Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Sochi Watch No. 1: A cynical round-up of Sochi news so far

Charlie Brooker does this better than me but here we go...

In one of the hilarious and un-PC "Youtube Haikus" a bottle of tomato ketchup on wheels sprays a jet of condiment onto a table. The soundtrack to this clip is a rendition of the iconic 20th Century Fox theme played very badly on recorder by the worst primary school orchestra in Truro. Judging by the early reactions to Sochi 2014 this was pretty much what it looked, sounded and felt like to be a journalist witnessing the opening of the games.

It all looked like a proper Eastern European Olympics. First of all the Olympic rings didn't all light up. Secondly the host nation's prime minister was caught napping and, finally, the irony of asking lipstick-lesbian pop prats t.A.T.u to play a special concert was lost on the entire Russian government. It was the perfect gift for the post-Borat world to chortle in superiority and do those dreadful impressions your younger brother still thinks are funny. Twitter exploded with its usual propensity for disguised, viral racism and soon enough pictures of journalists chortling at dirty minibars and weird toilets filled our screens.

Then out came the athletes (but, sadly, not in the gay sense). Years of training and countless currencies have been poured into these bright young things who seemed something of an afterthought against the prevailing narratives of possible terrorism, gay rights and rubbish-hotel selfies. I'd try to defend Russia's hoteliers from the snobbish scoffing of the world press but when you consider the kind of money Russia spent on making these games impress my position loses ground. 

Where am I in all this? I can't really claim moral superiority as I have little interest in Winter sports. I have to put myself among the pro-LGBT rights campaign and watch the games really to see what develops in this debate. I thought I read somewhere that two athletes kissed on a podium but cannot for the life of me find a link anywhere so maybe it was just wishful thinking.

The British media went all out in exploring Russia's gay issues which deserves some level of praise. Taking the direct route via a bizarre interview with a leading anti-gay Russian politician revealed what we had all feared - the existence of a completely immobile mindset where some Duma members actually, genuinely believe that gays are all child abusers. Sigh. I sound like a Russian here but "chto delat'?" (WHAT IS TO BE DONE?!?!) 

In the meantime Kiev still burns, Top Gear make light of it, The One Show interviews a British medal winner and Pussy Riot are arrested again. I guess 2013 didn't end in December after all...

Thursday, 23 January 2014

RIP The Moscow News Print Edition

Just a quick one today regarding the closure of the print edition of The Moscow News. For English speakers and expats, papers like The Moscow News and The Moscow Times provide invaluable insight into Russian affairs. They also provide foreign visitors to the Russian capital with much needed local knowledge and advice. The loss of a print edition of one of these papers is sad indeed not just for the readership but for the journalists themselves.

These papers rely on their print edition for keeping reading numbers up and can often be found in cafes, bars and hotels.

Russia is all over the news at the moment and the quality of coverage provided by English-language papers based in Russia is second to none. I only hope that The Moscow Times, which I believe belongs to another media group, can keep it's head above water at the moment.

Speculations as to why the paper has been half-closed will come in thick and fast with many journalists taking to twitter to express their confusion. I'll be following the story very closely as I once interned at one of Moscow's expatriate papers and basically made my start as a Russia-blogger/ journalism intern there.

A statement from The Moscow News can be found here: http://themoscownews.com/oped/20140123/192179170/Print-edition-of-The-Moscow-News-shut-down.html

More to follow.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

What does the BBC’s Sochi Winter Olympics Promo tell us about our views on Russia?

Being symptomatic of my generation and its need to react to EVERYTHING I am prone to this level of overthinking, so bear with me...

At first I was pretty sure the BBC were simply screening Lord of the Rings again or possibly the first installment of Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit trilogy. There was a lonely mountain, windswept and dangerous; an epic voiceover spouting gravelly nonsense; a train of brave adventurers armed to the teeth with...skis?
*jaw drop*

“Nature, who will conquer it?”
“The Winter Olympics 07/02/14”

Well, well , well, I thought, here we go again...

What does the BBC’s Sochi Winter Olympics Promo tell us about our views on Russia? Firstly how can we be sure that this isn’t the promo they’d have used for any Winter Olympics? To be honest, we can’t be. A quick re-watch of the Vancouver 2010 BBC promo (here) shows that this older promo would have been equally suitable for Russia if it wasn’t for the depiction of North American native peoples in the opening frames of animation. So why am I making a fuss? I’m not. I simply want to make some interesting observations that come out of decoding a trailer pertaining to one of my favourite subjects. So cool it.

