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Peter Pomerantsev

Peter Pomerantsev’s memoir of Russia, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, which draws on essays written for the LRB, won the 2016 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize.

From The Blog
15 October 2019

I know that a nation doesn’t experience trauma in the same way as a person, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the Leave campaign’s latching onto the phrase ‘take back control’ hadn’t been not only about appealing to what Dominic Cummings called a desire for ‘loss aversion’, but had also touched on something deeper, darker, more self-destructive.

Teffi

Peter Pomerantsev, 2 February 2017

How​ does a comic writer describe a world that has stopped being funny? What to say when the system you satirise is swept away, when parts of the population are killed, when the survivors become refugees, drifting away en masse but it’s unclear where to? Teffi was faced with these questions as she tried to make sense of revolution in St Petersburg, as she fled through the Civil War,...

Diary: European Schools

Peter Pomerantsev, 15 June 2016

Educated side by side, the children of the European School played up to caricatures of their homelands. The French were moody: the boys read graphic novels and the girls wore Chanel. The Italians were appalled by the food and seemed to take badly to multilingualism. The Germans were the jocks. We in the English section, the boys anyway, posed as eccentrics: we quoted Monty Python and made a point of eating Marmite. It’s said of Boris Johnson that he elaborated his cartoon Englishness at Eton, but the groundwork would have been laid at his European School.

Murder in Mayfair

Peter Pomerantsev, 30 March 2016

As he lay dying Alexander Litvinenko solved his own murder and foresaw the future. A professional detective on his last case, with himself as the victim, he worked out that he had been poisoned in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair, by another former KGB detective, Andrei Lugovoi. He had thought they were partners, investigating the connections between Putin’s Kremlin, organised crime and money laundering in Europe, but Lugovoi was still taking orders from the people they were investigating.

Diary: Iammmmyookkraaanian

Peter Pomerantsev, 19 February 2015

When I was growing up in the 20th century revolutions seemed significant. At school the Russian Revolution was everyone’s favourite subject but it was less theoretical for me than for most: my parents had ended up in England because of it. The 68-er parents of schoolfriends would tell me about the sexual and cultural revolutions of their youth which, they said, changed the world. I was 12 in 1989, when we all watched the Berlin Wall fall on live TV. It seemed like the Russian Revolution and the 1960s rolled into one.

Diary: What fascists?

Peter Pomerantsev, 18 June 2014

When​ Putin’s holy war began Alexey checked himself into a psychiatric ward. He had come back to Russia in 2012 after working as a journalist in London, where we met (I had just moved to London after a decade in Moscow). The protests against Putin were cresting, and change seemed imminent. ‘London is boring, everything has already happened here,’ Alexey said. ‘Russia...

Diary: Sistema

Peter Pomerantsev, 5 December 2013

There are any number of paths and initiations into sistema, the liquid mass of networks, corruptions and evasions – elusive yet instantly recognisable to members – which has ordered the politics and social psychology of Russian civilisation since tsarist times. When I arrived in Moscow to work as a TV producer my initiation took the form of a driving test. I would never pass, my instructor explained, if I didn’t pay a bribe. When I protested that I wanted to pass the test for real he said the traffic police would fail me until I paid up.

The Night Wolves

Peter Pomerantsev, 9 October 2013

In the Moscow compound of the Night Wolves, the Russian equivalent of the Hells Angels, ships’ conrods have been refashioned as crosses ten feet high. Broken plane parts have been bolted to truck engines to make a giant stage; crushed Harley-Davidsons have been beaten into a bar; boats’ hulls have been moulded into chairs; and train parts into Valhalla-sized tables. The crosses are everywhere, wrenched together out of old bike parts and truck shafts and engines. The Night Wolves, or Nochnye Volki, are bikers who have found a Russian God.

Diary: Berezovsky’s Last Days

Peter Pomerantsev, 25 April 2013

Two men who defined post-Soviet Russia died within eight days of each other last month, both suddenly and far from home. On 16 March the body of Vladislav Mamyshev was found floating in a swimming pool in Bali. His death was blamed on a heart attack. He was 43. Better known as Vladik Monroe, Mamyshev was a pioneer of performance art in Russia, his status that of a sort of post-Soviet Warhol crossed with RuPaul. In the late 1980s he had hung out with the art group Pop Mechanika.

Diary: In Brighton Beach

Peter Pomerantsev, 13 September 2012

When Eddie Petrovsky, a Russian immigrant, opened his restaurant Cosmos in the traditionally Italian area of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, the locals all assumed he was a gangster. ‘They think any Russian who drives a Lexus has to be mafia. The whole gangster thing was way back, in the 1990s, but they can’t believe Russian immigrants could make it by just working hard.’ Eddie, it has to be said, looks like a friendlier version of Tony Soprano – but his main source of income is a valet parking business serving Hasidic weddings. He arrived in the US from Siberia in 1990, a 22-year-old straight out of university, part of the post-Soviet influx.

