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.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Swedish Short Circuit

Image: Alexander Blosiak,

From IKEA’s Russian woes to maniacal cops on a deadly rampage, Andrei Loshak sees today’s Russia as a state of the absurd, a wonderland where Alice (the population) is up against the madness of the authorities. Both sides have been pushed to the edge, and both are beginning to snap.


Extracts from the article “Short Circuited” by Andrei Lokshak, full original version available on, translation by me (sorry for any mistakes).

State of the Absurd

“We were born to bring Kafka to life,” has been a famous saying since Soviet times. Submerged in the absurd since childhood, we Russians have become experts in it. From our position on the other side of the looking glass, we manage to get by despite it. And it’s only Europeans, with their tiresome rationalism, that arrive in Russia and immediately start trying to find a comprehensible logic in what is happening. But in the end most of them get used to the way things work here and some of them even start to obey the laws of etiquette that require that the cake is shared out, and then sliced up – the laws of the other side of the looking glass – Russian wonderland.

The Russian branch of IKEA is a perfect example. IKEA declared from the outset that even in Russia it intended to unwaveringly uphold its clear Swedish rules, based on a protestant work ethic and strict logistics. As a result, before the opening of IKEA’s first store in Moscow the local authorities cut off its electricity supply. For no practical reason whatsoever – just in order to “rough up” the company as payback for its excessive integrity. Ever since, the Swedes knew their stores were going to be needing their own generators and have tried to do everything in order to depend as little as possible on the mood of the local authorities. The store in Samara built three years ago has proven more problematic - the opening has been postponed nine times. IKEA, a company that has launched 230 stores around the world, just couldn’t break through the unflinching greed of the Samaran bureaucrats, whose last issue in a long line of grievances was that the building was “insufficiently hurricane-proof”. The Swedes, lacking any information about the destructive tornadoes that wreak devastation on the left bank of the Volga, finally took offence. The legendary founder of the company Ingvar Kamprad declared that investments in Russia would be curtailed. But it’s doubtful that such a scare will have any effect on local bureaucrats. For they act not in their own greedy interests. They support the normal functioning of an irrational system.

A few months later another blow was in line for Kamprad. It turned out that in using the generators – the idea that IKEA was so proud of – the company overpaid 200 million dollars, which practically reduced the profits of the whole eastern European division of the company over the past few years to zero. The Swedes thought themselves such Lancelots, having cut off the head of the dragon of corruption, but had forgotten that according to the laws of wonderland a new head quickly sprouts. An official investigation revealed that the Russian IKEA employee responsible for renting the generators had been receiving a cut from the leasers and had been significantly raising the cost of their services. IKEA cut its contract with this firm and as a result was fined another 5 million euros by the Russian courts for breaking the conditions of contract.

Then – the final blow. A couple of weeks ago the Swedish tabloids revealed that the director of IKEA for Russia and Eastern Europe, Per Kaufmann, famous for his public criticism of Russian corruption, had been turning a blind eye to evidence of backhanders being made to contractors of the regional administration. Kamprad stayed true to his principles and immediately sacked Kaufmann, who had been his closest colleague for the past 20 years. He admitted defeat. Maybe for the first time in his life. The Swedes repeated the mistake of land surveyor K in Kafka’s “The Castle”, who tried to conquer the absurd by the strength of reason. It turned out to be a crazy plan. The possibilities of reason are limited, but the absurd knows no boundaries.

Operating system

Corruption is irrational, as its very existence is deadly for a state. This is precisely why it ideally suits a state of the absurd, and is its operating system. The survival strategy for those living in such a state is not to look for the sense in anything. For those who dare attempt it, a glace at the Russian newsreel quickly turns into a psychedelic bad trip. A person will experience a cascade of dazzling negative emotions: fear, horror, shock, indignation, but meanwhile cannot find any logic: “Managers of the state bank VTB pulled off fraud, stole from the state and shareholders millions of dollars. One person has been fired.” , “Commander of the airborne forces of Russia General Shamanov will not be brought to trial due to no crime having taken place. The General tried to obstruct the work of a police investigator who was investigating a case concerning the General’s father in law, a criminal heavyweight who goes by the name of “Glyb”, for whom an international search warrant has been issued. The General called upon two squadrons of the air force special task force to deal with the police officer. The case has been closed because, as Shamanov himself explained, he later personally called off the order to capture the investigator."

It is the most Orwellian oxymora heard from the highest levels that are the final straw in the waves of paradoxical information and are enough to drive you insane: “conservative modernisation”, “sovereign democracy”, “parliament is not the place for discussions”. Such apparent contradictions are regularly thrown at our consciousness and heighten the feelings of disorientation and existential weightlessness which lead to a person being prepared to accept any information from above, however monstrous and contradictive it may be. As a result no one is even mildly surprised to hear that United Russia has won 102% in the elections. For what could surprise a nation where the title of main liberal democrat has been held by Vladimir Zhirinovsky for the past 20 years? The most ominous oxymoron of our time? “Law enforcement authorities”, in other words - organised crime. But, as strange as it may seem, it is precisely the police, in pushing the limits of moral decay, who can save the country. At some point in time the absurd, when it reaches critical proportions, transforms into outright nonsense, that is - utter insanity.

The State vs. the People

The turning point came with the massacre committed by Major Evsyukov. The shooting of shoppers in the supermarket didn’t just contradict common sense – it was devoid of it whatsoever. It was just after this massacre that the law enforcement went on the offensive against its own people. Every day we now hear about how someone in uniform has killed, robbed, run over in a car, or violated someone. For me, personally, what topped this all off was Evsyukov’s court case: “Former officer of the criminal investigation department of the district department of internal affairs Roman Potemkin, who participated in the arrest of Evsyukov, took a stand as witness. Potemkin was brought to court in handcuffs as he himself has been under investigation for extortion since October.” The collapse of the law enforcement system has actually already begun.

As is often the case, in the individual insanity of Evsyukov there was also the cast-iron logic of social processes. The system had to go mad. National security services in a healthy state, as Lenin once wrote, are steamrollers, unquestioningly carrying out the commands from above. As machines do not have and should not have brains, and commands are not given to them every day, their daily life is strictly regulated by instructions and rules. A malfunctioning occurs when commands from their owner dramatically contradict the rules of their maker. A short circuit occurs that causes over 2 million evil robocops to unleash terror against the civilians.

It’s strange – did the ruling elite really seriously assume that the law could be broken selectively? That whilst some carve up, squeeze dry, racketeer and topple the country, others, like complete idiots, will start to honestly carry out their duties under the social contract? This lie, taken to the absurd, has infiltrated the state apparatus from the top to the bottom, poisoned the heads of the junior and middle-ranking personnel. Our police force is now a massive army of bad lieutenants, ready at any moment to turn into insane majors.

People vs. the State

When the absurd grew into insanity the system hit the self-destruct command. The impenetrable fortress started to crumble from within. The eagle’s two heads are tearing one another to pieces and feathers are flying. But here’s the strange thing: the direr the state entropy, the faster everything falls apart and the easier it is to breathe. It’s as if there is now more air. I think that fear in society has disappeared. In the inability of the authorities to control their own kind the people have seen weakness. Such a state cannot have power to repress. The wild bites of the crazed system brought people out of their hypnosis. In the place of fear and apathy has come anger.

Mikhail Bakunin once wrote “Nothing is more dangerous for man’s private morality than the habit of command”. When the authorities start to degrade, you want to be higher than them, to counter cynicism with dignity, moral degradation with composure and humanity. The philosopher Murray Bookchin called this “self-organised reconstruction of society”. The vestiges of this process are already observable. Whereas before people only participated in public rallies when the bulldozers were already driving up to their house, now expressing protest has almost become fashionable. People have started standing up for one another. A couple of weeks ago a drunken police officer in a Mercedes ran over a woman standing at a bus stop. How did the officials act? The cop driving was incapable of stringing two words together; the man in uniform next to him hopped out of the car and ran off. Then their colleagues from the district department of internal affairs turned up and together with the road traffic police tried to sweep it all under the rug. How did people act? Three top bank managers who happened by chance to have seen the accident gave the woman first aid, called an ambulance, and when they noticed that the number plate was being unscrewed from the car, they called some journalists. It was only thanks to the noise they made over the matter that the public prosecutor found out about what happened. A scandal broke out. Heads went flying again (as if in their place new ones aren’t going to grow). A small victory was won over the system. The idea that a people deserves the government it has is a foul lie. At moments of great difficulty, simple people who have not been maimed by the “habit of command” don’t tear at each other’s throats, but hold out a hand of help.

As soon as the “steamroller” stops inspiring fear, out comes the age-old opposition of the Russian people to the state. The philosopher Berdiaev wrote, “Russia is the most un-governable country in the world. Anarchism is a characteristic of the Russian soul, it has been inherent in different ways both in the extreme left and the extreme right. Both the Slavophiles and Dostoevsky are also, essentially, anarchists like Bakunin, Kropotkin, or Tolstoy.” All imperialists and supporters of sovereign power in Russia are enemies of the people – and history just goes to show this. Our interests are diametrically opposed, “when the state gets stronger the people feebler” was the reverse dependency observed long ago by Kliuchevsky. Nothing has changed since. The popular teenage band “Lumen” sings, “I love my country so much, but I hate the State”. You couldn’t put it any better.

