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, 30 May 2010

Copy of a Sham Reality

Photo: Andrei Shchukin - Kopia mnimoi realnosti

So the three of us should be ashamed. All this talk of re-launching the blog and the along comes final exams, new jobs, travels and everything else gets pushed to one side. But I thought I should comment on the video below that has been doing the rounds on the internet.

For those who haven’t yet seen this - an explanation. The Russian parliament, like, I imagine, many parliaments, suffers from a certain degree of absenteeism. Now I wouldn’t like to speculate what MPs do when they’re skiving from their official duties, but this time in the State Duma it’s rather what those who are present are doing that has caught everyone’s attention. It turns out that whilst Russian citizens thought that their MPs were unswervingly representing their interests they were in fact all along replaying their own childhood fantasies of being a contestant in the Crystal Maze, collecting as many golden tokens as possible before the time runs out. In other words, it’s possible that someone may be falsifying the vote.

What I want to dwell on here is not the levels of absenteeism in parliament, but the brazen manner in which MPs feel able to fix votes, on film, without a red face in sight (not talking about the drinking here), and with full complicity of the Vice-President of the Duma. In a land of extremes someone took the idea of voting on behalf of an absent friend just a little too far. Yes, in other countries MPs are also too busy travelling back and forth to the Canary Islands to be present for every little vote, but they don’t film themselves shamelessly perverting the course of democracy and then joking about it. The difference is all in the way you go about it. (Or is it? Is it better for politicians to openly show that they’re barefaced liars and good-for-nothings than to pretend that they’re not and us to know anyway?)

Maybe it’s the electronic voting system that’s at fault. Perhaps the Duma should consider regressing to the UK parliament-style of voting. President Medvedev thought that hi-tech buttons were part and parcel of his beloved “modernisation” drive when really he should have realised long back that shouting “aye!” louder than those shouting “nay!” and then having an old bloke in a black silk gown and optional knee breeches decide who wins is in fact the epitome of a flawless, foolproof, democratic voting system.

The law in question is President Medvedev’s pet project to lower the drink-drive limit; effectively reducing the amount of drinking you can do before legally driving to nil. This has created quite a furore. It turns out that Members of Parliament like to have a lunchtime tipple as much as the rest of us. Unlike in Britain, budget cuts won’t be soon forcing them to take platzkart from Krasnoyarsk when parliament is in session (or will they? That would be great). Furthermore, claims that drinking refreshing yet mildly alcoholic kvas or even eating black bread can be enough to push you over the limit have bolstered opposition to the law.

Some of my Russian friends claim that it has been scientifically proven that some people naturally have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood, even if they don’t drink. Naturally, I have had great fun winding them up about this. What was the alcohol level in the blood of the control group? “Are you sure you haven’t been drinking this morning Boris?” “Nyeeeet! Znachit, (hic) - it must be naturally occurring!” Russian scientists have proven a lot of things that my British brain has difficulty accepting. It’s like the time doctors diagnosed my friend’s recurring dizziness as a potential brain tumour, subjected him to a cocktail of drugs and brain scans for a fortnight before he went back to the UK and discovered he had a mild ear infection. But, really, digression over.

Whatever the dangers of bread-eating and driving may be, will a law like this actually do much to lower the number of deaths on Russia’s roads every year? Will reducing the permitted alcohol level from low to nil make people think twice about having two drinks instead of one, or will it just push more people “over the limit” and fatten the wallets of the gaishniki (traffic police known for their high moral qualities)?

And as I pointed out in a post last year, the problem is not always in the drinking. A closer look at the road traffic statistics for 2009 shows that of 203,603 road traffic accidents, 12,326 were caused by drunk drivers. As a result, 2,217 people were killed, out of a total of 26,084 deaths that year on the roads. This makes drunk drivers responsible for around 8% of deaths on the roads. To compare, 21,921 deaths were caused by sober drivers “not following the rules of the road” and 5098 were killed in accidents caused by “unsatisfactory road conditions” (seems to be some overlap in the statistics, but you get the idea). So is this yet again a case of politicians simply missing the mark?

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