Wednesday, 5 December 2012

All's Quiet on the Eastern Front?

Dear all,

Apologies for not logging in for a while; life has been hectic to say the least. I’m back and studying at Oxford, interning in the media and trying to get my head around how darn cold its getting. You’d have though after a year in Russia I’d be a boss at dealing with this now, but I’m as red-cheeked and blustered as ever…

All has been quiet on the Eastern Front, or at least that’s how it seems in the British Press. In the wake of all the shouting about Pussy Riot the only people still making noise seem to be Anti Flag frontman Justin Sane on twitter (@justinsanesolo) and occasional yelps from NME. My Russian room-mate informs me that things are pretty quiet opposition-wise and pieces about “no show revolutions” are appearing in the papers. With the first of the protests beginning about a year ago today, it’s a wonder where all the rage has gone.

News today that the still-incarcerated Maria Alyokinha faces further punishment for “failing to wake up” reads like bad Russian stereotyping: Even sadder are the sporadic and continued reports of the homophobic and disgusting laws against “homosexual propaganda” being brought against people as well-known as Madonna. Just think about it, a law is being manipulated to include talking openly about homosexuality as a criminal offence, all under the guise of patriotism and protecting the next generation.
Campaigns are beginning to attempt to boycott the upcoming Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics because of issues like this. Whether they will succeed or not looks doubtful.

Some positive news from Russia is that Putin has signed a new law to ease Visa processes for foreign workers heading to help out in the games. Russia’s condemnation of North Korea’s missile programme is also a welcome sign that Russian defence policy is not always obsessed with looking westwards.
That’s all for now folks. The blog is still running, although in conjunction with many, many other projects.


 For anyone interested those include a new column writing about horror movies, which, if you like the more creative aspects of my writing, can be read here:

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Orthodox Church in PR Nightmare! or how one priest in a BMW opened a can of worms...

Rob attempts an appraisal of issues surrounding the modern Russian Orthodox Church...

There is something gleefully Father Ted about the story of the intoxicated Russian priest crashing an ambassadorial BMW in Moscow the other day. ( While the official story of what happened is pending an internal investigation, there is a sense of supreme irony hanging in the air, especially with the news that Russian deputy Prime Minister, Vladislav Surkov, has just been appointed the Orthodox church’s new PR man.

It’s not been a great year for the Orthodox Church in general. A few months ago Patriarch Kirill, the spiritual head of the church, was caught up in a row involving a disappearing watch from one of his press shots. The watch, a lavish Breguet costing between 28 and 36 thousand euros, was edited off of his holy wrist, but was caught reflecting in the polished surface of a table to the embarrassment of his press department.
(1)Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour - scene of the "Pussy Riot"
A distinctly less funny episode in the church’s recent history is the on-going trial of Pussy Riot – the Russian punk band/ feminist-political art group. Their performance, a warning to the church not to get too comfortably in bed with current government, has been portrayed as a near satanic act. Kremlin spin doctors are attempting to enrage Russia’s huge Christian population and cast the band as enemies of Christianity. The trumped-up charges of religious hatred are an obscenity and can only damage the Church’s reputation under western eyes.

(2)Patriarch Kirill (right)
The appointment of Surkov, to sort out the Church’s dreadful image, is itself indicative that the Russian government is worried about this. The Orthodox Church has always been closely linked to Russian patriotic feeling, after all, it’s a uniquely Russian faith. Thus, chaining it closely to a government is to essentially put Christian voters into a difficult position. Russian Christians are right to be outraged at religious hatred, but with Pussy Riot this is clearly not the case. Russian Christians need to understand that spirituality exists beyond earthly politics and should equally abhor any attempt to lock their faith to a regime. Pussy Riot don’t hate Jesus and aren’t sluts from the pit. Their performance inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was pure provocation and probably pretty insulting but it was not an act of arson or vandalism – it should be forgiven and not result in a jail sentence. Surely religion should only be used as a force for good?

Oh dear, well if there is one other religious organisation that knows a lot about bad PR, it’s the Catholic Church. This week, although seeing a scandal involving a Papal butler, sees the current Pope making significant motions towards reforming policy on birth control. Surkov is not facing a particularly easy job, especially in the wake of Father Jack’s drunken joy ride, but the problems he faces are surely not as large as those that the Vatican has been dealing with. The good that needs to come from this should not only be justice for Pussy Riot but also justice for Russia’s Christians who, at the moment, are being cast in the same unfortunately negative light as their church – old fashioned, choking on wealth and at the disposal of a controversial government.  

IMAGES: (1) Courtesy of Argenberg, taken under creative commons (2) Courtesy of acor-cannes, taken under creative commons

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Punk's not dead! (But it might end up in prison)

Rob finally weighs in on the Pussy Riot story...

