Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Russia Letters One

Photo: Mokba - the view from our hotel room window.

Having  had a fascination with Russia since immersing myself  in my early teens in such melancholic writers as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Sholokhov it came as something of a surprise to find  that my first impression of Moscow was of sunshine, butterflies and thistledown.

But then it is summer and even in Russia things have changed. Moscow, the old city, is gorgeous and no photograph compares to the theological confections of spire and dome that comprise the Kremlin and St Basil’s in Red Square and which rise in unexpected blossomings from more mediocre streets.

The churches are being rebuilt in Russia, rising in flowing lines of faith and fantasy; billowing in brilliant colour amongst the grey-spirit solidity of Soviet architecture.  There’s a split here that could be defined as Soul and Spirit; mellifluous soul amidst rigid spirit. The battle between head and heart; left brain and right brain; reason and feeling. It is Soul that builds the churches and the almost ‘gingerbread style’ traditional houses and Spirit that took  unforgiving Soviet form and constructed the square, the immense, and the frequently bland.  But duality is not new for Russians, standing as they have through the centuries with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia.

“The Soviet era was an experiment,” says our translator, Elena. Even as she dismisses those bleak decades she yearns for the order and sense of national pride that they offered. It was bad, she would add, but not all bad. But then nothing ever is and you can only understand why so many Russians look back when you can appreciate what they have lost.  At this point in time the most dangerous duality is that between what they were and what they might become. Or is it between what they believed they were and what they wish they were now? All of the above, mixed in with the loss of a dream, something that we find harder to lose than any reality.

There’s almost a sense of shock here which comes from having believed they were one thing, and then, when Russia was opened to the world and the world was opened to Russia, discovering they were something else entirely.  They may have gained freedom but they lost in an instant security, certainty and their sense of achievement.

They had believed their society to be the most advanced in the world and when the borders opened and they went out into the world they discovered it was not. For all that was and is First World about Russia, there was more that was Third. It was and remains, I suspect,  a shock. They had been lied to; or had they lied to themselves? No doubt both because that is the way of human nature.

Ironically they have something in common with their old enemy and new friend, America, whose people also suffered a similar shock to the collective belief system with 9/11. The American belief was in their safety, their invulnerability and their goodness.  They discovered they were neither safe, nor invulnerable and possibly not as good as they believed themselves to be for some people seemed to hate them. Sometimes the greatest distance is between what we believe ourselves to be and what we really are, whether as individual or as nation. Such inconsistency is a part of us all and not particular to Americans or Russians, but is surely more profound in societies that are closed for security reasons, like Russia, or insular for lack of interest or perceived need, like America.

Russians were also deeply shocked to discover that they had been feared by others and they were terrified to find that they were vulnerable.

Interestingly the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, published in 1836 had compared the two nations:

“There are on earth today two great peoples who, having started from different points, seem to be advancing towards the same end; they are the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. They both grew up in darkness; and whilst Europeans were busy elsewhere, they suddenly placed themselves in the forefront of nations, and the world learned at almost the same time of their births and their greatness.
“All other nations seem, more or less, to have reached the limits nature has assigned to them and within which they now need only to remain, but those two are still growing … America is struggling against obstacles of nature; Russia against men ….. The principle means of action for the one is liberty; for the other servitude.”

Tocqueville believed reluctantly in the inevitable victory of the American model, although, some 170 years later, while no-one can deny that he was right, the two nations may well have more in common than they know. It’s a psychological maxim that we tend to condemn most passionately that which we deny in ourselves. Not that Russians these days seem to have any animosity toward America in particular or the West in general. They just want to feel proud of themselves again which hardly makes them much different to anyone else.

Photo: This was taken when summer had ended and it was getting a wee bit colder. My seriously winter coat which I bought in Canada.

 And given how powerful an impact the relationship between America and Russia had upon us all during the Cold War years, particularly for my generation which grew up during that time, it is not surprising to  find myself pondering it now that I have spent time in both countries. When you look at what we were told, at what we believed and at what we feared, it is almost bizarre to be somewhere so ordinary and so normal. They always were of course, normal, at the individual level, just as those in the West were. It was government and ideology that turned us all into enemies. And then, just as easily, we were friends. No doubt we could all just as easily be enemies again, but I wonder. Enemies are more easily made in ignorance and none of us are as ignorant nor as innocent as we were. And, in a world of instant communication it only becomes harder to be so. Communication, as ever, is the key to understanding.

Listening to my first Russian lesson I am struck by how many of the words are the same as English. And, like English they seem happy to ‘steal’ or ‘borrow’  words as needed. I also find French, Portugese and Italian words which mark it out as another Latinate language. The big difference is the Cyrillic alphabet and that is only a matter of memorizing. Language is everything and particularly in Russia where, unlike much of Europe there is little English spoken by anyone older than thirty. But that too is changing.

