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.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Under A Nuclear Cloud

Photo by Ed Ou

In a sobering reminder of the Cold War legacy, the New York Times website this week featured a photo reportage by Ed Ou entitled 'Under a Nuclear Cloud', which examines the lasting consequences of radiation due to secret nuclear tests by the Soviets on the population living in areas surrounding Semipalatinsk in northern Kazakhstan.

The haunting photos capture with a striking simplicity the everyday life of the children of an intentional Chernobyl that everyone forgot. We think it’s worth remembering: Under a Nuclear Cloud by Ed Ou

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Saturday, 25 July 2009

A Serious Move from Lukashenka?

Aliaksandr Lukashenka

Another day, another provocative comment from Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka. On Thursday he announced to the world that the Russia Belarus Union is an ‘incomplete project’ and should be shelved. He confirmed that he would like to establish trade links with the US and that he is seeking further co-operation with the EU, as reported in the Russian newspaper, Kommersant. This comes after a somewhat dubious outburst a couple of months ago following a bitter spat over a loan instalment. Lukashenka then claimed that Belarus would have to try its luck in other parts of the world if things didn’t work out with Russia. Thursday’s comment, however, gives more reason to think that Lukashenka is actually serious about making concessions to the West.

Following the squabble over the loan and the subsequent ‘dairy war’ it could be said that Lukashenka’s proclamations were little more than an effort to get noticed by the international community. Belarus is neither politically nor economically prepared to integrate with the West despite its promising, albeit cosmetic, democratic makeover. There is also good reason for both Russia and Belarus to continue co-operating despite the limp state of the union, namely Belarusian dependency and Russia’s enjoyment of a buffer to the ever-encroaching NATO. Furthermore, Belarus is an important energy transit country whilst Nord Stream remains a project on paper. For the time being, it seems like these squabbling brothers will have to like it or lump it.

However, there appears to be more weight backing up Lukashenka’s latest attempt to woo the West. Last year, the Belarusian government refused to tow the line following the war in Georgia and did not recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. This indeed seemed like a very bold – and also brave – step away from Russia. Alongside Thursday’s announcement, Lukashenka pushed this highly sensitive issue further by telling Belarusian citizens not to enter the Georgian enclaves via the Russian border.

Although once again this has served Lukashenka’s aim of achieving international press coverage, it really does show that he wants to establish ties with the West. Georgia remains one of the most important obstacles in the way of Russian/Western co-operation and if Lukashenka insists on sticking his oar into the somewhat heated debate, then he is certainly taking his chances by rubbing the Russians up the wrong way. Other more credible evidence of steps towards the West include the release of a US lawyer from prison at the end of last month and an official pardon from the Belarusian government.

But why would a small-town dictator want to pander to the West? After all, he secures his leadership election after election using highly undemocratic methods and yet still enjoys popularity amongst a substantial amount of Belarusian citizens. Other than the fact that Russia is beginning to look untrustworthy following the milk disputes and the loan squabble, Lukashenka has realised that total dependence on Russia is a strategically unsound option.

This is particularly evident with regards to energy following the 2006/7 gas dispute. It is clear that Belarus is keen to diversify its energy supplies away from Russia, shown by plans to build a nuclear power plant. However, it is ironic that Lukashenka has asked for the $9 billion loan to pay for the plant from exactly those whom he is trying to lessen his dependency on; the Kremlin. The desire to diversify has also been shown by the claim that Belarus wants to start trading with the US. A nice idea, but Belarus will have to start producing something that the US actually wants to buy. Nevertheless, the Belarusian leader has identified an important area of weakness and is setting about rectifying this through his concessions to the West.

So, for arguments sake, let’s say that Lukashenka is serious. He’ll make democratic reforms. He’ll stop being a megalomaniac. He’ll release political prisoners and shake up the economy. But should the West trust him? Can a dictator really shave off his moustache overnight? The constitution still states that Lukashenka can run for presidency indefinitely. It is still highly unlikely that the West will embrace Lukashenka, but will simply welcome the move and try to encourage democratic reform with a series of promises of economic help.

And how will those on Belarus’ eastern border react? It is reasonable to think that many Russian politicians will be glad to see the back of this parasitic embarrassment. However, the Belarusian government seems keen to maintain ties and it is also likely that Russia will want to keep a working relationship ticking over. Lukashenka stressed that co-operation with the West was not to be developed at the expense of relations with Russia. Lukashenka is hedging his bets; he wants to lessen his dependency on Russia, but realises that he still needs their help – financially more than anything.

