Understanding Navalny

I was enjoying a quiet day at home until news of the royal baby’s imminent arrival started taking off on twitter, which is my usual vehicle for serial procrastination during profoundly unproductive days.

I’ve found an interesting refuge from the baby chat, though: the trial, conviction, and (temporary) release of opposition activist Alexey Navalny in Russia.

Navalny, succinctly profiled here by the BBC, made a name for himself exposing state and corporate corruption. He has provocatively called United Russia, the ruling regime, “the party of crooks and thieves” and has political aspirations; he hopes to run in the Moscow mayoral election in September.

The Putin-era judicial system metes out justice selectively to the Russian president’s political opponents, “using the courts against political opponents“, as Mikhail Gorbachev describes it. Navalny has farcically been convicted of embezzlement by a judge who has not delivered a single acquittal in his past 130 cases, displaying a “remarkable faith” in Russian state prosecutors, as the Sunday Times’ Mark Franchetti put it.

Alexey Navalny

Alexey Navalny

However Western politicians and journalists should be careful to avoid a lazy understanding of the Russian opposition. The temptation is to assume that our own concerns with the Putin regime – its thuggishness and intolerance towards opponents, at home and abroad – are the same as those of the domestic opposition.

But they are not. Navalny excites the West because he is a genuinely popular figure, with rising name recognition and sympathy, powered by capturing the social media generation. But this isn’t Obama ’08: Navalny’s politics are complicated and don’t fit easily into the liberal dissident stereotype assigned to him by the British press, notably the Guardian.

Of the three high-profile Putin-era victims – Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky and Navalny – only one  (Magnitsky) can in any sense be described as liberal. And he’s dead.

Khodorkovsky, as a friend from a Russian family points out, belonged to a tiny oligarchical elite that privatised the profits and the power of the nascent Russian state whilst society crumbled around them. His politics were, and remain, obscure: to read his recent Guardian op-ed you’d think he was a dissident liberal, a position that sits uncomfortably with the role of the oligarchs in marshalling the mass media to promote Yeltsin’s fledgling re-election bid in 1996.

Navalny is not wealthy, nor does he pursue wealth. But he represents the third wave of post-Soviet Russian nationalism (the first and second embodied by Yeltsin and Putin respectively). He has spoken at far-right rallies and has adopted a hostile attitude to immigrants who aren’t “native inhabitants” of Russia. As Miriam Elder, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, put it, “Navalny is far from perfect politically, very far” – that is, from a Western point of view.

But the truth is that other opposition figures such as Kasparov, who through my Dad’s chess connections I was fortunate enough to meet last year, stand little chance in Russian politics, hobbled by their cosmopolitan, Western lifestyle and outlook.

Navalny will not avoid prison. As the retrial of Khodorkovsky demonstrates, he may not even emerge from it when the 5 year sentence ends in 2013. But when Navalny becomes a free man again he will have a choice to make: draw on the support of wealthy, but unpopular, backers such as Khodorkovsky and Prokhorov, or unite an opposition that is distinctly Russian and excludes the big money.

In any case I suspect he won’t be in a position to make that choice for some time.



….which means ‘I understand’.

I say it a lot, especially when I don’t understand what someone is saying as it’s a good way to shoo them away before they ask me a question or something terrifying like that.

I’m now a few days into my work placement. It’s been good fun so far. I’m working on a couple of features: the first about the re-launch of the Moscow Cats Theatre (bloody bizarre) and the second about the proliferation of dodgy Google Street View images since the service was introduced to Russia a few weeks ago (for instance).

Given my interest in Russian politics it’s refreshing and exciting to work in an environment which revolves around it. It’s fascinating to see how the media (in this case RIA Novosti, the state-news agency that owns the Moscow News) choose to present stories when they break. So when two members of Pussy Riot, the anti-Putin feminist troupe, had their appeals turned down by a Moscow court yesterday, a conversation followed to the effect of ‘Ok, how big is this?’ Given that news is, in most instances, simply what defies expectations – and the expectation here was very much that the appeals would be rejected – this wasn’t judged a big story.

There is one overwhelming concern though – the panic every time the phone rings. I did A-level Russian, and despite letting it slip a bit since leaving school I’m able to scan Russian-language news and fire off emails fairly competently. However the sort of spontaneity demanded by phone calls is a skill in which I’ve had little, if any, real practice. And so the conversations that I have to have – when practicality precludes me writing an e-mail – have seen me blunder through them incompetently. It’s really quite tough, and I certainly don’t feel like I’ve got any better just yet – which is dispiriting. That said they are a few stock phrases I’ve honed to perfection

“Sorry, could you speak more slowly?”