The most interesting thing is that those who work for the state are also anti-state in spirit. Just try talking to any cop or civil servant off the record. You’ll find more deception and cynicism than the classicists could ever have dreamed of. And the ruling elite similarly hides under patriotic rhetoric whilst carrying out its daily ritual of the absurd. As soon as the time comes they’ll scarper to Antibes and Marbella. They say that the Prime Minister’s daughters live in either Germany or Switzerland. In any case, not in Russia, that’s for sure. He’s no enemy to his own children.

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Saturday, 6 March 2010

Medvedev and his Mistrals

This year is the year of Russia in France and France in Russia - an “année croisée”, marked by around 400 events in the political, economic and cultural spheres. As both a Russophile and a rosbif (won’t extend that to Francophile quite yet, sorry) studying on a Franco-Russian programme in Paris, Dmitri Medvedev’s 3-day official visit here this week should have been just my cup of tea.

“Operation Charm” was what Le Monde chose to call the Sarko/Dima schmooze-fest, referring to the abundance of PR companies on hand to promote Medvedev and his country in France and Europe. But who was trying to charm who more? A quick glance at the snippets of the press conference on TV and I wanted to shout “get a room!” as Sarkozy spieled: “I know, Mr President, the extent to which you have engaged yourself for modernising Russian society. […] Your attachment to a state with rule of law, respect for the law, judicial security and defence of human rights, very much facilitates the rapprochement between our two countries […] Russian culture, the Russian language, the Russian people need freedom. You are currently giving and building this freedom and modernity for them.”

Bleugh. Had the debate surrounding the level of continuity or rupture in the Russian political system with Medvedev’s coming to power eclipsed the French President? Or had someone forgotten to point out the figures that show that the largest number of refugees accepted by France every year for the past few years have been those persecuted and unable to benefit from the protection of their own state… Russia? And, wait a second - can it be that the French president’s memory is so weak that he forgot the circumstances surrounding his last visit to Moscow – to negotiate a certain ceasefire?

Some of us have a tendency to forget, though the prospect of the sale of four warships to Russia - a much-needed boost for France’s ailing military industry – obviously has memory-loss-inducing qualities. I should probably point out here that I am not making any judgement on the sale of the warships, but just the vomit-inducing diplomacy that is surrounding it. The whole situation is also rather interesting as many commentators have pointed out - the sale of the ships is the highpoint in the two-year about-turn in French-Russian diplomatic relations, smoothed out by PR whitewashing to sell Medvedev as the “new Gorbatchev”.

Around two years ago I wrote a university presentation on France’s diplomatic relations with Russia (amongst others). At that point, ten months into his presidency, Sarkozy, who had presented himself in the run up to the elections as the candidate for human rights, was having trouble staying true to his loudly-defended principles. Criticising countries that favoured contracts over defence for human rights he was meanwhile getting chummy with Colonel Kaddafi. Then he jumped to felicitate Medvedev with his presidential victory, (foreign minister Bernard Kouchner contented himself with the comment that the election figures were “very surprising, not quite Stalinist, but 70% ain’t bad!”).

And two years on Medvedev’s visit, with all it’s pomp and ceremony, shows how far the situation has evolved. Putin never forgave Sarkozy’s pre-election declarations: “It’s not because Russia is a superpower that we should prevent ourselves from denouncing human rights violations that are committed there”; “the France of human rights cannot be silent faced with the assassinations of journalists, with the 200,000 war dead in Chechnya; the time of realpolitik that crosses our humanitarian principles for contracts is over” (from Le Monde). But Medvedev is the perfect excuse for France to patch over relations – and (supposedly) save face. The new democratically reform-minded President ticks boxes both home and abroad – allowing Western countries, like France, to justify a rapprochement. This “western wishful thinking” that we spoke of back in October takes on another, more cynical tone – not only does Europe want to believe that Medvedev is one of the club, but it is also prepared to actively pedal the myth in an attempt to avoid criticism when business relations come into question. Meanwhile, the reality is that a big fat question mark still hangs over many aspects of the new Russian presidency - 2009 was the worst year in recent times for politically-motivated assassinations and what will come of the Ministry of Internal Affairs reforms is, at least at this stage, anyone’s guess.