Summer in Moscow is delightful with warm, clear days and mild evenings. The blankets that sit in piles in the restaurants are most likely destined for the shoulders of skimpily clad young women should the nights turn cool but are available to all if needed.  The young women here are gorgeous; tall, slender and brightly dressed, they hover on impossibly high and potentially deadly heels.  More often than not they are at the side of older men; loose of jowl, pot of belly and plump of wallet.

The Russians seem to agonise about this ‘informal’, if not formal,  prostitution but a brief study of the nation’s literary classics suggests it is not at all new. Protecting Russian womanhood may be a cry that comes from right-wing youths but it is no more than a convenient peg upon which to hang the ‘hat’ of disappointment and disaffection. It’s a ‘one size fits all hat’ in a way when you see the old men and women begging in the streets. Many of the men walk with heavily medaled chests; the army it seems does not look after its own in Russia. The women have no such medals to display but they seem to smile more. In a country where repression has been a way of life for centuries it is uplifting and perhaps not surprising, to find that women, the most repressed of all, have found a way to smile through the worst times. There are more round-faced cheerful babushkas than stern-browed Soviet-style martinets. But perhaps that too was propaganda.

We are staying at the Hotel Budapest; assigned a room in the far reaches of its corridored depths that is bigger and more tastelessly decorated than I expected. We have two rooms in fact; the sort of space that begs instant forgiveness for just about everything else. The bedroom is circular with a print of Nefertiri hanging over the bed and another of the boy-king, Tutankhamen, facing us.  The windows are high and hung with elaborate curtains whose Napoleonic style is brought smartly down to earth by the use of cheap, synthetic gold fabric. With more cheap gold fabric on the bed, a somewhat obese couch and desk chair in brown leather and a fake tree by the door we have the scene set to satisfy a variety of tastes, or perhaps none.

The tree, as I will come to discover, is a symbol of the Russian love for pot plants. It is fake because it must be, but elsewhere, on countless window sills and cupboard tops and in numerous stair wells, foyers, offices and rooms, no matter how derelict the surroundings, will be found veritable jungles of pot plants, carefully watered and trimmed; a promise, no doubt, through the brief white days and long dark nights of winter that there is life, there is growth, there is green.

Here at the Hotel Budapest there is no restaurant and so breakfast is delivered to the room on a tray. A breakfast list is agreed to upon checking in and that is what we get, day in and day out. We have a clear plastic box containing slices of cheese and ham or salami, depending upon one’s choice of meat, and on top sit two slices of very dry white bread. Toast is not really a Russian concept it seems although of course it is available in the big hotels. Elsewhere we will find that if we order toast we will get bread fried in butter. It’s nice enough but not quite the same. Along with our dry bread we get a jam-filled croissant, which, according to the package, will last for seven days. One small bite is enough; it tastes seven  months old as it is. We have a kettle and have brought our own tea and Vegemite so breakfast at the Budapest generally runs to a cup of tea and one slice of dry bread and Vegemite.

This is probably the worst food I will experience in Russia and generally restaurants in Moscow are excellent. They run to London prices but the food is generally better and most places have Australian wine; good Australian wine too, not the lolly-water that is sold in much of Europe and the US because, so they say, it has been developed to meet local ‘tastes.’

One of our favourite restaurants while we are here is The Gallery, which is on the roof of the Hotel Ararat   and which affords a fabulous view of Moscow, particularly at night. At this time of year it gets dark about ten. On my first night in Moscow we are sitting outside at 11.30 having a late, and for me, somewhat jetlagged, but delightful supper. It is interesting to look down on the buildings either side, most of which have ornate ‘fences’ surrounding the roof; no doubt to hold the snow in place so it does not make a deadly fall into the street below. Imagining a snow covered Moscow in minus 40 is harder to do on this almost tropical night.

Beyond the Hotel Budapest, which falls into the roomy but quaint category, there are some fabulous hotels in Moscow. This is a vibrant city which, with its architectural beauty and energy is set to become one of the world’s best.  There is class here. It may have been buried for decades but it did not take long to re-emerge. Perhaps, as the Russians themselves say, they are patient. The Soviet era was a time of waiting.

The Kremlin, which we visit on Sunday, appears smaller than I expected and has none of the malevolence in reality that clung to it through the perceptions, and fantasies, of the Cold War years.  The word ‘kremlin’ simply means ‘fortification’ or ‘citadel’ in Russian and many cities in Russia have their own kremlins. The word is thought to derive from either the ancient Greek word Kremn or kremnos, meaning a steep hill above a ravine, or the Slavonic term kremnik, meaning thick coniferous forest. This latter explanation has substance given that this was the material from which the original forts were constructed. Well, it was the material from which pretty much everything was constructed and a lot still is given the amount of timber in this country.

As well as being home to the Russian president and the seat of his administration, the Kremlin is the historical and spiritual heart of Moscow.  You can feel that. There are plenty of overseas tourists but lots of Russian tourists as well. The Kremlin stands  on Borovitsky Hill, where the Moscow and Neglinaya Rivers meet. The Hill is named after the pine forests (bor in Russian)  that used to cover it and which still stretch across so much of this vast land.

There’s a legend that while hunting in the forest a group of boyars, Russian nobles, saw a huge two-headed bird swoop down on a boar and carry it off to the top of what was to become Borovitsky Hill. That night the boyars, no doubt after a few nightcaps of vodka, dreamt of a city of tents, spires and golden domes and resolved upon awakening to build a town upon the hill. I’m beginning to wonder how much of the almost fantasy architecture, which is so quintessentially Russian, is vodka induced but given how whimsically wonderful it is, one can hardly care how it was brought into being.

The historical view is much less colourful and claims that the Kremlin was founded by Prince Yury Dolgoruky, who built the first wooden fort on the hill in 1147AD, although archeologists now believe the site may have been inhabited as long ago as 500BC.

But more than anything this is a place of worship. Christians have prayed here for more than eight centuries and no doubt the pagans were here before then. The early stone churches built here were demolished in the 1470’s to construct what we see today. It is impressive for its beauty if small in its nature. There is an intimacy to these chapels though, each one intricately decorated and painted within an inch of its life and always with a super-size Jesus looking down from the ceiling. Most interesting though are the ‘mandalas,’ celtic-like decorations, painted at floor level, that are, the guide says, drawn from the pre-christian era; the goddess is at base, supporting the high-flying patriarchal religion. It was ever thus.

Out in the courtyard soldiers walk past carrying birds of prey; hawks, falcons, even an eagle. But, unlike the newly instituted changing of the guard, this is not for mere show. It seems the freshly painted gold domes were too much of an attraction for the pigeons. When attempts to dissuade them by mildly ‘electrifying’ the domes proved fruitless(in fact, adaptable as pigeons clearly are, they seemed to grow to like the buzz ), the powers that be, and there are lots of them in the Kremlin, decided to resort to more traditional methods. Most birds, pigeons included, while prepared to engage in a battle of wills with electrics, will not come within cooee of a bird of prey. The Kremlin domes therefore are now pristine! No shitting from a great height on this place!

But back to the changing of the guard. Almost 90 years after it was killed off, along with the Romanov dynasty and the country’s last Tsar, Moscow has its changing of the guard back. There’s one story that this was the idea of tourism heavies in Moscow and another that President Putin, having seen such spectacles in London and Washington, was determined that Russia could do as well if not better.  Personally I find such things a tad boring and would have liked to have seen a few colourful Cossacks  thrown into the phalanx of infantrymen and cavalrymen.  But in this new world, Ukraine, from whence the Cossacks pretty much came, is another country and they longer have a place here. But it’s all harmless and sure beats missile parades in Red Square.
And Red Square, huge as it is, also seems smaller than I expected.  But I was growing up through the scariest bits of the Cold war, and tend to be impressionable and prone to flights of imagination at the best of times, so perhaps my impressions and perceptions were not mature.  The smaller we are the bigger the world looks; the more fearful we are (or are encouraged to be) the greater the danger appears.

St Basil’s looks almost doll-like sitting as it does at the far end as one enters through the tower gates. But today Red Square is closed off. Not that anything seems to be happening; it is just closed. Perhaps a whim, someone important visiting Lenin’s Tomb or St Basil’s…. who knows. The barriers are up and so we go to have lunch in an Italian restaurant in the Gum Gallery which overlooks Red Square.  It’s blinis and caviar, Italian style. The blini comes as a crepe but I learn later that blini just means pancake, whatever size it may be.

Gum is the old State Department Store, with its fabulous ornate neo-Russian façade, it stretches almost the entire length of the eastern side of the Square. Built between 1890 and 1893 by Alexander Pomerantsev, it’s an interesting combination of elements of what is called Russian medieval ecclesiastical architecture and an elegant steel framework and glass roof. It’s the sort of thing that one sees in the great turn of the century train stations of Paris and London.

It’s a very stylish shopping gallery and while it is not one that is of much use to your average Russian, for the moment anyway, it is a sign of where Russia is heading.  Despite the unemployment and unpaid salaries there are no longer queues for food in Moscow and no sign of the ubiquitous string bag which was carried at all times in case there was something to buy.

After four days in Moscow I am climbing into the belly of a Ural Airlines plane. These former military planes have been done over and re-fitted for passenger use and because they don’t carry cargo you climb up steps into what would be the cargo hold, deposit your hand luggage and then climb more steps into the cabin.  It’s a one class airline but in this case it is a spacious economy, made even more so by the fact that it is half empty.

It’s my first time in a Tupolev and as it rises lightly into the sky, it reminds me of the fat, grey birds in the park outside the Kremlin. . It takes an hour for the stewards to come through with water or juice and another twenty minutes before lunch and something more interesting to drink. The lunch, by airline standards is actually not bad. Things happen slowly in Russia, as they do in much of the world. It is a reminder of one of the greatest strengths of the West; people are motivated by self interest and good salaries and job satisfaction give both purpose and meaning, two things that work toward efficiency and high standards.

Next stop Yekaterinburg, some two hours east from Moscow on the Asian side of the Ural Mountains.  And from there a one and a half hour drive to the mine at Malaysheva.


Photo: The Prophylactoria in Malaysheva.

It was fried eggs and bread fried in butter for breakfast at our guesthouse, The Prophylactoria, in Malaysheva where we have come to visit an emerald mine. The butter came from our supplies, purchased on the way down from Ekaterinburg airport, and was used lavishly until Elena, our translator,  saw fit to rescue large dollops from the pan and demanded discipline in the kitchen. Toast seems not to be a Russian dish although it can be found in the major hotels that cater for foreigners.  But here, on the flanks of the Urals, where Europe meets Asia, it appears, when requested, as small slices of baguette browned on either side in a buttery pan.

The white-coated ladies  also rustled up blinis (pancakes) filled with cottage cheese and we made our own tea and coffee. On the first morning I made a feeble attempt to get some hot water but with non-existent language  beyond, spaseeba (thankyou) and  dobra outro (good morning), which doesn’t get you far and faced with a natural Russian tendency to respond aggressively in the face of confusion, or any possibility of a mistake being made, I  soon made a tactical retreat and scuttled back to my side of the servery  to wait for Elena to appear.

It is something I will notice often in Russia, the nervousness and embarrassment which becomes impatience and even anger when people fear they may be wrong or in danger of making a mistake. It is different to the importance of ‘face’ that is found in Asia and perhaps has more to do with the fact that for so long in Russia, to be ‘wrong’ was at best dangerous and at worst, deadly. No doubt there is also an element of pride involved, even more so now that people feel they have less of which they can be proud.

But beyond the confusion and frustrations that people seem to reveal when there is not a common language, resides a warmth and easy humour. Sign language is what draws us together and which readily brings smiles, even from the most stern-jawed babuschka. I am finding though, despite the stereotypical portrayals of the large-breasted guardians of the  many portals, which has been so long depicted in various writings, that it is the men who are severe and humourless and the women who are warm and ever-ready to laugh.

The hot water  situation is ultimately resolved by borrowing an electric kettle from the mine manager’s office which we carry down each morning along with our teapot, coffee plunger, Vegemite and marmalade. The marmalade goes particularly well with the blinis and even Elena decides this is a good combination. She has less interest in the Vegemite and agrees that it is an ‘acquired taste’ and, on reflection, one that she has no desire to acquire.

After breakfast we head outside to make phone calls. Our mobiles barely function inside the building and usually only work on one particular side if they work at all. But even in the carpark we are called upon to perform the ‘signal dance’ in order to find the right ‘spot’ where a connection can be made. The mornings are crisp even at the end of summer, following in the footsteps of cool, fresh nights. Every now and again, a breeze passes, rustling like shaken sellophane through the branches of the trees; whispering of winter despite the warmth of the sun.

 Within weeks, we are told, the temperature will drop and the freeze will begin. It can get to minus 30 around here without even trying.  The pipes that run, head height, along the road, rising higher above driveways, twisting around obstacles, will carry heating through the winter, for as long as the municipal source is operating. It’s probably a better bet than the Prophylactoria boiler which has condemned residents to cold showers more than once.

The gardens surrounding the Prophylactoria are lush, green and littered. It is not filthy litter but paper, bottles and cans dropped, no doubt, by the locals who use the area for picnics in the evening. They say that once all of this was immaculate. Now the roads are rutted, the footpaths broken, the fences sagging and the buildings stained and mouldering.

But the people walking along the street look healthy and well dressed and the cows that graze in the overgrown gardens  are fatly content. There is an air of poverty but it is more the poverty of Portugal than Africa or India, although one is reminded of Zambia’s copper belt where the same sort of decay has dribbled slowly but surely over decades, from the cup of former glory.

When we drive to the office which is just around the corner, we pass the local supermarket where the babuschkas (grandmothers) sit in the car park behind piles of large, scarlet, home-grown tomatoes, chatting contentedly with each other while keeping a weather eye out for the small children playing in front of them. No doubt the mothers are at work and the State-run daycare centres have long since closed their doors.

Visiting the mine at Malaysheva is like entering a Soviet time-warp. Reality taps loudly on the scene with an all pervading sense of shabbiness and decay. We drive past the huge red hammer and sickle sculpture by the front gate and rattle down the long driveway, flanked on either side by unkempt vegetation.  One of the first tasks that the mine manager, Jimmie, undertakes is to tidy all this up, and, when he does restore it to  order, the old ladies return to sit on the park benches, nodding their heads in satisfaction and saying: ”This is how it used to be. This is how it is meant to be.”

The mine was built in the 1970’s but has a distinctly fifties feel.  It’s a world of vinyl and veneer run to seed, which is saying a lot given that it wasn’t particularly tasteful to start with. The language of the glory days was florid and loud,  from the now rusting Soviet symbol at the front gate to the huge stainless steel human figure in front of the office building. This gigantic metal sculpture seems to have weathered the years far better than the decorative concrete pillars in the forecourt and the colourful mosaic by the sagging front door; now broken symbols of broken dreams.

The sculptures and the mosaics, there is another one on the inner stairway, are designed to immortalize the proletariat and glorify the worker and yet the Soviet era saw those  who ruled living as elites, separated by power and privilege from the ordinary people. The Soviets created no more than a variation on the theme of Russia’s eternal divide between aristocrat and serf. There may have been greater opportunity and justice for those at the bottom but there was not equality.

In the Soviet era, says Elena, it was all about power not money.  She says this in a way that suggests somehow it was more honourable to grasp simply for power. These days it is clearly about both; the twin fires of human ambition sourced, as always, in fear.

The boardroom looks for all the world as if someone quietly closed the door one day and walked away. Which is in a way what happened, and which is what continues to happen whenever management leaves the mine.  But someone has been here for there is not a speck of dust on the faded red of the upholstered chairs, the brown veneer table or the piles of yellowing notepaper, curling gently at the corners, waiting only to be useful. Nothing is out of place. Everything has been dusted over the empty weeks since the last visit and replaced exactly where it was; even down to a paperclip.

Many of the doors still have their sealing thread to show that the rooms have not been entered since the last visit. Everything has been kept safe; no-one can be faulted. The system works. It is a mindset that will need to change as Russia opens up to a world of individual responsibility, trust between employee and employer and all of the uncertainties that exist in a non-Soviet and less regulated era.

We are served instant coffee, black, there is no milk, and plates of sweet biscuits.  People are friendly, reserved and attentive. They may prefer that management were Russian, but mostly they just want things to work again. They are probably both pleased and nervous that, this time, the mine manager is here to stay. The yellowing notepaper will probably be one of the first things to go.

There are three stars that can be seen rising high above the mine shafts at Malaysheva. In the good years they shone  through the days and the nights,  but their light has long been extinguished. What the people at the mine and the people of the town want more than anything is for those lights to shine once more. It’s a worthy goal in a world where time has stopped and chairs are more likely to be missing one arm or both and where people are missing a level of certainty upon which they too can rest.

When it comes time to leave Malaysheva for the highlights of Ekaterinburg there are few regrets. A grudging agreement has been reached between body and the sullen bulge of mattress but  it has a limit of days, not weeks. At least we have made Nellie smile. The guardian at our gate, was, at the beginning, a past master at Soviet-style ‘grim’, but even she has a sense of humour that can be prodded into being by ridiculous foreigners. With a name like Nellie, and given the remnants of titian hair that remain upon her authoritarian head, it’s a sure bet that some Scottish ancestor was drawn to Russia for work, as so many have been, over the centuries.

It’s well worth spending just over an hour making the long, crazy drive to Ekat, just to swap the Prophylactoria for the Hotel Octoberskeya and a real bed and a real shower and telephones that work, and internet access, and mobile phone access, and restaurants and a sense of bustling efficiency. I use the word ‘sense’ reservedly, as I do the word ‘efficiency.’ But all things are relative.  I had also hoped to leave behind the all pervading smell of bleach, it being the cleanser, I thought, of necessity in Russia, only to find it must be the cleanser of choice.

Not that I was so convinced  about it being an extremely worthwhile drive while we rattled along worn roads, choked with traffic where dirty rattling cars and  dirty rattling trucks weaved  their erratic way around potholes at terrifying speed. I am probably more aware of speed since we had a car accident in Zambia a year ago, where experience gave substance to mere belief that ‘Speed kills.’  I know now that it does make a difference.  You would think after so many years in less ordered worlds I would be more fatalistic. Or maybe I just need to drink more vodka.

At least our driver, Valery, seemed able to drive at a sensible speed, his large hands, and incredibly long and angular thumbs, wrapped firmly around the steering wheel. But perhaps it was because the suspension had still not been fixed, and with every turn, we axle-scraped our way into position. His forehead would furrow slightly at such times, as if waiting for something more serious to happen that would propel us into the vehicular insanity which roared past on either side.  

Letter from Russia Three.

Photo: Ekaterinburg, on the edge of the Ural Mountains.


Unlike the provinces Ekat has real restaurants and good ones too although the restaurant  where we planned to eat had, we discovered, burned down since the last visit.  Amidst whisperings of mafia involvement and the like we set off for a second choice.

Taxis in Russia are few and far between at the best of times and hardly to be found in Ekaterinburg. The way the locals get around, so Elena informs us, as she stakes her place at the side of the road, is to hail a car and ask if they will take us where we want to go …. for a price of course. It’s a lower price than you would pay for a taxi but no doubt a reasonable income boost for the driver.

And yes, says Elena, as we all cram into a very small car, young women do this alone and it is perfectly safe.  Later I will read it is not so safe, particularly for young women, but they do it all the same.

The restaurant is  large, mostly a mix of marble and terrazzo,  constructed in the epic style with garishly coloured paintings on the walls and lights which are much too bright. Flash and trash are words that come to mind when confronted with much of the Eastern European style of décor; there is no concept of less is more in some of the provincial restaurants. Curls and twirls, and loops, and tassels, and synthetic silks and artificial flowers are de rigeur.  The restaurant has a café section  off to one side where a band plays loud cheerful music to an audience that amounts to no more than the bartender and the odd, wafting waitress.

Beyond the smoked fish served as a starter, the food, in the main is awful. Luckily there is some compensation in the cognac, which is served not by the glass but by the decanter, and a more than passable Italian red. But it’s downhill from there. My main course is quail which has the consistency of leather. Tougher teeth than mine are needed here.  It is served, corpse-like,  dry legs pitifully extended only to receive the ignominy of an olive impaled on each end.  The plate is decorated with cranberries, orange segments, potato slices, decoratively sliced leaf of some kind and drizzles of chocolate sauce.

Another dish of crumbed chops arrives dripping in fat which smells absolutely rank and is more inedible than the shrivelled quail.  The Armenian cognac and Italian wine are however excellent as I mentioned, but not up to making the food edible even should they be consumed in reckless quantity.

I can tell that Elena is embarrassed because the food is not good, even though we say it is not important. The Russians have long cared, more than they might admit, about what others think of them.

 There are many things which embarrass Russians and Boris Yeltsin and his drunken antics was yet another in a long list of mortifications, Elena tells us.   It is all tied in with the sense that Russians have of not so much losing face, but in not having pride in themselves at both an individual and national level. 

Elena is an outspoken, attractive Russian woman who looks younger than her age, which I guess to be around forty.  By ordinary Russian standards she is ‘rich,’ and by any other, financially comfortable and yet she too is angry with Gorbachev and the part he played in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Like so many she yearns for certainty even when that certainty may mean a loss of freedom.

Partly it is because she believes Putin can return Russia to its rightful place as a world power, and partly it is because in a more certain world there is greater security.  I suspect it is also because freedom, in many ways, is something that we learn to appreciate and we can only do that when we have it for long periods. Freedom is a very new word for Russians and in some ways, a yet to be understood concept.

It is a basic human instinct to desire a secure job and a living wage. It’s what all of us want and while poverty levels have improved in Russia, salaries are sadly lacking. The minimum wage is 800 rubles ($A37) a month and many pensions are as low as 600 rubles ($A27). A  senior teacher gets 6,720 rubles ($A313) a month while a young teacher gets 1,430 rubles ($A66); a senior doctor gets 5,000 rubles ($A233)and a junior doctor gets 2,000 rubles($A93)  with average  utility costs in Moscow  taking 1,200 rubles ($A55) of that.

While there are cheaper food sources, the cost of living in Moscow, is, in the main, akin to London which makes life something of a desperate struggle for the locals. In the better restaurants in Moscow you are looking around $A100 a head. Things are certainly cheaper out in the provinces but not THAT much cheaper.

Given the phenomenal wealth available to Russia because of its oil and gas deposits one can only hope that President Putin holds to his promise of spending an additional $4billion on social programmes, including wages, over the next few years. The Government has promised to increase public sector wages by 8 percent in March; by an additional 4.5percent in May and another 6.5percent in September.

