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:

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 (  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

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Who on earth is Alexei Navalny and why should I care? (A brief appraisal)

The only middle-aged Russian that most people in the West would recognise on TV used to be Vladimir Putin, yet, thanks to the proliferation of social media, Alexei Navalny is fast superseding the Russian President's place.

"Just who is Alexei Navalny and why should I care?" - a fair question. Russian politics, a lot of the time, seems very far from our own. Defence is a constant issue in their discourse, nationalism is not treated with the same suspicion as it is here and a topless man riding a horse in a stetson and bad sunglasses is not political suicide. Yet Alexei Navalny is a name that has kept cropping up over the last two years of political protest in Russia and is a name that will surely keep cropping up with every passing controversy.

Action Man? (photo taken under creative commons from Jedimentat44)

In the eyes of Russia's new(ish) middle class Alexei Navalny is the figurehead of legitimate, pro-democratic opposition. A lot of factors have worked in his favour. He's neither a member of the aged Communist Party nor of one of the older, mustier, democratic parties like Yabloko from the days of Yeltsin. His understanding of the power of blogging and clever use of language has earned him a popularity with tech-savvy youth that no Western politician short of Obama, Tom Watson or, perhaps, David Lammy could rival.

In the eyes of the state he is a loud-mouthed, serial-tweeter with a very threatening agenda. For many political cynics his recent sentencing to 5 years in prison for embezzlement seems a little too well-timed and out of character for a man who has been looking to uproot the very same kind of self-serving abuse of power. (

Alexei Navalny (photo taken under creative commons)
I've written many times on this blog about the image problem faced by the Russian state with regard to its legal matters (1). The feeling that Pussy Riot were the first internationally recognised victims of a new series of show trials is one that has been a constant subtext of Western coverage of Navalny's trial. Yet, as always, reality is far too complex to neatly fit a familiar narrative. We should never fully denounce any court case simply because a political motive can be linked in to its proceedings. That kind of support leads to good people being prepared to make hideous denials of crimes like the controversy surrounding Assange not standing up to accusations of rape because it was assumed to be a set-up.

If all these aforementioned things are part of what defines Alexei Navalny and shapes his context in our world then I have still yet to answer why we should care.

Simply put he is a figurehead for change in a country that is once again showing its significance on the world stage. He is a man who has the potential to push Russian democracy in a new direction and to take steps to outlaw the corruption that seems to have seeped into Putin's Russia. Whether or not Alexei Navalny will make a transition to a position of power he is living proof that Russia is establishing a new class of protest citizen for the digital age, that is, at least, in Moscow where free broadband is readily available and Russians live in relative affluence.

(1) and

Monday, 18 March 2013

Epic journeys, rivers that flow the wrong way and a certain, budget airline...

From the long, river voyages of the early Rus peoples, who traveled from Scandinavia to Istanbul to flog their wolf pelts, to the infamous Trans-Siberian Railway itself, epic journeys seem to be part of the "Russian character" in our general understanding. A country the size of Russia has always had to deal with extreme logistical issues. Russia's rivers are much to blame as, in the words of my secondary-school teacher, "they do not flow the right way." (e.g. from north to south  as opposed to the more useful horizontal direction they could have taken through to the remotest parts of Siberia)

The dawn of the railway, something recorded spectacularly in some of Russia's best loved literature, was of crucial significance to the way the country was formed. As well as *spoiler alert* killing off one of Russia's most famous heroines, the development of the railroad changed Russia's fortunes and determined her history. In apposition to the new frontier forged by the Wild West railway of legend, Russia's iron roads brought modernity to the sleepy, ancient parts of the country. Trotsky would then use them to brilliant tactical advantage to aid the Red victory in the civil war.

"Russian Mountains/ Российские горы": photo by Timitrius taken from flickr under creative commons

Nowadays in our fast-paced economies these overnight trains seem just a little bit "last century" regardless of how romantic or exciting (or slightly dangerous in that "am-I-going-to-get-bottled?"way) they are. The next technological step, the aircraft, was not the resounding success that Russia had perhaps hoped for. In fact, as air-crash safety goes, Russia performs quite poorly with an appalling record, especially in recent history, of fatal airline disasters. Without wishing to labour the point, one need only think back a few years to the crash that killed Yaroslavl's ice hockey team or just a few weeks to the slide of the runway in Moscow which killed five.

