Letter From Russia

Zeke Newbold

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#1
So Russia is very much in the Western news like never before and - as an expat who lives here - I thought it might be good to give an occasional glimpse of what it is like to live in the belly of the beast: Moscow. (I invite other expats in Russia - there's one or two more on here - to join in). Forgive me if it rambles....

The thing about Moscow life is that it just grinds on like some huge hyperactive Heath Robinson machine, regardless of geopolitics. Russian people are for the most part intensely apolitical and they just bury themselves in their private worlds...: trying to ski in the last of the snow, trying not to let the inherent unhealthiness of Moscow life affect them too much, trying to better themselves,catching American TV series's online,planning holidays to Turkey, crowding the Metro,and going out to their dachas at weekends to `sleep`.

That said, I have noted a new restlesness among the mostly young and middle class students who I teach English to: they know the last election was a huge circus and they are very conscious of the pervasiveness of corruption. Many said that they would vote for Ksenia Sobchack as a protest, expecting nothing of it. A great many wish to leave their country altogether, and decamp to Canada or Australia - places they imagine to be probem-free utopias (btw Britian doesn't feature so heavily in this escape fantasy).

We are emerging from a seemingly long and challenging winter - perhaps it was just a normal Russian winter really, but this one seemed to hit us hard -and the temperatures are now very early minus figures - with some sun, some actual sun! -and we are slowly waking up from the sleepwalking life of the past few months.

For the first time in the ten or so years that I have been here I am being asked by folks at home if I am `allright`. I can only reply that nothing has changed- yet. I can report, hand on heart, that I have never experienced the slightest hostility from any Russian - that I can think off -on account of merely being British.The attitude is more one of curiosity (`Don't you miss your family?` `Why is London always foggy?` `Do you drink tea at four -o-clock?`) sometimes mingled with a kind of respect (for being a brave traveller - as they see it) I am, however, starting to wonder if the political situation is going to rebound on my work somehow - visas and all of that, but nothing has come to my attention so far.

A few days ago I had a surprise visit to my flat from the Politsia (the police). This was a bit concerning at first, but it turned out that they were merely collecting the names and details of all the people in the area - something to do with the imminent World Cup. They looked at my I.D, spoke to my landlady and asked me some questions and otherwise were polite enough.

Ah, yes: the World Cup. That's a biggy here. They have spent the last year rebuilding Moscow round the clock - there has been building and renovation sites wherever you go and the endless noise of road drills. The Metro now has announcements in English and there are special police around called the Tourist Police who can speak English and whose job it is to help tourists. Ladies and gentlemen: they really, really want people to come!

That is why, even though I am temperamentally disinclined to conspiracy theories, and no Putin fan, I do find it hard to understand why Putin's regime would have been directly involved in the events at Salisbury. Why piss on your own parade in that way? I can however believe that Russians in some shape or form were behind it.

And by the way, Johnson's rant comparing the World Cup to the Nazi Olympics was about the most ill-judged remark that a diplomat could possibly make. Russians are obsessed with the `Great Patriotic War` against the Nazis to an unhealthy degree so that was about the most inflammatory thing anyone could have said.That will have been reported in the state run media and now the Man in the Street, who has nothing against us Brits, will have felt slighted for sure.

Well, that's all for now. PAKA!
 

Yithian

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#2
For the first time in the ten or so years that I have been here I am being asked by folks at home if I am `allright`. I can only reply that nothing has changed- yet.
This sounds very familiar. Even on the rare ocassions when I have some very slight qualms, I uniformly respond with something insouciant on the grounds that a fib is the lesser evil than the concern I might cause otherwise. Quite honestly, nothing short of gunfire in the distance or bombers overhead is going to cause me to up sticks (the end of Up The Khyber is the fantasy); political turbulence tends to pass like the weather in most tolerably civilised societies--think of those riots in Blighty a few years back: almost forgotten.

Another point of comparison is how--like it or not--one tends to become an unofficial spokesman for one's country when it pops up on the news. Once again, I tend to paint a slightly more sanguine picture that I perhaps see at 3 a.m. on the grounds that even the most tangled mess tends to disperse like a fog with the dawn.
 
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McAvennie

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#3
I’ll be over for two and a bit months from early May, looking forward to having a chat with some of The interns that will be working for us to get an idea of what the next generation feel about their country.

All my previous trips over (between Moscow and St Pete) I’ve enjoyed very much - simultaneously being everything I expected of Russia and many things I didn’t expect.

Glad to hear there will be some English assistance on the Metro, but to be honest I’ve always managed to figure it out where I am going. Looking at a map and counting stops is not rocket science... It is more the inability to communicate in an emergency that scares me.

I actually quite like and respect the lack of English spoken generally. It has an air of ‘this is Russia, adapt or fail’ to it whereas the rest of Europe’s pandering to the English language leaves us less challenged on our travels.

They can keep the kholodets though..
 

stu neville

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#4
I know a fair few Russian ex-pats, and I'm always struck by how well they can separate homeland and state. They all love Mother Russia, and will defend its values and tradition, but most despise the Kremlin, whom they regard as corrupt beyond even Mugabe's standards: one friend's mother worked in one of the Party department stores in Leningrad as was - she'd see senior Party members walk in, freely buy good quality food and clothes, and furniture, etc, and then she herself would have to queue at a shop around the corner for the most basic, low quality stuff. The disparity happens everywhere, of course, but at least here no-one pretends that the ruling class eat and live the same way as the workers.

Obviously this was pre-Glasnost, but the vacuum left by the Party soon filled with.. well, we all know that. I do admire the Russian capacity for stoic cynicism (if such a hybrid is philosophically possible.) It's made them what they are as a people, but it also makes them understandably defensive. As friends though they're loyal, wild and passionate company, and that I like in anyone :).
 

Zeke Newbold

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#5
I’ll be over for two and a bit months from early May, looking forward to having a chat with some of The interns that will be working for us to get an idea of what the next generation feel about their country.
..
Well, you'll be sure to have a good time: I think that May is the best month to be in Russia. In this month Spring/summer appears in a sudden surge of white sun and mud and everyone goes a little crazy. It is indeed the `Merry month of May`.

May 9th, `Victory Day, has become a bit of a travesty though. Now it's more an orgy of jingoism and nostaslgia rather than the remembrance of those who fought the Nazis which it used to be (and which many Western leaders attended). I give it a miss these days.

I agree with you about the English language concessions. As someone trying to learn Russian it's always a little annoying to hear English on trains or see it on signs. You will probably find too that in central Moscow many people below (say) 45 will want to try out their English on you...no matter how bad it is! There is still plenty of scope for not hearing any English once you get out of the Metro and away from the centre however!

I envy you the fact that you get to go to Russia in a non-English teaching capacity. All my interactions with Russians tend to get overruled by the fact that I'm here to spread the virus of the English language and that tends to become the centre of most of my interactions, even if I try to steer things away from it.

As for Russians attitude to their own country..well, it's a weird paradox. They manage to combine intense and unthinking patriotism with an inability to come up with anything at all that they think is good about their own country! One the one hand, Russia is the best, but on the other all European and Western countries do everything better than them. How they reconcile those two poles I do not know, but there it is. I have been told that the French have a very similar attitude to France I wouldn't know, but maybe you could comment on that?
 

stu neville

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#6
As for Russians attitude to their own country..well, it's a weird paradox. They manage to combine intense and unthinking patriotism with an inability to come up with anything at all that they think is good about their own country!
You get that in many places though, especially older cultures. The only place you don't see it so much is certain parts of the USA ;).

Most nationalities will complain like buggery about stuff at home, but if a foreigner does it? Oooh...
 