But one shouldn’t knock him too much for such a move. He is simply being realistic; Minsk needs to emerge from its isolationist state, but links with Moscow are too important to make a break. However, Lukashenka seems to think that the only way to please the West is to display animosity towards Russia; the instruction concerning travel to the Georgian enclaves has provoked outrage in Moscow. If he still wants to keep receiving his billion dollar loans, then Lukashenka will have to tread more carefully.

The move should be welcomed, but with caution. Much more needs to be done to improve the state of Belarusian politics and Lukashenka could be in danger of deepening dividing lines if he continues to aggravate the Kremlin. But if making concessions to the US and the EU can invigorate Belarus through increased trade, a more diverse economy and democratic reform, then it will be the people of Belarus who should ultimately reap the benefits. Opening up to the West will also hopefully mean that more aid will be directed to Belarus and those who need the help of the international community – particularly Chernobyl victims.

It would be even better if Lukashenka were to move on, and a trustworthy, democratic reformist were to take care of this oft-forgotten and economically stunted country. However, this really is the stuff of dreams.

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Thursday, 23 July 2009

All In It Together

Photo: still from 2008 French documentary Kommunalka directed by Françoise Huguier
It is the 1950s. You are in Moscow. You are walking through a series of rooms, all joined on to one another. In the first, a couple of kids are sleeping; in the second, a group of women are having their morning wash. You enter the kitchen, where a pair of matronly women are standing face-to-face, cooking porridge on identical, shabby stoves, before arriving at the final room, where you are greeted by an elderly man dressed in a white vest and black boxer shorts, merrily playing an accordion, as a pair of adolescent boys perform their morning exercises in the background. The man grins at you before setting off through the apartment, breaking into song as he goes. He is joined by the other inhabitants of the flat, a motley crew made up of men and women of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds, who follow behind him, parade-like, dancing and smiling in his wake. Welcome to the kommunalka, as romanticised in Todorovskyi’s hit 2008 film, Stilyagi.

The kommunalka, or communal apartment, is one of the iconic symbols of the Soviet era. Dreamt up and implemented during the early years of the Soviet Union, the kommunalka, a pre-revolutionary, bourgeois apartment converted for mass living, was the predominant form of housing for much of the twentieth century. Ask most Russians above a certain age, and they will recall their early years, spent packed in amongst their neighbours, a group of people with whom they had previously had no connection, but whose lives they became to know in the most intimate detail: their dreams, failures, cooking and even toilet habits. The kommunalka was both pragmatic and idealistic, serving the dual purpose of solving the drastic housing shortage caused by rapid industrialisation, whilst simultaneously fulfilling the Bolshevik dream of abolishing that horrible bourgeois habit: private property. It was also hoped that the experience would help construct the new Soviet Man – a tolerant, selfless comrade, who thought only of the collective.

In the 1960s, Khrushchev sought to replace the much-hated communal experiment with individual housing. Large grey apartment blocks (the ones most westerners think of when they picture even modern Russia) sprung up across the USSR. Nevertheless the kommunalka was not to be thwarted and it persisted right up to the present day, still existing today, albeit in a diminished form.

Statistics for 2008 show that, in Moscow alone, there are still 58,000 functioning communal flats. This is a dramatic decrease from 1997, where the same survey showed 148,000, nevertheless it is still 58,000 more than you would see in any other non-ex-Soviet country. Earlier this year, Vladimir Putin promised to rid Russia entirely of the communal curse by the year 2014, a promise he evoked again last week when he stated that it was time to stop “encouraging the communal flat”. His renewal of the promise was in response to proposals that those living in unsafe housing in the Samara region could be re-housed in communal apartments. Putin was adamant that the communal flat was not appropriate in modern day Russia – an idea echoed by many. “In my opinion communal flats serve to humiliate the individual by always forcing them to limit themselves. Any indiscretion can lead to a scandal, if not an all-out fight. Sadly there are still far too many communal flats”, raged Yuri Shevchuk, who lived for ten years in a communal apartment, where he was accused on a daily basis of washing in dangerous chemicals by a paranoid elderly neighbour.

