Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Berezovsky Dead

Boris Abramovich Berezovsky dead

Strangled? Hanged? autoerotic asphyxiation? Or was he murdered by the secret services (British or Russian).  Either side might have wanted him dead - to prevent him from revealing (possible) UK involvement in the Litvinenko murder or providing evidence of Putin's corruption (past or present); who knows - to speculate is to get sucked into the strange, deluded and paranoid world of conspiracy theorists; its pointless.

But it was own machinations, his muddying of waters, a lover of intrigue, a conspiracy merchant diminished his credibility as critic of Vladimir Putin and his increasingly authoritarian regime in Russia.  His analysis of Putin might have been largely correct but his argument was tarnished by his hubris and desire for revenge against his erstwhile protégée.

Berezovsky loved the cut and thrust of Russian politics; loved having power, influence and control - perhaps more so than his great wealth - and has been described as his playing politics as a game of chess where only he is allowed to move the pieces.  He was the embodiment of the wild 1990s, a former mathematician who made a great fortune through Russia's privatisation program, widely regarded as being corrupt.  He was close to the Yelstin family, became a close advisor to Boris Yeltsin and reportedly played a key part in the rise of Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin's successor as Russian president.   However, once Putin became president, Berezovsky was deprived of his influence and his control - his fall was spectacular.

He was exiled in London to avoid corruption charges, and an inevitable prison sentence in Russia, and became obsessed with revenge on Vladimir Putin.  It would be of no surprise to me that he hand in the Litvinenko poisoning. Possibly a convoluted attempt at implicating the Russian authorities that backfired. 

Friday, 22 March 2013

Friday Baltika treat from Malgosia's Polish shop

Just been to the polish shop, Malgosia's, in Newcastle to get myself a Friday treat - some bottles of Baltika.beer. Wehey!

This is primarily a Polish shop but it does have a good stock of Eastern European products - including Russian. Got some smetana as well as a Latvian tin of sprats in oil.  
Małgosia’s Shop: Polish, Czech and Lithuanian Food
Unit 23,
Newgate Shopping Centre,


Thursday, 21 March 2013

Arctic Convoy Veterans receive medals

After 67 years, veterans of the WW2 Arctic convoys are to receive medals from the UK Government.  
The Arctic Convoys, described as "worst journey in the world" by Winston Churchill, took supplies to the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1945.  More than 3,000 men died while on the convoys.

Following a long campaign to get the veterans recognised (by the UK Government) for their extraordinary bravery, the veterans will now receive the new Arctic Star medal and Bomber Command clasp.  The first of up to 250,000 presentations were made by Prime Minister David Cameron at a ceremony in Downing Street who hailed them as a "group of heroes".

Arctic convoy veteran - Glyn Williams
As I mentioned in a blog post of 7 March 2013 (my-first-trip-to-russia.html), I was privileged to meet one such veteran in 1988  who was in my tour group.  Glyn Williams, pictured here, had received a medal from the Soviet Government in 1985, which was offered to British servicemen to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War.

Monday, 18 March 2013

1st Space Walk - 48 years ago

Forty-eight years ago today, on March 18, 1965, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first person to take a spacewalk when he, attached to a tether, spent 12 minutes floating outside the Voskhod-2 spacecraft.  (reblogged from The Moscow Times)

Friday, 8 March 2013

Happy International Women's Day!

International Women's Day 1988.

25 years ago, I was on a tour bus in Russia heading towards the city of Vladimir, when a policeman (militsia) boarded our bus and handed out these leaflets.  We had stopped at a cafe called "Skazka" (Fairytale) on the Moscow-Vladimir road at a place called Kirzhzach, and after our coffee break, the militia man hitched a lift with us to the next town.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

My first trip to Russia

25 years ago today I first went to Russia - March 1988.

Me & Steve boarding the Ilyushin 76
The trip was advertised in the old Soviet Weekly newspaper, who arranged it through Progressive Tours, using the Soviet Trade Union tourist agency.

Of course, it was still the USSR at this time, and the reforms under Gorbachev's policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were slowly gathering pace. Although there was a greater degree of openness, more freedoms permitted, it remained a totalitarian socialist state; the sort of individual freedoms enjoyed by citizens of western democracies were still absent from Soviet society.

Me outside Central Tourist House
I went with my friend Steve, flying by Aeroflot from Heathrow to Moscow on an Ilyushin 76 aeroplane. In Moscow, we stayed in the Central Tourist House hotel - a Soviet trade union hotel - which isn't central at all.  The Tsentralny Dom Turista (as it is still called, I think) is  located on what was then the outskirts of south west Moscow, in the Tropareva district, about a 20 minute walk from Yugo Zapadnaya metro station. 
Tropareva district Moscow.  View from 22nd floor of Central Tourist House. Looking towards YugoZapadnaya metro

We stopped one night on Moscow. Next day we were ferried, by an Intourist coach, to one of the so-called "Golden Ring" cities surrounding Moscow: Vladimir. We stayed for a few nights here at the Klyasma hotel - just outside of Vladimir town centre.

While we were there, we visited the ancient churches of Vladimir and other historic buildings such as the Golden Gate.  We also visited the nearby ancient town of Suzdal where were taken to a monastery for lunch and shown around the Museum of Wooden Architecture - a fantastic collection of well preserved wooden churches.

Oksana and Olya outside the school entrance
Vladimir School No. 23 - Children's performance
A highlight of our time in Vladimir was a visit to a local school.  This was no ordinary school - it was Vladimir School No. 23 -  a special English language school, for children who excelled in languages.  We were treated to a performance by some of the children, and were given a tour of the school by some of the pupils.  
I was shown around by two girls: Oksana and Olya.