Where does Easy-Jet fit in to this? Well as comments made by a representative of the company in this BBC Russian Service clip indicate - ( - not very far at all. Quite understandably the airline is moving into the Russian market tentatively. For one, Russia is not short of a budget airline or two, particularly on internal flights or flights to CIS countries where many Russians, displaced after the collapse of the Soviet Union are in constant flux to see their relatives. Secondly, Easy-Jet want to make sure a repeat of January's runway overshooting does not happen to them. Air-travel, however much safer it's supposed to be than crossing the road, is something that relies on trust and reputation more than most forms of public transport.

On the whole, however, it is a marvelous thing that the arduous battle for a flight permit is over and that Easy-Jet can operate a fledgling Moscow service. With Sochi 2014 round the corner and the World Cup to be hosted four years after that it is about time that Russia becomes more affordable and accessible. I only wish this had happened sooner as my student loan barely stretched to BA fares last year on my year abroad...

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Reviewing VICE's Documentary: "Russia's Deadliest Drug"

Recently I've noticed a lot of reposts of a 2011 VICE documentary on Russia. It's called "Russia's Deadliest Drug" and looks into how Krokodil, a moon-shined heroin substitute made from over-the-counter drugs and household items, is destroying many lives in Russia's east. The documentary is a kind of follow-up to an investigation the magazine launched into the teenage heroin epidemic in general with a reporter, Alison Severs, being sent to Novokuznetsk in Siberia. (Please be aware this documentary is NSFW and could be considered to show disturbing footage. I have reposted it below, but please be advised it depicts scenes of drug abuse.)

VICE does a pretty good job to raise awareness of the shocking epidemic of krokodil and its effects on Russia as a whole. The human angle on the story is touching and bravely shown with the VICE team being unafraid to approach addicts, follow dealers round an out-of-town market, and enter the premises of the evangelical Christian groups who try and resolve the situation. VICE works most effectively when dealing with these kind of stories. Alison Severs was a great choice of host as, unlike the documentaries hosted by VICE co-founder Shane Smith, (which I must add I am also a fan of - they're well-made and humorous) there was less danger of a big, gonzo-journalistic personality getting in the way of the object. She was a good interpreter for a Western audience. Her stylish clothes contrast interestingly with the decrepit tower blocks and discarded syringes of her surroundings and there is a real sense of her being out of place which added a degree of tension.

As a student of the Russian language I especially appreciated the little things like not dubbing over the interviewees in English. The subtitling and translations seemed fine and the camera-work and editing were intelligent. Especially for the online documentary format a good sense of plotting is highly important. The documentary was logically structured and had great pace.

Only at a few points did the documentary become problematic. A scene in which the camera crew, packed into a tiny LADA, were supposedly followed by Kazakh drug dealers was exciting albeit short in actual evidence. I understand how frightening that must have been for all involved, and am pleased it was left in the final cut, but making accusations of drug-trafficking and linking them to a country is pretty serious. This could almost do with another investigation but VICE seemed more concerned with building a mid-documentary set piece to construct for the trailer. This must be the limit of a magazine like VICE. It is able to produce a short documentary aimed at a young audience and keep it engaging and relateable, but it is ultimately unable to raise awareness of an issue in a fully mature manner. This is where a full BBC or Al-Jazeera investigation would be preferable, picking up where VICE left off or over-simplified.

Still, I like the level of risk taking by VICE reporters. It reminded me of the equally brilliant expose of North Korean labour camps in Russia's Far East that saw Shane Smith and crew having to strike deals with local gangsters to get in and out of forbidden sections of Siberia. (link:
Derelict Building photo: creative commons Denis Defreyne
The conclusions the documentary draws are pretty smart. It shows not only the direct effects of the drugs on users (the famous rotting of the skin that the drug takes its name from) but also on their families and friends. It also shows other social problems that begin to appear around cases of extreme substance abuse. Prostitution, at one point intimated as child prostitution, is supposedly stumbled upon by the filmmakers.

The terrifying reality for many Russians living outside of the relatively privileged "Okrugs" of European Russia is that the government seems to be doing very little to combat this epidemic and these social issues. The Kremlin often seems more wrapped up in pushing bizarre anti-gay laws and hosting competitions and sporting events than improving the lives of its citizens. Russians in the documentary blame corruption but there is a sense of neutrality  and the documentary goes some way to show how hard it is for the Russian authorities. Not only do they have to fight the influx of opiates from an unpoliceable southern border but they also have to vie for power with the myriad of strange religious groups that take in addicts in the guise of rehab clinics. It is sad from both an Athiest or Christian background that the only way out seems to be through a cult.

With times still tough for foreign charities and aid to get into Russia to offer help, this is an often ignored and serious issue that some of our media's mainstream papers and TV stations simply have no time or space on the news agenda to cover.

(thanks to Fiona Potter for bringing this to my attention. Read more of Fiona at her blog: