Unpacking Russia

This blog is mainly about Russia’s (re)emergence as a donor of international development assistance and partner in development cooperation, although I occasionally blog about particularly creative dimensions of Russian opposition and other dimensions of popular culture that capture my imagination.
You can learn more about my research at Patty-Gray.com.
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Russia opens a hospital to fight infections diseases in the Republic of Guinea

No comment, just translation (on sabbatical and too absorbed in writing to post to this blog); under the heading of Russia’s efforts in the realm of global health.

29 January 2015. In the framework of a memorandum of understanding between Rospotrebnadzor, the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Guinea, and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research of the Republic of Guinea, the Center for the Fight Against Infections Diseases was solemnly opened on 17 January of this year in the province of Pastoria, Guinea, built using funds provided by Russian business. [Note in the photo below, the Russian business that appears to be involved is RusAl – Russian Aluminum. Follow the money.]

Guinean President Alpha Condé visited the opening ceremony of the Center.

The Center was built on the territory of the former Soviet-Guinean Institute Pasteur in Kindia Prefecture. The Center specializes in research on infectious and especially dangerous diseases, and also on their diagnosis, treatment and prevention. it is one of the most contemporary centers for the struggle with acute viral diseases in West Africa.

The Center comprises an infectious hospital, a field hospital, and a blood transfusion division. In the first phase the main task of the hospital will be detection and treatment of people suffering from Ebola.

The specialized anti-epidemic brigade of Rospotrebnadzor, which had earlier rendered assistance in the fight against Ebola out of the Donka hospital in the Guinean capitol of Conakry, since January of this year has been carrying out methodological and humanitarian aid in the organization of a complex of anti-epidemic measures in the diagnosis of Ebola in this Russian-Guinean hospital in the province of Pastoria.

Rospotrebnadzor is prepared to further assist the Republic of Guinea in order not only to finally eradicate the Ebola epidemic, but also to build capacity in the country for ensuring sanitary and epidemiological wellbeing.


Preparations for the opening ceremony. Photo from http://www.guinee.mid.ru/nov_ru.html


Russian hospital in Guinea sponsored by RusAl – Russian Aluminum. Photo from http://www.guinee.mid.ru/nov_ru.html


Russian Ambassador to the Republic of Guinea Alexander Bregadze (in the shades) at the opening ceremony for the hospital. Photo from http://rospotrebnadzor.ru/about/info/news/news_details.php?ELEMENT_ID=2955

Original Russian text on the website of the Russian Federal Service for the Supervision in the Sphere of Consumer Rights ans Wellbeing: http://rospotrebnadzor.ru/about/info/news/news_details.php?ELEMENT_ID=2955

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Russian-American Family Resemblance

Under the heading of etc.:

I have often thought that, in spite of the ways that Russian and American politicians denigrate one another, they are remarkably alike – especially those on the socially conservative end of the spectrum. In both Russia and the United States, there has been an increasing trend of conservative populism that manifests in many ways, but the most striking to me is in the kind of legislation that gets proposed, much of which does not get passed or is later struck down by courts. In the process, conservative politicians on both sides of the constructed West/East divide use the opportunity to make speeches that place their often reactionary discourse into the public sphere and the public record. As they do this, Russian and American politicians seem to remain blissfully (or willfully) unaware of their shared family resemblance.

As someone who has spent a great deal of time in both Russia and America and who has made a habit of following their politics (living currently in more-or-less neutral territory between them), I find the similarities remarkable and ironic. Conservative politicians in both America and Russia use the public legislative system to address private matters of family, sexual preference, and speech, and the similarity of their views on such matters far exceeds the similarities they bear to their own fellow countrymen of differing political orientations.

I listen to Kommersant-FM radio from Moscow every morning during my half-hour commute, and that affords me the opportunity to hear Russian legislative ideas that don’t make it beyond the demagoguery stage. For example, last year a law was proposed that would make illegal any public use of foreign words (such as in a company’s name, or in advertising billboards) and would extract a fine for every instance. Other laws do get passed, such as the so-called “anti-gay law” that prohibits propagandizing a homosexual lifestyle; the American Tea Party, it would seem, could only envy the success of this particular bit of Russian legislative activism.