The driver who agrees to take us home  from the restaurant, after answering Elena’s solicitation is soon in a state of utter confusion. He is in his late sixties by the look of him and clearly has absolutely no idea where we want to go, despite the fact that we are now crammed into his small car and hurtling down one of Ekat’s wide streets.

The more Elena tries to explain which direction he should take,  the more confused he becomes and the more aggressive. It is obvious that he is mightily embarrassed and with arms waving wildly,  attached to hands that  I would prefer to see clenched around the wheel, and his head turning from side to side, I am wondering if we will soon be deposited by the side of the road  and instructed to ‘find another driver’. Then again, given the level of his agitation, it would be better than being deposited into the oncoming traffic, which is likely to happen if he doesn’t calm down.

But Elena is patient and he soon begins to relax and find his way. When she  gets him heading in the right direction he lowers his voice, attaches his hands firmly to the wheel and begins to apologise.

I ask Elena if he is embarrassed, because this is what I sense. And she says yes. He is saying that he is ashamed that we know his city better than he does. But the closer we get to our destination the  happier he becomes and  he is positively jolly by the time we pull up outside the hotel.

As he leaves he waves cheerfully through the window, delighted no doubt by the extra roubles in his pocket, but  even more thrilled to have actually gotten us where we wanted to go without having to admit defeat or error.

It’s the same sort of attitude that I suspect has made the Chechnya  conflict so impossible to resolve. The Chechens,  says Elena,  are not native to the area and are not really occupied because they don’t really have a right to be there. It’s the same line that many Israelis take about the Palestinians and no doubt one the Chinese would sell about the Tibetans if they could. In all cases the occupying nation works hard to ‘re-seed’ the disputed land with their own people.

I don’t know much about Chechnya except that it is occupied by Russia in rather brutal fashion, and so I am curious enough to do some research. It’s soon clear, that, just as with the Palestinians, what the occupiers believe, while clearly convenient,  is not necessarily  backed up by historical evidence. But then it is the victors who write history as we know. The trouble with Chechnya, and other such situations, is that it is harder to be victorious in this day and age. Without resorting to effective genocide, it is impossible to win a war of occupation.

The Chechens, the largest ethnic group in the North Caucasus, see themselves as one of the world’s most ancient cultures.  And they’re not orphans in that which is why there are so many conflicts in the world. But I digress. Derived from assorted nomadic peoples, their language belongs to the Iberian-Caucasian family. Their history, like so many, is seen as one of almost permanent struggle against invaders.
According to historical records, and maybe not the ones that Russians use, the ancestors of the Chechen people settled in the mountains of the northern Caucasus around  circa 1000 B.C, but their land of origin is yet unknown.
You might say, strictly speaking, the Russians are right, they did come from somewhere else, but it was a long, long, long time ago and the fact is, so did the Russians, and so do most of us. But back to the Chechens. It seems they were part of the multiethnic Alan state from the 8th century until its destruction by the Mongols in the 13th century. 

 Between the 4th and 12th centuries they fought back against a succession of enemies including the Romans, the Sasanids from Iran, the Arabs and the Khazar Kaganate. Centuries of struggle militarized them and created a sense of Statehood. A mountain-dwelling people organized in clans, the Chechens first descended to the plains in the 15th and 16th centuries. There they both fought against and traded with the Russians and the Georgians.

As you can see, lots of fighting mixed up with a bit of trading.

The Chechens and Russians go back a long way and the relationship has pretty much always been one of conflict. The Chechens were recognized as a distinct people in the 17th century and were the most active opponents of Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus (1818 – 1917). A bitter war was fought following an unsuccessful rebellion in the 1850’s. The Bolsheviks took firm control of the region in 1918 only to lose it to rebels a year later.  But Chechen victory was shortlived and by 1921 the area was included in the Mountain People’s Republic.

The Chechen Autonomous Region was created in 1922 and in 1934 it became part of the Chechen-Ingush Region which was made a republic in 1936.

So why are they still fighting one might ask? Well, not being ones to forgive past wrongs, a fairly common trait in human beings, the Chechen and Ingush units collaborated with the invading Germans during World War 11 and many Chechens ended up in Siberia as soon as the Russians got their hands on them. Deportees were repatriated in 1956 and the republic was re-established in 1957 with a high level of Soviet domination.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Chechens declared independence, which brought, within a couple of years, Russian troops into the area bent on crushing resistance.  By 1995 the Russian forces had regained control of many areas but no control of the rebels, who continued to fight back.

