Weekly retrospective 11-05-2014


The big event of the week was of course Friday: May 9th, Victory Day – the anniversary of the Second World War. 20 million Soviet citizens died during the war; the overwhelming scale of their loss, and of their overwhelming contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany often isn’t sufficiently acknowledged in the West.

That said, Victory Day turned out to be quite different to what I had expected. I knew there would be military parades; I’ve seen them on YouTube, and I remember from news programs when I was young how Kreminologists would study them carefully to see who was standing where on the podium outside the Kremlin to take the salute, and whether there was any new military technology on display.

So, I had a mental image of a show of military strength crossed with Britain’s Armistice Day tributes: a solemn, restrained day, spent in quiet remembrance.

Wrong! I didn’t watch the morning’s military parade in St Petersburg; I’d been advised that it would be horrendously crowded, so I watched Moscow’s parade on national TV. There were speeches, and lots of ceremony – but on the whole, it was low key and quite a short event. (In style, though not scale, it put me in mind of China’s 2009 National Day parade, for which I was in Beijing. The Chinese took their form of parading from the Soviets and made it more grandiose – especially in 2009, which was the 60-year anniversary of the founding of the PRC).

In the afternoon, there was a “People’s Parade” of various organisations, marching bands, veterans, and of ordinary citizens. I watched this from a cafe overlooking Nevskiy Prospekt. Despite heavy rain as the parade started, there was a very large crowd, who cheered the parade continuously. Very many of those taking part were carrying placards bearing the photo of a member of their family who had served. There were re-enactors wearing period uniform, and a parade of WW2 vehicles brought up the rear. The whole length of Nevskiy Prospekt was lined on each side by a row of police – and I must say, there are some very attractive women amongst St. Petersburg’s finest.








The red flags in the last picture are copies of the Soviet Victory Banner, which was famously  flown from the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin on the day Adolf Hitler committed suicide.

Eventually, the parade drew to an end, and the crowd dispersed.There was carnival in the air; contrary to my expectations, Victory Day is a day for celebration and partying. There was a free concert in Palace Square.


Later in the evening, I was in an Armenian bistro when the official celebrations ended with a firework display. The days have drawn out long already, and so it was still light. From my vantage point, the fireworks bracketed the dome of the Kazan Cathedral; all around the city, groups of people clustered to watch, and shouted the Russian war cry, “Uuurrrrraaaa!” when they liked some part of the show. Cars were cruising around with the windows down and the music up; the pace of the crowds quickened as darkness fell.




I left at 11pm; I’m not sure if that’s their usual closing time, but even as I found my wallet the waitresses were pulling on their coats, eager to leave. As I made my way to the metro station, I saw why. The crowds on Nevskiy Prospekt were bigger than any I’ve yet seen in St. Petersburg; the police were everywhere, keeping an eye on things, but they were swamped by the mass of people. Every now and again a chant was raised: “spassiba! [Thank you!]” – a tribute to the fallen, but now seeming fiercer, a determination to revel in the life made possible by the sacrifices of the past. It seemed to be a bacchanal – a deliberate throwing-off of worries and fears – until the next day, at least. In this, it reflected the true sense of a Victory Day, when a population realises that today war is over, life can be lived, and the aftermath can be thought about tomorrow.

The Guardian has quite a good photo-essay, but like all the other coverage I’ve seen, it doesn’t convey the wild energy of the day.

Speaking of that Armenian bistro: they also serve a lot of Georgian food as well, so perhaps it would be better to describe it as a ‘Caucasian’ bistro. Armenia and Georgia, like Azerbaijan, are in the region of the Caucasus mountains. Likewise, areas of southern Russia – Chechnya, Dagestan – are in the northern Caucasus. These were also the traditional homelands of the Kuban and Terek cossacks; the regions that took Imperial Russia decades to subjugate, where Tolstoy served and later described in his short stories. The area where modern Russia has once again fought bitter wars and still confronts deadly threats. There’s a lot of prejudice in Russia against the peoples of the Caucasus; since people from the region tend to have darker skin than the pale Slavs of the north, the Russians sometimes call them “chernoye”, or “the blacks”. This caused some astonished discussion in one of my classes; my students were amazed to discover that in the West, “caucasian” is the official term for white-skinned people.

Racism was one of the things that kind of worried me before I came to Russia, not that I would be an obvious victim of it, of course. I’ve overheard some generally negative comments about Caucasians, and I’ve been warned not to wander alone near Sennaya Ploschad at night due to the number of ‘immigrants’ there – but whether this is due to prejudice or a genuine crime problem I don’t know. One of my colleagues is a British guy of mixed Caribbean and Irish ancestry; he says he’s had no problems due to his skin colour.

Still, there are some nasty people around, as there are in any society. As I was going to watch the parade I saw a flag I didn’t recognise, and took a photograph:


According to Wikipedia’s List of Russian Flags, it’s a Tsarist-era flag which has subsequently been adopted by monarchists and right-wing groups. Eek!

I finally got round to climbing the dome of St. Isaac’s cathedral, and was rewarded with spectacular views of old St. Petersburg.



I’d seen in the St. Petersburg Times that on Tuesday the Human Rights film festival May 32 would be screening a one-off showing of the HBO documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Well, that sounded interesting… In the event, though, I’d been doing a lot of walking around that day and my feet hurt, so I decided not to go. Which, as it turned out, was a good decision: the festival had been shut down for ‘fire safety violations’.

In other news, the Biblical myth of the flood is being illuminated by deep-water archaeology in the Persian Gulf.

Famous entrepreneurs describe how they overcame failure. From Apple, we learn that the secret to success is writing everything down in advance.

Describing a trend that’s been apparent for some time, the New York Times identifies where the high-value jobs are going to be; as I’ve said before, many of my former students are going to find that a degree in Management or Business Studies isn’t going to be as helpful as they thought. Matt Crawford explored this in his excellent book The case for working with your hands. Reading that was illuminating for me, and was the kick up the behind I needed to start investigating ways out of academia.

New research demonstrates why acupuncture works. The scientific support for acupuncture keeps on growing.

The state of the world today – conflict and oligarchic control driven by increasing resource scarcity and environmental degradation – was clearly detailed 1994 by analyst Robert D. Kaplan. His essay, The Coming Anarchy, is online – go and read it now. An interesting development is that the insurance industry, led by Lloyds of London, are moving to add climate change to their pricing models – once that happens, a lot of people who’ve been content to ignore or deny climate change will find that they can’t any more.

And, when it comes to Peak Oil and other declining resources, the only thing you need to know is this: the problem is not that we are “running out” of resources. The problem is that it is getting more and more expensive to extract a given quantity of each resource – to the point where we can’t afford to do it any more.

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