The anti-gay bill was authored by a coalition of three parties in the Russian Duma (the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and United Russia), but many of these populist legislative forays originate from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In my less-respectful moments, I refer to Zhirinovsky as “Russia’s Clown”, although this is, I think, not without justification. Zhirinovsky is no dope and understands the power of performance, including that of the court jester; he certainly understands how to get attention, sporting suit jackets in garish colors and having instigated fistfights in the halls of the Russian Duma.

vladimir_zhirinovsky Yellow coat vladimir-zhirinovsky-liberal-party-503.si  article-2284950-17A8E055000005DC-690_634x446 Liberal Democratic Party leader, one of

As I have compared the discourse of LDPR and Tea Party politicians, I have come to think of them as analogues of one another, reinforcing an impression of family resemblance between Russian and American politics that belies their claims to find one another incomprehensible. Each occupies an almost identical proportion of the political spectrum in its home sphere: LDPR holds 56 out of 450 seats in the Russian State Duma, or about 12%; the Tea Party, while not an actual party in its own right, claims 46 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, or about 11%.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s most recent demagoguery is his campaign to close down all Macdonald’s restaurants in Russia. In an interview on Kommersant-FM on 4 April 2014, he connects his initiative to the fact that Macdonald’s chose to close all of its restaurants in Crimea. “We’ll be very happy”, says, “if all Macdonald’s in Russia are closed”

“Who will be glad?” asked the interviewer.

“We’ll all be glad”.

“Who is ‘all’?”

“Citizens of Russia. It’s poison. If you like this food, I feel sorry for you.”

The interviewer later commented, “Many of your voters, of course, don’t support you on this issue”.

“They support it. Our voters love Russia, not Macdonald’s”.

Further on in the interview, Zhirinovsky says, “we need our own pel’meny, bliny, vareniki. Why do we need this alien food, so overcooked? Do you know what kind of oil they cook that in? They’ll cook French fries over and over in the same oil. These are carcinogenic substances, and children eat it”.

The funny thing is, when he rails against the poor nutritional quality of Macdonald’s food, he sounds just like many Americans who share the same criticism of Macdonald’s. But Zhirinovsky constructs his position as a purely Russian one.

I recently stumbled upon an interesting little paper by Russian academic Ivan Tsvetkov of the International Relations department at St. Petersburg State University, titled “Americanization and anti-Americanism in contemporary Russia”. In it, he discusses the ways that Russians have adopted American cultural forms without even realizing it. Tsvetkov finds historical parallels between the challenges faced by Americans and Russians; he cites specifically the Ku Klux Klan, robber barons, and the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’, pairing them with the Russian phenomena of the “anti-immigration movement, oligarchs and their relations with political power, [the] suit by St. Petersburg designer K. Schreiber against the district board of education”.

Tsvetkov argues that some of the recent American cultural borrowings in Russia are recognized and fought against (like Macdonald’s); but some of them are “not comprehended as something alien and dangerous”. He attributes this to the presence of two different modes of Americanization in Russia: the symbolic, and the implicit; “these two modes exist in contemporary Russia and are unfolding independently, without any noticeable interrelation”, he says.

He goes on to point out that all national governments consciously work on “formulating and reproducing the system of cliché, national myths and symbols, which helps to display their cultural identity”. When these symbols are purveyed on an international level, they are called ‘soft power’. Тhis is another conceptual area where I find Russian and American counterparts mirror one another; for example, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has very consciously adopted the theory of ‘soft power’ in its international relations policy.

What is happening in Russia now, says Tsvetkov, is a strange phenomenon by which Russians are waging a campaign of anti-Americanism using quintessentially American tools that recognize American leadership in this area: “The whole mass media mechanism, which is used for creating an anti-American product, was invented and brought to perfection by American newsmen, TV-men and public relations managers” (although here I think the exculpation of my own fair sex is unwarranted); and it is not “a high-accuracy weapon”, he says: there is ‘collateral damage’ in the form of jettisoning “many universal humanistic values which have suffered because of connection with the United States”.

