Weekly retrospective 27-04-2014

The weather has been gorgeous recently in St. Petersburg. The sky is clear and blue, and the sun is brighter and warmer for longer every day. The temperature ranges from pleasantly cool to deliciously warm, though the breezes in the evenings can still be a bit chilly.

In my apartment complex, the trees are laden with big fluffy catkins, and leaf buds are swelling everywhere; a few trees are now in full leaf. Sparrows, pigeons, and other birds are singing enthusiastically, and fluttering low overhead as they pursue their courtships.

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Weekly retrospective 13-04-2014

A highlight of the past week was a reunion with an old friend from Beijing. To protect her identity, when I was blogging from China I always referred to her as the Siberian Rose; I’ll continue that here. A native of Omsk, she was in St. Petersburg for a seminar and we managed to catch up on two separate evenings. She’s been based for the last few years in Luoyang, where she works as a Chinese-Russian interpreter for Sinopec, the Chinese state-owned oil company. Her work takes her a lot to Kazakhstan, and it was interesting to hear her stories about that, as well as how she’s getting on generally. It’s been nearly four years since we last met in person.

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Scotland’s Game of Thrones

If Scotland decides to dissolve the Act of Union and become an independent nation, who inherits the UK’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council?

I don’t watch TV much, especially now that I live in Russia. Even so, HBO’s Game of Thrones is such a cultural phenomenon that I feel I know it quite well, simply through reading reviews such as this (which is a great piece of writing, btw). It’s made me think about the struggle for power as a bloody and merciless process. Just such a process is underway right now, in Scotland.

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Tyler Brûlé, and the Workers’ Paradise

I’ve been a fan of Monocle magazine for several years, and bought a copy every month until I moved to St. Petersburg. It covers a very stimulating mix of topics, from business to culture to the fashion industry and urban living. It takes a particular interest in small artisanal companies, and I sometimes used their company profiles as tutorial aids in my marketing and strategy modules.

Monocle‘s editor-in-chief, Tyler Brûlé, also writes a blog for the weekend edition of the Financial Times which, as it’s usually interesting, I have in my RSS feeds. Recently, he wrote a piece called Homing instincts about his ideal urban residential development, and it got me thinking.

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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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