McAvennie

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#7
They manage to combine intense and unthinking patriotism with an inability to come up with anything at all that they think is good about their own country! One the one hand, Russia is the best, but on the other all European and Western countries do everything better than them. How they reconcile those two poles I do not know, but there it is. I have been told that the French have a very similar attitude to France I wouldn't know, but maybe you could comment on that?
Oh that is very French, their superiority has a little more irritating arrogance than the Russian patriotism though. They will tell you the French way is obviously so much better and then wait for your obvious reaction to the statement, where with the Russian approach it is just a stated fact, they don't care if you don't agree because it is true and why would we even discuss an alternative. They don't seem to have that thing of boastfully telling you their way is better, it just is, it's not a boast it is just a simple fact.

But get the French ruffled about their perfection of everything and they'll happily whine about everything they have just espoused as the greatest.

I guess we are all somewhat like that though.
 

Analogue Boy

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#9
You have to hand it to the Salisbury Tourist Information people. They’re doing a great job!
 

blessmycottonsocks

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#11
Don't forget trip advisor jim!

View attachment 11631
TripAdvisor just has no sense of fun eh?

Message from TripAdvisor:Due to a recent event that has attracted media attention and has caused an influx of review submissions that do not describe a first-hand experience, we have temporarily suspended publishing new reviews for this listing. If you’ve had a firsthand experience at this property, please check back soon - we’re looking forward to receiving your review!
 

Zeke Newbold

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#12
There is a new blog out about the real nature of contemporary Russia, in terms of its culture:

www.alternativerussianculture.space

This attempts to look behind the cliches and propaganda (from both sides). It is not just of interest to those interested in Russia either: there are reviews of Strugatsky, horror films and comics.

(Edit to add: It's by an expat and from a Western European perspective. No covert `soft power` stuff going on here).

Do check it out.
 
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#13
There is a new blog out about the real nature of contemporary Russia, in terms of its culture:

www.alternativerussianculture.space

This attempts to look behind the cliches and propaganda (from both sides). It is not just of interest to those interested in Russia either: there are reviews of Strugatsky, horror films and comics.

(Edit to add: It's by an expat and from a Western European perspective. No covert `soft power` stuff going on here).

Do check it out.
Gogol film looks a blast and good to get an update on tATu
 

James_H

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#14
good to get an update on tATu
That's a blast from the past! BTW, I get the impression that the official line in Russia on is very anti-gay. Has this changed? Would they have got more of a pass for their titillating fauxmosexuality back in the day?
 

Zeke Newbold

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#15
That's a blast from the past! BTW, I get the impression that the official line in Russia on is very anti-gay. Has this changed? Would they have got more of a pass for their titillating fauxmosexuality back in the day?
Yes I get asked this a fair bit.

A band like tATu couldn't start up now, although the band do impromtu reformations for official events - such as the winter Olympics.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Russia. I';m a teacher and a few of my colleagues (both Western and Russian) are gay and they seem to get by (indeed some are in senior positions in the school).There are a number of entertainers who are more or less openly gay and lesbian - and I've shared some off their music on these boards before.

Even Putin, in the Oliver Stone interview, said that he has gay friends.

In wider society, however, there is a lot of cultural disapproval of homosexuality and a real fear of it (A woman once told me, in all seriousness, that it is wrong for a man to be present at the birth of his child - because the experience could turn him gay!)

The official line is that homosexuality shouldn't be `promoted` - and to do so is against the law. This stance is not so different from the one taken by the British conservative party in the Eighties and some of the Nineties. Philip Kirkorov, a very popular singer/entertainer in Russia has spoken out openly against this law without (as far as I know!) coming to any harm.

In short, whilst I wouldn't want to be gay in Russia, this is not the huge issue that the Western media are making it out to be. It's just another stick to beat Russia with.
 

James_H

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#16
I';m a teacher and a few of my colleagues (both Western and Russian) are gay and they seem to get by (indeed some are in senior positions in the school).
Are they out? I have gay teacher friends in Hong Kong who keep it under their hat because although it's not technically a problem to be gay here, they may face disapproval from parents and colleagues.
 

Yithian

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#17
Are they out? I have gay teacher friends in Hong Kong who keep it under their hat because although it's not technically a problem to be gay here, they may face disapproval from parents and colleagues.
I know and have known a good number of people who work and have worked in the middle-east (teaching, construction and tech). The homosexual and Jewish ones don't go there. Full stop. (Not referring to Israel here).