The metaphor of weaponry is very apt, I think. While the March 2014 Ukraine/Crimea crisis has elicited much perversely nostalgic hand-wringing about a resurrection of the Cold War, and one Facebook commenter urged that it is “time to re-arm”, the armaments seemingly have been transformed: swords may not have to been beaten into plowshares, but nukes have certainly been transformed into media bombs.

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Yeah, Putin actually IS popular in Russia

Forbes contributor Mark Adomanis just wrote a refreshingly honest post about the fact that President Vladimir Putin’s polling numbers have not changed in the last 18 months – his popularity remains high, wavering around its current 65%. Yet, in spite of this, writes Adomanis,

“Putin’s swiftly declining approval rate is just taken as a given among most journalists and scholars, as the starting point for any serious conversation. First you assume that Putin is getting ever-less popular and then you debate about what this means for Russia.”

Adomanis stops just short of acknowledging that his own post title is a prime example: “Vladimir Putin’s Poll Numbers Still Aren’t Declining”. Yes, and do you still beat your wife? But I think Adomanis gets it really right in the end:

“I’m just trying to learn from my own past wrongness, and doing so requires acknowledging the possibility that Putin’s poll numbers are going to continue to head sideways.”

But of course this begs the question: WHY do so many pundits insist on imagining that Putin is becoming steadily less popular in Russia? One thing that could account for this is observer bias: which Russians are these pundits looking at? I would wager their gaze is fixed on the urban middle class, who have become increasingly vocal – and creative – about their disapproval of Putin. But although Moscow has a population of 11.5 million Russians (or more, if you count non-Russian immigrants), Moscow emphatically is not Russia. Moreover, the Muscovite opposition is also not Russia in any representative sense – it is a decidedly middle class demographic, as my last post demonstrated.

But the Levada Center, which provided the polling data cited by Adomanis, is a highly reputable sociological research institution, and when they do a poll, they go out into the rest of Russia beyond its urban centers. This “rest of Russia” rarely gets any attention in the media – you have to go looking for material on it. [1]  It is worth pointing out that the 65% approval rating cited by Adomanis is just one of a whole range of interesting things that Levada Center asks in its monthly omnibus survey, and which gets ignored by most Putin pundits (try saying that three times fast).

For example, Putin may be popular, but 41% of the respondents don’t think the country is heading in the right direction, compared to 40% who think it is – those figures have also been pretty steady over the last 3 years. Approval of the activities of the Russian government (the term used directs people to think about the ministries and their associated personalities) also hovers in the forties. When asked to name five or six of their favorite politicians, Putin comes in first at 38% – and second place goes to Shoigu, the charismatic former head of EMERCOM, the emergency response agency, who was recently appointed Minister of Defense. Tied for sixth place in the list goes to – wait for it – Patriarch Kirill. There you go, evidence that Pussy Riot were right about Russian church leaders being politicians in Russia. But in fact, that’s not entirely accurate – Kirill is in seventh place, because second place (22%) goes to “Nobody”. Another question asks who people’s least favorite politicians are, and I like the first place answer here: “I have no interest in politics or politicians” (23%). The number one actual person in the “least favorite” category is Vladimir Zhirinovsky – hear, hear, Russians show good sense on that score.

So there you go. If you want to be a better pundit, look beyond the center, and scroll down in the monthly Levada Center poll.

[1] I’ll put in a plug for my tribe here – the best scholarly material you are going to find is written by anthropologists and comparativist political scientists, people who go out and spend a year or more in the field living the local life. In fact, take a look at this timely commentary about the strength of anthropology in the Toronto Star. I recommend the work of Kate Graney, Bruce Grant, Caroline Humphrey, Margaret Paxson, Ed Schatz among others. I also wrote a book about a region at the far opposite end of Russia from Moscow, Chukotka (yes, the one Roman Abramovich was governor of for a while).

