Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Russian Music Wednesdays

New idea: a bit of Russian music each week. I'm starting with something a bit unusual - Russian-language reggae. See what you think. By the way, the band's actually Ukrainian, but they sing in Russian, so they count under my rules.

I'm a soldier
I haven't slept in five years
And I have dark circles under my eyes
Haven't seen them myself
But so I've been told
I'm a soldier
And I have no head
They have beaten it off with their boots
Yo-o-o, commander shouts
Commander's mouth is torn open
Because a grenade...
White cotton wool
Red cotton won't heal a soldier

I'm a soldier
Unborn child of war
I'm a soldier
Mom, take care of my wounds
I'm a soldier
Soldier of a country forgotten by God
I'm a hero
Tell me of which novel

I'm a soldier
It vexes me when I have only one bullet left
It's either me or him
The last wagon
There are millions of us
In the UN
I'm a soldier
And I know my job
My job is to shoot
So that the bullet doesn't miss
The enemy's body
This reggae is for you Mother-War
Are you happy now?

UPDATE: video seems to have broken the blog a bit, will try to fix this.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Why bother?

Lighter subject today: pointless work. Since it's pretty cheap to employ someone for manual work in Moscow, a lot of jobs get done that you wouldn't really think needed to be. Such as painting lines between the bricks on the Kremlin wall (which looks perfectly fine without them). Since it's a mile and a half long, this will take a while.

photo: James Ellingworth

Monday, 26 April 2010

Blood and roses

Today is the four-week anniversary of the Moscow metro bombs. Images went around the world of shrapnel-scarred marble and weeping parents of students killed on their way to university.

But by far the most powerful TV image was of the memorial to the victims in the station. A pile of neatly-laid roses, carnations and candles, not an ostentatious shrine heaped with soft toys - because unlike, say, Londoners after the death of Princess Diana, Muscovites are used to public grief. The bombers have struck before, and they will strike again.

Lubyanka station, site of one of the bombs

I arrived in Moscow a fortnight ago today. As I was blearily lugging my suitcase around the ring line not long after dawn, it hit me that I was in the Metro two weeks to the minute since the bombs. I'll admit that for a short while I was terrified, with an irrational focus on the 7/7 and attempted 21/7 London bombs, one attack two weeks after the other. But then I noticed the people around me. Not a single wary face, not a single pair of wary, darting eyes.

In part, this is due to the fatalistic attitude shared by many Russians - the belief that if something bad is going to happen, it will happen, regardless of whether or not you worry about it. This isn't always a good approach; at its worst extent it is often blamed for the huge rate of deaths of people who are either drink-driving or killed by someone who is. But in the face of terrorism, it can lead to an admirable stoicism and resilience. When your country's recent history includes the Nord-Ost theatre siege (at least 129 civilians killed), the Beslan school siege (at least 385 civilians killed, mostly children) and a string of lesser-known attacks on the Metro, in ordinary apartment blocks and at packed concerts, this resilience is essential.

Unfortunately, there is another side to Russians' suffering. While ordinary Muscovites face the bombers' hatred, there is a strong case for their government taking a sizeable chunk of indirect responsibility. The brutality of the army-led 'counter-terrorist operations' in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan mean that civilians have continued to suffer long after full-scale war ended in 2000. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya documented the frequent kidnapping, rape and murder of ordinary civilians in the Chechnya run by Kremlin-sponsored warlord Ramzan Kadryrov. She labelled him a "Chechen Stalin", while he told her she was an enemy "to be shot". Politkovskaya was then herself murdered in 2006, in a case that has raised more questions than answers.

Without excusing the atrocities Russia has suffered, it is easy to see how a message of hate might become more attractive to people who have faced such brutality, especially the young. Take the example of 17-year-old Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova, who blew herself up in Lubyanka station a month ago.

Metro bomber Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova with her husband Umalat Magomedov

The picture above is of a defiant teenager. She survived her husband, a Dagestani militant killed last year. Her face shows her pride - in her twisted ideology, he is a rock star to her. Her final act of rebellion was extreme and obscene, but it was not divorced from her surroundings.

This girl was born in 1992 in the Russian Caucasus republic Dagestan, in the midst of ethnic clashes as the Soviet Union collapsed. When she was two, war broke out in neighbouring Chechnya, and spilled into Dagestan, bringing the full might of the Russian army to bear against well-armed and funded separatists. She shared her first name, Dzhennet ('paradise' in Arabic) with a Dagestani militant group formed around this time, as the conflict became more about religion than nationalism and foreign jihadis arrived to exploit the situation. The Second Chechen War of 1999-2000 brought yet more chaos before her tenth birthday, followed by simmering insurgencies and sporadic government brutality.

Had she not embraced an ideology that worships death, we would undoubtedly see her as a victim. While the horrific way she ended her life and those of many others makes it impossible to feel sympathy for her, there are thousands of girls who have suffered like Dzhennet Aburakhmanova in Russia. The link between repression and terrorism is clear.

