by force.”
The agreement signed on the 30th April to guard the border between Abkhazia and Georgia with both Abkhazian and Russian border guards is “legal, obvious and expresses the interest of the peoples of Russia and Abkhazia” declared Markov. “The border guards not only guard the border but also create the conditions for peaceful work and development of the people of Abkhazia.”

On the 1st May NATO declared that the agreement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia on guarding their borders is in conflict with the agreements from the 12 August and 8 September and is not conducive to long-term peace and security in the South Caucasus.

Markov also mentioned that he had been involved in the preparatory stages of a expert-youth forum that will take place in Abkhazia in July with the participation of “United Russia” [Russia’s ruling party], “Young Guard” [a pro-Kremlin youth group], students and professors from Russian universities and Russian experts.


Preparations continue in Chechnya for the municipal elections
May 28th 2009, 13:34pm

Preparations for Chechnya’s municipal elections which will be taking place on the 11th October are currently underway. They are being taken particularly seriously due to the fact that this is the first time that municipal elections are being held. The regional Central Election Committee is undertaking a lot of work preparing brochures as well as seminars to ensure that voters, candidates and the media understand the election process.

Observers have expressed scepticism with regards to the results of the voting in the parliamentary elections that took place on the 12 October 2008. What bothered them in particular was the unconditional support shown by the population towards “United Russia”, the leading party that received 88.4% of the votes.

Meanwhile, the voting situation for two contested regions remains unclear. Sunzhenskii and Malgobekskii are currently under the jurisdiction of Ingushetia, but before 1934 were administrative parts of Chechnya. Chechnya’s head of parliament has previously made clear that the status of these regions need to be decided in a fair manner. However, there are no documents other than those from 1934 that determine whether these two regions belong to Chechnya or Ingushetia. Official commissioner on Human Rights to the Chechen Republic Nurdi Nukhazhiev has also declared that Ingushetia does not have the right to lay claim to Chechen land. Nevertheless in recent times the question as to the status of Sunzhenskii and Malgobekskii has not been raised.

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Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Hotting up down South

Photo: Sergey Maximishin

Since President Dmitri Medvedev triumphantly declared the end of the anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya last month, leading the republic’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov to envisage a bright future of foreign investment and economic growth, things in the Causcasus have gone a little bit iffy – it might not yet be quite time for a summer break in Grozny. Over the past month or so the daily news has been highlighted by intense gun battles between the military and the “bandits”, who have been hiding out in the forests of Dagestan or involved in shootouts in the capital of Ingushetia.

According to Vladimir Mukhin of Nezavisimaia Gazeta, despite attempts by the southern republics’ leaders to give the impression that everything is under control by underestimating the numbers of “bandits” participating in battle, the numbers of terrorists killed or detained recently as reported by the Ministry of Internal Affairs tells a different story. According to official figures, since the 16th of May, when anti-terrorist operations in the regions were stepped up, 28 bandits have been killed and more than 20 detained. Around 12 members of the Ministry of Internal Affairs have been killed. The Ministry of Defence stopped publishing figures for its members killed in Chechnya last year and so the final tally of law-enforcement victims is uncertain, but nevertheless the situation is considerably more serious than the leaders of these regions would like to admit.

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Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Meet the Gopniks

A group of young men wearing pointy-toed leather shoes, gold chains and shiny tracksuits with fake brand names – think Abibas not Adidas - squat around a mobile phone that blares out Russian techno, chewing on sunflower seeds, drinking beer and occasionally spitting massive gobs of phlegm to display their manliness. Meet the Gopniks, a so-called youth sub culture (although no one would ever actually describe themselves as a gopnik) of young, not-very-well-off, Russian men.

It is impossible to live in Russia very long without hearing about the gopniki: newspapers, blogs, even my friends, talk constantly about them, but exactly who they are is a bit of a mystery to me. , an online ‘museum’ of gopniks providing a cod-anthropological expose of the group, gives the impression that they are a defined criminal group, whilst another site describes them as 'a post-Soviet subculture educated in the criminal aesthetic and brought up in a working environment.'

And yet my friends' use of the word 'gopnik' is far wider: anyone from the working classes, who seems to be getting a bit lairy or causing a bit of a trouble can be classed as a gopnik. Could it be that gopnik is the Slavic equivalent of the British chav? Is that even possible in Russia, a country which apparently doesn't sh
are Britain's complex system of class snobbery, as epitomised by the much-debated division between chavs and chav-nots?

The exact origins of the term ‘gopnik’ are unclear, although it is generally agreed that it comes from the addition of the suffix –nik to the acronym GOP. However to exactly what GOP refers remains a contentious issue. One version has is that it stands for Gorodskoye Obshchestvo Prizreniya (the City Society of Care), the name for the network of poor houses set up by the Soviets following the October Revolution. Another version translates the acronym as Gorodskoye Obshchezhitiye Proletariata (The City Hall of Proletarian Residence), referring to a large hostel set up in the 1920s in Saint Petersburg in the Hotel Oktyabrskaya, to house the tidal wave of peasants and small-city dwellers that flooded into the capital during the chaotic dislocation of the post-revolution years. According to Petersburg folklore, the once-grand hotel soon became became renowned as a hubbub of criminal activity although historians have never been able to find proof of it’s existence.

In any case, whichever acronym GOP refers to, the term gopnik evolved as a word to describe poor young men, whose backwards ‘provinciality’, criminal behaviour and general loutishness conflicted with Soviet rhetoric, which called for ‘culturedness’ - a value reaching far beyond our western perception of culture, encompassing certain standards of behaviour such as abstinence from alcohol, traditional sexual morals and a smart and clean appearance. Throughout the Soviet years, the term gopnik was invoked as an insult to those on the margins of society, who drank, committed crime or were just generally considered uneducated and uncultured.

The term gopnik survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and throughout the 1990s it evolved to refer to the hard men who reigned throughout this lawless period – the reason why most Russian flats have at least three locks, as gopniki, shaved-headed heavies provided the muscle in business and politics. During the 1990s gopniki had power, if not respect, as they raked in money by any means as many, more educated Russians suffered from the fall out of the Soviet Union and the difficulties of adjusting to the free market.

With the demise of Yeltsin and the implementation of Putin’s iron hand and with no strong cultural yardstick a la Soviet culturedness, it looked as though Gopniki as a social subgroup could be over. Indeed, when a couple of years ago a group of journalists from Exile magazine went on a ‘gopnik’ safari they concluded that the gopnik movement was as good as over: Just as the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex evolved into the rock pigeon, right before our eyes we're witnessing the rapid devolution of the gopnik into something that can only be described as "skinny dude with a bad mullet who tells everyone he's a brand manager but for now he works at a Evroset kiosk where he managed to five-finger enough cash to get himself a used Nissan Almera, which he loves more than anything which ever was, is, or shall be." And so from a feared group of fairly hardcore criminals, the gopniki have become a mocked group of not-very-wealthy Russians. Gopnik has become a cult idea, spawning books, music, the works... Take a look at this clip by Syava, a rapper who parodies ‘Gop Hop’ artists (think Goldie Lookin’ Chain meets the Russian Provinces) a current you tube sensation.

The label ‘gopnik’ is assigned to anyone of low income and low education, who, in the eyes of society, don't have the nouse to sieze the opportunities available to them in society. Today's Russian gopniks are no different to England’s chavs or America’s white trash: they are not a cultural sub group – indeed, they can not even be defined as one group - but a reflection of social snobbery very much alive in Russia today.

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Thursday, 14 May 2009

News from the Eastern Face

I'm going to be posting Radio Free Europe's "This Week in Facebook" every week now. For anyone who's interested in following events in countries of the former Soviet Union RFE's website has got tonnes of information, much of which you cannot find elsewhere in the press.

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Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Treats, Trials and Tribulations of the “Taxi”

Photo: "Lada in Belarus",
There’s no better way to experience the delights of the Russian automobile industry than by hailing a “taxi” on the streets of any town or city of Russia. In the short period of time that it takes you to journey to your destination you are free to admire the finer details of various car models the likes of which are unseen and unheard of (for good reason) in the West. During this time you will also experience a momentary insight into the life of those who drive such a vehicle. Trapped in a confined space with a total stranger for whom you have momentarily become a long-time friend, you are unable to escape hearing his whole life story / personal reflections on the financial crisis / evaluation of the state of the country and/or world today / extensive opinion on immigration / complaints about the price of groceries and/or government pension schemes.

The most convenient thing about taxis in Russia is that most drivers are potentially ready to become one. Stick out your hand and negotiate your price and destination with the first person who stops. If the first car does not fancy this price/destination combination fear not – there’s probably already a queue forming behind him waiting to get their chance. This standard practice of negotiating your price with the driver beforehand niftily saves you from the agony of the London black cab as you sit watching the little red figures on the metre rise exponentially every couple of seconds and is one of the main reasons why I am a fan of the “gypsy cab”.

The ubiquitous Lada “Zhiguli” model (yes, it’s the one whose inventors were clearly inspired by the cars they drew in crayon as children) in various states of disrepair or, more comically, with tinted windows, shiny hubcaps and leopard-print furry seat and steering-wheel covers is the first “taxi” that you will probably come across. My favourite Zhiguli experience so far (and there are indeed, many) was one with a tinted rear windscreen etched with a line drawing of Tyra Banks running through a forest accompanied by wolves. The driver really didn’t look the type. Indeed, whilst hailing a car, although it is easy to pick out from a distance which car in the line of traffic will be the one for you (bets are on that it won’t be the guy in the Mercedes), predicting the conversation in store is more of a refined ability.

The price of your journey will depend on various factors, including whether the driver is going that way anyway, how small his normal wage is, how keen he is to have someone to rant at, whether you can show them how to get to where you’re going and how direct the road is. If your destination is straight on then you’re in a good position to negotiate. If your destination is to the right then, at least in Moscow, the city where it is impossible to make a right-hand turn, getting to where you want to go will involve 3 left hand turns and/or u-turns and so your price is likely to be higher. In any case, you can be sure that you will get from A to B in the fastest possible time by weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating the car in front, or even better, tailgating an ambulance passing through a red light. Don’t be surprised if you driver tells you that you don’t need to put your seatbelt on when he sees you making an attempt to do so. Don’t be surprised either if he sees any attempt at putting on a seatbelt on as a personal insult to his own driving abilities. And don’t be too surprised if your car happens to have a portable police siren stuck to the roof. It’s all part of the experience.

Putin: Good Evening, will you take me to the Kremlin?
Driver: D’you know the way?
Putin: Not really, I’m from Petersburg myself.
Driver: How much you payin’?!
Putin: I don’t know… 200 rubles?
Driver: Call it 300 and let’s go.
Putin: No, I won’t pay 300 sorry

: Alright then, let’s go.
Putin: Excuse me, can you…?
Driver: It’s alright… I’ve got one myself.

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Sunday, 10 May 2009

Happy Victory Day!

Yesterday Russia celebrated the end of WWII with parades and parties aplenty. Here is the video of the parade on Moscow's Red Square. As Caroline already posted (but about which I'm still in shock), it was a lovely sunny day because the Moscow authorities have ways of dispersing the clouds - if anyone knows how you could possibly do this, please get in touch!

Still, they do put on a good show!

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Wednesday, 6 May 2009

News from the Eastern Bloc

Artwork: Sinie Nosy
What would happen if Eastern European countries had Facebook accounts and updated them as much as the average British student with an iphone and a yearning to share their every feeling with the outside world? Radio Free Europe tried to imagine the result and this is what they came up with for this week. Love it!

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Sunday, 3 May 2009

Who’s afraid of the Russian Police?

Photo: Valerii Nistrov
The Russian police hardly have a good reputation and in the light of a recent incident, in which an off-duty Russian police chief opened fire in a Moscow supermarket, killing three and seriously wounding four more, the newspaper Kommersant posed the question: Who’s more dangerous than the Police? Here are some of the responses.

Sergey Katanandov, Head of the Republic of Karelia
Fools, that’s what I’m afraid of. A fool thinks nothing of shooting out the window of his flat – and unfortunately there are such examples. That’s why it’s essential to ensure that anyone purchasing a firearm undergoes a medical examination. But people in Karelia aren’t afraid of the police, they trust them.

Anatolii Kulikov, Chairman of the International Anticriminal and Antiterrorist forum. Former Head of Russian MVD (police) 1995 – 1998
Bandits are more dangerous than policeman. I don't agree with people who think otherwise. You come across villains in any sphere, but there are many decent people within the police force. It is essential that any crimes committed by policeman are heavily punished to prevent ordinary people thinking that the police can just get away with it.