On the other hand, the kommunalka still has its supporters. As the opening sketch of Tardokovskyi’s film suggests, for many the communal flat retains a rose-tinted aura. In such accounts, the daily degradation of human privacy is forgotten and replaced with nostalgic reminisces of the all-in-this-together-folks variety: “I spent my entire childhood in a communal flat and, despite the lack of space, I don’t consider my time there a negative period… We had very friendly neighbours. What’s more I think the experience of living in a communal flat teaches you a valuable lesson in tolerance towards one’s neighbours”, recalled Nikolai Bordyuzha, General Secretary of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Many recollections and memoirs similarly recall the comradeship between inhabitants, describing how, on receiving individual apartments, alongside the huge sense of freedom, people missed their former neighbours, continuing to see them and socialise with them on a frequent basis.

Where does all this leave the modern kommunalka? Despite an article in the trendy Afisha newspaper, pronouncing the birth of the ‘modern kommunalka’ – a small-scale, bohemian commune inhabited by arty types – for the majority of those living in Soviet-style communal apartments, the experience remains an ideal. It is almost unanimously agreed that in modern Russia, there is no place for communal living. Unless, of course, it is a lifestyle choice.

I’ll leave you with the sketch from Stilyagi and a link to an academic project charting the existence of kommunalki in St Petersburg. You decide which is more realistic.

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Monday, 20 July 2009

The Law of the Mountain: Chechnya under Kadyrov

Ramzan Kadyrov

Sloppily dressed, crudely spoken and more at ease with a Kalashnikov in his hands than with questions on what he does with it, Ramzan Kadyrov is not exactly someone you’d want to take home to meet your parents. The 32 year-old President of Russia’s Chechen Republic is again at the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons following the murder of yet another of Russia’s human rights activists: Natalia Estemirova, a staunch critic of Kadyrov who was snatched outside her home last Wednesday morning and found dead and dumped at the roadside in neighbouring Ingushetia the following day.

Kadyrov, son of the late Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in May 2004, has been in power since 2007. A former separatist fighter who switched sides, he has been chums with Putin ever since. Earlier this year and following the end to the anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya he promised to bring prosperity to the republic within 10 years and then resign. Although he has been upbeat about the republic’s potential (sometimes delusionally so after envisaging Chechnya as a “safe place to invest”) he has a tough job ahead of him; Chechnya is plagued by high unemployment and restlessness on its borders as well as within.

At what price stability?

A drive round Chechnya reveals posters and billboards bearing patriotic slogans and photos of Ramzan and his late father. Traces of the war that lead to Grozny being declared the most destroyed city in the world have all but been erased. On the outside then, perhaps, life is on the mend. But scratch away some of the newly painted surfaces and a more harsh reality, one where those who question Kadyrov’s rule are silenced, becomes all too clear.

In Kadyrov’s large repertoire of outlandish comments one finds the necessity of reintroducing polygamy in the republic to boost the population after the wars. Men should take up to 4 wives if they can afford it, he once suggested, although he has been yet to follow his own advice. However, comments with more serious implications are also commonplace: ones that reveal a reverence towards old, lawless “traditions” and indicate a systematic and essentially officially-sanctioned undermining of the already-fragile rule of law. On Friday, another of these comments came out. Kadyrov was reported in Kommersant as saying that it would not be only Chechnya’s law enforcement agencies that would be involved in the search for Estemirova’s killers, but that they would be dealt with by the “law of the mountain”. “In accordance with centuries-old traditions and the mentality of the Chechen people, others will also be searching for the criminals, using local methods, which are sometimes very effective,” he said.

The reality behind such comments has been at the centre of Human Rights Watch’s attention in recent months. Constitutional law is often pushed aside in the republic whilst Kadyrov’s own ideas of justice and order take priority. Investigators have reported being refused entry to a local government building without wearing a headscarf. This is despite the facts that she is not Muslim and that by law Russia is a secular country.

Further accounts reveal the reality of the “law of the mountain” when put into practice. These were published earlier this month in the report
What Your Children Do Will Touch Upon You': Punitive House-Burning in Chechnya (click to view) and were added to by further reports last week. Families of those alleged to have links with insurgents are subject to persecution and punitive house-burning. Reports were given of the police visiting distant and often aging relatives of the alleged criminals and blaming them for not having brought their child up well enough. HRW document an example of such “justice” that occurred earlier this month (abridged version).