Me, Glyn & Steve 
Back in Moscow, we visited the Kremlin, went to the Circus (the newer one) on Vernadsky Prospekt, visited Progress publishers - book shop, and to Novosti Press Agency - for political discussion on glasnost perestroika, peace and socialism - riveting stuff!?!  We had a bus tour of the city which took in sites such Lenin Hills (now Sparrow hills) next to Moscow University (MGU), Gorky 
Park, Economic Achievements Park (VDNkh), a metro station tour, and of course, Red Square.

On the trip, I had the privilege to meet a veteran of the WW2 Arctic Convoys,  Glyn Williams, who was on our tour group.  The Arctic Convoys provided vital supplies to the Soviet Union during the war and sailed from the UK, Iceland and North America to Northern ports of the USSR such as Archangel and Murmansk.  There were 78 convoys in all which comprised 150 merchant vessels escorted by the Royal Navy and the navies of the US and Canada.

Glyn, pictured here, wore his wartime medals which included one issued by the Soviet Government in recognition of his participation of the Arctic convoys.  Wherever he went, ordinary Russians -young and old, would stop him in the street to admire his medals and to talk to him.   

My first impressions of the country?

A Moscow based journalist once said: go to Russia for a few days and you could write a book, stay any longer and you will be hard pressed to write a few words.    I certainly felt that I could write a book of my experiences, impressions and observations.  But now, if asked about my opinion on Russia, I can barely string a sentence together on the subject.  

Last night in Moscow

Drab, queues for everything, nothing in the shops, KGB surveillance, cold, impressive monuments and Metro system.

Me and Steve - Guarding the Supreme Soviet in the Kremlin
Impressions: not as drab as expected - beautiful in the snow; more neon lights than I was led to believe, single product shops - e.g.Moloko (milk); the size of Moscow; endless rows of apartment blocks; widespread construction activity; friendly people, sometimes self-less, unhelpful / unfriendly service staff (although friendly when not serving); touts / black market traders; hard currency economy; surprising availability of goods - but old-fashioned shops, products, styles and methods of buying stuff (eg the 3 queue system queue to choose, queue to pay, then queue to collect); importance of the Great Patriotic War (WW2)/ respect for military.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Never Mind Stalin, What About Seryozha? - 60 years since Prokoviev died

Sergei Prokoviev died 60 Years ago

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev ( 23 April 1891 – 5 March 1953) was a Russian composer, pianist and conductor who is probably best known, in Sunderland at least, as the composer of the ballet Romeo and Juliet – from which "Dance of the Knights" is taken ("The Apprentice" theme tune and, more importantly, the music that is played at the Stadium of Light before the start of each football match)

Prokofiev died at the age of 61 on 5 March 1953, the same day Joseph Stalin's death was announced. With the national outpouring of grief over Stalin's death, Prokoviev's death went unnoticed by the general population for a long time afterwards.  He had lived near Red Square, and for three days the throngs gathered to mourn Stalin, making it impossible to carry Prokofiev's body out for the funeral service at the headquarters of the Soviet Composer's Union. He is buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.  This is a picture I took of his grave in 2002.  As a Sunderland AFC fan, I felt it important to make a pilgrimage to his grave, to mark my respects to the composer of the  such atmospheric and stirring music which we have enjoyed at the Stadium of Light since 1997.

Incidentally, it's obviously 60 years since Stalin's death.  The Moscow Times has an interesting article on the continuing influence or legacy of Stalinism in Russia:


The article cites as examples: the Moscow Metro, the seven sisters skyscrapers, “It’s the architecture of a totalitarian utopia,” with monumental scale, expensive decor and elements of historical styles from classicism to Gothic, said Natalya Samover, head of Arkhnadzor, a group that promotes architectural preservation; as well as the language of politicians and bureaucrats, and also mentality and structure of the FSB - the successor to the KGB.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Russian Language Notes - Hot Dogs

Kanikuli - Каникулы

It's a barmy 9 degrees Centigrade today in Newcastle; the sun is shining, spring is in the air, and after the gloom if the winter, my thoughts turn to my holidays in the Summer.  

The Russian word for holidays is kanikuli (Каникулы), which I have always thought was a little odd.  My knowledge of Russian isn't that great, but I couldn't spot any any obvious relationship with other Russian words, or any Latin cognates that I could identify.   

A few years ago when I was brushing up my French, in preparation for a holiday there, I discovered that une canicule was a French word for heat wave. It didn't occur to me to delve further - I was satisfied with my own explanation that the word was obviously imported into the Russian language along with many other French words and influences, owing to the fact that the Russian nobility in Tsarist times used to speak French rather than Russian to distinguish themselves from the lower classes.

I thought no more about it until I read "The Etymologicon" by Mark Forsyth last year and discovered that there was a chapter called "Dog Days" about Sirius - the Dog Star. This is the largest star in the Great Dog or Canis Major constellation. It stems from the Ancient Greek word for dog - cyon. Which gives us cynic (another story, but go read the book).

The ancient Greeks believed that their country was so hot during the summer owing to the combined rays of the Sun and Sirius - the ancient Greeks worked out that during the period 24 July to 24 August, Sirius was not visible in the night sky because it rises and sets at the same time as the Sun.  The word Syrius means "scorching" but the ancient Greek also referred to it as cyon - dog. This period derived its name from the Dog Star and became known as canicula in Latin, giving us the phrase "Dog days" and the Russians "kanikuli".