1000 miles of Russian Reflections:Why the Russians don’t think Putin is an ogre

President Putin; Pic credit BBC

President Putin: Pic Credit: BBC


It is popular in Britain to think of Putin as a dangerous ogre. That is hardly surprising after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London and the assassination of opposition politician, Robert Nemstov. And the revelations kept from the Russian public about Putin and other prominent people’s secret offshore funds revealed in the Panama papers. Let alone Russia’s position on gay rights.

After travelling some 1000 miles along  waterways from St Petersburg to  Moscow on a very adventurous  and exhausting trip organised by Viking cruises it would strike me that it would be very short sighted to think that the West could simply bully and threaten Russia.

In 13 days the trip takes in two major cities and five centres in rural Russia. There are lectures on Russia’s bloody history from the Vikings through the Romanovs to Communism, a frank debate on present day Russia, lessons in Russian, vodka and Russian food tastings and a punishing schedule of included and optional excursions, morn,noon and night.

For all the misgivings about him, Putin appears to be popular. He gained some 64 per cent of the vote in a criticised election (down from 75 per cent before) in 2012.Outside Moscow the main contenders were not the liberal reformers but  the Communists who  got 17 per cent of the vote. Liberal reformers did better in the capital.

Ask our guides on the trip – and one of them voted for the Communist  presidential candidate- and they would say Putin has brought them stability (despite much higher inflation there than here) and also defended Russian interests.

The Crimea vote to rejoin Russia is popular and seen as righting a wrong created by Khrushchev in the 1950s when he handed it over to Ukraine. The Russians don’t forget the battle of Sevastopol.

The real villains for the Russians  are Western hero Gorbachev and Yeltsin.  Gorbachev is seen as a major destabilising factor over perestroika and Yeltsin for creating poverty and chaos through his shock capitalist therapy.

As one guide put it: ” Under Yeltsin we had money but no goods. Now we have lots of goods and not enough money.”

Another put it: ”  Gorbachev was rather like Thatcher. Both were seen as world statesmen  abroad but both were loathed by a lot of people in their own country.”

And one should not  underestimate Russian determination to defend their homeland. Our visit coincided with Russia’s equivalent of Armistice Day – Victory Day over the Nazis in their 1941-45 War. Some 27 million Russian died.

It is also used by Putin to show off the latest military equipment. But in St Petersburg ( and also in Moscow) – the most poignant moments were the thousands of people marching with placards and pictures  of relatives (often grandfathers) who had died in that conflict. They are called the ” immortal regiment” and it has grown from a grassroot gesture. to  one of the main ways to remember and honour the dead.

The one school we visited in  the small rural town of Kirillov (7000 people) also had large displays  commemorating former pupils who died in the 41-45 war.The town  also has had a statue of Lenin, a huge fortified monastery favoured by Ivan the Terrible and a rebuilding project for its local church used by the Communists as a drinks warehouse.

The other striking feature is the rise of Russian Orthodox Church. Not only have old ones that survived been restored but new ones built in the old style where they were blown up by Stalin. Church attendance  at seven per cent is probably little higher than in the UK, with more people attending at Christmas and Easter or for weddings and funerals. Nor is it confined to just the revival of Christianity – synagogues have been re-opened and other religions tolerated

.Moscow has a new  enterprising  high tech Jewish museum in an old art deco bus garage – the only place where I have experienced the Old Testament with surround sound in 3D . You get a bit wet during Noah’s flood and experience  what  a plague of locusts is like.

And yes there is much greater disparity of wealth. Moscow’s eight lane  highways are perpetually jammed by foreign cars bought by Russians. The River Neva outside St Petersburg is lined with huge new dachas – the  Toad Halls of the nouveaux riches. There are almost as many 4×4’s as in Berkhamsted.

And Yaroslavl – an old city some 160 miles from Moscow – where the aristocrats retreated from Napoleon after Moscow was captured in War and Peace – has a UNESCO World Heritage city centre. But nearly all its 600,000 inhabitants have jobs in industry. Uemployment is  1.4 per cent – though this is not typical for all Russia.

And the Russians appear to have stopped demolishing Communist statutes and buildings – the Moscow port where out ship docked has a huge Stalin designed building complete with a  spire topped with Red star and hammer and sickle. The 1937 hall is to  be restored and refurbished not demolished.

Russia wants to become a major tourist destination. The West ought to adopt a more sophisticated approach to dealing with Putin who is no fool Carrots and sticks may be better than aggressive containment.. By being ultra aggressive all they will do is unite the Russian people against the West while at the moment I found them both curious and  welcoming to Western visitors.













Russian Reflections:How you can’t spend a rouble in a Russian loo



Russia under the Communists was well known for its queues. Food was scarce, shoes and clothes pretty unobtainable. All that has gone under Putin. But in a visit this month with my disabled wife,Margaret, we discovered a new Russian queuing phenomena – just to visit the loo.