3 years – arguably longer than the punk movement lasted in its entirety. Yet three years is the sentence that prosecutors are pushing for in the case against Russian punk band Pussy Riot who performed an impromptu concert in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour last February. The group shouted political slogans, dressed in masks and generally acted like, well…punks.
A simple case of hooliganism is being given a sinister, religious spin by prosecutors who are attempting to cast the trio as the whores of Babylon. Sadly, such an approach may prove successful in the surge of pro-Orthodox feelings after the fall of the Soviet Union. The bizarre religious edge to the case is obscene with the band being affronted for wearing “definitely colourful dresses*” which seems to be equal to an act of treason in a country where nationalism and religion are so dangerously interwoven.
On top of this, the reduction of the group’s actions from “protest” to “hooliganism” is also an attempt to pull the veil over Russia’s wooly political atmosphere that the band was trying to give an artistic opinion on. In this light, the state can be seen to be using religion as a levering tool to remove an opposition voice – something that should outrage Christians as much as secular Russians.
Pussy Riot in their "garish hell dresses"

If the mix of ultra-conservative religious fervour and politics doesn’t make you sick enough already then you need only pick up the Sex Pistol’s debut to feel really nauseous. “God Save the Queen the fascist regime”, while tongue in cheek, is a work of provocative, political art that raises a serious point of contention in contemporary Britain. This can be proven by how quickly it flared up again as an issue surrounding the grandiose royal wedding a few months ago with graffiti showing up across the UK showing republican discontent.
While rigid conservative types and royalists were bound to be flustered in 1977, a public court case against the Sex Pistols was never opened. The group was never incarcerated. Society didn’t break out in anarchy. Johnny Rotten changed his name and started flogging butter.
Surely, these attempts to lock up Pussy Riot will achieve nothing but the converse of the prosecution’s hopes. Global attention has been drawn to a band that practically no-one outside of Russia would ever have heard about.  Last night, Madonna was the latest celebrity to add her support the band’s bid for freedom. Unfortunately this kind of foreign support will only be turned into anti-Western propaganda and may prove to be even more damning in court.
So it’s to Russians themselves that this article should be re-directed. Orthodox Christians should be outraged at the use of their church as a tool for furthering political goals. Non-believing Russians should be outraged at the harshness of this sentencing. And everyone involved should be gobsmacked that the prosecution is trying to say that the group’s actions were in no way political.
 *quote taken from:

Photo: Lorena Cupcake (taken from flickr through creative commons)

Quick Update

Privet vsem!

My summer plans have changed dramatically over the last few weeks. Basically I have decided to stay in the UK and intern at a well-known, national newspaper. (No guesses). So, i'm turning "fromrussiawithrob" into a place to comment on Russian news and culture from my angle. Please comment on what I write as without you i'm just an autocrat with a keyboard. And that would be dreadful!

sbasiba za vnimanie!

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Episode 31: Do svidaniya but not goodbye

Ah, number 31. Was it Heraclitus who said that - “of all the numbers in the universe, 31 is the most forlorn”. No it was not. But it’s my forlorn number anyway, as fromrussiawithrob is temporarily saying poka poka to Russia. My year abroad is effectively over and tomorrow I will take my leave of sunny Moscow for the grey, drizzly summers of England.

What can I say comrades and comradettes? It’s been a blast. An emotional, geographical, linguistical adventure. There have been good times, there have been better times, there have been “i’m soooooo sad waaaaaaah” times, but when the smoke settles and the clichés finally stop flowing from my pen, i’ll surely remember, with fondness, every vatrushka s tvorogom and every nonsensical, grammatical mishap that befell me this last 9 months.
Me looking ecstatic about leaving Russia
I could make a greatest hits compilation, but that’s not for this post. All I wish to say is that I deeply loved Russia when I arrived, and I deeply love Russia now that i’m leaving. It is now far more to me than a classroom subject. It’s a country full of new friends and fond memories, and one that I will jump at the chance to return to in the future. I have loved writing this blog, finding new audiences both at home and abroad and will continue to do so again in the future... that the credits are rolling, dear reader, please don’t feel this blog is dead and done for. There will be a special announcement in the next week or so regarding a little adventure I have planned for later in the summer. So stay tuned.

 My ego wishes me to make one more utterance before I leave, something that I said when this whole ball of bears started rolling. “Russia will never be boring” was my philosophy with this trip, and give yourselves a pat on the back rebyata, because you’ve lived up to it.

All the best

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Episode 30: Saturday Super Sale

The hot bus was packed and wheezing down the dual carriageway. We were on our way to MEGA - a monolithic shopping complex on the outskirts of Moscow - and, by the looks of things, so was every other person in the city. After taking an hour to cover about 15 minutes of roadway we eventually emptied into the car-park of the huge mall. It was 10:55 pm and in 5 mins the Saturday Night of Super Sales would begin. I think I said this once before in this blog, but no one knows how to spend like Muscovites...
(1) River Island Aztec-like short sleeve shirt

MEGA spans three separate, giant buildings and contains just about every Russian and Western clothing outlet. There is also a massive IKEA inside half of one of those buildings, which I think gives a good idea of just how big we are talking. There is a massive food court where you can eat anything from sushi to mushroom risotto and you are given a map on entry by one of the attractive and strangely uniformed employees. 