Putin’s Rasputin

Peter Pomerantsev, 20 October 2011

The next act of Russian history is about to begin: Putin and Medvedev will pop off-stage into the Moscow green room, switch costumes, and re-emerge to play each other’s roles. Putin as president, again, Medvedev as PM. It’s the apotheosis of what has become known as ‘managed democracy’, and the ultimate triumph of the show’s writer-director, Putin’s chief ideologue and grey cardinal, Vladislav Surkov, the ‘Kremlin demiurge’. Known also as the ‘puppetmaster who privatised the Russian political system’, Surkov is the real genius of the Putin era. Understand him and you understand not only contemporary Russia but a new type of power politics, a breed of authoritarianism far subtler than the 20th-century strains.

Diary: At Potemkin Productions

Peter Pomerantsev, 3 February 2011

In 2006 I was invited to take part in one of the great adventures of modern broadcasting – conquering the booming Russian television market. The company I was hired by, Potemkin Productions, had been founded by Tim, a British executive producer, and Ivan, a Russian entrepreneur who had made millions in advertising and wanted to do the same in television. Potemkin’s plan was to take British shows like The Apprentice, Come Dine with Me and Faking It and remake them with local talent. It seemed so simple.

From The Blog
28 April 2017

Bill O’Reilly’s world-weary smirk has been replaced by Tucker Carlson’s confused stare in the 8 p.m. slot on Fox News. O’Reilly, the most popular host on US cable news, was sacked because of a sex scandal, but Carlson is in many ways a more fitting presenter for the age of Trump.

From The Blog
5 April 2017

The Belarus Free Theatre’s first performance was in 2005, when they staged Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in a café in Minsk. The café owner lost his licence after two performances. The cast and crew lost their jobs with the state theatre. Between 2006 and 2010, their performances of, among other pieces, documentary plays by political prisoners were staged in private apartments and in forests. They were often broken up by KGB operatives toting machine-guns. At a performance during the 2010 protests, everyone in the audience was arrested and beaten. The creative directors moved to London. But the theatre still performs in secret locations around Minsk. I went to one a couple of months ago. They called me on my mobile a few hours before the play and told to come to a bus stop by a supermarket. ‘Wait on the corner. We’ll come and collect you. You can try to guess who else is there for the play.’

From The Blog
12 January 2017

‘Russia is a mental subcontinent, the subconscious of the West. This is why we place our fears, our phobias and foibles in Russia,’ a character says in Zinovy Zinik’s novel Sounds Familiar or The Beast of Artek. The book, published last summer, explores the way the Kremlin Menace can loom to a monstrous size in the Western imagination. A timely subject, given the way the debate around Donald Trump's admiration of Vladimir Putin has morphed into a grotesque tale of Putin playing puppet-master in the US election – complete, according to a recently leaked 'unverified' report, with candid camera footage of Trump enjoying golden showers in the Moscow Ritz and secret meetings between the Kremlin and Trump's team in Prague (home of the Golem).

From The Blog
5 October 2016

Theresa May invoked the ‘spirit of citizenship’ as the thing that holds Britain together today. The term has an ingrained tension: ‘spirit’ invokes a mystic national soul; ‘citizen’ something rational and rules-based. On the one hand, May seemed to suggest the concept was more about rules and moral norms than anything metaphysical, equating the ‘spirit of citizenship’ with paying tax and not being an absolute bastard to your employees:

From The Blog
8 September 2016

The three Home Alone movies all featured in a list of the ten most watched TV programmes in Ukraine in January and it’s tempting to speculate that the popularity of the franchise reflects the way the country sees itself: abandoned by those who should be responsible for it, under attack from bigger powers and having to improvise its self-defence with anything that comes to hand. This isn’t just about the latest Russian aggression. Historically Ukraine has been invaded and occupied by everyone in the region: Romania, Austria, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia.

From The Blog
29 June 2016

The blind man is still playing his tin whistle during rush hour at Green Park station and all the streets look the same, but the inner mental map I have of the world, the one that places me in a network of structures and institutions, has gone. The chain of associations I grew up with – me, London, England, United Kingdom, Europe – has buckled. Simple language loses meaning: What does ‘out’ actually mean? Or ‘in’? Or ‘the UK’?

From The Blog
8 June 2016

Brexiteers like to frame Europe’s relationship to the UK as one of empire to colonial subject, as if the campaign to leave the EU were equivalent to some sort of glorious war of decolonisation. Of all the referendum debate’s many absurd arguments, this – presenting Boris Johnson as the reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi – may be the most absurd: especially coming from a country that used to have a real empire and really ought to know the difference. But maybe that’s the point.

From The Blog
5 January 2016

For many fans, football is a dad’s game. Fathers introduce their sons (and, less often, daughters) to it, and they may build their relationship to each other through the game. Club loyalty is often passed on from father to son. For adult fans, following football can be a legitimate return to lost childhood, with managers as replacement father figures. Football phone-in radio shows are a Freudian feast of grown men blaming managers for all their problems or showing boundless faith in them. In O, Louis: In Search of Louis van Gaal, the Dutch journalist Hugo Borst zones in on the death of van Gaal’s father when Louis was 11 as the formative event in his development. Van Gaal remembers his father as an ‘authoritarian figure; at home there was a mixture of warmth and strict adherence to moral standards.’ According to Borst, van Gaal as a football manager is trying to be the father he had taken away from him.

From The Blog
2 September 2015

Orango hated communists. Part man, part ape, he was the product of a French biologist’s experiments in inseminating monkeys with human sperm. The human overcame the animal in him and in the early 20th century he rose to become a star journalist and media mogul, using his power to attack the fledgling Soviet Union. But the more he ranted about the evils of the working class and communism, the more ape-like he became, both physically and psychologically, descending into violence and finally madness. By this point a world cataclysm had brought down the bourgeois order, and Orango was sold to a Soviet circus: shown off at Red Square parades as the ape who could blow his nose like a human being. This is where Shostakovich’s opéra bouffe Orango opens. Indeed it is the only scene we have.

From The Blog
21 April 2015

One of the problems with Ukraine is that no one really knows where it is. For many people, not least Vladimir Putin, it’s an extension of neo-tsarist Russia. For others it’s a Central European state of frustrated blood-and-language nationalism which just needs the chance to build strong institutions to express its essence. The Nestor Group, a collection of Ukrainian thinktanks and intellectuals, has meanwhile concluded that Ukrainian value systems reject both the Russian model (deification of paternalistic authority) and the language-and-bureaucracy-makes-a-state logic of Central Europe. Instead, Ukrainians lean towards horizontal civil society bonds: the 'sotni' who made up the revolution on the Maidan, the volunteers who fund and feed the army, church congregations and small business associations, criminal gangs and football hooligans. According to Yevhen Hlibovitsky, a member of the Nestor Group who was involved in both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and Maidan in 2014, this puts Ukraine in the same bracket as Mediterranean countries such as Italy or Greece.

From The Blog
24 February 2015

On 14 January 2014 I saw Jack Straw speak at the Westminster Russia Forum at the Baltic Restaurant on Blackfriars. The Forum, formerly known as Conservative Friends of Russia, was launched in August 2012. Leaked e-mails from Russian officials soon appeared, saying they had been urged to use the organisation to campaign against the Magnitsky Act in Westminster. CFoR tweeted photographs of the anti-Kremlin head of the Parliamentary Committee on Russia, Chris Bryant, in his underpants. The Russian diplomat liaising with the group was Sergey Nalobin, first secretary in the embassy's political section (his father was a senior figure in the KGB and FSB). They were accused by the Guardian, World Affairs and Private Eye of being a lobby group for the Kremlin.

From The Blog
3 September 2014

If Scotland votes ‘Yes’ to independence, Scots and English will both lose a country, Great Britain, but also gain a new one. I will lose one, but what will I gain? As a first-generation immigrant I can be British but never English (or Scottish or Welsh or Irish). It would be the second time I’ve lost a country. The first was the USSR. I don’t regret its demise but I’m still perturbed by airport visa forms that ask where I was born. I want to write USSR but am told to write Ukraine. Why wipe out history?

From The Blog
18 August 2014

Over a drink, an English investment fund manager working in Moscow told a friend of mine that the war in Ukraine meant everyone in his office had had to ‘downgrade their own futures’. They had been calculating that Putin would eventually calm down and things would get back to normal. He hasn’t, and it looks like nothing will ever be normal again. At the fund manager’s office, they’re talking about the possibility of 30 per cent inflation and GDP contracting by 10 per cent. Some of them have decided to relax and enjoy the apocalypse. Since the Kremlin banned food imports from the EU and US earlier this month, there's a sense of needing to party before the good things run out. They start drinking on Tuesdays now.

From The Blog
13 August 2014

The immigrant who arrives too late in life to adapt to his new country, but too early to survive on nostalgia for the old country, has to create a third, imagined country to live in. When my grandmother got Alzheimer’s I was tempted to see it as an expression of her late-life immigration from the USSR to the USA, leaving one civilisation and never arriving at the other. (I was a teenager.) One of her daughters had cut off her past and been reborn as an American; the other returned over and over to Russia, making documentaries, unearthing graves and exploring gulags so she was all ‘memory’. But my grandmother had neither future nor past. As her illness got worse she would be found walking dazed along the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, the Russian ghetto where Brooklyn meets the ocean, a last stop on the subway from Manhattan. In the evening the boardwalk would be full of Russian immigrants with gaudy haircuts and fur-wrap finery, and as the light faded you could forget you were in America.

From The Blog
22 July 2014

‘When the news came in about the plane going down I couldn’t tell whether it was real. There have been so many fake pieces of news in the Russian media this week you can no longer tell what’s true and what isn't,’ B said, as we sat in a Moscow café the weekend after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 had been blown out of the sky over Donbass. ‘Just this week there was a story about Ukrainian soldiers crucifying a Donbass child. Then there was a story about how the White House instructed the Ukrainians to depopulate Donbass so that the US can get control of its shale gas. And since the crash, there have been stories about Americans trying to down Putin’s plane but getting the Malaysian one by accident, or the plane being filled with corpses before it took off to fake the tragedy, or the US blowing up the plane to pull Putin into a war in Ukraine to distract from their economic problems.’

From The Blog
19 June 2014

‘Will you be supporting England?’ English people have asked me ever since I can remember. My family moved to London from Kiev in 1980, when I was three. The question might look like a football version of Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’. But one of the earliest things I worked out as an immigrant child is that you’re not meant to rush into English identity. You can do that in the US maybe, but it would be utterly un-English to try to be too English too fast. ‘Who do you support?’ is a bit of a trick question.

From The Blog
19 May 2014

‘Russia,’ the Russian writer said, ‘is pitted against the West because of its deeper sense of spirituality.’ He was speaking at a conference in Kiev bringing together ‘international intellectuals to carry out a discussion about the meaning of Ukrainian pluralism for Europe, Russia and the world’. It was hot in the room. I felt sick and went down to Maidan, my first visit since the revolution.

From The Blog
28 March 2014

Vladislav Surkov is back. Back inside the ever-shrinking sanctum around Putin; on the elite list of Russian officials hit with visa bans and asset freezes in the west. The enemies who were so recently converging around Surkov, threatening charges of corruption and much more, have fallen silent. On 12 March, Surkov published a new short story, in Russky Pioneer (under his pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky). ‘Without Sky’ is set in the future, after the ‘fifth world war’. The story is told from the point of view of a child whose parents were killed in the war. He was brain damaged, and can only see and understand things in two dimensions:

From The Blog
6 March 2014

The games the Kremlin is playing in the Ukrainian theatre of almost-war are an extrapolation of the techniques it uses in Russia. Postmodern authoritarianism – or whatever you want to call the 21st-century system the Kremlin has developed with its puppet politicians and simulated ideologies and pretend conflicts and real killing and corporate KGBism – is going on tour.

From The Blog
4 March 2014

Crimea is de facto frozen and now the focus is on Eastern Ukraine. Putin says he hopes he won’t have to invade – unless the locals really need his help. Kharkiv is a focal point: Ukraine’s second largest city, right on the border with Russia. it's where Yanukovich fled (or was told to flee) after he decided he couldn’t hold Kiev. It's where crowds turned out to defend the local statue of Lenin from being pulled down by pro-Majdan activists. It's where, it was briefly thought, a separatist leader might announce a breakaway Eastern Ukraine. The choice would be symbolic: Kharkiv was the capital of Soviet Ukraine up until 1934. It had always been a town of merchants and traders, a town of movement and wandering, but in the Soviet Union it also became a military-industrial centre. It’s now officially defined as ‘Russian speaking’ while the surrounding countryside is ‘Ukrainian speaking’. The writer, poet, leftwing activist, academic and ska group front man Serhiy Zhadan talks of ‘surfing languages’ in the city: one person can be speaking Russian and the other Ukrainian in the same conversation; or the language can change as the subject changes (Russian for oil business; Ukrainian for horse trading).

From The Blog
1 March 2014

I was on holiday in Yalta a few years ago, trying to write a script about the last Whites fleeing Soviet Russia for a film that would never be made by the feature film director I would never become (I was still at film school at the time). It was the second half of September, the end of the tourist season, and I could afford to rent a large apartment in the old part of Yalta among lazy 19th-century mansions sunk in liana. It was a writer’s fantasy but I wasn’t getting much done and spent most of the time exploring the peninsula.

From The Blog
19 February 2014

Twenty-five people died in Kiev last night. Before it started, when the day was still bright and my main thoughts were about dealing with my feverish four-year-old twins over half-term, I sent a message to a friend who also writes about Russia (I’d put the twins in front of a cartoon). ‘Just had an odd thought,’ was the gist of what I wrote (it was in a social media shorthand). ‘But what if all the stuff the Kremlin has been doing the last few months – destroying the relatively free RIA Novosti, taking TV Rain off the airwaves, pressuring radio Ekho Moskvy, ramping up the anti-Americanism and traitor-hysteria – is not just a case of a general "turning the screws", not a reaction to social change, but actually active preparation for a huge operation in Ukraine. They want their informational bases covered. They’re planning something.’ ‘Ummm. Maybe,’ my friend wrote.

From The Blog
7 February 2014

Among the alleged thirty billion dollars’ worth of inflated contracts, self-dealing, kick-backs, crooked tenders and orgiastic waste that have made the Sochi Olympics cost more than all previous winter games put together, what stands out is the sheer brazenness of the whole thing. ‘The Sochi Olympics reveal the dark heart of Putin’s Russia,’ Panorama concluded on 27 January. But nobody is really bothering to hide it. The Kremlin knows it doesn’t matter how much is stolen or siphoned away: Gazprom will still control energy in Europe, Berlin will still appease Putin, Brussels will still roll over, London will still yearn for oligarchs’ money.

From The Blog
3 February 2014

In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek takes a scalpel to the late Soviet period. The surface, spoken ideology, Žižek argues, was not what actually held the system together. You could joke about ‘great leaders’ and the inadequacies of Marxist economics: the system let you have a giggle. The real holy of holies was the idea of the narod (‘common people’), in whose name the leadership could validate any action. Thus the deeply subversive nature of Milos Forman’s early, Czechoslovak films such as The Firemen’s Ball, which portrayed the narod as stupid, greedy, ugly. This was a cut the system couldn’t take and Forman had to leave. Over the last few days Russia’s only independent (and really rather small) TV channel, TV Rain, was accused by the Kremlin of stepping ‘beyond the limits of the permissible’. Most cable carriers dumped the station, leaving it in crisis and its future under serious question.

From The Blog
29 January 2014

Commentary on the turmoil in Ukraine often focuses on the division between a Russian-speaking east and a Ukrainian-speaking west. Ethnolinguistic lines, the argument goes, explain the pro-Moscow v. pro-EU camps, pro-protest v. pro-Yanukovich. But the situation is more nuanced than that. The closest thing Maidan has to a leader is the boxing champ Klitschko, who struggles in Ukrainian and whose Russian is far purer than President Yanukovich’s. Its first martyrs are an ethnic Armenian from Russian-speaking Dnepropetrovsk and a Belarussian Ukrainian resident. Its violent front line appears to be multilingual.

From The Blog
23 December 2013

Of all the pages of comment and analysis I’ve read since Mikhail Khodorkovsky was suddenly pardoned on Friday by Vladimir Putin after spending ten years in prison, a note on the Facebook page of the film critic Roman Volobuev stood out: All day I’ve been thinking: 10 years in a Russian prison! You know what a Russian prison smells like? I’ve been to Russian prisons a couple of times for work and I still dream of that smell periodically. And now a man who’s been there ten years is in a nice hotel room, takes off his socks and walks barefoot on the carpet, or has a drink of Glenlivet and just lies down in the bath... and all that stuff about the Future of Democracy. That can wait.

From The Blog
19 December 2013

For the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution last week, Vladimir Putin gave a big speech in which he announced that the new Russia seeks leadership but not superpower status, has no ambitions to interfere in the affairs of other countries, and is increasingly looked to by other nations as a guide for spiritual and moral values. At the Kremlin party afterwards, the ageing rocker Oleg Gazmanov played his hit ‘Born in the USSR’, which echoes the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’:

From The Blog
7 December 2013

At noon on 25 August 1968, eight men and women walked out onto Red Square and unfurled a banner: ‘For your and our freedom’. They were protesting against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia: eight people out of an empire of 250 million. Natalya Gorbanevskaya was the most famous and most controversial of them, because she took her baby with her. Afterwards she spent three years in punitive psychiatric wards, force-fed haloperidol. In 1975 she emigrated to Paris, where she died last Friday. The eight protesters were dissident heroes. ‘They cleansed our conscience,’ my parents told me.

From The Blog
4 December 2013

‘The Subtleties of Organ Smuggling’, a short story by Serhiy Zhadan, is a series of interconnected sketches set on the EU-Ukraine border, where a rag-tag collection of pining lovers, gypsies and ageing prostitutes try to bluff their way over the Schengen line. As an awkward teenage Hungarian border cop searches through the contraband of Ukrainian women ‘smelling of life and vodka, talking in broken English and broken Russian’, he has to take away their surplus alcohol, take away their electric shavers and chocolate, take away their explosives and hand-grenades, take away their copies of Hustler (for his boss), take away their methylated spirits, cocaine, aromatic sticks smelling of hash, herbal oils with heroin extract for Thai massages, haemorrhoid suppositories, glass jars full of gypsy women’s hair for wigs, fish and human blood in thermos flasks, frozen sperm in empty Kenzo perfume bottles, grey slices of human brain hidden in plastic bags with Russian salad, hot Ukrainian hearts folded into fresh Russian newspapers – all these objects they’re trying to smuggle over the border in their rucksacks, bright canvas hold-alls, fake-leather briefcases and laptop bags.

From The Blog
22 November 2013

When the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was a young hoodlum on the make in late 1960s Soviet Donetsk – or so the story goes – he made his first money through the following ruse: he would lurk in a cubicle in a public toilet in winter. When a man came into the cubicle next door, he would wait for the opportune moment, then lean over, grab the man’s expensive fur hat and make a run for it: the victim, caught with his pants down, mid-crap, was in no state to give chase. Whether the story’s entirely true or not – Yanukovich was definitely a hoodlum and served two terms in prison, for robbery and assault, in 1967 and 1970 – it captures something of his operating methods.