I have never inquired about Russia, but I had--perhaps unfairly--assumed a similar choice would be made concerning work there.

How do the Russians score on anti-semitism, Zeke?
 

James_H

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#18
I know and have known a good number of people who work and have worked in the middle-east (teaching, construction and tech) The homosexual and Jewish ones don't go there. Full stop. (Not referring to Israel here).

I have never inquired about Russia, but I had--perhaps unfairly--assumed a similar choice would be made concerning work there.

How do the Russians score on anti-semitism, Zeke?
I did also have a conversation with a guy I'd just met in a bar who had been teaching here, and was next week moving to Moscow to teach. He was a black south african. Coincidentally, the barmaid was Russian and got involved in our conversation. She straight out told him that he was going to get a lot of shit because of the colour of his skin, and that moving there was not a good idea.
 

Yithian

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#19
I used to work with a black American guy in Korea. He was a very clever chap--decent degree from Columbia and work in the foothills of law--and he said that he'd been slightly apprehensive about coming to East Asia (where there is certainly discrimination) After a few months, however, he declared that although he got far more attention than he had expected, he felt like he experienced less prejudice in Korea than in the States. Most people, he said were far more curious than hostile, and a nation obssesion with academic credentials meant that his degree opened far more doors than his skin colour closed.
 

James_H

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#20
I used to work with a black American guy in Korea. He was a very clever chap--decent degree from Columbia and work in the foothills of law--and he said that he's been slightly apprehensive about coming to East Asia (where there is certainly discrimination), but after a few months he declared that although he got far more attention than he had expected, he felt like he experience less prejudice in Korea than in the states. Most people, he said were far more curious than hostile and the nation obssesion with academic credentials meant that his degree opened far more doors than his skin colour closed.
Sad to say, I think that in Hong Kong a lot of people are quite reflexively racist towards people with darker skin tones, so black or south asian people may find it harder to get work as an English teacher than white people (there are a lot of people in Hong Kong of Indian or Pakistani heritage, who grew up there and speak Chinese as well as English and other South Asian languages, who face more trouble getting work than a Chinese or white person might). Ironically, it's also easier for a white person who doesn't speak English that well (say Polish or Russian) to get a well-paid job as an English teacher than it is for an American-born Chinese person who speaks fluent English – because it's about the look of the thing. Really sad.
 

Yithian

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#21
I found this (recently republished) article interesting and thought that Krepostnoi and Zeke might have a word or two to add to it. They (and others) might grimace at the author's name, but I'll repeat that as a foreign correspondent he is formidable; the mordancy for which he is known generally extends only to domestic topics.

THE COLD WAR IS OVER
by Peter Hitchens October 2016​
Like most Englishmen, I grew up with a natural dislike of “abroad” and a belief in the inferiority of all foreign things. I think it took me five visits to France before I began to regret leaving that lovely country rather than to rejoice at my return to our safe and familiar island.
It often strikes me as quite funny that I spent so much of my life as a foreign correspondent, a profession for which I am so unfitted. When I went to live in Moscow in 1990, I felt that I had somehow betrayed my native soil. (I was born in the middle of the Mediterranean, but these are technicalities.) I still recall a brief return from the U.S.S.R. to my hometown of Oxford, during which I was asked for directions by an American tourist. “You must live here,” he said, impressed by my historically detailed advice. “No,” I confessed with a strange feeling of guilt. “I live in Moscow.” For the first time in my life I had chosen to live in foreign parts, and very strange and hostile parts they seemed to be.
Yet the experience of living in that sad and handsome place brought me to love Russia and its stoical people, to learn some of what they had suffered and see what they had regained. And so, as all around me rage against the supposed aggression and wickedness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, I cannot join in...
Continued:​
 

AlchoPwn

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#22
I wonder if he was properly aware of how much Putin has set about undermining the sovereignty of Russia's neighbors, all of whom are extremely happy to be out from under the Russians for the first time in about a century? I wonder what Hitchens would say about the Russian Infiltration of the US Republican party and its corrolary? Why is Putin involved in aggressive foreign policy when his country has such terrible GNP given its population and territorial size? Russia is still a long way from proving that it can be anything like an responsible international player; quite the reverse, it is militarizing, and the USA has just elected someone who has very probably been a Russian agent since 1992. The cold war may have looked over to a naive person in 2016, but in fact Russia was getting ready for Cold War II.
 