This night was bizarre. DJ's played loud euro trance in the main hall and the escalators ran overtime with shopping-burdened consumers. Every couple of seconds someone would bump into someone else or set off the store security systems. The queue inside the New Yorker outlet was 40 minutes long with people trying to bribe those at the front of the queue to buy their items for them and save them the agony of standing in line. (My flatmate and his friend were totally suckered in this way by a trio of girls in club makeup with dyed hair.)

(2) Loud Zara Collection T-shirt 
Over the course of the night, which ran until 4am, we needed three fresh air breaks and several beers to keep us going. Exhausted customers outside the complex turned shopping trolleys onto their sides to create makeshift benches. 

We were exhausted, but overall the experience was worth it. Even the massive chains like Zara, Topshop and River Island offered 20% of nearly everything in store (including current season stock) and Russian clothing firms like Colin's and Sela had nearly 50% off all stock. We never even made it as far as the electronic section where perhaps we could have found ipods, cameras and games consoles with similar savings.

Standing in the midst of the bustle and rustle of shopping bags, I reflected on how unlikely it now seemed that this country ever was communist. This centre is a temple to capitalism. The art of the Super Sale itself is pure economic deception and even with the reduced prices, we were completely savvy to the fact we were still buying the goods at a tremendous mark up. These moral and psychological conundrums aside, what a show it was! I have never been to a superstore of this size in my life and, my clever purchases aside, just the experience of being out and about on a somewhat alternative Saturday night was amazing. Well, it beats clubbing in Torquay anyway... 
Me and what looks to be a brand-new Lenin Statue

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Episode 29: Spring time for Moscow

In marked difference to the weather I experienced from January to April, Moscow spring has been lovely. Huge thunderstorms gather occasionally and disperse the gathering heat and mugginess with warm rain and shaken trees. Most days there is a present breeze and a manageable temperature. The has been shining nearly every day and my flat-mate and I have made good use of our balcony, mainly for wine drinking and bitchy conversations with our neighbour Katya.

Our Balcony and the trademark, Russian birch 
In Spring, the dress of Muscovites changes. Gone are the black-leather jackets and flat-caps on the men. Gone are the dreadful, patterned windbreakers on the women. Out come surprising splashes of colour, brave white shoes, plaid, stripes and nonsense print t-shirts. Even the shifty gangs of Caucasians on the metro brave the trends of fashion and whip out a pair of Aviators and some sock-less, purple loafers. In short, the city is transformed.

Roads you used to slip down are now in bloom. The trees are dressed up too and the air is filled with blossom, pollen and all sorts of treats for the hay-fevered. Markets have popped up more frequently along with street vendors selling corn-on-the-cob, fresh kvass and fizzy water. The families are out too. Parents push prams and toddlers sing and scream nursery rhymes on the boulevards.

The parks are open now, the smell of kebabs drifts over them. Businessmen sit on benches trying their best to not drip ice-cream onto their Armani suits and groups of student sit with guitars and textbooks. Two old men, probably rivals of 60 years, sit in front of a chess set and duel.

Someone told me that Moscow was lovely in Spring, they were right.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Episode 28: The one with the naked whipping or Rob goes to the banya

“Put your hands up!” said the large, naked man to my right.
“Good!’ he said and began pummelling me from behind with a birch branch.

I was, of course, in the “banya” or Russian bathhouse - a tradition as old as the hills and a true test for any traveller. Upon paying the chain smoking old man at the door for a two hour time slot, my Russian flatmate instructed me that now was the time for full frontal nudity. You can’t wear swimming shorts in the banya. Well you can but then everyone will paradoxically laugh at you.

It is somewhat similar to a Finnish sauna although far warmer. After toasting yourself for several minutes (I think I managed no more than 7 or 8 at a time) you either leap into a freezing pool of water or roll in the snow. The birch or oak branch beating is optional. I chose to do this partly out of my adventurous spirit and partly out of fear that the burly men around me would call me a coward. My being English was a subject of discussion and much amusement. There was nothing sinister about it; it is simply rare for the banya regulars to meet a foreigner this far off the Moscow tourist trail.

Once I had overcome the conservative attitude towards nudity that we seem to have in Britain I found my time there to be quite enjoyable. As well as the birch beating you get treated to two other Russian sauna oddities – felt hats, used to keep the heat away from your head, and large gulps of a drink called Kvass: a kind of lightly fermented beer that tasted like life itself in my dehydrated state.

You see some pretty grizzly stuff in the banya and end up feeling pretty weak from the constant hot-cold, hot-cold cycle, but you leave the banya feeling completely reborn. My roommate claims that a trip once a week will keep cold and flu away for life and to an extent I believe him.

There is something very Classical about the whole set up. Even in this “working man’s” banya it felt as much a cultural ritual as a medical one.  It was even bordering on being a social event or rite of passage - a man inducted his eight year old son to the tradition while I was there. As he withstood his first minute of blazing heat, knees shaking under the sweaty intensity, a rapturous applause erupted from everyone.

“He’ll be drinking his first beer soon!” a man joked.

I left with the sense that I have at last taken part in something truly Russian and something that I would cautiously recommend any adventurous traveller or slavophile to do. Ideally go with friends and go the whole hog the only thing you need to bring is a pair of flip flops…

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Episode 27: Rob gets chased by riot police or an update on Moscow's political climate

The protesters on the other side of the river threw another riot police helmet into the murky water. An enormous cheer rose up from the crowd and I found myself joining in. I covered my mouth immediately. Oh good lord!" I thought, "I, a foreigner, cannot possibly be seen to get involved in this!" This is not directly my fight, but nonetheless, Moscow, my home for the next 3 months, is a bit of a battleground at the moment and I am somewhat in the thick of it.
Communist Party and "Leftist Front" flags as the protest built up

In going to observe the so-called "March of Millions" protest against the inauguration of Vladimir Putin as the country's new president, I had accidentally ended up a part of the protest. I watched from behind the front row as Police dragged Udaltsov and Navalny (two "leaders" of the opposition movement) off of the stage literally seconds into their speeches. Having distanced myself to the other side of the river, where I considered myself to be a safe distance from the actual, political action, I was suddenly aware of the large column of riot police marching facelessly towards the crowd gathered around me.

They rounded the corner and bore down on us. Despite having been given the official go-ahead, this protest, and anyone simply watching from the sidelines, was being broken up forcefully. "The allotted time for this event has passed," a Police announcer spoke, "Kindly leave the streets by the nearest metro." Before I knew it a line of more vehement protesters had began to charge the police, batons were drawn and scraps broke out. A man was hit with a baton. A policeman stumbled over a dustbin. People around me started to run. The crowd was made up of many different people: the middle-aged, the middle-class, the elderly, parents with their children and a lot of youths who really didn't want to see any violence. It was a shame that anyone had to get hurt; protesters or police. The image portrayed by certain television stations of the protesters being violent yobs paid for by NATO is both ridiculous and uninformed. The image portrayed by the protesters of the police being bloodthirsty and mismanaged is equally askew at times.

Riot Police blocking off the Kremlin (St Basil's in the background)

Needless to say there was not bloodshed or rioting on an epic scale. Protesters, including one extremely enraged babushka, drummed and tore up some corrugated-iron scaffolding, but on the whole the conduct of the police and protesters was not disproportionately savage. Eventually the police herded us towards the metro and the crowd broke up. I left the area quickly not wanting to risk accidental arrest. There was an ugly rumour going around all day of the police being given an arrest quota to act as a fear tactic with officers simply picking up anyone they could lay a hand on easily. I hope this is untrue.

The impression I have now is that Moscow, backed by new protest movements from Astrakhan and St Petersburg, is a city given another shot at a Spring-time rebellion. Tonight, all over Moscow, people are desperately trying to occupy squares and boulevards to prolong the action. The warm weather is on their side. As a foreigner, I know better than to get involved directly, and, as always, my opinion on this blog is something to be kept veiled. All I can conclude is that there is a deep and mostly peaceful unrest here, but things are getting more and mores desperate as well, on both sides of the political line.

more soon...

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Episode 26: Confessions of a Moscow-holic or Rob isn't funny, just busy.

What a busy boy I have been! Just trying to live in this city is a full-time job and add on top of this my interning as a journalist, tutoring, replacing a stolen wallet and a million other adventures it's not really a surprise that fromrussiawithrob has been a bit quiet of late. Hopefully none of you thought i'd be dragged away to some Siberian prison cell in the wake of my last post. I am nothing but apologies for not having written sooner, but understand it's not just this part of my life that has been neglected.
Me in the window of an office building

My hair is currently dreadful! A kind of moppish flop, tortured by overgrowth and Moscow's biting wind. My wardrobe is looking a little shabby from the winter too. Boots and shoes need a decent scrub, but i've broken two brushes already just trying to get the snow and mud caking off. Alas.

So don't feel too bad, dear reader. Here is what you've been missing out on:

(1) Writing, interviewing, editing. See the Moscow Times for more details.

(2) Getting my wallet pinched. Actually, feel free to miss out on this one.

(3) Eating Uzbek Pasties. Fed up of the proposed Tory pasty taxes? Then come to Moscow and eat a spicy Uzbek pasty! Ideally get someone who knows where the best Uzbek cafes are to show you and order one. They are baked in a stone over called a Tandir or Tanbir (I forget at the moment of writing) and contain a mix of vegetables with lamb and beef mince. Moreish beyond belief...