Let’s start with the slogan that the BBC is giving the games – “Nature, who will conquer it?” Few would be surprised at the link being made between Russia and the verb “conquer.” The West has always had the sense of Russia as an invading power and this permeates the way we relate to every facet of Russian culture. Maybe this is unfair but if you cheekily pull apart Vladimir Putin’s full name to reveal its linguistic components you end up with something like “World Ruler, son of World Ruler”  (although the researcher inside of me would also have me point out the dual meaning of ‘mir’ as either ‘world’ or ‘peace’ which sort of ruins the anecdote...) 

Anyway, Russia conquering mountains is a particularly hot topic at the moment with the reemerging security threats to the Sochi games. Both Russian society and the world in general have recently experienced a dreadful reminder of the fragility of the Caucasian mountainous region through the bombings that recently claimed lives in Volgograd. Russia’s 18th century, imperial expansions into the very mountains that the games are being held near is the root cause for the religious and nationalist conflict in the Caucasus area. So are the BBC covertly reminding us of this? Probably not. In fact, I think that the reference to conquering owes more to the mythic, literary interpretation of the Russian character that we constantly recycle in the West - the idea of a harsh and merciless nation whose people are all grizzled warriors travelling great distances and accomplishing great feats with terrible sacrifice. We don't often see it or hear it but Russia can be cute, tender and silly - see Cheburashka (picture 2), a soviet cartoon character, if you don't believe me. Could any of this have made the promo? 

(1) Sochi - a winter wonderland (*)

Another obvious reference point in the video is the weather and climate of Russia. Here we fall into a trap again - not all of Russia is a cold, windswept wasteland. In fact Sochi is the polar opposite of the kind of terrain featured on screen. Instead of resembling The Wall from Game of Thrones the city itself more closely resembles a sunny, sea resort - less of a Siberia and more of a scuzzy, Russian Miami. Let's just think about this in isolation for a second. Russia has an abundance of snow and ice, miles of mountainous terrain, existing infrastructure from previous winter sports events and basically ideal conditions for hosting The Winter Olympics anywhere other than on its Black Sea coast. Yet it still chooses to put them, at great cost, in one of the hottest parts of the country. Here the promo really misses a trick - what's more Russian than a project that sounds as impossible than this? These are the people who built a railway across Siberia! These are the people who sent dogs and monkeys into space! Surely a promo playing off the amazing ambitions and soaring contradictions of Russia would have been a far more interesting watch?

Perhaps the most flattering observation that can be made is the fact that the voiceover speaks in rhyme. Here allusions to Russia's rich literary contributions are woven into the fabric of the games and this makes Russian literature fanatics like me really happy. Although the tone of the poem is pure Tolkien and Tennyson it is pleasing that Russia and epic works of fiction seem to go together in a Western mindset.

(2) Cheburashka - the fluffy underbelly  of Russia

Conclusion? Well it's quite a good promo for building hype but one that shows aged stereoptypes about Russia and Russians. What I would have liked to have seen is something that plays off the clever irony of Winter Olympics in a sub-tropical climate. It would also have been nice to have seen some covert LGBT message although this is waaaay too much for the neutral BBC to be able to stretch to and perhaps that is a good thing.

(1) Image of Sochi taken under creative commons via google images.
(2) Image of Cheburashka taken under creative commons via google images.

Friday, 6 December 2013

New Writing on The Huffington Post Blog

If you enjoy reading Russia stuff here on fromrussiawithrob then have a look at the kinds of things I write for The Huffington Post Blog:

One Law to Rule Them All: Why Is Russia's 'Hooliganism' Law so Controversial?


What's Behind Russia's Recent Race Riots?


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Finished Game of Thrones? Then read a Russian classic!

The Dostoevsky Monument outside the Lenin Library, Moscow (1)
The main obstacle to the popularity of Russian literature is public perception. Many people simply find the prospect of reading a Russian classic too daunting to attempt. A simple round of word association throws up prejudices that Russian novels are gloomy, depressing, without a sense of humour, morbid, tedious, too long and too deep. Leaving aside the fact that half of these things are the mark of great literature anyway, how else can someone be convinced to read a great Russian book, indeed, why are Russian novels so great anyway?