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Krepostnoi

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#23
I found this (recently republished) article interesting and thought that Krepostnoi and Zeke might have a word or two to add to it. They (and others) might grimace at the author's name, but I'll repeat that as a foreign correspondent he is formidable; the mordancy for which he is known generally extends only to domestic topics.

THE COLD WAR IS OVER
by Peter Hitchens October 2016​
Like most Englishmen, I grew up with a natural dislike of “abroad” and a belief in the inferiority of all foreign things. I think it took me five visits to France before I began to regret leaving that lovely country rather than to rejoice at my return to our safe and familiar island.
It often strikes me as quite funny that I spent so much of my life as a foreign correspondent, a profession for which I am so unfitted. When I went to live in Moscow in 1990, I felt that I had somehow betrayed my native soil. (I was born in the middle of the Mediterranean, but these are technicalities.) I still recall a brief return from the U.S.S.R. to my hometown of Oxford, during which I was asked for directions by an American tourist. “You must live here,” he said, impressed by my historically detailed advice. “No,” I confessed with a strange feeling of guilt. “I live in Moscow.” For the first time in my life I had chosen to live in foreign parts, and very strange and hostile parts they seemed to be.
Yet the experience of living in that sad and handsome place brought me to love Russia and its stoical people, to learn some of what they had suffered and see what they had regained. And so, as all around me rage against the supposed aggression and wickedness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, I cannot join in...
Continued:​
My first impression is that I am not impressed. I haven't got time right now to do a thorough fisk but, firstly, I have grave doubts about his blithe take on the Russian Orthodox Church. Secondly, his credibility takes another major strike when he appears to imply that "the Islamic World" (whatever he means by that) is just over the border. The Romanov Empire was always a multi-faith affair. The RSFSR and now the Russian Federation was and remains a multi-ethnic state (there are even two adjectives which we translate as "Russian" to differentiate between Russian ethnicity (russkii) and matters to do with the Russian state (rossiiskii)) with people who profess other religions, including Islam, as well as Orthodox Christianity. Hitchens either simply does not know this, in which case he has no business setting himself up as someone with any kind of inside knowledge, or he does know it, and has chosen to distort matters. Which, of course, is even worse in terms of his trustworthiness.

I find it difficult to see past those two shortcomings. Yes, of course the USSR was a wretched, horrible, inhumane place. But that is not really news, is it? And yet, although it was so horrid, still those OAPs he fetes on May 9 fought with incredible tenacity to defend the place. Now I find that a fascinating question, although I don't have an answer to it. If Hitchens has seen the paradox, though, he doesn't mention it. Again, this doesn't give me confidence that he is a particularly astute observer.

And don't even get me started on the difference between translator and interpreter. It isn't hard, but so many people seem to get it wrong. </hobbyhorse>

So, um, yeah. Nah.
 

GingerTabby

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#24
And don't even get me started on the difference between translator and interpreter. It isn't hard, but so many people seem to get it wrong. </hobbyhorse>
:yeahthat: x 1000. Is there room for me on the back of that hobbyhorse, Krepostnoi? I'll gladly climb on with you. This error is far too common in the media. It's inexcusable sloppiness.

End rant. I don't wish to derail the thread. As you were.
 

Gloucestrian

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#25
Yet again I find myself completely disagreeing with Christopher Hitchens.
Curious. The article to which you are responding is written by Peter Hitchens, not Christopher: the latter has been dead for 7 years. Furthermore in his late interviews he expressed quite different views to those offered up by his brother in this article.
 