(4) Interviewing sharp-suited Italian men in swanky hotels. (again, see Moscow Times for more details)

(5) Drinking too much free coffee in the employees kitchen.

(6) Hosting an 80's megamix of youtube videos on my facebook wall. 

(7) Watching Peter Hook recreate Joy Division in a Russian nightclub. Religious experience.

(8) Hitchhiking home with an old guy who tells me to vote communist even when I explain that I'm not actually a citizen of the Russian federation.

Novoslobodskaya Metro Station is neoclassically cool
(9) Drinking a bottle of gin with two guys from Kazakhstan. 

(10) Going to a 50's American diner tucked in near the Kremlin. 

(11) Joining an expensive gym and spending most of my nights in a Jacuzzi full of fat men in their pants. (they refuse to buy swimming shorts, it's awful)

(12) Joining an expensive gym and spending most of my nights in a sauna full of nice, funny people who are really interested why an Englishman has appeared in their neighbourhood (you win some, you lose some)

(13) Watching muscovites spend spend spend in the massive malls.

(14) Buying postcards from art galleries I visit.

(15) Watching video reviews of guitars I own and miss.

(16) Trying to get an internship at Russian wine magazine.

(17) Learning to ride the metro "like a student"

(18) Watching Spring trying to come out only to be put in its place by bizarre snowstorms.

Really nice looking apartment complex with cool balconies. Reminds me a little of Barcelona

(19) Beating a Russian at chess in the coolest cafe ever (more on that soon)

anyway yes. that'll do Rob.


Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Episode 25: Posters and protests or the political(ish) one

I'm now going to pretend that another reason for the relative silence of this blog over the last weeks is to do with the ongoing political action here in Moscow. Indulge me. 

This has certainly been the case this weekend where I have been out covering the election and the subsequent backlash from the opposition community. No, dear reader, this is not entirely for your benefit - I am in fact working my spare time as an intern for a "well-known, English-language newspaper" here in town so it was equally for them. Let me flash back a second...
Poster from the exhibit

A few weeks ago I went to the press opening of a new exhibition at a gallery near Moscow's premier hipster hangout "Vinzavod" - an old factory complex turned arts' centre. The large exhibition hall was being used to display actual banners used in the last 6 months of protests in Russia. The idea of the exhibition was two-fold, One: to show the artistic, creative and humorous sides of the protests. Two: to preserve the peaceful nature of the demonstrations before any possible rioting when the elections where to take place would sour the image. Dotted throughout this post are photos I took at the event.

So Sunday was the election day and the paper asked everyone of us to check our local polling station for suspicious activities. I went at three points during the day and stood on the freezing streets for half an hour at a time. I'm not going to go into what I did or did not see, or report. Suffice to say. I have my suspicions about something and I let the right people know in a sensible way.

"You don't even represent us anymore"
Monday evening felt very, very strange. Instead of leaving work and heading home for dinner Russians were leaving their places of work and putting on white ribbons for the protest reaction to Putin's victory. A reasonably large crowd gathered on Pushkin Square - an area within a ten minute walk of the Kremlin and the crowd cheered as speeches from key figureheads, including Navalny(a prominant Russian blogger), were read out. "Putin is a thief!" they cried, followed by "We have the power! We have the power!" It was stirring stuff. There was energy and movement all around. The opposition called for all the usual things: solidarity, occupation, freedom, fairness, unity.
More Posters

I decided to make for the Kremlin to see what was happening down there and suddenly came to halt in the street as I turned the corner. Staring me down were 80+ rows of riot police, their metal shields stained and scratched in the streetlights. They were smiling and joking, pushing each other around and using up most of the pavement and left-hand lane of traffic. Boys club.

Also littering the road were countless army trucks, buses and police vehicles. OMON (Russian SWAT) teams were everywhere too, talking on radios, preparing for some kind of pitched battle. It was ridiculous. Despite reports of dissident nationalist groups planning a riot or some kind of bomb threat, this protest was and has always been made up of ordinary, mostly middle-class people. This police reaction while on the surface some kind of "safety net" for the city looked pathetic and overstated in this light. Heavy-fisted and frightening.

I passed the rows and rows of police and made my way down the road to the Kremlin foreground. Putin's crew were having their own shindig. His youth group "Nashi" (meaning 'Ours') were having some bizarre techno-rave with flashing lights and songs about how epic Putin is. It all looked very juvenile in comparison to the sombre and serious protest just ten minutes up the street. From where I stood, this rent-a-crowd of teenagers (who all get paid for their support of his party) looked very small and very uncertain. It was an obvious farce and the mood was uncomfortable especially for those involved who had to pretend to enjoy the dancing. Opposition members who stood next to me shouted much the same at them and took photographs of themselves giving the crowd the finger.

