Siege mentalities (and why you need to have one)

Last Sunday I went into central St Petersburg with the aim of going to the Defence of Leningrad Museum. It was the day before the anniversary of the German blockade being lifted, and it seemed like a good time to see the exhibits of life in a modern city under siege conditions.

It turned out that I didn’t need to get to the museum – the exhibits had come to the people! One of the central streets, a couple of blocks away from Nevsky Prospect, had been turned into a siege re-enactment. Tank traps sealed the street off; wooden barn doors were leaned against building walls to protect some windows, while others had sandbags stacked up against them. The barn doors were covered with posters, exhorting the citizens to maintain their defence efforts, as well as with hand-scrawled messages. Trucks, trams, motorcycles, and anti-aircraft guns from the period were parked here and there, monitored by museum staff and volunteers dressed in period Red Army costumes – and who were fighting a losing battle, trying to stop crowds of hyper-excited small children from clambering onto the vehicles!

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Networks of gifts and obligations

Apoptosis Network

 

I wrote in my last post about my apartment here in St. Petersburg, which very likely would originally have been shared by multiple generations of the same family, despite seeming to me to be only big enough for a single person – or at most a childless couple – by contemporary western standards.

Of course, it was never designed for so many people. However, under the Soviet Union, resources such as apartments could not be built, bought or sold privately. Everything was done by the State, and allocation was supposedly done in order, according to where your name was on the relevant list. Unfortunately, of course, the State was incredibly inefficient and slow, so it would hardly be unusual to wait ten or even more years for your name to come up. Until then, you shared.

When I mentioned that, under these conditions, people got things done through personal networks instead of official channels, a friend commented on Facebook: “Isn’t any system e.g. blat, guanxi, enchufe in Spain, that is subverting the sanctioned system better known as corruption?”. It’s an excellent question, getting right to the point I wanted to talk about this week, because it brings us straight to the underlying assumption that the “sanctioned system” is itself fair. This is rarely the case, much as we might wish it to be so.

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Living in Leningrad

I’ve been in Russia for slightly over a week now. After the initial disorientation, I’m starting to find my feet, and have worked out the essentials of how to live and work here. I haven’t really had the opportunity to relax much, or to get to explore the city, but I already know that I like St. Petersburg, and I like the Russians.

St. Petersburg, of course, was known for most of the 20th century as Leningrad, and that Soviet history is still palpable. I only realised today that a week tomorrow, the 27th of January, is a very significant date: it will be the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad.

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Arrival in Russia

Things got weird almost from the beginning. As I was settling into my seat on the plane, the message came over the tannoy: “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard British Airways flight 878 to Leningrad”.

Leningrad??? Had I fallen into a timewarp? It wasn’t a one-off either; the same message was repeated shortly afterwards. I asked one of the cabin crew about it; she denied any knowledge of it…

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The world turns

Prism

 

The arrival of Christmas, and the run-up to the new year, naturally prompt reflection. Looking back at 2013… well, it’s been a full year in many ways. I’ve met some fascinating people, and learned an awful lot. I’ve very much enjoyed the courses I’ve taken at the Traditional Upholstery Workshop in Meidrim, near Carmarthen. The course in London where I qualified in auricular acupuncture. Systema classes at the Cardiff Martial Arts Academy. Incredibly different contexts, but without exception they were times I will look back upon with great fondness.

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Through a revolution by train – part 1.

It seems hardly any time ago now, but in August 1989, I was heading into a revolution, and the birth of the world as we know it today.

That summer, I wasn’t long back from a year working in Southern Africa. I had a bit of money from a temp job in my pockets, and two months to kill before I started at university. While I’d been in Africa, I’d been reading Time and Newsweek whenever I got the chance, and I knew that things were stirring in the Communist countries of Eastern Europe. I decided to take the train to Poland to see… well,  whatever was there to be seen. I tried to persuade friends to come along but no-one was up for it so, armed with Fodor’s Guide to Eastern Europe, I went alone. What I found was an upswelling of hope and idealism; a feeling that a better future was on the verge of arriving.

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Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison

My first real understanding of Nelson Mandela’s importance was due to his absence.

It was in 1988, and I was in Johannesburg Central Train Station, having come down to South Africa from my job high in the mountains of Lesotho. In the deep valley where I was living and working, there was no TV or radio reception, so we were starved of news from the outside world. Whenever I got a period of leave, I would devour Time and Newsweek to learn what was going on beyond the valley walls.

On this occasion, I’d hitch-hiked up the N1 motorway, and was staying in the YMCA a short walk away from the station. After dropping my rucksack off, I’d made straight for the newsagent in the station, and was examining Time. This edition happened to have a story about Nelson Mandela (perhaps this one?), which included a picture. Only, the picture was missing – there was just a hole in the page. Not understanding at first, I checked the other copies in the pile. In every one, the picture of Mandela had been neatly cut out.

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Perceptions of Pussy Riot

Free Pussy Riot

It may be that, like myself, you’re about to move to another country. Perhaps you’re engaged in some kind of international business. Almost certainly, you deal with people from different parts of your own country. You may be pondering the best way to handle a proposal, or assessing how someone will respond to a new project. It may be, as the economists would have it, that we are all rational actors make decisions according to our own best interests – but it would be foolish to deny the influences of national or group culture when individuals make choices.

Regardless of our particular situation, it would be helpful to have a method for evaluating the nature and degree of that cultural influence – it might help avoid a great deal of misunderstanding and disagreements!

There is in fact a very useful tool to do just this.

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