From The Blog
5 November 2013

Sergey was a blind football hooligan. I got to know him when I was researching a TV show about people overcoming tough challenges. He supported Dynamo Moscow. Every weekend he would take his place in the stands among the hardcore fans behind the goal. He didn’t listen to a radio as most blind supporters do. He told me he could feel what was going on during the game with an ‘inner football vision’. Dynamo Moscow supporters are famous for being among the most racist and neo-nationalist and Sergey was no exception: I can hear those churki in the street. I can hear their filthy language in the metro. My yard used to be full of the sound of Russian… When I hear those churki I just come up and take a swing. Just like that. I saw him in a fight once, swinging wide and wildly. But when he connected it was powerful. (Churka, literally ‘block of wood’, is an offensive term for someone from the Caucasus or Central Asia.)

From The Blog
25 October 2013

On 23 October 2002, between 40 and 50 Chechen men and women drove in a blacked-out van through the early evening central Moscow traffic, out to a suburb once home to one of the world’s largest ball-bearing factories. They pulled balaclavas over their heads, strapped belts of dynamite across their bodies, and walked briskly into the main entrance of a concrete, brutalist theatre known as Palace of Culture Number 10. The show that evening was a performance of Nord-Ost, a musical set in Stalin’s Russia. It was sold out. The terrorists came on stage during a love aria. They fired into the air. At first many in the audience thought they were part of the play. When they realised they weren’t, there were screams and a charge for the exits. But they were blocked by ‘black widows’ with explosives wired between their bodies and the doors. The men on stage ordered the audience back into their seats: if anyone moved they would be shot. By the time I arrived the next morning, as a fixer for tabloid hacks and documentary crews, the theatre was surrounded by soldiers, medics, TV cameras, cops and onlookers.

From The Blog
9 July 2013

There was much talk of fairy tales in the court-room in Kirov where Alexei Navalny gave his closing statements on Friday. Since leading the failed revolt against Putin’s kingdom of corruption, Navalny has been charged with stealing 16 million rubles worth of Kirov Forest when he was assistant to the local governor in 2009.

From The Blog
31 May 2013

Earlier this month the bestselling crime writer Boris Akunin announced that as Russia was becoming a police state with political prisoners, any form of co-operation with the state by cultural and artistic figures was tantamount to collaboration. There has been much agonising since: what about if you work at a state newswire agency? Or at the Bolshoi? It’s an old debate in Russia: there are still fights about whether Shostakovich was collaborating with Stalin or subverting the system from inside. But the challenge is harder now the Kremlin has learnt to speak the language of democratic capitalism, and goes out of its way to own opposition narratives. I once did some consultancy for a hotbed of Russian liberal journalism: Snob.

From The Blog
8 May 2013

Egor could clearly see the heights of Creation,where in a blinding abyss frolic non-corporeal, un-piloted, pathless words, free beings, joining and dividing and merging to create beautiful patterns. Vladislav Surkov, Almost ZeroVladislav Surkov, the grand vizier of the Putin era, the creator of ‘managed democracy’ and ‘post-modern dictatorship’, today resigned (was sacked) from the Russian government. I saw him on 1 May when he gave the speech at the LSE that may have been his undoing. There was a small protest at the entrance to the lecture hall calling for him to be included on the list of Russian officials denied visas to the US for their part in the killing of the anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. In a gesture of patriotism Surkov had recently said he would be ‘honoured to be on the Magnitsky list’. Surkov avoided the protest and strode in through the back door. He was wearing a white shirt and a tightly cut leather jacket that was part Joy Division and part 1930s Chekist. He was smiling a Cheshire cat smile. He said that we were too clever an audience to be lectured at and that it would be much freer and more fun if we just threw questions at him. After one vague inquiry he talked for 45 minutes: it was his system of ‘managed democracy’ in miniature – democratic rhetoric and authoritarian practice.

From The Blog
22 April 2013

In October 2001 I went to a conference on transnational approaches to economic development in Makhachkala, Dagestan. The conflict in neighbouring Chechnya was still hot and with international organisations on security alert after 9/11 the representatives of the World Bank, IMF and UN couldn’t go. The only ‘internationals’ were a romantic French economist who believed the Caucasus economy could be fixed by cross-breeding the local, scrawny cattle with Burgundy cows, and me, a very junior think-tank researcher just out of university. The local politicians, tall men with long black leather coats and large moustaches, looked past me when I talked about lessons-to-be-learned from Yugoslavia and plied me with the local sweet, thick cognac and ladles of black caviar from Soviet crystal bowls.

From The Blog
18 April 2013

‘Keep punk bands out of this zone,’ said a banner in Amsterdam during the Russian president's visit last week. ‘Putin might be offended.’ Thousands of LGBT demonstrators with rainbow flags lowered to half-mast shouted ‘Putin go homo’ as they protested against the Kremlin’s latest move to ban ‘homosexual propoganda’ (which might include the rainbow flag). A few days earlier in Germany Putin had been rushed by topless Femen activists with the words ‘Fuck you dictator’ scrawled on their breasts: a statement, Femen said, against the Kremlin’s ‘patriarchal authoritarianism’. Putin must have been delighted.