The first of many rows of riot police

After taking a break in a cafe to use the wi-fi to look for news coverage, I heard the news of Navalny's arrest for refusing to leave Pushkin Square. The opposition seemed to dissapate at this point and there were large scale arrests near Mayakovskaya Metro Station. Turning up there about half an hour late the street was empty except for a few opposition members watching the police convoy cart the arrested protesters to the station. The convoy was at least 50 vehicles long and it was so disheartening to see so many ordinary people just being moved aside and carted off into the night. I stood next to the director of a local advertising agency and she kept raising her arm at the truck-loads of captives to show solidarity with her white ribbon.

"Beastly" she said.

If anything, this first night of protest was largely uneventful if for the pointlessly huge numbers of arrests. Russian friends have confided in me their disappointment. "Change doesn't happen overnight" I said, but this is poor consolation to those who feel they have been robbed in daylight. Perhaps occupation will be the solution and if it wasn't for the significant cold-spell that the weather has taken, I'm sure a lot of tents would have been put up around Moscow. This is far from over.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Episode 24: Rob revisits Novgorod, witnesses a graphic, German film and recovers in Starbucks with cake

At 5:30 this morning the Moscow was strangely busy. I had awoken with a start on the train some 40 minutes ago and had a slight headache and sticky hair. I made it back home by about 6:00 and collapsed into my bed not resurfacing until past midday when I felt more human.

I have, of course, just returned from a quick dash to Veliki Novgorod. This time round the city was colder and covered in snow, though just as sleepy and quiet. After having seen the legendary, birch-wood manuscripts again (and done a better job understanding them) I killed time in the Museum of Visual Arts which was far better than Lonely Planet allowed. One of the highlights was an exhibition of a Soviet artist whose medium was pen sketches and subject seemed to be babushkas. She litters her pictures with proverbs and stories and does in depth studies of facial features. It was nice to see something fresh although after about two rooms of black and white old-lady faces you tend to want a little more variety in a gallery.
Statue of Rachmaninoff in the park

The fantastic bakery (Illmen) was undergoing renovation so my friend and I lunched in "Хорошие Люди" - an expensive-by-Novgorod-standards restaurant where we were looked after very well. The food was great but the staff kept trying broken English on us and gave us poorly translated menus as opposed to Russian ones which actually made ordering food much harder. Nevermind eh.

In a strange flashback to my trip here in November we ended up in the cinema watching a film to eat up the awkward hours before our train. We attended a kind of academic showing of a 1960's German-made film of "Faust" which was complete with graphic nudity, blood, guts and awful Russian overdubbing that jarred with the soundtrack beneath. It was a highly confusing affair made worse by the fact I kept nodding off and waking up and the goriest/oddest moments. I really want to watch them film again, albeit in German, as I feel I failed to appreciate how classic it was. A man in his nan's jumper with a tiny, tony head gave an introductory talk and thanked us profusely for having attended and I was surprised he didn't show up at the end of the film to answer questions...

Anyway today I have recovered by taking myself to my favourite retreat in Moscow, the Starbucks at Gallery Aeroport, where I had my Sunday slice of a cake and luxury coffee with a good book. I know they are a corporate giant but unlike Russian coffee houses they provide simple, filter coffee and play relaxing music instead of eurotrance. I think I shall write a whole post about that anyway.

Sorry for how inane most of this post sounds. I wanted to write something spontaneous and unplanned this time. Toodle pip.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Episode 23: Moscow Consumes Rob

Veliki Novgorod 
Nom nom nom. Moscow has completely eaten me. A few weeks ago I apologised for being too busy to write regular updates and I find myself sat here tempted to do the same thing again. I have indeed been very busy - how cliched for big city living! Just let me explain:

My week involves several things that use up my time. Usually I am either tutoring English or at the offices of a well-known, English-language newspaper working as an intern. In my free time i'm either reading or being sent to art galleries and interviews. I'd love to be able to take more photos of the city and find time to write all this up but at the moment keeping a blog running at the same time is nigh on impossible.

This weekend i'm taking a little break and going on a trip to Veliki Novgorod, the town I visited in November. It'll be nice to get a fresh perspective on Moscow and just distance myself from the ever changing platforms that are my life there. Hey, if anything it'll be nice to not have to go underground for a day or two. More from me soon, this time I genuinely promise.

I've also been trying to find places that cater to my interests in town. I have found a guitar shop (as you all know) and a bookshop that has a fantastic selection of Russian cookery books. Once i've made my mind up i'll definitely treat myself to one. I have given up eating сырники  for lent. They are by far my favourite Russian food and are based on a dairy product called tvorog which I can only describe as a sweet cottage cheese. They are basically tvorog pancakes and you serve them with the oddly satisfying combination of sour cream and jam. Gorgeous.

Сырники in all their glory

Anyway, today I had some free time and decided I need to locate a record shop. I found a fantastically well stocked (especially if you like alternative/punk/metal) store just off of Tverskaya Ulitsa and about 5 mins from Red Square. All the CD's are legal and the same publishers you will find in a Western record shop, but that's where you find you're paying the price. Anyway, it's called TRANSYLVANIA so I, of course, stalked the black metal section for a Burzum CD which I am now listening too. Well it'll have to tied me over til I got to Norway, which is incidentally where I really want to go next.