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Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Pipeline Prejudices

Photo: Fitar Gubayev

As a British student studying European Integration at what the FT recently dubbed “the Eurocrat College,” I feel I spend a large part of my live defending “the baddie”: Britain.* As a non-Russophobe studying the EU as a Global Actor (would I go so far as to say Russophile? Probably not, since we’re talking politics), I spend the rest of my life defending the even badder baddie: Russia.

This semester I have been taking a course in EU energy policy. Right from the start, the professor warned us that this class would not be about geopolitics: we were not going to be taught that Europe was currently being held hostage by Russia. Or that this was likely to happen in the future. Sure, security of supply is essential, and Russia does have the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. However, we should forget everything we have ever read about Russia in our European media. Russia, you see, needs to export its gas just as much (if not more) than the Europeans need to buy it; and the only feasible place it can do this is in Europe. Instantly, the professor had lost most of the class: energy diversification and unbundling just isn’t as sexy as bond-style Russian villains presiding over pipelines. And nobody believed him anyway.

Last week, a colleague and I gave a presentation on ‘The 2009 Ukrainian-Russian Gas Dispute: A Russian Perspective.’ An opposing presentation went first, giving the Ukrainian point of view. The brief was to persuade the audience, why ‘our’ country was in the right. Since the class is more than half made up of Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians and other assorted Central and Eastern Europeans (not generally known for their love of Russia or Gazprom) the professor realised that we, the Russians, had a tough crowd. Accordingly, it was agreed that to give us a chance in hell we would have a vote to decide who was responsible both before and after the debate. The challenge would be to persuade some of our classmates to change their opinion.

After the initital vote, despite the professor’s repeated statements throughout the course that Russia was a relatively reliable supplier of gas, the results were 13 believing Russia was responsible; 5 abstaining or uncertain; and 3 holding Ukraine responsible. I won’t go into details about what each debating team actually said during the debate (the two sides’ positions have been articulated thousands of times before); but suffice it to say that we’d both done our research and given pretty comprehensive arguments. However we might as well not have bothered to present: the final opinions were exactly the same. Russia was overwhelmingly in the wrong. And Ukraine was absolved of all transit risk.

Now, before I am attacked for having an over-rosy, idealist view on Russia, I want to point out that I really don't! Russia certainly uses gas as an energy tool in its affairs with Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia, however it is not in a position to do so with Europe. This was the issue at stake and to confuse the two is to prevent open-eyed discussion about the Russian-EU relationship. Furthermore, to imagine that Ukraine was an innocent victim all this as it sat on stocks of gas as Europe froze, is utterly absurd.

Another class I have been following has been in Russia-EU relations. Following the class, you might think Gorbachev had never been elected and the Berlin wall had never fallen. It is ridden with alarmist rhetoric and Russia clearly emerges as the big bad wolf. Any talk about how the EU might engage with the EU has so far been non existent. All we have learnt is how awful the interior Russian situation is - so much so, that a Czech student who has never visited Russia asked me how I could possibly have lived there and wasn’t it the most depressive, repressive state in the world?

Domestically, Russia does face enormous problems: demographically, socially, politically and economically. Reading reports about Russia by Freedom House or Amnesty International are enough to make you cry; however, to write off Russia as a bullying, disaster-zone of a country, as many of my colleagues here seem to do, is not only incorrect but also hugely dangerous.

My college presents itself as an ‘incubator for Europe’s future elite’ (yes, a professor actually used those cringe-worthy words), however if this is what we are being taught (or what we are choosing to understand, in the case of the energy course) then this spells very bad news for the future of Europe. Simply being told (or simply choosing to believe) that Russia, or any other country is bad (what a ridiculously normative word, but it sums up so many attitudes here) will lead us nowhere. If Europe is ever to develop a meaningful relationship with Europe, we need a certain open mindedness.
We must abandon our Eurocentric view of the world and realise that it has been a long time since we were at the world's centre. We need the ability to understand and enter into dialogue with tomorrow’s great powers.

And now my rant about College attitudes to Russia is over, please see below for a justification of my opinion on Britain!

* For the record, I detest most British attitudes to Europe. The UK is far too full of ignoramus Europhobes – yes, I mean you, Nigel Farage, but you’re not the only one, even if you are the rudest – and I would love it if we could express a little more love for the Euro family; however, accusations that Lady Ashton is a British ‘submarine’ sent to sabotage the EU are frankly ludicrous. And De Gaulle was not the saviour of Europe – he was almost as rabid as Thatcher…

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