POSTCARD FROM RUSSIA
by John Butler,
Chairman, UKIP Mid-Dorset
& North Poole
It’s probably fair to say that Russia is not everyone’s idea of a holiday destination. When we mentioned we were going, people’s reactions ranged from a quizzical; ‘Oh …. that’s a bit different’, to anxiety for our health, liberty and safety. Many misconceptions about Russia abound, some eagerly propagated by the EU and the BBC in their new Cold War with the Putin regime. And the prospect of a visit to Russia does still have a frisson of excitement about it, the prospect of a journey into a rather strange place with a dark, troubled history.
It’s not the easiest place to get to either. Since the EU imposed sanctions in response to the Ukraine crisis (as much of the EU and USA’s making as it is Russia’s), Putin’s government has introduced tough new visa restrictions on EU visitors; you have to present yourself in person to the Russian visa office in London for biometric scanning, and answer some intrusive questions on your application form (eg. details of all foreign visits in the last 10 years). At the border, security is very tight and passport/visa details are checked rigorously. You must also complete and sign an immigration paper, half of which you must keep during your visit and hand in on your exit – woe betide if you lose it (as we nearly did !) – you might not get let out. It will be interesting to see how the hordes of England football fans due to descend on Russia for the 2018 World Cup will cope with this.
We had a two centre holiday, staying first in Moscow and then St Petersburg, with an overnight sleeper train between the two. These two great cities epitomise the dual character of Russia, a country that straddles Europe and Asia, yet fully belongs to neither. In 1703, Peter the Great founded his Imperial capital at St Petersburg at the head of the Gulf of Finland, on the swamps of the Neva delta. This was to be Russia’s ‘window on the west‘, wrenching the country away from centuries of landlocked isolation, and making it into a European superpower. St Petersburg feels something like a European city, with similarities to Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Moscow by contrast, has much more ancient foundations (1147) and feels more exotic, more typically Russian. After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1917, Moscow regained its ancient role as the nations capital. It is now a city of 16 million, compared to St Petersburgs’ 4.5 million.
The first thing that strikes you about Russia is the large scale of things. Everything is vast, from the massive 8 – 10 lane highways that drive into Moscow’s historic heart, to the huge squares, boulevards and set piece cathedrals and palaces of St Petersburg. Although both cities have efficient and cheap public transport which are widely used (a ticket anywhere on the Moscow metro costs about 50p, St Petersburg, 30p), road traffic is correspondingly huge in volume – the Moscow rush hour is something to behold, and cars (mainly German made Audi’s or BMW’s) are driven at breakneck pace (no speed camera’s here). In Moscow, pedestrian crossings are to be stepped on at your peril, but fortunately there are frequent pedestrian underpasses and bridges. In St Petersburg things are slightly more orderly, with green light pedestrian crossings everywhere and a clock telling you how many seconds you have left to cross the six or eight lanes of waiting traffic.
The sheer opulence of the historic buildings in both cities is breathtaking. The state palaces and cathedrals within the Kremlin walls are like a city within a city and are the very heart and origin of the Russian nation. The Orthodox religion was never entirely suppressed and has seen a big revival since the fall of communism. Stalin demolished over 4000 historic churches, but many have now been rebuilt. The pretty little Kazan Cathedral on Red Square (demolished in 1936 to make space for military parades) has been fully rebuilt as a replica of the original, as is the beautiful new cathedral of Christ The Saviour, a feature to rival any on Moscow‘s skyline. Stalin wanted to demolish St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square too, but for once was dissuaded when a leading architect of the day threatened to cut his throat in public (he got 15 years in prison instead). So St Basil’s survives today. The beautiful male voice singing in the cathedral is a magical experience, as was the Russian National Ballet we went to see one evening; a beautiful production telling the history of the Russian nation in music and dance.
In St Petersburg, the various imperial state palaces and cathedrals are breathtaking, but you do need a strong stomach for all that Baroque and Gold Leaf, which are absolutely everywhere ! The state rooms in the Winter Palace are extraordinary and hard to do justice to with mere words – they really do have to be seen to be believed, as do the rooms in the palace at Tsarskoe Selo, including the famous Amber Room, completely restored in 2003 to its original design. The Hermitage Museum is also vast – it estimated that to see every exhibit would take 11 years to complete, and it has one of the finest collections of classical art works anywhere in the world. My favourite was the palace at Peterhof, just outside the city, with its magical fountains and beautiful wooded parkland running down the shores of the Gulf of Finland. There you can find Peter the Great’s little summerhouse, built in 1710 to a Dutch design, so he could indulge his passion of watching the ships at sail.
The outskirts of both cities feature massive new building projects and re-development is everywhere. Next to Red Square, the communist-era monolith, The Rossiya Hotel has been demolished and the site is to be re-landscaped as a public park, opening up the river frontage to views of the historic buildings and churches along Vavarka Street. This project will complete the ring of beautiful green parks around the Kremlin walls. The famous GUM department store (built in 1893), no longer sells only pickled vegetables and stale bread, but has some the most high-end designer shopping outlets anywhere in the world, as well as more down to earth places for a bite to eat. It is worth walking the various levels of its three huge 3 storey arcaded precincts just to admire the fantastic glazed atrium roofs.