Sorry also for the lack of pictures this time! I will make it up to you!


Monday, 13 February 2012

Episode 22: Rob moves in, goes to Ikea, buys a guitar, goes to a party and hitchhikes home...

What a week it has been!! My stint as a hotel-bound foreigner is finally over and I have a room of my own in which to lurk, sleep and write blog updates for you lot. I've spent the last few nights getting used to my new regime and flatmate and getting up to several little, ridiculous adventures hence the small wait between episodes. My apologies, this'll be a long one...

First was "The Grand Ikea Trip". As my room in the apartment came unfurnished I was given money off the first month's rent to go out to the GIANT out of town Ikea and get myself a bed, bedclothes and a desk. After getting madly lost and sweaty among the endless aisles of indoor lighting I took a break and sampled the Swedish food they have in the cafeteria there. Yes this place is so big it sells beer and has about three restaurants.

The communal area and my bedroom door
After wondering for a couple more hours in the giant, Swedish, cultural-exchange centre I ended up with a not too shabby single bed, a cheap, efficient table, a work lamp and some really cool bedsheets. After building all this I got the best night's sleep in a week, far away from Marilyn Monroe pictures and noisy hostel poker tournaments.

The rest of the weekend was now free for adventuring and relaxing. On Friday night my flatmate and I went out to a cool little bar tucked somewhere behind Red Square. It's got a German, beer-hall vibe and was full of studenty types glugging away and giggling behind gigantic glasses of cheap lager. The huge screen plays Rammstein videos really loudly and the lighting is very low. Two beers later and my flatmate had to leave for a double-date he'd arranged so I decided to head back on the metro alone and after dark. The alcohol was definitely conducive to my bravery and I arrived safely back in the flat unmolested, not covered in snow and with all my valuables in their respective pockets. Well done me? Oh come on, it's a big deal going out in a city the size of Moscow, especially for a country boy...

The little kitchen
Saturday was "find a guitar day". Anyone following me since Petrozavodsk in September will know that I  can't survive more than a week or so without playing guitar. I hit a cafe and came up with a list of Moscow guitar shops and locations thanks to free wifi and the "" forums. Soon, wrapped and warm and with a belly full of hot chocolate, I set off into the snow.

After finding one or two overpriced and stuffy shops I eventually came across "Mir Muziki" near Mayakovskaya Metro Station where I was able to buy a simple classical/folky accoustic guitar, a soft carry-case and a tuner for about £40. The staff were helpful, taught me the word for "guitar pick" and gave me a bag of free ones for my trouble. Taking my newly acquired friend home was a little tricky on the metro as the crowds were quite thick. Eventually I wrestled it into a respectable tuning and can gladly report that it sounds very warm and mellow. It'll do nicely :)

My flatmate asked me what my plans for the rest of the evening were and as I have yet to make my own circle of friends I was more than happy to accept an invite to the new flat of one of his university buddies. We took the metro all the way across town the Yugo-Zapadnaya station and ended up in a massively wood-paneled but very nice apartment. Despite this being by the last station on this metro line (and having a reputation for being a great hangout for Moscow's alcoholic-homeless community) this district is expensive and well thought of. The flat was stylish but old fashioned. The high shelves were littered strangely by volumes and volumes of theological textbooks in various languages. The explanation I got was that they were left by the previous tenant who was possibly off on a quest to fight demons...fantastic!
My room and awesome duvet cover

We'd brought a bottle of whiskey with us as a house-warming present and so settled down to play a Russian version of the card game "Liar" in which you try and deceive opponents by passing off undesirable cards as cards of another suit. It was complicated but a great icebreaker and soon I was breaking out my unsteady Russian for the first time in months. The flat filled up a little more as the evening progressed and I found myself drafted into various political/economic discussions. I just about kept afloat and tried my best to give an opinion when prompted. It was lovely that so many of the students I met were so interested in me. Clearly the novelty of being a Russian-speaking Englishman still persists outside of Karelia and I had to explain my presence in Moscow quite a bit over the evening. In stereotypical Russian style the drink was free flowing and I found my glass mysteriously refilled with wine and at one point with some unlabeled beer out of a plastic bottle...Eventually we were singing REM and swaying about quite a lot (for my sins I seem to remember some embarrassing airguitaring too) and it took a glass of wine being knocked off a coffee table to finally break the evening up.

Russian Guitar #2
My flatmate and I were far too late for the metro and we ended up on the ringroad highway hitching a lift home. Normally alarm bells would have been ringing in my head but I suppose the alcohol had numbed my senses a little. Equally however my trust in my flatmate, intoxicated as he was, was unerring and soon we found ourselves bartering with a nice chap in a fast Audi for passage back to our district. We both practically fell asleep in the warm car with relaxing Russian rock playing softly over the muggy radio.