On July 2, Madina Yunusova had been critically wounded in a special operation carried out by Chechen law-enforcement agencies in a house where she was staying. The law-enforcement personnel surrounded the home and killed a man reported to be her husband [and allegedly involved in a plot to assassinate Kadyrov].

Yunusova was taken into custody, placed under surveillance in a prison-type room of a hospital in Grozny, and reportedly underwent successful surgery for her wounds. However, she died under suspicious circumstances less than three days later.

On July 4, between 3 and 4 a.m., a group of armed servicemen broke into the Yunusov family compound, locked Madina’s parents and two younger sisters, ages 4 and 6, in a shed, doused the house with gasoline from inside and set it on fire. Soon afterward, they unlocked the shed and left. The Yunusovs fled several hours after the burning.

The next day, July 5, soon after dawn, Madina's corpse was delivered to her parents already-burned home. Law-enforcement officers reportedly said to neighbours, "Where are your neighbors? We brought a corpse for them."

When informed that the Yunusovs had left, the officers took the body, which was wrapped in a shroud, from their vehicle and gave it to the neighbors, cautioning them not to unwrap it. The neighbors notified the Yunusovs, who buried the body.

Add this to the further murky territory of public extra-judicial executions, such as one of a man accused of giving a sheep to insurgents being shot by law enforcement officials in front of a group of young men they had forcibly gathered to watch and the justice brought by the “law of the mountain” doesn’t really seem as such.

Reports in Kommersant of the reactions of witnesses to Estemirova’s abduction sum up everyday life in the republic. Those standing at the bus stop at 7:30am when Estemirova was bundled into a car by several armed men shouting “I’m being kidnapped” did not bother alerting the police to this event, which – one might have thought – appeared rather suspicious. Why not? They thought she was “just being arrested by some local security officials (kakie-to mestnye siloviki)”. Is this the face of Chechyna’s return to normality?

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Thursday, 16 July 2009

Cheating the System

Artwork: Alex Brodsky

The student sitting in front slips folded 1000 rouble (£20) notes in between the pages of his end-of-term coursework paper; students whisper, text, check their iphones and sit with open text books during a mid-term exam; a girl in the toilets adjusts cheat-notes (shpargalki) pasted over her thighs, hidden under her skirt and held in place with semi-opaque tights – just a few examples of my first-hand experience of corruption in the Russian higher education system over the past year.

Over the past few years in Russia there has been a lot of debate over the introduction of the new General State Exam (Edinnaia Gosudarstvennaia Examen, or EGE). A computerised, standardised test such as the SATs we have in Britain, this is aimed at rooting-out corruption in university admissions and improving accessibility for students from lower-income families. This year the EGE is to be fully implemented across Russia, yet it has come up against tough opposition since the idea was first mooted. The argument against the test’s corruption-busting potential indeed seems to have been prophetic. For a kick off the federal department responsible for the EGE is itself suspected of embezzlement of over 33 million rubles. Not exactly setting an example from above. Furthermore, there have been numerous discrepancies with EGE results, including cases of answers being known beforehand and posted on the internet or of concentrated levels of suspiciously high or low results in certain regions of Russia. Other criticism has been based on the unsuitability of a one-test-fits-all style approach to evaluating students’ knowledge.

How many, how much… and how?

The extent of corrupt practices is difficult to measure due to the nature of the problem and corruption within universities can take on many guises. The most common - and all of which I witnessed - include bribery, cheating, plagiarism, preferential treatment and discrimination. On higher levels, we’re getting into the realm of embezzlement, extortion and fraud. According to Ararat Osipian in his paper “Corruption and Reform in Russian Higher Education”, in 2005 over 3000 economic crimes in the education sector were reported, of which there were 849 cases of bribery and 361 cases of embezzlement of central budget resources. 20% of students used corrupt practices to gain admission to university. This is certainly but the tip of the iceberg.

The magnitude of the problem is also reflected in the population’s perceptions. A survey by the All-Russia Centre for the Study of Public Opinion last year showed that whilst 33% of respondents considered that knowledge was the most important thing needed to get into a higher education institute, 49% considered that it was money. Meanwhile, 13% of those who had a child in education said that they had had to pay admissions tutors for their entry. 27% had been forced to hand over money to teachers to ensure the necessary results during exam time. A study by the Higher School of Economics in Moscow showed that during the 2002-2003 academic year Russians spent around 21.4 billion rubles on bribes in admissions and in grading at university. It’s worth nothing that the abovementioned opinion poll showed that only 14% of respondents thought that the EGE would help combat corruption.