Sometimes it’s the little things that reveal so much. The streets in both cities and in the metro are very clean and litter free. A great effort goes into this; little mechanised street sweepers and water bowsers clean the pavements non-stop, everywhere (you might get your shoes washed free of charge !); staff on the metro stand at bottom of the escalators wiping the handrails as they run through (imagine that on the London Underground ?). There was little sign of the aggressive begging or thieving we had heard so much about beforehand, and the police presence (usually a man and woman on the beat) was low key, reassuring and never felt threatening. In general, we were free to walk around and take pictures as we pleased. The Moscow Times, a free daily English language newspaper is available in most hotels and tourism offices and is by no means a mouthpiece for the government, having a fairly liberal and sometimes critical tone towards the Putin regime.
So how are the Russian people doing ? Average wages are much lower than the UK, the state pension is minimal (£400 a year), but on the plus side, food in supermarkets is about half the price of the UK and there is a full range of just about everything you need. There are many small market stalls selling inexpensive local produce (jams, honey, bread) and well as locally grown fruit and veg, and people selling strange tinned meats and pickled things in bottles. Petrol is about a third the price of the UK and public transport is incredibly cheap and pretty efficient. Restaurants and cafes range from some of the most expensive in the world’ to reasonable middle-priced places comparable in price and quality to what you might expect in the UK, to amazingly good value places where the many of the locals eat – usually a simple door in a block fronting the street, with little window advertising, leading into a canteen style service area with a great choice of local dishes.
Russia has embraced capitalism with vigour; a few people are incredibly rich (it’s estimated that 5% own about 95% of the wealth) and there are many who are struggling to get by. Official data suggests that 1 in 7 of the population is living below 10,000 roubles (approx £100) a month, designated as the minimum income needed to make ends meet. As food prices have risen and real wages stagnated or decreased, budget grocery chains have seen their sales increase. However these trends are not wholly unfamiliar to the UK and USA. What is happening in Russia, for the first time in its history, is the emergence of a professional middle class who are reasonably prosperous and content as long as political stability and economic progress is maintained. A rising tide floats all boats and if current trends continue, it is hoped that all levels of society will eventually grow and prosper.
The current fall in oil prices has weakened the value of the rouble and caused a slight recession, but it is likely only to be a partial blip. Devaluation of the rouble has caused a fall in domestic car sales, but has also stimulated growth in Russia’s export car market (many European producers including Volkswagen, have assembly plants here). One of the world’s largest domestic appliance companies, BSH (Bosch, Siemens) already manufacture much of their product in Russia and are investing a further 10 million euros this year, having invested than 150 million euros in Russia since 2005. For many European producers, Russia is their largest export market; for example the loss of the Russian market for food and agricultural produce is costing EU producers £12bn a year. The EU’s sanctions are largely irrelevant to Russia and grumbling from German producers and industrialists to Merkel’s EU sanctions policy is growing. The fundamentals of the Russian economy remain strong. The country has a large, educated, skilled workforce, there are vast untapped primary resources in Siberia (oil, minerals and gas), and trade delegations from China, Japan, Korea and other important Asian markets are banging on the Kremlin’s door to do trade deals. British and European visitors numbers may be down, but this has been more than offset for by a huge increase in visitors from the Far East. Ultimately, the EU needs Russia more than Russia needs the EU; in a sanctions war there will only be one winner.
By taking the nation’s primary resources out of the hands of the oligarchs and under the control of the state, Putin has ensured that Russia’s assets will not be stripped by aggressive American business corporations. Instead, the profits are building a sovereign wealth fund, currently worth around £ half a trillion, which will enable Russia to weather any economic turbulence that may lie ahead. In response to US and EU hostility over the Ukraine, Putin has brought in strict laws to regulate the activities of politicised ‘charities’ and other NGO’s (non-governmental organisations), some of which operate under foreign political influence. Next year, a law will be introduced capping foreign ownership in any Russian media to 20%, though to what extent this will effect the internet is not yet clear. Most importantly, Putin‘s regime has brought a degree of personal security, relative freedom and prosperity that Russia has not known before. Compared to what its people have had to endure in the last 100 years, the current situation must seem quite rosy. Judging by the sales of Putin mugs and T-shirts in the streets, he doesn’t seem to be massively unpopular, and his ‘personalty cult’ is certainly nothing compared to Stalin.
The potential of this huge country is great indeed. Russia remains what Russia always is and always has been – a strange, amazing, tragic, beautiful and enigmatic place, which everyone should try to visit at least once. Above all, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that we in the West have the answers to Russia’s problems – political intervention from outside has generally lead to pretty disastrous results here and elsewhere. It may not be ideal, it may not accord with our PC dogma, but Russia is best left alone in peace, to get on and sort out its own affairs in its own way. Antagonising Russia (which seems to be the current UK and EU policy) is about the most foolish long term thing we can do. Russia has traditionally been Britain’s ally in toppling overweening European dictators (Napoleon, Hitler), and it could yet have vital role to play in the Middle East in combating Islamic based terrorism.