Memorial, one of Russia's most prominent human rights organisations, describes the behaviour of the security forces in Dagestan:

The suspects are oftentimes being taken to Chechnya to be tortured, because there people can be tortured with impunity, moreover, one does not have to deal with the interference of defense lawyers. Those, who are cruelly tortured in Dagestan subsequently, as relatives put it “get lost”, i.e. they disappear without a trace.

It seems that in this way the security servicemen try to secure themselves from possible revenge by the victims of torture. According to lawyers and relatives of the kidnapped, in order to make an interrogation with torture easier, security services illegally detain or abduct their suspects. Unlike Chechnya and Ingushetia, where the kidnappers arrive to houses heavily armed, in masks and detain their suspects in front of numerous witnesses, in Dagestan these abductions seem to be carefully planned, take place without witnesses and other “unnecessary fuss”: the person gets out of the his house and never returns back.
Against this background, it is hard to be surprised that people are driven to the Saudi-funded hate preachers. A journalist colleague of mine who has recently returned from Dagestan tells me that terrorism pays well (around $2,500 a month for a martyr's family), and is often the only path available to young men. With the cycle of brutality and violence against innocents unbroken, the blood and roses in Russia's stations will continue.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Meet the neighbours

A week in and I've settled well, thankfully avoiding a lot of the bureaucratic hassle you can get as a foreigner in Russia, and starting my new job tomorrow. Here's a quick guide to my neighbours:

1) The Ethiopian embassy. It's next door and it has guards, which makes the area very safe. Back in the day when Ethiopia was ruled by some particularly brutal Marxist nutcases (the Derg), they were of course very close to their Soviet brothers, so it's probable the embassy dates from then.

He makes lights levitate too

2) The traffic police. Notoriously corrupt, but they seem to have a weakness for sentimental crap, such as this statue outside their HQ. Looks like the slightly small-headed traffic cop will faint at one flap of this teensy sparrow's wing.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Arrival in Moscow

I left Heathrow on Sunday night, thereby missing the Biblical plague that Iceland has visited upon the world, arriving on Monday at 6.30am Moscow time, knackered and barely able to speak a word of Russian. Got on the elektrichka, a sort of suburban electric train that goes at about 30mph if you're very lucky. Elektrichka drivers have their own way of doing things, mostly based around opening and closing the doors for no apparent reason. This works best when done about 10 minutes before the departure time from the airport, leaving a gaggle of exhausted arrivals to stand there confused as the train then waits, doors shut, for another 15 minutes. Another rule of Russian trains is that they're never late. This is achieved by the simple method of setting the timetable so that the train can trundle along at walking pace. Never late, but not very useful either.

Eventually got to my flat after negotiating the Moscow metro in rush hour with a suitcase (not easy). And here it is, Bolshaya Pereyaslavskaya ulitsa 9:

This is actually its more attractive side. The reason it looks a bit manky is that it's pretty rare for tenants to team up to work on communal areas. I'm lucky since the stairwells are fairly pleasant, but it's not uncommon for nice flats to be surrounded by squalor.


I'm in Moscow now! Since I've been looking forward to this since I started at university, this has the side-effect of making me feel really old (helped by my 21st birthday being on Saturday). I'll be doing a three-month internship at the Feature Story News agency here, so I'll be learning the language and hopefully getting a bit of journalistic experience too. I'll be blogging throughout my time here, barring accidents.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The beginning of the end of the EDL. Good.

Excellent news. The racists of the English Defence League (EDL) are on the way out. It might be a bit risky to make predictions like this off the cuff, and they probably won't fall apart immediately, but the EDL has reached its high-water mark today, April 3. Here's why.

Photo credit: rubberdreamfeet (Flickr, Creative Commons licence)

Before its protest in Dudley today, the EDL was looking ever stronger. Two thousand people turned up in Dudley - the sort of number that indicates a group is breaking out of its niche. There were rumours that more 'mainstream' groups like the UDA in Northern Ireland wanted to join in. Unite Against Fascism and various (understandably) angry local Muslims guaranteed photogenic chaos at each rally, fitting the EDL's narrative of radicals causing chaos on the streets.

But in Dudley today, the UAF were kept away. The racist ex-football hooligans were on their own, with only the police for company, and they happily reverted to type. As the Telegraph reports:

Some of the protesters broke out of a pen in a car park, breaking down metal fences and throwing the metal brackets at officers, who were armed with riot shields and batons. Members of the demonstration started fighting their own stewards who were trying to calm them down as they attacked the fences penning them in.

Fighting their own stewards. That would be the slightly smarter thugs charged with making the whole thing look family-friendly then. It's hard to see how the EDL can look like a respectable mass movement now, and not just a collection of frustrated middle-aged men with beer bellies and football banning orders.

Nick Mainwood, 42, from Oldbury, West Midlands, said he tried to help an elderly woman who suffered a panic attack during the protest. He said: "I came down here for a peaceful protest but it was horrible, absolutely horrible."

Nick Mainwood symbolises the EDL's brief respectability. His reaction to seeing its thugs up close shows why they won't last.