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Moscow Rises Again: A Lesson in Congenial, Middle Class Protest

The G20 finance ministers and central bankers had quite a show to kick off their meeting in Moscow this past week.

After a hiatus of about a year, several thousand Muscovites – and Russians in several cities across Russia – turned out on the streets on Thursday to protest actions taken by their government.

RIAN_sentencingThe catalyst this time was the sentencing of anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny (alongside his former colleague, businessman Peter Ofitserov – who is seen in the photo holding a copy of Kafka’s The Trial) to a five year prison sentence after a long, drawn-out, on again-off again trial on what are, by wide accounts, trumped-up embezzlement charges. Slon_Ofitserov holding copy of Kafka's The Trial

Thursday morning in Kirov, Leninskii District Court Judge Sergei Blinov read out the lengthy sentence in a rushed manner that resembled a bored priest reading a liturgy. Most observers had expected a probationary sentence; as soon as it became clear that Navalny was being sentenced to real prison time, the calls began in Moscow for Navalny supporters to turn out at 7pm on Manezh Square, the plaza that lies adjacent to Red Square at the opposite end from St. Basil’s Cathedral, and on which the State Duma (parliament) building faces.

Facebook page

“Discussion of the Sentencing of Aleksei Navalny and Petr Ofitserov”; the demonstration is framed as a “discussion”, which is the only form of public gathering tolerated if an elected official is involved

But hours in advance of the appointed time, strange activity began to kick up on Manezh Square. About a dozen large orange construction trucks drove onto the square; part of them started Snob_Orange trucksunloading metal barricades, while another part of them hauled away stacks of brand new bricks and paving stones that had been laid out for the purpose of doing renovations (on Twitter, there were jokes about how convenient these would have been for ammunition during the protest). Television vans showed up and parked in a row along the edge of the square, and reporters with their camera operators paced about the square waiting for news to happen.

Then ranks of OMON (Russian riot police) showed up and, after arranging the metal barricades to fence off the square, they began to slowly herd people out of it, offering the lackluster explanation that renovations were to be done (even though all the renovation materials had just been hauled away). There was some confusion as people emerging from Okhotnyi Riad, the shopping mall that lies under the square, found themselves face to face with OMON soldiers, and mass transit commuters tried to cross the square to get to their preferred Moscow Metro stations. In one video, a delegate to the G20 meeting, apparently French, tries to enter the barricaded area to get to the Manezh, where her meeting is to be held. She futilely holds up her G20 nametag to the OMON on guard, and can be heard to say, “I have to get to the Manezh … I don’t speak Russian … But I’m G20!”

I'm G20_2

The spirit of civil disobedience was evident quite apart from any connection to Navalny. As they were herded from the Manezh Square by OMON, Muscovites moved slowly, in a lackadaisical manner, taking photos and videos of the scene, smiling, laughing, and generally not taking the OMON soldiers seriously. Those who found themselves on the outside of the barricades leaned up against them, draped their arms over them, watched the OMON who were watching them with expressions a placid interest. There appears to be no animosity on either side, so sense of fear, and no particular show of respect or disrespect – just humans curiously regarding other humans in a studiously non-reactionary way.

Varlamov_pouring out of metroThe clearing of Manezh Square was accomplished before 7pm; meanwhile, people started arriving in the area with the intent of joining the demonstration. There was confusion as people poured out of the Okhotnyi Riad metro station to find themselves hemmed in by barricades. Slowly it became apparent that thousands of people had managed to flow into the area and, when they could not get onto the square, had simply lined the sidewalks at the T-intersection of Tverskaya and Mokhovaya streets, adjacent to Manezh square. OMON soldiers arranged themselves in the street facing them, with the Moscow traffic continuing to flow past in the street behind them.