Greasing your tutors palm may be an age-old trick, but new, elaborate ways of cheating are also becoming commonplace. Friends of mine told stories of a radio earpiece worn hidden under the hair. As they pull their exam question at random from the pile students read it out loud, and those on the other end of the radio look up the question in the textbook and recite the answer into the earpiece. Add this to the hundreds of adverts posted round university buildings offered ready-made coursework on every topic imaginable and one gets the distinct feeling that education irregularities are a profitable business.

So the problem is widespread, yet with all this in mind let’s spare a thought for those who really do knuckle down to make the grade. Is it possible to get through the system with your conscience clear? Anything is possible, but even those with the best intentions in the world may end up getting out their wallets when faced with a “fail” from an exam official after sitting an exam they, and everyone else, knows they passed.

Why does the geek peek?

Which all leads us to ask – why? Professors’ salaries are often pointed to by means of one explanation – pay them more and they’ll do their job properly, right? Yet the institutionalised nature of this phenomenon points to deeper-rooted issues. Where do you draw the line between a lecturer turning a blind eye to whispering during a final-year exam, bumping up his friend’s son’s marks and accepting £200 to pass a lazy student? At MGIMO, depending on the extent of the tutor’s apathy or how much he was in need of a new washing machine for his wife either goes; a soviet-era mentality valuing personal relationships and links – svyazi – continues to prevail. In Britain, free from a burdensome past of pervasive corruption, the system is clear: exams are presided over by strict external moderators; students sit apart from one another, and write on official-use paper only identified by a candidate number. The slightest suspicion of unfair play leads to immediate disqualification from all exams that year and possible permanent exclusion full stop. Although favouritism can undoubtedly play a part, coursework papers are double-marked, checked through an electronic system for plagiarism and periodically sent to external moderators. A system that I would say is fairly effective (I can safely say that neither I, nor any of my friends would have even dreamt of attempting to cheat at university in Britain).

But apart from habit, and, well, just because they can, in my experience, honest students are often forced to cheat because of the set-up of the education system itself. Take high contact hours (compare approx 30 hours/week in Moscow to my 11 in London) and a heavy work load and add a demanding administrative system and often chaotic (or lack of) programme/workload/course coordination, even the most hard-working geek might be tempted to, say, sneak a peek at their notes in order to pass an un-announced exam that requires regurgitating hundreds of facts on a topic that the programme has not actually covered. Eventually a briber-bribed relationship is constructed; as both sides settle into the unspoken arrangement each is increasingly dependent on that system continuing to work for them.

Paying your way from the cradle to the grave

The implications of corruption in the higher education system are as serious as the problem is widespread. As a recent study by the Institute of Economics of Education in Dijon, France shows, corruption in higher education institutes seriously damages their competitiveness. The cost of corruption in higher education is analogous to reducing the economic productivity of a university and thus its rate of return by 2 – 15% as its quality is reduced.

Furthermore, corrupt practices in higher education institutes nurture corrupt attitudes in students that they take with them into the professional world. At a time when Russia is in dire need of modernisation and innovation, efficiency-crushing corruption is a two-sided sword, creating extra costs and undermining a healthy work-ethic. It will ultimately serve to completely devalue degrees from Russian universities.

Finally, a widespread acceptance of corruption feeds the image – and reality – of Russia as an increasingly polarised society: one of have-nots, still marginalised by years of cut-throat capitalism, and good-for-nothing haves living an empty existence, producing nothing and continuing to deprive the country of some much-needed real creativity and innovation.

But I think that my smart Russian pals who have worked their way through this quagmire of a system with their consciences still (as) clean (as is humanely possible) would agree with what our grannies in England would remind us – at the end of the day if you cheat, you’re just cheating yourself.

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Monday, 13 July 2009

Poor Show in The Commons

Artwork: Claude Monet, "Houses of Parliament, London"

Last month I was invited to a discussion panel at the Houses of Parliament entitled Russia A Year On – Testing Medvedev’s Democratic Credentials. Having never been inside that elaborate building dominating the Thames, and as a fan of both democracy and Russia, I was pretty keen to attend.