From The Blog
25 March 2013

I was at a conference in Moscow for international journalists to meet members of Russian political parties when the news came through of Boris Berezovsky’s death. ‘It’s the end of an era,’ said the editor of Open Democracy Russia. The standard account, especially on Russian state news, is that Berezovsky’s era ended long ago: he personified the ‘wild’ 1990s, the antithesis to the ‘stable’ Putin era. But look closer and you see that the Putin era is not the antithesis but the apotheosis of the tactics, patterns and attitudes that Berezovsky put in place.

From The Blog
29 January 2013

‘We’re tormented with Americanisms,’ the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, complained last week. ‘We need to liberate our language from foreign words.’ He is drawing up a list of 100 words which he would like it to be illegal for broadcasters, writers and academics to use in public. Fines and unemployment could face anyone caught saying café, bar, restaurant, sale, mouton, performance or trader. Some of the words have come into use since the fall of the Soviet Union; others have been around for decades, if not centuries. ‘There are perfectly good Russian words you can use,’ Zhirinovsky says. ‘Why say boutique when we have lavka?’ (Lavka is usually translated into English as something like ‘stall’.)

From The Blog
4 January 2013

‘This is like the Cold War,' a Russian foreign ministry spokesman said in December after President Obama signed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. 'We will retaliate.' The act allows for the public naming of Russian officials involved in 'extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognised human rights'. It also allows for their US assets to be suspended and for them to be barred entry into the States. Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian corporate lawyer who was tortured and died in Butyrka Prison in Moscow in 2009 after accusing various Russian bureaucrats of perpetrating a $230 million tax fraud. The law named after him is targeted at the many corrupt Russian officials who act with impunity at home and then spend their ill-gotten gains in the West. But of course the US isn’t the favoured destination of rich Russians. Most prefer to keep their property, wives, mistresses, football teams, newspapers and children in the UK. What would really hurt corrupt Russian officials is a Magnitsky Act here. But will it happen?

From The Blog
22 November 2012

‘It’s taken twenty years but suddenly I’m a hero,’ says Martin Šimečka, one of the Slovak dissident writers of the 1980s. ‘After the liberation no one wanted to talk openly about the Communist period. Dissidents weren’t heroes but reminders of people’s own conformism – but now there’s a young generation who want to stand up to the state, and they turn to me as a role model.’ I was in Bratislava for the Central European Forum: an event held annually around 17 November, the anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The Forum brought together the old generation of Eastern European dissidents with participants and observers of new protest movements: a member of the Spanish indignados talked about utopia in a euphoric rush; there were Hungarian anti-Orbán activists, Occupy, Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei specialists. ‘The new generation here are hopeless – they wanted to protest austerity measures in Slovakia but couldn’t achieve anything,’ according to Zuzana Szatmáry, a Slovak poet and essayist who worked in a factory for 20 years. ‘I enjoyed the factory, I learnt how to get tangible results. If you want change then you have to adapt protest to the specific state you’re battling.’

From The Blog
20 September 2012

Moscow isn’t short of places to waste your nights in. The city comes into its own after dark. As in Spain, despite the difference in latitude, you eat late and drink until even later. At the height of the oil boom, Saturday night could be spent spinning through a glittering whirligig of clubs where Chechen gangsters snorted coke with cross-dressing performance artists, Kremlin spin doctors hung with theatre directors, grinning thirtysomething billionaires seemed intent on spending oil wells of money at the bar, and the cloakroom girls looked like supermodels. The mood was part LL Cool J video, part Studio 54, part Petronius’ Rome.

From The Blog
16 August 2012

The Russian Orthodox Church is on holy war footing. The ‘sacrilege’ of Pussy Riot is no isolated incident, Patriarch Kirill says, but part of a wave of attacks on the church, ranging from accusations of financial irregularity to seemingly random acts of vandalism against church property. The attack on the church is not just anti-religious, according to pro-Kremlin media, but part of a larger geopolitical campaign by America to destabilise Russia.

From The Blog
29 June 2012

‘We own the field of ideas,’ Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper says, ‘and at the end of the day it is ideas that create revolutions.’ Oskolkov-Tsentsiper is the head of Moscow’s hippest design and architecture school, Strelka. For the last few years they have been exploring concepts such as ‘civic space’ and the influence of protests on a city; now they plan to investigate ‘agents of change’. All mildly momentous stuff for Russia. Strelka is one of a few new institutions, publications and generally progressive places that have been spreading a new language, a new style and a new way thinking in Moscow. In and around the protest camp at ‘Occupy Abaj’, clusters of young people talk about the ‘self-identity of the city’ and ‘disrupting the society of the spectacle’.

