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, 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.


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