The reason is that in Russia a public loo is a rare phenomenon even in the most popular venues in Moscow and St Petersburg. And a disabled loo is such a rare creature that it verges on extinction. What mostly passes for a disabled loo would also struggle to meet the British Trades Description Act.

Most Russian loos look like a builders’ portacabin. The row in the picture above are believe it or not the public conveniences off Red Square. In the Kremlin itself there are toilets for just six people – a place visited by millions every year.  And only one disabled person can pee at a time. Within little more than a stone’s throw of Putin’s apartment strict rules ban flushing toilet paper down loos, a babuska  rations the number of sheets, and comical notice in English warns the disabled not to stand on the toilet seat.In most cases the pleasure of such facilities sets you back 25 roubles or 30p.

But what happens when you don’t have the cash as in St Petersburg when both my wife and I had not yet visited a cash machine to get any roubles. My wife pleaded desperation and the babuska let her in only to find the double doors led to a series of steps to get on the throne of the loo. When there was a crash the babuska rushed to see over the door  to see if she was all right.Fortunately she was.

I had a little more difficulty. WIth no money it was Niet. So desperate was I to enter the portacabin that I even offered a crisp five pound note. That was refused . In final desperation I went round the back of the Portabin. It was only when I was poised to piss on the historic wall of  Peter the Great’s fortress that suddenly she started banging on her office window. I was literally relieved in every sense and allowed to enter for free.

But there were other extraodinary toilet events to come. Nothing really surpassed the public convenince  at the Nunnery where the Czars in the past sent their discarded wives rather than choosing the Henry VIII solution. To enter this loo you went into the bowels of the earth down a spiralling staircase. Hardly suitable for the disabled.When my wife eventually go down there it turned into a communal experience women able to see each other  over  stable doors.Still at least the experience was free. See the entrance below.

However  there is one disabled loo in Moscow that shames everyone  So high tech and brilliantlly equipped that it has no rival. It is in Moscow’s magnificent and brilliant Jewish Museum – more in another piece on Russia –  and boasts a bum warmer and a bidet . It is easily  accessible and i t is free for the price of an admission ticket. If only all loos were like this.

Russia needs to get its  act together if it wants to become a big tourist destination. It so needs another revolution, a proper disability agenda and a body to champion the disabled and fight for decent loos.

I took this up with the Russian Embassy when we returned from the trip . This is their unedited reply:

“Thank you for letting us know about your impressions and concerns. Indeed, there are fewer toilets for the disabled in Russia than there should be. Standards for accessible environment were legally set in 2001, and they are complied with in new buildings and structures, but, regretfully, less so in the already existing ones. This is really an issue we should deal with. Note that the safe option in larger towns is McDonalds – they always have good accessible toilets and are OK with non-customers using them.”

Cameron: Bash the Russians, send in the troops but keep out the Ukrainians

Ukraine in crisis Pic credit: http://media.worldbulletin.net/

Ukraine in crisis
Pic credit: http://media.worldbulletin.net/

As the crisis in Ukraine deepens David Cameron is taking an increasingly belligerent line against the Russians. He is now sending a token number of troops and promising  greater European Union  economic sanctions unless Vladimir Putin backs down.

This policy may well be right and is likely to be  popular, though people might be wary of armed involvement. As he is reported in the Daily Mail on Friday telling Govan shipyard workers :”In terms of what Britain has done, we were the first country to say that Russia should be thrown out of the G8, and Russia was thrown out of the G8. We have been the strongest adherent that we need strong sanctions in Europe and we’ve pushed for those, achieved those and held on to those at every single occasion.” Now we are the first to send some troops.

Not so well reported has been Britain’s views on the  £2.2 billion support  package agreed by the EU including the UK to help Ukraine. As well as agreeing this large sum of money to help the Ukraine the package included measures to cover one of the most controversial areas of EU policy – the relaxation of immigration controls.

As I report in Tribune this week Britain actually signed up to deal which allowed the abolition of visa requirements for Ukrainians across 26 countries in Europe..

Among the measures the EU agreed is to abolish all visa requirements for Ukrainians seeking to come to the EU for any 90 day period in the Schengen zone. This covers 22 countries in the Eu and four others, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein ,Only the UK and Ireland have a permanent opt out.

The agreement said: “Mobility is an important area where the Commission believes meaningful, visible, short-term steps should be taken.

“While a number of them depend on the political decisions of the Member States, the Commission is willing and ready to pro-actively facilitate swift and efficient coordination in this area.

It added : ” The Commission fully recognises the importance of mobility and people-to-people contacts for Ukrainian citizens and will support Ukrainian efforts to move forward the visa liberalisation process as quickly as possible in line with the agreed conditions of the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan.”