For a while no one seemed to know what else to do; unlike previous demonstrations, this one had no agenda, no procession route, no stage where opposition leaders would make speeches. People took pictures and videos of the OMON soldiers and one another, and seemed to be waiting for something to happen; they craned their necks to look this way and that as if expecting that somewhere just down the street there might be action to emulate. Then it seems their own playful creativity took hold: they simply began to applaud; then passing cars honked in support and they applauded those; then they began to hoist one another up onto the window ledges of the Duma building; then in aVarlamov_On DUma ledges few places they made daring dashes to take over the street and stop traffic. Small, improvised protest flyers began to be flashed, almost coyly in most cases. Then the distinctive, round Navalny campaign stickers began to show up – first in people’s hands, then on street signs, on buildings, on the front door of the Duma, even on the police vans themselves.

Duma doors posing  Narod Protif_stickers on Avtozak

Some protesters began to be hauled away by OMON and put into police vans, mostly with smiles on their faces (although Rustem Adagamov captured the scene inside one police van in which a man is seen being punched in the face by a soldier); one video captured the moment when, as OMON were pushing protesters into the front door of a van, a bystander opened the back door and allowed a dozen protesters to dash for freedom amid applause and laughter and triumphant cheering. It was later reported that all of the protesters who were detained we released.

Dash for freedom

Car with slogan

“For Navalny! Hang in there, Lyokha!”

The peak of the protest lasted three hours; police estimate the crowd at 2500 people; opposition leaders estimated it at 10,000; judging from the photos and videos, I’d put it closer to the latter estimate – and that does not include the hundreds of cars that drove through the intersection honking their horns and/or sporting pro-Navalny messages on their windows. The pricey quality of these protesting cars gave the clearest indication of the demographic of this demonstration, as of most Muscovite demonstrations: very much the genteel, middle class of Moscow. Chalk this up as another manifestation of what The Atlantic recently called “the revolt of the global middle class”.

Incidentally, the G20 finance ministers were apparently being housed in the National Hotel on the corner of Mokhovaya and Tverskaya, right in the heart of the protest. Given that the first event – a press conference of the Ministers of Finance of Russia, Germany, France, UK and the Secretary General of the OECD Angel Gurria – was scheduled for 12pm on the 19th in the Manezh, it seems likely that some of the finance ministers could have been watching from their hotel windows as the protests swirled about below them.

overview of corner

View from a building on Tverskaya Street looking down Mokhovaya Street

As dusk began to fall, the crowd slowly thinned, and the OMON took advantage of the reduced numbers to perform a squeezing maneuover and push people up Tverskaya Street, away from Manezh Square. But a contingent of several hundred mostly younger protesters stayed on the street until the wee hours of the morning, regrouping around the monument to the Heroes of Pleven in the Kitai-Gorod (China Town) area on the other side of Red Square, some gathering in a group around a guitar player to sing popular songs. Commentators wistfully (perhaps hopefully) likened it to the “Occupy Abai” movement that briefly took hold in Moscow in the summer of 2012.


Sit-in on Tverskaya Street opposite Manezh Square

What the protesters did not know was that, even before the 7pm protest had gotten fully underway, the very prosecutor – Bogdanov – who had requested that Navalny be locked up immediately following the verdict, suddenly reversed himself and announced that he would file a challenge to the Kirov court for improperly jailing Navalny prior to the hearing of appeals. By all accounts this was an entirely unprecedented move. A hearing was set for 10am Friday, and as a result, Navalny and Ofitserov, after an emotional parting the day before, found themselves once again free and in the arms of their wives.

When Navalny emerged from the Kirov courthouse on Friday and stood on the steps to face the sea of cameras that awaited him, someone brought him a plate stacked high with pancakes – what in Russian are called bliny, which happens to be essentially the name of the judge that sentence him (Sergei Blinov – which could be interpreted as “Sergei of the Pancakes”). Laughing giddily, Navalny grabbed one of bliny and stuffed it in his mouth, munching it as he answered reporter’s questions.