We collapsed in the flat and didn't surface til Sunday afternoon, the last thing I remember being the Audi guy laughing and wishing us both good fortune.

Clearly Moscow is going to be a testing and strange experience but then again that's almost a pointless thing to have told you. One of my few tested and confident theories about this country is that it will never ever be boring. If this first week is anything to go by then, once again, I am pleasingly very correct in that belief.

more very soon

PHOTOS: Wandering around Moscow

So here are a few pictures of my couple of days wondering around Moscow. I'm between accommodation at the moment but will write a big blog update as soon as I'm fully settled - so much to tell you all!!

Semi-frozen river and St Basil's

Kremlin clocktower

Why would anyone want a car here??

Add caption

Red Square from the river 

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Episode 21: Moscow, Marilyn Monroe and mad organisation

An acoustic guitar (and Marilyn Monroe)
So there I was, falling asleep on top of my suitcase on the Aeroexpress train from Moscow Domodedevo Airport to Paveletsky Station. I'd been up since 2am. (British time) I needed either coffee or sleep. I had no idea what to do when the train journey ended. It was supposedly -19...

Outside the window was a rush of slush and snow and the snowy trees of  a scraggy forest. The carriage was populated with several suntanned Russians returning from some far-off island holiday and heavily drinking the rum they'd bought as a souvenir. A little boy pretending to be a soldier kept opening and closing the carriage doors. Each time he did this the compartment was filled with icy blasts of air. Come to think of it he is probably the only reason I didn't fall asleep completely.

45 minutes later I dragged myself and my case up the platform and into the metro below the station. I took it all the way to the stop closest to my hostel and retraced my novemeber steps along Kuznetskaya Ulitsa. Soon I found myself collapsing in the reception of the hostel that i'd visited with Jaya, Marilyn and Alex last year. (See this post: )

This time, however, I wasn't inserted next to the builders in a bottom-floor room and instead found myself in a perfectly reasonable single on the upper floors of the hostel. Venturing to this previously unknown quarter of the building I found myself staring at endless pictures of Marilyn Monroe that adorned every wall and flat surface. At first I thought this was a symptom of my tiredness but it seems that, before the current overhaul, this part of the hostel was a separate hotel know as "Marilyn Hostel" It's almost borderline obsessive decor plasters images of the 50's superstar nearly everywhere. Their rigid adherence to their scheme stretches as far as the toilets which also don't escape her stare and cheeky smile - oi, what you looking at! Luckily the shower cubicles are her biggest blind spot so for a few minutes a day I can escape this bizarre big brother. After a night's sleep I got used to it and in fact find it a little disappointing that the staff aren't dressed like the cast of "Grease".

A cool bookshelf for guests to swap literature (and, of course, Marilyn pics)
The next afternoon (I slept til 2pm) I took a walk out in the freezing temperatures towards Red Square and the Kremlin. I bought a brunch in a coffee house and began to relax and acclimatize. It only feels truly cold here when you're walking into a breeze or taking your gloves off to use a phone or fumble for change. By far the biggest annoyance is slush. This muddy matter clings to boot tread and delights in coating the ends of your trousers or flicking up the legs as your walk. Muscovites, as far as I can tell, have some inert ability to wear whatever they like and pass through it unsoiled and composed. The day I stop walking round the city looking at my feet will probably be the day I finally blend in.

Home base for the next few days
So much still to do over the next few days! I need to get registered with the paper, view apartments and hopefully prolong my stay in the hotel until I am able to move in somewhere. It's been months of frantic organising to even get myself this far and with the end just about in sight i'm unsure whether it's frustration or excitement that I feel. Nonetheless, the boy is back in town.

More soon!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Episode 20: Rob's greatest hits (or possibly misses)

Just as a bit of a laugh I thought i'd keep a record of what I consider to be my funniest/most interesting mistakes in Russian this term. The nature of most of these mistakes lies in the similarity between words and their sounds but even without the ability to read Russian I feel the results are worth a few giggles. So in no particular order commence laughter at my expense:


What I meant to say: "Привет Марина! как дела?" (Oh hi there Marina! how are things?)

What I actually said:   "Привет малина, как дела?" (Oh hi there raspberries! how are things?)


What I meant to say: "Гостиница стоила около 20 евро за ночь"(The hotel cost  about 20 euros per night)

What I actually said: "Гостиница стоила 20 около Еврей за ночь"(The hotel cost about 20 Jews per night)


What I meant to say: "Ядовитая кобра" (Poisonous Cobra)

What I actually said: "Ядерная кобра" (Nuclear Cobra)


What I meant to say: "я могу играть на гитаре, но не могу петь" (I can play guitar but can't sing)

What I actually said: "я могу играть на гитаре, но не могу печь" (I can play guitar but can't bake)


Sorry I haven't been in touch for a while, been sorting everything out for the next leg of my adventures in Russia :)