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Russian Notebook

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

It took me more than three hours by taxi to get from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport to the centre of town. My Bulgarian friend, Ivan Krastev, a shrewd political analyst, describes the difference between Russia and the Soviet Union as one between traffic jams and queues. Queues were tedious, freezing in winter, but sometimes convivial. Traffic jams are just as tedious, warmer, but often lonely. Compared with the last time I was here, in 2001, I notice more ethnic diversity in the streets: dark Middle Eastern-looking faces from the Caucasus, Chinese-looking people from the various Asian republics, an area which a well known American expert once described as Trashcanistan. Moscow is a magnet for poor migrants, legal and illegal. The architecture of Moscow, of all periods, suggests imperial grandeur. Yet the city also feels deeply provincial: no foreign newspapers anywhere, not even in the hotels. Masha, a superb journalist, and her husband Sergei, a brilliant scholar, tell me over dinner that Russians have no common sense of nationhood. The Soviet Union made imperial sense. Russia, to most people, does not. Putin, depicted in today’s paper wearing motorcycle gear, avoids the word for ethnic Russians, Ruski. It excludes too many. He prefers ‘friends’, or ‘fellow citizens’.

•••

I am here to attend the Global Policy Forum, a conference convened under the auspices of President Medvedev in the old town of Yaroslavl, about 150 miles north of Moscow. We are taken there in a ‘special train’. Along the way, about once every half an hour, young women in blue uniforms enter our compartment to check our names. More uniformed people meet us on the Yaroslavl station platform. There are police everywhere, in a variety of impressive uniforms. For some reason journalists are not allowed to share buses with conference delegates. Ivan Krastev whispers in my ear that this is all for show. It makes the Russians feel they are on top of the situation. Dinner is in a large tent, with flashing strobe lights, as in a 1980s discotheque. The line at the buffet is endless. I decide to follow the deputy mayor of London, who seems to know his way round any food table. A long-haired MC announces in English that the distinguished international guests will be entertained by ‘British-style rock and roll’. A deafening band plays what sound like old Deep Purple numbers in Russian.

•••


The Global Policy Forum is really a show, a kind of Potemkin conference, held in a gigantic ice hockey arena. People give speeches. No questions, no discussion. The organisation is shambolic at best. Panels are announced, then suddenly cancelled for unknown reasons. Yet, oddly, speeches are exactly timed: 14.21 to 14.29, and so on. Presumably, to have a conference with hundreds of foreigners is meant to put Russia, or Medvedev, on some kind of map. Some delegates are distinguished, some distinctly odd: a Chinese-American economist who believes that Mao’s China was ‘very democratic’; an American political commentator of some renown, who chased the female staff around the room, exclaiming: ‘What’s the point of coming to Russia if you can’t get a girl?’ The head of the Communist Party denounces ‘the criminal capitalist system’. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist, fulminates against Muslims, and other ‘aliens’. There is no doubt in his mind who the true Russians are, nor does he shy away from the word Ruski. And these were the amusing speakers. The rest managed to fill their allotted six minutes with tedium. I decide to go for a walk along the Volga River. On the way, I notice a plume of black smoke on the horizon. I only realise later what it was: a plane with the entire Yaroslavl ice hockey team had come down in flames at the local airport.

•••

The first person I bump into at the arena is the randy American commentator, rolling his eyes in ecstasy. ‘All night,’ he exclaims, ‘I had her all night.’ Compared with some of the things I had heard earlier, Medvedev’s speech is unexciting but sensible. The problems in Russia are not due to an international conspiracy, he says — a point worth making in Russia — and the Russian people consist of many faiths and ethnicities. As though to press this point home, an East Asian delegate in a pony tail and a Manchu-style silk shirt points out that he, too, has Russian blood running through his veins. He is a member of an Altaic tribe consisting of 1,800 people. Zhirinovsky is nowhere to be seen. Outside the arena, large numbers of young people are laying down red roses, red being the colour of Lokomotiv, the ice hockey team. They are surrounded by riot police. ‘It is a potential protest,’ explains a Russian gentleman, ‘them against the police.’ ‘A protest against what?’ I ask. ‘The team was supposed to play here in the arena. Because of us, they had to fly.’

•••

In Moscow I visit the Tretyakov Gallery to see the icons. The medieval ones have an extraordinary primitive power. Yet I wonder why I find these images so remote and alien, much more so than religious art from China, or Japan. Perhaps it is their total lack of humanism. Buddhist images seem less awe-inspiring. Perhaps that is what I find uncongenial about Russian icons; one is supposed to fall on one’s knees in awe, as one would at the image of the czar, or Stalin. It is hard to imagine kissing a graven image of Putin in motorcycle gear, however. A small blessing in a rather gloomy country.

•••

Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of
Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.


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