Magomed Tolboev, Pilot, Hero of Russia
For me there is nothing more terrifying than a policeman. When I see someone in uniform I cross to the other side of the street. It doesn't matter who they're dealing with – a Hero of Russia, Pensioner or General – they' can easily humiliate or rob him. Only about 10% of officers in the police force are honest, decent people. And after this bloodbath in the supermarket the minister and his deputies should resign.
Valerii Engel, First Vice President of the International Congress of Russian Speaking Jewry
I, like any normal person, fear our custodians of law and order, just as I fear bandits and skinheads. It’s hard to imagine a situation in any other developed country when the police would start shooting at citizens.

Andrei Lugovoi, Deputy of the State Duma
The employees of Scotland Yard, who are unfairly persecuting me. If you're going to be scared of anyone in the law enforcement agencies, it should without doubt be them. There's no reason to fear our policemen – this is an isolated incident.

Lev Ponomarev, Leader of movement «For Human Rights.»
The authorities. The police are unlawful, but they're carrying out the authorities' orders. The mayor behaved so cockily because he knew that it was sanctioned. The police hide their bad eggs.

Rainer Muller-Hanke, Chairman of KMV Bank
The corrupt. The Russian police aren't dangerous. They have only ever helped me. When my documents were stolen in a hotel, although they were unable to find the thief, the police really tried to get my documents back. [This tragedy] could occur in any country.

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Saturday, 2 May 2009

Saving for a Sunny Day

Artwork: "Garden", Asya Nemchanok
The economic crisis is taking its toll in Russia, yet people are keeping faith and the authorities will not let a looming budget deficit get in the way of a sunny Victory Day parade. Well, at least that’s what the “Russia in Figures” section of this week’s Vlast magazine seems to indicate.

According to the Russian Home Office, on the 19th of April (Orthodox Christian Easter Day), an Easter church service was held in 9,300 churches across Russia with a participation of approximately 4.5 million people and an extra 106,600 thousand police officers on duty (or one extra police officer for every 42 people). Between 60 to 70 per cent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox Christians (85 to 99 million people), of whom 1 in 19 attended an Easter service.

Compare this with Christmas church-going. On the 7th of January (Orthodox Christmas), 2.1 million people (or one in 40 of those who consider themselves Orthodox Christian) attended a service at one of the 8011 churches open that day. An extra 85,700 police officers were on duty. This means that at Easter 2.4 times the amount of people attend Church than at Christmas. The proportion of police officers to visitors however is 1.68 times higher at Christmas than at Easter, leading the writers of Vlast to conclude that Easter is celebrated more widely in Russia than Christmas, but rather less riotously.

15,280 rubles [£310 / €348 / $462 by today’s exchange rate] was the average income in Russia for March of this year. This was 13.3% more than in March 2008.

According to Alexei Kudrin, Russian Finance Minister, the Reserve Fund of the Russian Federation [Note: which peaked in January 2008 at $157 billion] “will be practically completely run dry” by 2010. On the 1st of April 2009 the fund was still over $121 billion in the black.

Inflation over the period from the 1st of January to the 20th April 2009 stood at 6%. This is the same as over the same period last year.

The Moscow authorities will be spending 65 million rubles [£1.3 million / €1.48 million / $1.96 million) this year on cloud dispersal treatments for the 9th of May Victory Day celebrations and Moscow City Day celebrations [Note: on important bank holidays planes are sent up around Moscow to disperse the clouds and to ensure sunny weather. Boris Johnson should really take note.]

2,700 kilometres of road will be built in Russia in the upcoming year, which is 17.4% more than last year.

2.26 billion people were registered unemployed by the 15th of April – 1.6% more than the amount registered by the 9th of April. According to official statistics since the beginning of October last year 329,000 people have lost their jobs.

The foreign trade turnover of Russia in January and February of this year stood at $50.5 billion – only 56% of the turnover taken during the same period of last year. According to official statistics exports stood at $36.7 billion (52.3% of last year’s amount) and imports at $23.8 billion (64.5% of that of last year).

The price of medicine rose 14.2% in the January to March period of this year in comparison with prices in December 2008.

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