RIAN_Navalny with bliny

Navalny cube

One of Navalny’s campaign “cubes” in Moscow

After Navalny was freed, most commentators on Twitter mused that the main motivation behind the release was the Moscow mayoral race coming up in September, in which Navalny has declared himself a candidate. The logic goes that incumbent Mayor Sobyanin, who is running for reelection, wants Navalny in the election campaign to make his own campaign look legitimate. The turn of events is widely being cited as evidence of the way the Russian justice system is used to serve narrow and short-term political ends.

Adagamov tweetNavalny and his wife Yulia, along with their entourage, took the first train back to Moscow on Friday, which arrived Saturday morning at Yaroslavskii station – the same station where Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner arrived from their exile in Gorky. To be sure, this parallel was pointed out in the Twitter commentary upon Navalny’s arrival – rather inflationary, given that Navalny had not (yet) been exiled, but it shows the mood of Navalny observers. Joking comparisons were also made to Lenin’s arrival at Finland Station in St. Petersburg after revolution broke out in 1917.

OMON were on the scene in advance of the train’s arrival, pretending that a bomb threat required them to clear the station; Navalny supporters ignored them and got as close to the platform as they could, and eventually the OMONovtsy helped clear a path for Navalny’s entourage to walk through the crowd, which media reports estimated at over 1000 people. Navalny paused to address the crowd, using a megaphone that had apparently been provided by a policemen. Today Navalny changed his Facebook cover photo to an image of this moment.

Navalny facebook page

Navalny remains for the most part unknown among the Russian public – not because he isn’t interesting, but because he has been blacklisted from all the mainstream Russian news outlets. Some Western critics undermine Navalny’s significance by focusing on his sometimes unsavory comments on immigrants, painting him as a worrisome nationalist and racist. I think these critics are reading far too much into these manifestations of Navalny’s imperfection, in a missing-the-forest-for-the-trees fashion; they fail to appreciate Navalny’s lack of political correctness as a refreshing sign of his fundamental candidness. Miriam Elder, the soon-to-be-former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, put things in perspective nicely in a tweet she posted after Navalny’s sentencing: “Navalny is far from perfect politically, very far. But he is smart, funny, young and good and it is very, very hard to see him go to jail.”

Elder tweet

Many thousands of Muscovites seem to agree. Let’s see if there are enough of them to give Navalny a run for the mayor’s seat – and then let’s see if the election system would allow him to defeat Sobyanin. And if it won’t: I would predict we should expect another season of protest, perhaps the biggest ever, come September.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Many thanks to the NewcasterTV project, whose outstanding livestream video coverage of the demonstration made this blog post possible. @NewcasterTV

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Beijing, Briefly, Part II: What’s Russia Got To Do With It?

My second day in Beijing dawned overcast, and the skyscrapers that had been sparklingly visible from my hotel window on the previous, sunny day disappeared in a murky funk of smog. Fortunately this was the day I would spend entirely inside the hotel/convention center, attending the seminar that had brought me to Beijing in the first place.

The seminar was convened on the 20th of June by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and hosted by China Agricultural University in Beijing; the topic was East and North-East Asian Development Cooperation in Post 2015. Recognizing the growing importance of East and Northeast Asian countries as a source of funding for development cooperation, the organizers of the seminar hoped to explore shared principles and common goals among representatives of the region, seeking opportunities for cooperation. The focus was on China, Korea, Japan and Russia.

The global political economy is continually morphing, and the changes we are currently experiencing are causing a widespread perception that something fundamentally different is afoot. Frankly, I don’t think this is the case, and I think the perception has more to do with unexamined expectations about which regions of the world should dominate the global political economy and which regions should play the role as either beneficiary of the latter’s largess or eager trainee following the dominant lead.

In any case, the current moment has a certain delicious quality for me, because of its topsy-turvy potential. Only such a moment could see an American living in debt-crisis-ridden Ireland being invited to Beijing to enlighten an Asian audience about Russian development cooperation, in a session in which all the other presenters were representing their own countries. Things will surely catch up with themselves soon enough, and I will happily defer to my more-than-capable Russian colleagues, but this is awfully fun right now.