AlchoPwn

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#26
Curious. The article to which you are responding is written by Peter Hitchens, not Christopher: the latter has been dead for 7 years. Furthermore in his late interviews he expressed quite different views to those offered up by his brother in this article.
Good catch. Thx. I totally misread that. I am glad I am disagreeing with Peter not Christopher. I have edited my post.
 

Zeke Newbold

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#27
Bit of a belated response, Yith. Sorry.

I do rather appreciate what Peter Hitchens is saying on this question, while not (as you correctly gathered) his No.1 fan. It is a shame that there isn't someone who isn't - shall we say - more on the saner end of politics coming out with the same insights.

The first thing that struck me from his well-written and moving article was how dated it seemed in terms of its description of Moscow!

Things have since moved on rather from the Moscow he described. (Ask any travelling football fan). The Moscow of today is glitzy and moderne and full of well-cared for parks and endless mass entertainment festivals.You don't see much in the way of`women dressed in black selling freshly killed goose` and so on; you more likely to see young kids doing breakdancing on the paved boulevards.The Moscow ofd today looks to New York more than to further East.(I have never been to New York, but have been assured that `New York is the Moscow of America` by Russians who have).

The other thing that he gets a bit wrong (and again this owes to his experience of Russia being the nineties, I suppose) is imagining people's wholesale rejection of the Soviet period.As a matter of fact, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation is the second largest party (in terms of votes) and the main opposition party in Russia. Granted, it has rebranded itself somewhat, but it does neverthless play into nostalgia for Soviet times - and its supporters are largely those medalled old timers which he talks of.They miss the security of those days, as well as being a part of a bigger union (the U.S.S,R). More recently the party has been plugging in to young people's discontent with general corruption at the top and with the pension reforms. The party has done quite well in some local elections and younger people are joining.

He is naive about the role of the Orthodox church. You don't have to be an agnostic like me to see this gold-encrusted institution as a rubber stamp for the Putin administration: a purveyor of convenient conservative-authoritarian homilies. Indeed, Putin is regularly shown attending church and being blessed by various church dignitaries and so on.(It is also interestring to note that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation is burying the hatchet and more and more endorsing the church in various ways).

I am less sure than Krepestnoi that Russia is a `multi-faith state` (unless one means the semi-autonomous region of Tartastan, which really is, and successfully so) but it is the case that, for example, the largest Mosque in Europe is to be found in Moscow. (This is something that Putin's `ethnostate` fans in the West don't seem to know about, or choose not to!)

On geoplitics Hitchens is dead right. I take no position on the Ukraine business - I just want peace and an end to bloodshed, but I do hear an awful lot of hypocrisy coming from Western politicians about this - and most of it is based around a knee-jerk failure to see that Russia is not the U.S.S.R of old, nor can be. If you want to understand the popular response to the annexation of the Ukraine over here then think of it as the `Russian Falklands`. It might help if you also remember that Kiev used to be the capital of Russia.

It is great, however, to see that Hitchens, unilke so many on the Right, is not a Putin fanboy and is prepared to criticise his regime.

In short, Hitchens is telling a lot of truths about the West and Russia, but his analysis is a little dated and a tad skewed by his own conservative sensibilities.
 
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#28
Might be a good idea to help keep rural post offices open in the UK and RoI as well. Have a stout with your stamp.

Russia's beleaguered mail service plans to keep local post offices open by letting them sell beer.

Among the first to notice the new goods on sale was a caller to a post office in Murmansk Region, in the far north of the country.

"It looked like Russian Post couldn't sink any lower, but it turns out they could," he complained, taking to the VKontakte social media platform with photos of beer stacked up for sale at the counter. This left only one cashier position free, which was "already witnessing an involved discussion about bed linen. So now we can expect the local winos to hold things up even more," he lamented about the bottles, priced at up to 135 roubles ($2; £1.60) a piece.

https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-46885788
 

Yithian

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#30
I post this not to further any particular argument (I don't think there's a debate to be had about whether Russian government statistics are likely to be massaged/manipulated), but just because it's interesting to see where Russians who can are headed. A similar chart for Brits would be interesting, but the British government are just useless and charting immigration and emigration.

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