The evening sunshine soaked the busy streets of London as I made my way through the heartland of British politics, dodging both tourists and traffic at Parliament Square. I was in good spirits and looking forward to a constructive debate. But the feeling did not last long past the moment that I entered Committee Room 11, where the panel was gathering. The event was oversubscribed, the bottle-green room was stuffy, attendees were tip-toeing not-so-subtly through the creaking door thirty minutes late, and those who were already sitting down were either texting away on their phones or kicking the back of my chair. Or so it seemed. But more importantly, the event turned out to be a no holds barred Russia-bashing session. And there was very little mention of either Medvedev or democracy.

The panel comprised of an exasperated Russian dissident, the hot-blooded prime minister of the resistance Government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and two Western foreign policy experts. It was only the dissident who actually referred to the intended subject matter. Some interesting comparisons were made between the expectations of Medvedev’s supposed liberalism and those of past leaders. He concluded that with every new leader there has been renewed hope for a Western-friendly attitude, but every time this has ultimately proved to be a disappointment. I particularly enjoyed his reference to Andropov’s understandable fondness for whisky and jazz.

As valid as his points were, he was more of a downbeat entertainer than someone who could open up fresh debate. But because of his experiences (he was arrested and imprisoned for defending human rights in the 1960s and his application to run for the Russian Presidency was rejected in 2007), I found it hard to blame him for his cynicism. Nor did I blame the Chechen for his anger, having learnt what he had seen and experienced. But the attitude of the foreign policy buffs was another story. These were young, Western academics at the forefront of their field who should have taken the opportunity to lead a well-balanced discussion in order to make some progress in what sometimes seems to be the ‘inevitable’ confrontation between Russia and the West.

However, these two experts simply rehashed the same negative views about Russia, poorly justifying their opinions with unhelpful, sweeping comments such as ‘Russia refuses to co-operate’ and ‘Russia is dangerous’. Not only was this something that I had heard countless times before, but the speakers also made no attempt to propose what could or should be done to improve relations. Comments from the audience, which questioned Western policy towards Russia, were ungraciously slapped down. Such one-sided discussion serves no purpose other than to entrench mistrust in the West and hostility in Russia.

Certainly, Russia is far from perfect; it has many serious issues to address and the Georgia story has rightly provoked a wave of jittering. But if foreign policy experts working in think tanks and academic institutions continue to promote an attitude that smacks of Cold War divisions, then Russia will simply retreat further away from what is already a quasi-democracy and continue to regard the West with suspicion. Fortunately, there was someone last week who successfully managed to avoid such hackneyed rhetoric.

Although US President Barack Obama’s visit to Russia did not go down with the frenzy of hope and expectation as his presence has done elsewhere in the world, it was a positive step forward and one that should be emulated by all those dealing with Russia. His discussions with the Kremlin were positive, yet honest. He admitted and highlighted points of contention – namely the US proposed missile defence system – but made it clear that this would be worked around, as the issues of Georgia and NATO expansion will have to be. The summit converged on important areas of co-operation – nuclear warhead reductions, US transit to Afghanistan and combating terrorism – that can be built upon in the coming years and hopefully be used a basis to improve relations.

I honestly believe that Obama has it right here. There is little point trying to impose on Russia what we deem to be correct or right. The West needs to accept the differences and cope with them accordingly, but without selling out. Areas where interests do overlap must be emphasised and used as the point of departure for a relationship to be developed. Although it may not be for many years to come, the bitter aftertaste of the Cold War may finally be sweetened as co-operation progresses and the barriers of mistrust are broken down.

It simply serves no purpose whatsoever for us to discuss Russia in the terms that were used at the Houses of Parliament that June evening. However, an about-turn in the West will not be enough. Introspection from Russia is also necessary if genuine co-operation is to occur; many cite Obama’s cool reception as the result of anti-Western propaganda in Russia, which has only been exacerbated by the Kremlin pointing fingers at the US as the financial crisis has engulfed the world. A renewed relationship requires a change in attitude from both sides.

Perhaps these ideas are a little naïve and I know that many believe this summit will change nothing (and admittedly I do find Obama somewhat charming). But the Russian-Western partnership has failed over the last twenty years and it is certainly time to try a new, open, positive approach. And if we fail, at least we tried.

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