And the seminar was a blast; the tone was set by the local host, Li Xiaoyun, Dean of the College of Humanities and Development Studies at China Agriculture University, who cheerfully debunked the by-now-almost-ritual denunciations of China’s role in international development cooperation. The discussions throughout the day were lively and insightful, and all the fascinating threads were masterfully brought together in a closing session chaired by Mr. Kilaparti Ramakrishna of UNESCAP. Details can be downloaded from the seminar website.

But what does Russia have to do with East-Northeast Asia? If you generally move about on the Europe side of the world, as I do, on first blush it might strike you as a bit strange. But although Russia might seem to have its “face” to Europe, just as the U.S. seems to have its “face” to the Atlantic, Russia also has an east coast with thriving and vibrant cities like Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk-na-Amure, much as the U.S. has a west coast with cities like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.[1] Russia also shares much more of its border with Asian countries than it does with European ones, and it shares compelling development cooperation interests in Central Asia with China, Japan, Korea.

Some of the Asian participants were quite eager to find partners in Russia to begin discussing cooperation. Dr. Naohiro Kitano, Deputy Director of the Japan International Cooperation Agency Research Institute, spoke of past efforts to foster development cooperation with Russia that did not flourish, and wondered if now might be the right time to try again. Mr. Chuluunbat Ochirbat, Deputy Minister of the Mongolian Ministry of Economic Development gave a tangible sense of Mongolia’s position, caught between Russia and China and waiting for both to cooperate on projects that would benefit all three countries. Russia clearly has a role to play in the region.

So next time, Russia needs to be there, and not this intrepid American ex-pat. Right? But I surely won’t mind tagging along.

[1] Forget about mega-cities like Los Angeles and San Diego; Russia doesn’t have them on its east coast – but don’t forget that Russia’s largest city, Moscow, exceeds the population of the largest US city, New York, by over 3 million inhabitants.

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Beijing, Briefly, Part I: Being Beijing

I recently visited Beijing, my first-ever glimpse of China. It was a very brief glimpse – only two days; but it was an unplanned, spontaneous response to an invitation to come and make a presentation on Russia’s development cooperation at a UNESCAP seminar hosted by China Agricultural University.

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Gardens along the train line from Beijing airport

Sure it was a bit mad to fly from Dublin to Beijing and back that briefly, and even the Lufthansa stewardess on the return flight recognized me and incredulously asked whether I hadn’t just been with them on their last round trip from Frankfurt. But it was absolutely worth it – I loved Beijing, loved the vibe throughout the city, loved the ease of getting around on the subway and in the streets, and the people I encountered were laid-back, friendly, full of fun.

2013-06-19 10.04.33

Sunny, smoggy Beijing

My first impression upon flying in to Beijing was that it had a retro feel to it  – because of the smog. I confess my initial thoughts at the time: “Smog! How quaint and old-fashioned – like my trips to New York City when I was a little girl in the 1960s.” But one can hardly maintain a nostalgic feeling about smog, and my next thoughts were annoyance that such a noxious and solvable problem exists in Beijing.

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Any shade will do on Tiananmen Square

I was lucky in that the one day I had to wander the streets of Beijing was sunny and hot and relatively smogless. The climate shock of going from the rainy coolness of Dublin to the relentless burning sun of Beijing was a bit daunting, but I adapted in Beijing style – by grabbing a parasol and pausing to huddle with other Beijingers in the shade of every lamppost or kiosk along my way. Fortunately venders selling icy cold drinking water where everywhere, and they cheerfully held up fingers to let me know the number of yuan I ought to give up for a bottle.

2013-06-19 14.04.03

Tourists twirling parasols at the Forbidden City

What do you do with a single day in Beijing? I took the subway to the center and wandered past the front of the Forbidden City – surrounded by tourists (almost all Chinese), it was strangely reminiscent of strolling past the White House in Washington, D.C. Then I went and stood on Tiananmen Square – I admit to indulging a bit of Cold War nostalgia there. It was… hot. From the center I set out walking south to the Temple of Heaven. The ritual monuments there are amazing; but I admit that what I enjoyed more was strolling through the surrounding park grounds after the monuments had closed.