For other countries the EU agreement says: A “ Visa Facilitation Agreement is in operation between the EU and Ukraine and the Commission encourages Member States to fully exploit its potential. It gives Member States the possibility of choosing from a series of measures, including waiving visa fees for certain categories of citizens. In addition, the Visa Code gives the Member States additional options to waive the visa fees for further categories, such as, for example, children.”

When questioned the Home Office was adamant that it need not follow any of these guidelines. A spokeswoman said the agreement was equivalent to “a memorandum of understanding” between the EU and other member states outside the Schengen area and the UK need not implement anything.

At present the Home Office charges 129 US dollars (nearly £84) for a basic visa for Ukrainians to enter the UK for up to six months including children. Students are charged 234 dollars (nearly £152) and anybody seeking 10 year visa are charged 1150 dollars (nearly £747 ).

What is interesting about this is how David Cameron and Theresa May in the pre-election frenzy  have already  implemented a very tough policy on immigration to rival UKIP.

Such a move might well be popular – and there are real concerns – not least by unions like Unite – that fruit farmers were very keen on having Ukrainians over here as a source of cheap labour.

However I think we should know that Cameron’s warm words to help the desperate plight of the Ukrainians do not apply to having a single poor Ukrainian in Britain. The clampdown has begun and the troops, a token 75, are going in.

The Evil Empire that wants to destroy and tax the free internet

Darth Vader or Vladimir Putin? Pic courtesy: http://www.downwithfilm.com

Bloggers beware. A group of the world’s  repressive regimes have teamed up with greedy telecommunications companies to form one unholy alliance. Their aim is to restrict who can access the internet and to milk and tax the billions of people who already use it.

No, this is not science fiction, it is fact ,despite my illustration. And the first steps are going to made at a UN  conference in Dubai next month.

The plotters are at a meeting of an extraordinary obscure and secretive UN body called the International Telecommunications Union. Its remit until now has been to police such quaint inventions like telegrams and international landline telephones. It now wants to extend its remit to the internet.

It is being hijacked by a number of the world’s most repressive regimes as a  body to control who can access the internet and how much they can be charged.

The Evil Empire of countries behind this move include China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria  and sadly after the Arab spring, Egypt. Hardly paragons of  human rights these countries are canvassing over 80 other developing countries, including African and Asian dictatorships, to back a  new UN Treaty legitimising the right of governments` to limit who can access the internet. Using Orwellian language they want only “rational” people to have access and the power to refuse them an IP  address or block any e-mails or communications sent to them.

But there is a further twist. A group of  unnamed European telecommunications companies want to profit from this by introducing charges for using the net, including sending e-mails and talking on Skype being well aware that the decline in post and international calls  means the end of an income stream. And the repressive regimes are also interested in introducing a tax on free country users. Called the ” Sender Pays” model it will mean if your blog  or e-mail was read by anybody in Russia, Iran  you will would be sent a tax bill or charge.

This ” Tweet Tax” will inhibit communication and price out citizens from using the net.

To check this out see the conference site at http://www.itu.int/ and  go for the section on the World conference on International Communications. Click on documents and you will see the submissions but be blocked for accessing them. These include submissions from Israel, Tunisia, Cuba and Cameroon to name a few. You can read on the public views  and opinions section  the Centre for Democracy and Technology submission which will give you a clue. But don’t try direct  at http://www.itu.int/en/wcit-12 or you will be blocked!

It is not pretty reading.

Worse although I gather it is opposed by the United States – no country can have a veto over this treaty. And countries like the UK which is looking at a new draft communications bill to collect details of people on the internet – are actually creating a system which will allow repressive regimes to tax you by allowing the Revenue and Customs to pass your details to them.The UK does not appear to have submitted anything to protest about this. New Zealand has – as this report shows – see http://m.nbr.co.nz/opinion/nz-will-vote-against-un-taking-control-internet …

Hardly anyone seems to have spotted this and we are  less than a fortnight away from the conference. But a campaign and petition has been launched by the TUC with the backing of the International Trade Union Confederation and they held a press conference about it last week – which received virtually no coverage. If you want to back it – the links are  www.tuc.org.uk/stopthenetgrab.

Details of the petition by the ITUC  are at: http://www.change.org/petitions/stop-the-net-grab.

See my article in Tribune.

I am amazed that no-one  has taken this up.  You would think  the Huffington Post or  Political Home, or bloggers like  Guido Fawkes,  might be alarmed about this. I for one can’t see  Lord Ashcroft or Paul Staines willingly paying over taxes to Russia or Iran collected by our Revenue and Customs because someone overseas has reads their blog or received an e-mail.

And I see nothing public from think tanks like Compass, Policy Exchange, and the Taxpayers Alliance, objecting to this.

As has been said many times the defence of liberty needs eternal vigilance. This attack on internet freedom transcends the Left and the Right and is as big a threat to free speech as any nasty dictator.