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, 13 February 2010

Whistle While You Work (If You Dare)

Artwork: 'Conversation' by Aleksandr Zhernokluev

Last November, Aleksei Dymovsky, a former Russian police officer from Novorossiik, publicly disclosed the widespread corruption that sits deep in the militsiia. His six-minute YouTube film has received over a million hits and caused quite a stir in Russia. These brave whistle-blowing tactics resulted unsurprisingly in his immediate dismissal from the police force, and last month, Dymovsky was arrested on fraud and corruption charges – revenge for his actions, some say. However, is there hope for this young policeman and others who want to disclose the dirty work of those entrusted with power?

Dymovsky’s bold but clumsy YouTube post has proven to be something of an inspiration. His arrest has led to a flourishing internet campaign, causing others to step forward in support and talk about their experiences of corruption. It would appear that this one whistleblower has lead to a newly assertive citizenry, unwilling to allow bribery and bullies triumph over integrity and truth…

Another hope for the battle against corruption lies with the Kremlin. President Medvedev has always vowed to address the issue more seriously and more concretely. Over the past year, several new federal laws have been introduced, namely ‘On Counteracting Corruption’. All these laws are based around Medvedev’s long-term national anti-corruption plan. In addition, the president’s State of the Nation Address last November pledged to stamp out this ugly problem. Surely there must be something of substance here?

As well as provoking an internet following, Dymovsky’s arrest has attracted much international media attention, forcing the rest of the world to address Russia’s appalling corruption record. Will lifting Russia’s shady profile onto the world stage shame the country’s leaders into addressing the situation properly?

However, neither Dymovsky’s case nor the battle for transparency is this simple. Although his arrest has inspired others to talk, this could be viewed simply as an online fad. The likelihood that Dymovsky will endure a long spell in Russia’s notoriously brutal prisons is simply going to deter others from speaking out in the long run. Many equate doing time in some of Russia’s worst prisons to a death sentence. The story of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who accused the Interior Ministry of corruption, died during a period of incarceration. Surely sometimes it’s better to sit down and shut up?

Furthermore, there is much criticism of the effectiveness of Medvedev’s grand anti-corruption plans. What has actually been achieved? Much of his electoral campaign prior to the 2008 victory was built upon promises to rid Russia of corruption and bring about change. However, as is seen all over the world, electoral promises do not always translate into policy. The death of Magnitsky and the arrest of Dymovsky are just two more chapters in the sad corruption saga that seems to have no denouement in sight.

It has also been pointed out that the successful media coverage of the case is nothing to celebrate. Since Dymovsky’s case converges with the Kremlin’s preferred policy of the month – championing the fight against corruption and reforming the Interior Ministry – the story has garnered much more interest and support than would otherwise have been the case.

What needs to be done?

Firstly, legislation protecting whistleblowers needs to be enforced. Future Dymovskys need to know that if they do speak out, they will not wind up in a prison cell.

Secondly, Messrs Medvedev and Putin need to act with true political will. As mentioned, anti-corruption policies are a vote-winner, but they need to be much more than this.

Thirdly, something must be done to alter the culture of tolerance that surrounds corruption in Russia. Last year, Caroline wrote an excellent post about university students achieving their grades by stuffing essays and exam papers with thousands of roubles. Even the young and intelligent are happy to buy their way through life, simply because this is the way that things are done in Russia.

This is not to say that Russians necessarily find corruption acceptable, but in order to survive and keep day-to-day living ticking over, people are prepared to put up with it. But how do you go about changing something that is so deep-rooted in daily life – the famous Russian byt’?

