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.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

A Year in Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

... more

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

... more

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Hello, Officer

Photo: einarorn on
Yesterday I had my first run-in with the Russian police. Unlike many of my other foreign friends, I am not routinely stopped and hassled for my documents so this was my first direct experience of the renowned MVD, although of course I’d heard thousands of stories about how corrupt the Russian police are. This time around, however, I was definitely in the wrong, although I’m not entirely sure to what extent the police were in the right either.

Picture the scene. It was the start of a long sunny weekend and some friends and I decided to buy some wine and have a little drink in a park in the sunshine. Now, usually you can drink pretty much anywhere, anytime in Saint Petersburg, however we somehow hit upon the idea of taking our wine to the Summer Gardens, one of the few places where it is strictly forbidden to drink alcohol. We sort of knew it was forbidden, but this being Russia, where rules are made to be broken, we decided we’d probably be alright. So, we found a nice bench and after finding the requisite pieces of paper on which to sit (Russians have a peculiar horror of dirt and who knows what sort of diseases lurk upon benches) we poured our wine into plastic cups and started our evening. All was going swimmingly until a couple of policeman with joy in their eyes, descended upon us, shouting “you’re nicked!” (or at least the Russian equivalent).

Your Documents, Please

I suspect that the first lesson taught at Russian policeman school is how to ask for the documents of any law-transgressing (or potentially law-transgressing) (or indeed not Russian-looking thus potentially law-transgressing) character. It is perhaps the average Russian policeman’s favourite activity and they are at it everywhere: in the metro, on the streets, in the park, you name it. And so, true to form, we were asked to hand over our passports.

Not really wanting to do so, my Russian friends all immediately claimed not to be carrying theirs, whilst I stood there smiling stupidly, not having my passport with me and not really wanting to give away that I wasn’t Russian. The police, however, were adamant. No documents were produced at this point but we were told that it would be necessary to go with them to the station, to sort out this little problem. The police seemed remarkably happy about all this and didn’t in the least insist that we should pour the wine away. Instead, as we set off towards the station they told us to bring the wine with us, and so we we walked through the park drinking our illegal wine in their presence. They were also very cheerful, joking away as if it was all part of the picnic.

When we arrived at the station – a small hut/office in the park boundaries – we were told we would have to show our passports. In gallant, Russian-man style, my friend assured the police that the devushki (girls) hadn’t been drinking and so it really wasn’t necessary. Alas, the fact we were holding cups of wine somewhat negated this and the policeman insisted we show them. At this point I had to admit that I wasn’t Russian and unfortunately didn’t have my passport. To which the policeman astutely replied: “And how do I know you’re not a foreign terrorist?” Good question, to which I had no proof illustrating the contrary. He seemed to accept my promise that I wasn’t, but all the same made us go into the little hut, where a matriarchal mama of a policewoman sat looking at us severely.

“You do realise you are not allowed to drink in this park?” the woman asked. Well, yes. And then, the horrible fate that surely must arise from a meeting with the Russian police after such unlawful activity never happened. “Devushki, you must read these rules and then you can wait outside on the benches.” This was clearly a man's problem. And so Anna and I dutifully read the Park rules (which somewhat bafflingly included ‘no killing of swans’ despite a notable lack of swans in the park) and then went outside leaving the men to do their stuff. The men were offered a choice – 500r official fine per person, including noting down of passport information, or 300r under-the-table, straight in to the policeman’s pocket. A no-brainer really. The boys paid up as the girls waited quietly outside.

All’s Well That Ends Well

And so our police escapade ended. I learnt a few important things about how the police in Russia work: first, they really do love that little bit of money. The system of slipping the police a couple of hundred roubles and avoiding any further trouble is so entirely engrained in the minds of both the police and Russian citizens as to make it an almost officially sanctioned law. Second, when there’s a promise of some money the police are friendly. I mean, really, really friendly. Third, the Russian police are rather sexist. And for once, I was glad of it!

... more

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Mr Medvedev

Art Work: Jose Maria Cano Photo: EFE/Sergei Chirikov
I went on a little jaunt last weekend to the wilds of the Russian countryside in search of bears, but alas my search was not very fruitful. Fortunately, my disappointment was curbed when I got home and found my news feed full of little tales about that other Russian bear-related character: Mr Dmitry Medvedev. I do like a good presidential story and here are some of the best from last week.

Why Women Love Medvedev
A recent survey by the “Social Opinion” foundation (FOM) has shown that Medvedev’s approval rating amongst women has risen by 10% over the last two months, giving him an overall 67% approval rate amongst the fairer sex. FOM put the question, “How do you think the president has changed over the past year” to women across the country, receiving amongst it’s replies, that: the head of government has “become more decisive” and “demanding”; “he has matured to become more competent”; “he is more active and business like” and some women even noted that his exterior appearance had changed. All in all, the consensus was that Putin’s protégée has grown up, at last adequately filling the presidential shoes. He might not have his prime minister’s good looks, but as political poster boy number two, Putin should start watching his back.

According to psychologist Sergei Makelov, the reasons for Medvedev’s increased popularity are quite obvious. “Most woman like an action-man type of character”, he told popular newspaper Argumenti i Fakti, “the kind, who is capable of solving any problem – or, at least claiming to be able to, since to the female ear the two are one and the same.” [whaaaat?] Apparently, Medvedev’s resolute pronouncements on education, healthcare and the ongoing struggle with wayward provincial bureaucrats have won him over the female electorate. Whether he follows his promises through remains to be seen, however, according to Makelov, this part of the bargain is not so important to women anyway. What a wonderful position for a politician to find himself in!

Mummy, I’ve Painted Medvedev

Over at Russian Livejournal (the place to blog in the Russian Federation), blogger fima-psuchopadt writes of a bumper-crop of children’s drawings that he has stumbled across, depicting respected Dmitry Anatolevich Medvedev himself. Now, I know traditionally Russians have always gone in for cult-building around its leaders (the proliferation of Lenin statues and Stalin's cult barely need mentioning here, although the tradition actually stretches back to Tsarist times) but in this day and age, I was a little surprised to learn that primary school children had been painting their president. Is this usual behaviour? (Side note: in the primary school I teach in there is a large picture of Dmitry Anatolevich over the door. Lovely stuff)

To return to fima-psuchopadt’s post, he has selected some of his favourite entrants amongst the art works, which he, somewhat ironically, sees as an uncanny representation of Russian truth, as depicted through childish eyes.

1. Medvedev frolicking past the three essential stages of a Russian's life: school, university,and, erm, Gazprom. As firma-psuchopadt points out, Medvedev is interestingly positioned so as either to be going backwards or leading a song and a dance on the spot. Uncannily indicative of the direction of Russian politics?

“Medvedev Reads the Constitution to Children”. Apparently a wonderful example of respected Dmitry Anatolevich's greatness – note how even the cat and dog look upon the mighty president with rapt attention. However FP spots a bit of anti-state feeling in the over accurate attention to Medvedev’s diminished height and oversized tie knot.

That’s all on the weekend’s bear spotting, but there’s sure to be more soon.

... more