From The Blog
25 April 2012

Moscow, the myth of the city says, is the Third Rome. And Vladimir Putin has often been compared to the emperor Augustus. Putin, like Augustus, came to fix a cracked superpower, where rule was fracturing between warring regional governors, where democracy was manipulated by powerful oligarchs. Putin, like Augustus, centralised power, tamed the oligarchs, and shifted the political model from a corrupt democracy to a more effective form of quasi-monarchical rule. And, like Augustus, Putin retained the facade of democracy (parliament, elections) with none of its political power. Much of Mary Beard’s account of Augustan Rome in the latest LRB could apply just as well to Putin’s Russia:

From The Blog
15 February 2012

Last week the internet group Anonymous hacked into the emails of Nashi, the pro-Putin youth organisation often compared to the Hitler Jugend. It turns out that Nashi keeps lists of ‘enemies’ – including writers, bloggers, activists and politicians – alongside allegations to smear them with, such as ‘gave a blow job to a black man’ or ‘sleeps with prostitutes who say he has a small penis’. Top of the list of exploitable ‘weak spots’ is a Jewish background. But the biggest stir has been caused by allegations that Ilya Varlamov, a photographer and blogger thought to be anti-Putin, received large payments from Nashi. Varlamov, who denies the charges, is said to have been given 400,000 rubles (around £8400) for two photo blogs which, if not blatant propaganda, did make Putin look rather smart. The revelations have opened up an old debate in Russia: what are the limits of co-operation with an unsavoury state? When is it OK, if ever, to take money from Kremlin Inc?

From The Blog
6 February 2012

At 6.15 on Friday evening, Henry VIII (played by the bloke who impersonates him at Hampton Court) led a procession of local politicians down the steps of Greenwich’s council offices. In front of a crowd of a few hundred people, they announced that Greenwich had been accorded royal status by the queen in honour of its ‘longstanding royal connections’. It’s only the fourth borough to be given the title (after Kensington and Chelsea, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Kingston upon Thames), and the first for more than a hundred years. It’s almost surprising it didn’t happen earlier: Greenwich is the birthplace of Tudor kings, home to Wren’s Royal Naval College, the National Observatory and the National Maritime Museum (where in the summer David Starkey will be curating an exhibition called Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames), and a Unesco World Heritage Site regularly used by Hollywood to shoot historical scenes of a vanished England.

From The Blog
30 December 2011

The Kremlin is trying some typically shadowy, sly moves to quell the Russian protest movement, but in Alexey Navalny the opposition may have a tactician who can outplay Putin at his own game. After an unexpected 50,000 demonstrators turned out in Moscow on 10 December to protest against electoral fraud, Mikhail Prokhorov, a flamboyant oligarch, said he supported the protests and would run for president in March. Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets and Snob magazine, and was arrested a few years ago at a French ski resort on suspicion of pimping (though later released without charge), will be an easy target for Putin’s anti-oligarch rhetoric. It seems a classic Kremlin ruse: push forward an opposition candidate so absurd it only strengthens Putin.

From The Blog
13 December 2011

One of the first thing the Putinoids did when they got into power just over a decade ago was kill the satirical TV show Kukli (‘Dolls’), the Russian version of Spitting Image. After years of unchecked power they have become their own spitting image, easy targets for the satire of protesters demonstrating against the rigged Duma election. Putin himself, already ridiculed for his macho preening and such PR stunts as ‘accidentally’ discovering archaeological remains on a diving trip broadcast on TV, is now known as Mr Botox. His recent facial enhancement treatment has made him look like a rubber doll.

From The Blog
9 December 2011

Russians love living in London: Berezovsky and Abramovich fight it out in a London court room, the Lebedevs buy the Standard and the Independent, minted Sashas and Pashas fill up the public schools, Russian hipsters spliff on London Fields, Russian shoppers throng Selfridges, Russian middle-class professionals walk their tots in Primrose Hill. London is known as ‘Londongrad’ or ‘Moscow on the Thames’; Russian media call it ‘Russia’s premier city abroad’ and even talk about ‘misty Albion’. Skinny bohemians and fat bureaucrats sip overpriced bitter at ‘Olde Englande’ theme pubs in Perm and Ekaterinburg; there’s a boy band called ‘Chelsea’ and Russia’s best alternative rocker has a song called ‘I dreamt of the sky above London’. Tell a certain kind of Russian you’re from the US or Germany and they’ll shrug; say you’re from London and they’ll sigh wistfully the way some Americans once did about Paris.

From The Blog
28 January 2011

I was in Russia when the suicide bomber blew him/herself up in the arrivals hall of Moscow Domodedovo Airport. A rush of worried calls and e-mails jammed my phone (‘I am fine, I was in the Urals when it happened’). One message stands out: ‘The fuckers wrecked our set. Our set!’ In 2008 I produced a television show at the airport for Russian TV. For a year I slept at the airport, I woke at the airport. I know where the smoke alarms are dummies and you can have a crafty fag; when the best light floods through the glass walls to get the best shots; how to cut a deal with the customs guys so they go and buy you duty free whisky. I know which flights bring in which types of passenger. The show was called Hello Goodbye, a remake of a Dutch format. The presenter would walk around the airport and talk to people leaving or meeting each other: emotional families reunited after a generation, lovers parting for ever, lads off for a dirty weekend. It was a microcosm of the new Russia, all the country’s stories under one high-domed roof.

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