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, 12 October 2009

Good cop, bad cop: a sovereign tandemocracy

Image: Sinye Nosy

A Sunday afternoon in autumn pottering around at home. Or perhaps at the dacha. Time to relax, to reflect. What is on Dmitri Medvedev’s mind as he sits and sweats in the banya? Is he smugly chuckling at those stooopid political commentators who have been scrabbling over his every word this month after the publication of the article and a few other provocative hints let slip that he is making a move away from old Putin? Ho ho ho, keep fobbing the liberals off with words and in the meantime I can get away with anything! Or is he making a mental note to change his locks and get a restraining order out on some of his administration staff after making that scathing critique of Putinism and a bold assertion of his own power?

That same old mystery that has got everyone guessing for the past year has popped up again, namely: who’s really in charge in Russia? And now - is there a split between the gruesome twosome?

A popular theory in Russia of the power-sharing arrangement between the two men has been one of a “tandemocracy”, where Putin has consciously taken on the role of “bad cop”, leaving “good cop” Medvedev to show off his shiny liberalism. But what would explain some of Medvedev’s more harsh comments – his complete writing-off of the possibility anywhere in the near future of bringing back elections for regional governors, for example?

Dmitri Kamyshev, writing in Vlast’ magazine, points out that rather than simply a good cop/bad cop scenario, the current set up of power in Russia is in fact almost perfection of the American two-party system that the country has been striving for since the 1990s. Since attempts at raising an acceptable second party up to standard have failed, Russia has settled on replacing the two parties with two lone figures. And so “Party # 1” defends Putinism, whilst “Party # 2” criticises it: between them the tandem has occupied the positions of both ruler and opposition. This neatly keeps any criticism within the two-figure framework and, most importantly, allows them to define the key issues that neither side can criticise.

And these key issues are clearly stated in Medvedev’s “breakthrough” article when he emphasises the need for “cross-party consensus on strategic foreign policy issues, social stability, national security, the foundations of the constitutional order, the protection of the nation's sovereignty, the rights and freedoms of citizens, the protection of property rights, the rejection of extremism, support for civil society, all forms of self-organisation and self-government.” When you put it like that there’s not much left for opponents to get their teeth into.

So what is it that is keeping us Westerners convinced that the doors of democracy in Russia are already ajar, and sooner or later to be thrown wide open? What is it that’s making us imagine the second image of Medvedev in the banya – the one of a man sweating it out to bring about the dawn of democracy?

Yuri Zarakhovich posting on the Jamestown foundation blog called the West’s reaction “liberal wishful thinking”. I think he’s hit the nail on the head. We want him to be the liberal saviour and we can’t get it into our democratic Western heads that there’s an entirely different mindset at play. We can’t quite understand that someone can use the same words – democracy, for example – and have in mind something rather different to what we want them to mean.

In comparison to Putin, Medvedev’s talking the talk and dressing the part. Put it this way: with Putin doing the evil spy eyes and the evil spy face in the background all the time Dima looks a darn sight more like someone you’d want to have drinks with in the hotel bar after a G8 summit. But these outward appearances have combined with our wishful thinking to lead us to get the wrong end of the stick. The Kremlin is probably patting itself on the back for this clever move: it turns out you can have a war with Georgia, chummy up with Iran, sell tanks to Ch├ávez, cut off gas to Ukraine and Europe, restart military exercises in European airspace and get everyone’s backs up over the Arctic and the Second World War and still get the West thinking your leader’s a closet liberal just by him being short, smiley, dressing smart cas and looking in Putin’s direction when things get a bit iffy.

Maybe I’m a sceptic, but I think if we try to image what is really going on in Medvedev’s mind on a lazy Sunday afternoon at the dacha it might help us snap out of this wishful thinking. He might be modern lawyer in a leather jacket, but he did not get to being President of the Russian Federation on his own. He might differ in style to the others, he might criticise where no-one has criticised before, but at the end of the day he’s a part and product of the same system. “I don’t think he cries himself to sleep at night because he can’t realise his democratic calling,” said one of my equally sceptic Russian friends. There’s an almost comforting thought.

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Thursday, 1 October 2009

Little Bear Cubs

Victor Shreider, Mayor of Omsk, has just announced a plan to create a children's organisation of 'Bear Cubs' to instil ideological values into little children. The Russian translation of the name, medvezhata is, as the astute amongst you will have already noticed, very close to the surname of dear, respected Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev. Yes, that's right, the president's surname is a derivative (not sure that's linguistically the correct term, but you get my meaning) of the word 'bear' and so the proposed name for the group is a wonderfully witty word play. And of course, the leaders of the little Bear Cubs, will seek to imbue their charges with the values of the party of the big Daddy Bear: Edinaya Russia. Gives a whole new dimension to the Brownie movement in the UK. (Sorry, terrible joke!)

To continue. In a recent press conference, Shreider decried the lack of ideology in the modern child's upbringing: "It's all very well to organise sports clubs, but what's the point if they're not accompanied by some sort of ideological upbringing?", he asked. According to the plans, the Bear Cubs would be a voluntary organisation incorporating sports, arts and craft and 'cognitive' activities – all with a propagandistic element.

The organisation will be based on the Octobrists, a children's group in the Soviet Union that prepared younger children for the much better known Young Pioneers. "The socialist period has been much criticised – and with good reason. But there was one well thought out element there – the patriotic upbringing of the youngest generation. We were all Octobrists, Pioneers, and Komsomolists. Whether we like it or not, today this task must fall on the leading party." According to their motto, the main attributes of a Little Octobrist were to be active, brave, hard-working, honest and cheerful. Not so different from our scouting and guiding movements, it would seem. Although, given the state-sponsorship of the movement, presumably some impetus to become a good little Communist, graduate through the Pioneer and Komsomol movements before getting a good Soviet job supporting the status quo, would have been tacked on the end. And now the mayor of Omsk would like to employ the same totalitarian technique on the little Omsk kiddies. But this time round participation will be voluntary, of course.

And what will the ideology of the Bear Cubs be? The Mayor's press conference wasn't too clear on this issue, although we can assume it will retain the same emphasis on good, clean (honest) fun. Probably with some sort of inculcation of Edinaya Rossiya's values and aims, which are defined on the party's official website as the assurance of a stable future for Russian citizens, rooted in the psychology of success and recognition of the history of the people. Mind boggling, and I'm not at all sure how that would translate to the level of children. Any ideas of what the Bear Cubs might be learning about (always through play, mind) please let me know!

Unfortunately, however, the chairman of the local authority predicts a few difficulties in the implementation of the group since in the current situation, youth workers are not trained in ideological propaganda. However she is currently in Moscow discussing the issue, so this can surely be resolved soon. Wouldn’t want to keep the poor ideologically-deprived kiddies waiting too long, surely. Watch this space for further news on the movement and it's eventual realisation. Long Live the Bear!

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