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.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Call for Contributions

Photo: Andrey Tarkovsky

As you may have noticed we’ve got a new look for 2010 and that’s not the only thing that’s changing: without compromising anyone’s territorial integrity we’re going for expansion. We’re looking for guest writers to feature regularly and are offering in return fame and glory, the chance to get published and read by a network of Russophiles, Russophobes and everyone in between, as well as to be a part in building and bettering the eastern blog. So are you a budding Luke Harding, or an Orlando Figes in the making? Could you give Jonathan Dimbleby a run for his money? Have you got something to say about Russia’s relations with Papua New Guinea, or the particularities of the Russian washing-up liquid market? Have you careered across Chukotka on a rusty dog sled wrapped in bearskin with nothing but a pot of caviar for sustenance and lived to tell us the tale? Can you tell your Lukashenko from your Timoshenko and your Vladimir from your Vladislav? Can you write something on this concisely in around 700 words? Then we want to hear from you!

Contributions and further information on: news.easternblog (at)

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Wednesday, 13 January 2010


Photo: By the group, The Fourth Height

Recently I came across a site dedicated to the weird and often wonderful world of google's autocomplete. You know those suggestions that pop up when you enter a search term on google? Well, those are autocomplete: the most popular searches corresponding to what you've entered so far. And my goodness some of them can be odd! Take, for example, the case of an innocent search for 'What do I do if I get swine flu?'. Half way through your typing, google will handily propose a number of suggestions of what you might be looking for. Top of the list? 'What do I do if a ginger kid bites me?' Says reams about our society. This got me thinking about how useful this function could be as a means of analysing popular opinion. With an estimated 100 million searches per day, surely google can tell us something about what people are really thinking about. And, whilst I'm sure it is lacking something in terms of real quantitative research, in a world where it is possible to study David Beckhamology, I think it merits further attention. So, I shall name this new science Autocompletology and my first area of interest will be Russia-related searches.

The most logical place to start is with 'Russia.' A nice simple search. Initially nothing too controversial pops up: in first place, thanks to Rihanna no doubt, Russian Roulette; then Russian translation. But in third place: Russian Brides. Third place?! Surely it is not normal for one of the most popular searches containing the word Russia to be connected to the (legal) purchasing of women? Even worse, if you begin to type 'Russian women', google's top returns are: Russian women personals/dating/scams/for sale...

Of course, this says far more about the western mentality (or perhaps that should be the english-speaking mentality? Actually no: on entering 'les femmes russes', French Google usefully suggested 'les femmes russes' after just entering 'femm', so I think it's fairly western) and perceptions of Russia, than it does anything about Russian women. (Who, I want to stress, are not the topic of this post.) I've been accused in the past of being overly sensitive with regards to (some) western men's attitudes to Russian women, but there is something about (many of) them that is just skin-creepingly horrible. If you go to the websites themselves, the way in which they objectify Russian women is blatant and frankly quite horrible. What I find even stranger is that this attitude isn't unique to dating sites, which I can generally overlook when I imagine the average profile of users (lonely, sad, delusional, sexist...) and given that most of them are scams anyway. No, a lot of the ex-pat crowd I knew in St Petersburg expressed similar attitudes when talking about Russian women. "Russian women are this" etc. etc. This constant generalisation and objectification of women that men just wouldn't dare use if talking about western women. Or, indeed, women they had ever spoken to.

To return to our Autocomplete studies: as a point of comparison, when I switched to Russian google and tried out 'британские мужчины' (British men), nothing happened! And then 'French men', followed by 'Italian men'... still nothing! Eventually when I typed American men, something did pop up, but way down the list and only when I'd almost completely finished the word. (Important Autocompletology note: the speed with which a word is suggested, i.e. how far through the word you get, is big indicator of the popularity of a search.) Ho hum. So, the sites probably are scams and the men using them delusional. Still, says a lot about how Russian women are presented in the West...

...Somehow this Autocompletology study seems to have been hi-jacked by another rant about sexist men but I have time for one last search. Next stop, 'Putin', since we do love a bit of V.V-watching on the Eastern Blog. And the results? Disappointingly quiet concerning those pictures (no bare chests, hunting or swimming, alas) but nevertheless a rather pleasing selection: 'Putin height/French/quotes/calendar/tiger'. And so, in the popular Google imagination, the mighty Russian president is reduced to a small man (various sites dispute exactly how small), whose name, when transliterated into French is amusing close to putain, who shot a tiger down with a tranquilizer and of whom a not insignificant amount of people (127, 000, 000 hits) wouldn't mind owning a calendar. And who came up with such blinders as: 'You must obey the law, always, not only when they grab you by your special place.' Worryingly not one one mention of his actual role, his politics or indeed anything beyond the banal. Autocompletology analysis: Is this the product of his much-famed PR (a rejection of it, perhaps?), of Western portrayals of the man, or just a sad indictment of popular engagement in politics and foreign affairs? (I fear the latter, looking at London's current mayor...)

That's all for now folks, however, I shall definitely be taking this new found social science further. And if you come across any, do please tell me about any good Autocompletologist discoveries!

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Sunday, 10 January 2010

A Fresh Start

С Новым Годом! Happy New Year, faithful blog reader! Yes indeed, if you are still out there, despite our prolonged absence, then thank you very much! As of today, I hereby resolve, in the spirit of the season, to write at least one post a fortnight on all things Russia. I wanted to kick off with a review of Russia's last year and some predictions of what might happen in the next. But then I logged on and read this by Sublime Oblivion, this at foreign policy blogs, and this blow-by-blow monthly account at RIA Novosti, and decided the topic had been well and truly done. Not to mention in detail beyond my wildest dreams. Or that it's already almost Old New Year... the time has definitely past! So instead I've settled for an attack on the use of the word Anglo-Saxon. Which is, I promise, tenuously linked to Russia and the Eastern Blog.

Since starting my course at my small European compound, I have repeatedly heard the term Anglo-Saxon. As in: "the Anglo-Saxon's believe..."; "with regards to the Anglo-Saxon model..." etc. Since I'm studying European integration, it's usually used to describe Britain and Ireland as being somehow linked with the US and so different from the rest of Europe. And when it's spoken about, it's usually accompanied by a knowing nod in mine and my fellow Brits' direction, as though we can confirm that, yes, indeed, that is what those Anglo-Saxons think. But, hang on a moment, just who are these Anglo-Saxons of which they speak? And am I really one of them?

I vaguely remember something back in primary school about the Saxon's invading and indeed, a BBC website confirms:

The term Anglo-Saxon is a relatively modern one. It refers to settlers from the German regions of Angeln and Saxony, who made their way over to Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire around AD 410.

So these Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic tribe, who arrived in the UK over a thousand years ago. So, where did it's association with the US et al. come from? Presumably from the spread of Brits back in our Atlantic-crossing, empire-building days. But surely we aren't all Anglo-Saxon? The word just doesn't seem right.

Firstly I thought it was a uniquely European idea. Perhaps even initially a Gaullist plot that stuck, designed to show how different those damn Brits were and so keep. them. out. Perhaps, I'm just a little paranoid here, but in any case, I didn't think this Anglo Saxon business was a real phenomenon. But then I saw it in a Russian newspaper. And then again! The poisonous term was spreading... everyone was seeing Anglo Saxons everywhere! Except, of course, these so-called anglo-Saxons themselves. According to wikipedia:

Outside Anglophone countries, both in Europe and in the rest of the world, the term "Anglo-Saxon" and its direct translations are used to refer to the Anglophone peoples and societies of Britain, the United States, and other countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The term can be used in a variety of contexts, often to identify the English-speaking world's distinctive language, culture, technology, wealth, markets, economy, and legal systems.

I couldn't quite put my finger on why, but there was something about the term that I had a strong aversion to. A quick internet search for "англо саксон" (that's 'anglo saxon' for those of you terrified by the sight of cyrillic) and the plot thickened. Google's third highest return lead me to the Anglo Saxon homepage, which belongs to a British band formed in the wake of the July 2006 London bomb attacks, which intends to write, record and release songs with a distinctly patriotic feel and a celebration of English/British culture and heritage. (Bizarrely, if you search for the English 'anglo saxon', the site doesn't appear, which is somewhat worrying from the point of view of how Russians must view British identity.) Despite the band's adamant insistent that it is not racist, I'd advise those of you not of a rabid, patriotic bent to stay well clear of the site (it'll just make you angry). Nevertheless, it's interesting just to show the total confusion surrounding this alleged Anglo Saxonism. The band in question seem to fully confuse the term with, I don't know what, Englishness? Britishness? They write:

Anglo Saxon is not part of any political party or organisation. I cannot believe in a country of 50 million people no one has used the name Anglo Saxon. Anyway we’ve got it, patented it and we are keeping it. There has never been any patriotic/nationalist music that has made it into the mainstream, we would like to be the first but hopefully not the last. If other musicians/songwriters can follow through the door we have opened then at least we have contributed something.

In whichever way they understand the term, their usage of it is far from it's orginal description of an invading tribe. BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has likewise used the term 'Anglo-Saxon folk community' to refer to the English member of what he calls Britain's 'indigenous population'. In this was we are witnessing the construction of another meaning to the word 'Anglo Saxon' that is confused, racist and fully exclusive of all the British citizens who are not of a white, Anglo-Saxon ethnic background, of whom there are very, very many.

The question of your average Brit's genetic make up is a hotly contested one in both political and scientific circles. Whilst nationalists might try to draw a marked distinction between the English (mainly derived from the Germanic invasions in the fifth century) and the Celts or Britons who occupied the Island previously (today's Welsh, Scots and Irish), the reality is that we're more likely to be a complicated ethnic mix of all the different invading tribes, probably further jumbled with some genes from other immigration. We're all a complicated bundle of ethnicity generated from our complex history of invasions, immigration and native birth.

To use the word Anglo Saxon to refer to all the western anglophone countries is quite wrong indeed! The word has far too many meanings, ranging from its historical and genetic origins, to the manipulation of it for nationalist and or/racist purpose and ending with its innocent usage by non-English speakers. (Which, I object to anyway, on the grounds that all the allegedly Anglo Saxon countries are culturally and socially very different from one another.) And so, I call on any Russians, Europeans or anyone else out there to abstain from using it. If we must have some phrase to describe a commonality between English speakers and systems can we use one which is less emotionally charged? Suggestions on a post card, please...

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