... more

Monday, 8 February 2010

In Capital We Trust

Art Work: Maria Dmitryeva
‘Money is the gateway to heaven. It opens up a world of travel and luxury shops, paving the way to an elite education and private medicine. A surplus or absence of money defines a person’s desires, needs, interests, thoughts and more – it defines what is in the soul and mind. Spare cash makes us satisfied, calm and level-headed: an absence of money leads to stress and despair.’
Taken from a 10th grade (ages 15/16) Social Studies textbook, recommended by the Ministry of Education and Research of the Russian Federation

What powers Russia? Money? Oil? Putin? (All on his own… a real superman!) The elusive Russian soul? According to Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, Russia is fuelled entirely by money. Or at least its foreign policy is. In an old article in a 2007 issue of The Washington Quarterly, he reflected on the rationale behind Russian foreign policy:

In stark contrast to its Soviet past, post-imperial Russia stands among the least ideological countries around the world. Ideas hardly matter, whereas interests reign supreme. It is not surprising then that the worldview of Russian elites is focused on financial interests. Their practical deeds in fact declare “In capital we trust.” Values are secondary or tertiary issues, and even traditional military power is hardly appealing. Fluctuating energy prices, not nuclear warheads, are what really matter to Moscow.

Attitudes to money in Russia are different to those in the UK. Perhaps its because I’m British and we have a horribly squeamish attitude towards money, but I’ve always been incredibly uncomfortable around Russians when talk turns to money. I blush and bluster and don’t know how to join in as wages, rent, the cost of your new shoes are openly discussed. There is no beating around the bush when it comes to money in Russia. People do not feel the need to hide their wealth. Nor do they pretend to have money when they do not.

Quick parantheses: the various Russian attitudes to money are beautifully portrayed in ‘Rublyovka – Road to Bliss ’, a film by German-Russian director, Irene Langemann. The film looks at the various inhabitants of Rublyovka Shosse, the most expensive strip of Real Estate in Moscow. They include a bimbo party girl, a philosophising purveyor of fur coats, Shostokovich’s granddaughter, Tajik migrant workers and bohemian architects amongst others. I urge you to watch this film – occasionally the black-and-white portrayal of characters – rich = bad and studpid; poor = humble and good – grinds a little, however it is a realistic portrayal of all the different strata in today’s Russia.

To return to money attitudes: whilst uncomfortable and horribly wrong-footed by the Russian attitude to money, it is far less hypocritical than the British “shove-it-under-the-carpet” attitude. To return to money attitudes at the level of foreign policy: the Russian attitude is far less hypocritical than those of the EU or US. Trenin’s thesis did not necessitate a genius. According to the Russian Foreign Policy Conception, Russia seeks to protect the interests of Russian citizens. Clearly, this means protecting economic interests. (In the Russian mind, this may also mean preventing its near abroad from turning to the West, however that is another a story.) The EU, however, refuses to be quite so honest. Instead it couches all its external strategies in high falutin rhetoric about values and principles. Which it just doesn’t stick to at all!

Take, for example, the proposed Free Trade Agreement with India. This would be quite a coup for the EU27, who would have tariff free access to one of the fastest growing economies. For India, however, the benefits would be marginal (for a lengthy economic explanation see this report at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) and its impact on development would be negative.

Look at Central Asia – despite the EU’s continued insistence on the need for respect of human rights, after a brief moment of uproar it conveniently forgot about the 2005 Andijon massacre and resumed trade with Uzbekistan as well as allowing high officials (who were supposed to be banned from travel to the EU) to visit Germany for healthcare. And this goes beyond the EU. Kazakhstan is currently chairman of the OSCE , an organisation that seeks ‘to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; to abide by the rule of law; to promote the principles of democracy by building, strengthening and protecting democratic institutions; and to promote tolerance throughout the OSCE region.’ Is this the same Kazakhstan that Freedom House rates as 'not free' and which recently sentenced the country's best known human rights advocate, Yevgeny Khortis on charges of manslaughter and traffic violations in what is widely considered as a political set up?

These incidents are schizophrenic policy making at its very best!

In way of conclusion (I hope you’ve managed to follow – I think I’ve lost myself), I think Russian foreign policy makers are far more direct in expressing their external plans. Their belligerence towards the West is real; their desire to control Georgia, Ukraine et al. is not hidden; their desire and need to promote Russian economic interest clearly stated. Whether you agree with what they are doing or not (or not, as is often the case for me) it is refreshing to hear a real opinion for once, amidst the couched diplomacy and hypocrisy of western foreign policy makers.

... more