As a bit of blog fun here is an attempted rebrand of some of the Russian novels you may have heard of complete, with their own flippant, pulpy blurbs:

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky -  A prostitute enters the battle to save the doomed soul of a megalomaniac murderer.

 Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol – A mysterious confidence trickster purchases the souls of dead peasants as part of a needlessly complex get-rich-quick scheme.

War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy – Napoleon is rude to a Russian fanboy and some Moscow gets burned.

 The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov – What links Pontius Pilate, a cat with a gun, a terrible poet and the early days of the Soviet Russia? Ask the guy with no head.

Petersburg  by Andrei Bely – What a BBC4 documentary on the Russian revolution would look like if it was directed by David Lynch. 

If those descriptions haven't wet your page-turning finger then nothing will. 

(1) Pamyatnik dostoevskogo - Adam Baker - Taken from flickr under creative commons

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A Quick Update

For anyone wondering why this blog has been a little slow lately, it's because i've started blogging for The Huffington Post.

You can read them here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/robert-j-lee/

Still about Russia, still current, still as fair as I can be.

This doesn't mean I won't still be writing here, it's just nice to have the chance to reach a different audience!


Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Putin, Pictures and (GAY) Protests

Last time we looked at why Alexei Navalny is making headlines across the world for taking chunks out of Putin's legitimacy. Now it seems like everyone is getting in on the act, especially in the wake of the latest affront to the Russian president's manhood...

You may have read or heard about this story (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-23861707)  in which a Russian artist has fled the country when his paintings of Putin in drag were seized by authorities. It's all very 19th century isn't it? Someone scribbling something dirty about the Tsar on a blackboard...

The context for this latest Russian oddity is the horrendous "anti-gay law" that has been  on the fringes of the world news agenda over the last few months. The law works by effectively banning all instances of what the Russian state calls"homosexual propaganda" (not a gay, indie, club night) which constitutes anything from open displays of same-sex affection to simply wearing a rainbow flag pin button badge.

Arguments in favour of the law centre around hackneyed stances on "traditional values and "protecting youth" from being "made gay". It's very sad to see homophobia given legal legitimacy. You can probably tell by all the inverted commas in my text that many of the terms being banded by the lawmakers have no fixed meaning or definition. It is this flexibility that has allowed St Petersburg authorities to raid the artist's collection with, as the BBC article states, "no formal warrant or explanation."

AS ALWAYS with this blog I intend to be respectful to Russian opinion and tradition but this one issue makes this a personal, moral conundrum. I'm really struggling. I want to say that Russia has some kind of right to do this kind of thing - it is not Europe, nor Asia, it really is its own master - but this goes beyond my ability to empathise. Many Russian people themselves are gay and no longer safe in their own country. Instances of anti-gay violence are reported as being on the increase.

Part of the reason why Russia has such a negative view of LGBT issues is to do with religion. This is, in all honesty, something that cannot be surmounted easily. If the bible, according to orthodox readings, calls homosexuality a sin, then this is an enormous obstacle that complicates the issue for many believers. This is not a uniquely Russian problem, Catholics who are gay would reach the same religious/personal crisis, but it's taking the next step to actually arresting people that is so worrying. Once again, it is a mixture of nationalism and religious fervour that has lead to a situation where people grow up to believe gays are some kind of threat. It's a cliche and an offense to call Russia "backwards" and I hate myself for doing it, but the whole affair just reeks of Britain in the mid 20th century.

Nikolay Alexeyev - a prominant Russian lawyer and LGBT activist (2)

The Sochi Winter Olympics offers the best chance for the international community to intervene with this law in a meaningful way. As we have seen with the pro-LGBT performances in St Petersburg of artists like Lady Gaga and Madonna, foreign nationals with a high-profile are able to defeat the Russian government's attempts to curb their expressions of gay freedom. Sports stars are not that different and the media spotlight will be on Russia's cultural and social sides for the first time in years.

An Olympic boycott won't happen but going and being openly gay in Russia is becoming increasingly dangerous. Whatever happens Russia is going to be confronted with something that it didn't want to see, something that will hopefully be very glittery, noisy and fabulous.

(1) wikimedia commons
(2) wikimedia commons