The Russians have engaged upon a dance of retreat and return with all the destruction, slaughter and misery that entails; the rebels have engaged upon a dance of retreat and fight back, using terrorist tactics in the very heart of Russia, as and when they can. Both sides have been accused of brutality and terrorizing noncombatants.

In 2003 voters approved a new constitution for Chechnya, and Akhmad Kadyrov was subsequently elected president, but the election was generally regarded as neither free nor fair with both the constitution and president seen as puppets of the Russian Government. A year later Kadyrov was assassinated. His successor, Alu Alkhanov, considered to be a moderate Chechen rebel leader, was killed by Russian forces in 2005.

And so it goes in such dances of death, where the occupier is unable to admit to its occupation and the occupied is unable to accept the occupation. It is a frequently overlooked reality that nothing is likely to change until we ourselves change; or at least, until we are prepared to change what we believe.

Logic, a much under-utilised human capacity,  suggests that the occupier, who has the greatest power, is the one with the greatest ability to instigate change or initiate resolution, notwithstanding issues of justice and the fact that human beings are very good at dedicating decades, if not centuries to a fight for freedom. I am sure though, my new Russian friends would say: ”Talk is cheap.” And there is a  capacity for objectivity in the outsider observation that the local experience does not provide.  All true, but you would think after centuries of this someone might have twigged to the fact that perhaps a new approach was needed.

Ekaterinburgh, or Yekaterinburg or Jekaterinburg ….take your pick, is a gracious city of grand buildings, public parks and wide, tree-lined streets. And, just as in Moscow, the skyline is dotted with cranes as Russia continues on its building boom.  It is also a city of trams, usually with women drivers and most often than not, with the cab festooned with café curtains.

There is a park next door to the hotel and at lunchtime it is full of people; walking, sitting, eating, talking, or watching children play. The park benches are full. Young men and women stand with bottles of beer in their hands; old women read books, or knit and young couples push prams holding fat-cheeked babies.

The paths meander down avenues, lined on either side with firs or elms. Some of the elm trees seem to have diseased or damaged leaves, possibly from the pollution that is still so much a problem in Russia. At the end of the main path is a lake where children watch toy boats bob amidst a sad litter of plastic bottles and paper.

The city is dusty in summer and made even more so by the amount of traffic. I am serenaded on my way back to the hotel by the horn, tyre and engine symphony of the traffic as it weaves and scatters its way along potholed roads.  Most of the office buildings that I pass have gardens out the front. Most of them are neat and flowered but others have run to weed and wildflower; giant sorrel draping long leaves over a spread of tiny white and yellow daisies.  

An old man, army medals dancing on his chest, pushes his wheelchair down the gutter of the road; a grey-haired Rasputin with flowing beard and hair pulled into a ponytail. His sharp eyes are fixed on the traffic. Walking on the footpath nearby is a plump, pink-cheeked woman of similar age.  She looks  much more cheerful, from the colourful scarf that wraps around her head, the  bright floral pattern of her dress, to the half smile  that plays across her lips and the warm eyes that watch him, not the traffic.

My experience so far is that while Russian women, despite a brief but initial reserve or severity, are generally warm and welcoming while Russian men tend to range in manner from mildly grumpy to actively rude all of the time. It is the way they are brought up I am told. Life is hard for men and so Russian mothers train their sons to be hard. Sadly it is a quality that tends to make life hard, if not violent for Russian women.

It is also a quality that has well suited the machine of State, whether Tzarist or Soviet. In 1839 Astolphe de Custine wrote on arrival in St Petersburg: “A multitude of little superfluous precautions engender here a population of deputies and sub-officials, each of whom acquits himself with an air of importance and a rigorous precision, which seems to say, though everything is done with much silence; ”Make way, I am one of the members of the grand machine of state.”

It is a quality that will become increasingly out of place in an increasingly modernized Russia, and perhaps already has, accounting no doubt for the troubled look that one sees so often upon the faces of men here. The women look much happier with the way that things are changing but for them the future can only bring greater power, while for Russian men it means a loss of power and all the uncertainties and frustrations that that entails.

Russian society is not only dipping its frozen toes into the waters of democracy but into the whirlpool of gender equality; a more terrifying prospect for men in general and Russian men in particular.

And talking of toes, Russian men, almost like a uniform, opt for shoes with pointed toes which may well account for their pointed expressions and pinched smiles. I’m told that when men meet they look first at each other’s feet. If the shoe has a pointed toe it is a sign the wearer is Russian. I gather this is also a signal to ratchet up the rudeness factor, it being a matter of necessity to be even ruder to another Russian man than you would be to a foreigner.


Blogger kerala said...

Thanks, Ros, for the lovely write up, which brought back images of my brief stay in Moscow - Kerala Varma

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