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Tourist enthusiasm at the Temple of Heaven

Here everything was cool and green, and with the sun past its blazing peak, everyone could begin to relax a bit. And this is where I caught a glimpse of Beijingers being themselves: someone doing a bit of yoga among the gnarled cypresses; a game of shuttlecock hacky sack alongside a slide guitar player supplying a suitably lazy tune; a group of singers belting out folk songs in the pleasing acoustics of the wooden Long Corridor outside the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests; single men practicing their ballroom dancing moves; and group after group of men and women card players using the wide wooden railing of the Long Corridor as a playing surface, slapping down their cards with gusto and clearly enjoying each other’s company.

None of that really has anything to do with Russia, does it? The next post will make the connection.

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A game of cards in the Long Corridor

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Moscow March of Millions Redux

View from the stage at the gathering on Prospekt Sakharov (Ilya Varlamov photo)

Today in Moscow, and apparently in about 50 other locations across Russia, thousands of people marched in an anti-government demonstration called “The March of Millions”.  The exact number who turned out is unclear; as usual, the city police estimated a ridiculously low number (14,000), while the most optimistic of the participants estimated an outrageously high number (150,000); the most common number reported is plus or minus 20,000.

Route of the march in red; location of the gathering in blue

Aleksei Navalny addresses the crowd (Mitya Aleshkovskii photo)

The march was similar in many ways to others that have been organized since December 2011: a permit was obtained from the Moscow city authorities for a pre-defined march route that would end in a gathering in a pre-defined location, in this case on Prospekt Sakharov.


There, a stage was set up to accommodate speeches by notable leaders of the opposition movement. Speakers included Gennady Gudkov, Aleksei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov, Ilya Yashin, Boris Nemtsov, Dmitry Bykov, and Yevgenia Chirikova.

The march was different in some subtle ways: there was a significantly larger contingent from the left, including, for the first time, open participation by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation; the slogan “For Honest Elections” has evolved to “For Early Elections”, shifting the emphasis from dissatisfaction over election fraud to dissatisfaction with the activities of the currently sitting Duma deputies; the platform of the opposition leaders was expanded to include social and economic issues, such as the high price of city utilities. And unlike other marches, it seems that none of the protesters was detained by the riot police. There were plenty of references to the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, and also to the 15 prisoners awaiting trial on charges of creating mass disorder during the May 6 demonstration.

Homage to the 15 imprisoned in relation to the May 6 demonstration (Ilya Varlamov photo)

Another difference is that participants’ tweets described a more subdued, even pessimistic mood in comparison to past marches, especially the first ones that took place last December. Although the city permit allowed the march to continue until 10pm, the meeting had for the most part broken up by about 6 pm. The pessimism, according to some commentators, seems to be connected to the feeling that the same sort of march keeps taking place over and over in Moscow with no visible result; no one in power reacts in any way, except to continually increase the number of riot police and soldiers on the streets; and meanwhile, the dominant political party in the Russian legislature – Putin’s party United Russia – becomes ever more bold and thug-like in their tactics. For example, just the day before the march, by a majority vote of the Duma (which is dominated by United Russia), the opposition-oriented Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov was stripped of his legislative status. Even former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a one-time close associate of Putin, commented in his Twitter feed, “Depriving Gennady Gudkov of his parliamentary mandate is an example of selective application of the law, and is moreover very weakly substantiated.”

In a post-march discussion with Gennady Gudkov and others on the Internet-based Russian television network TV Rain, Gudkov at one point remarked, “Excuse me for my unparliamentary language…” and when others chuckled, he smiled and said, “Yes, I am already allowed (to use unparliamentary language)”. But for the most part, he looked very, very tired.

As usual, the best images were captured by photographers Rustem Adagamov and Ilya Varlamov.

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