“I’m not able to speak Russian fluently, but I can read and write fairly well – please e-mail me.”

“Repeat please.”

“Yes that’s right. I’m English…ha ha”


Yes, I’m getting very good at those.




Moscow: An Island?

That’s how a Reuters journalist, who was kind enough to take me out for some drinks last night, described the city which I’m slowly starting to get my head around.

That observation surprised me because I’d always understood Moscow as more closely resembling the ‘proper’ Russia. Compared with St Petersburg, whose character seems far more cosmopolitan and European, Moscow is grimier and more abrasive. Its distance inland gives it a provincial feel even though, of course, it is very much the centre of Russian life.

The obvious retort, I suppose, is that Russia is a country so large and varied – in its climate, architecture, ethnicity and outlook – that the ‘real’ Russia is inevitably an elusive concept, and consequently that the attempt to pin down that concept to precise features is a fatuous exercise.

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But she’s right. When commuting around Moscow – at least its centre – and frequenting the city’s offices, shops and bars, you’d be forgiven for understanding modern Russia as a successful Westernised economy.

It isn’t. We were sipping imported beers and munching on a delicious garlicky rye-bread (that I thought was called ‘greenky’ but after google-searching just now for confirmation I must’ve misheard the waiter). A small jazz troupe were chundling away in the corner. The other people in the bar – on an educated guess – were just like us: young, educated and in professional occupations. It was nice. And this is what she meant: that Moscow is detached. The Russian male life expectancy is 64. 14,000 women die every year through domestic violence, a grim statistic predictably correlative with the terrifying rate of alcoholism. But these are problems of the periphery; it’s incredibly easy not to think about them.

First impressions

After a long journey – which probably seems a little longer because of the 4 hour jump ahead – I’ve arrived at the hostel I’ll be staying at for the next three weeks.

It was a bit of a stress getting here actually. Most Moscow metro stations don’t feature their names on the tunnel sides – like London ones do – so to figure out where you are and where you’re heading requires listening carefully to the somewhat dodgy tannoy system. And what’s more, outrageously, it’s not in English. But to credit the Moscow metro, it is (a) stunningly beautiful  (there’s even a website devoted to the best stations) and (b) refreshingly cheap (a standard fare costs 28 rubles, about 55 pence).


Trubnaya Station

When I emerged from the bowels of the underground at Trubnaya Station, I snapped this photo. It’s only on an iPhone, so apologies for the poor quality.

The snow, evidently, remains. But little of it is as pristine as this white stuff. Apparently there hasn’t been much new fall recently. Much of the winter fall is now greyed with exhaust fumes or piled high on street corners mixed in with asphalt – just to dispel the impression that I’m enjoying a winter wonderland out here.

I visited Moscow almost exactly six years ago, on a school trip. Of course you’re unlikely to pick up certain things about a town when you’re simply being hurtled from one place to another under supervision; but with that qualification, here are a couple of observations about how things have changed.

First, no more Cool Britannia? I distinctly remember last time, 2007, seeing Union flags all over the place: t-shirts, ipod-cases and the like. Thus far I haven’t seen anything remotely British; this thought was prompted, in fact, by an English ‘Pub’ across the road – the ‘Union Jack’ – which is now boarded up. The receptionist here said that as this particular part of town has become more prosperous, local workers and residents have moved upmarket. Apparently ‘Britain’, at least when it comes to drink and gastronomy, is a byword for mediocrity.

Returning from a supermarket this evening I passed a new French bistro – which presumably is scooping up custom from those classier Ruskies who couldn’t hack ‘Union Jack’. The menu is in French and it serves a variety of wines starting from 300 rubles a glass. The people inside certainly looked like they could afford the expense. In pre-revolutionary Russia the Imperial Court preferred to speak French over Russian, even after Pushkin has demonstrated that the slavic tongue can be just as sophisticated as the Gallic one. Language, and specifically the French language, was the tool through which the moneyed and landed classes differentiated ‘us’ from ‘them’. Of course one example of a new French bistro which takes itself a bit too seriously shouldn’t provoke comparisons with Tsarist Russia. But the obscene degree of wealth inequality in Russia – a country which never properly had a chance to develop a civil society – should.

I’ve got a couple of days free before my work placement starts, and so, once Cherwell chores are done tomorrow morning I’ll head into town and have a gander.

Is it worth it?

It’s the question you’ve got to ask, sitting in a dreary travelodge on a dreary evening with only the buzz of Boeing 747s to keep me company.

To be fair it’s not at all that bad. I’ve checked into the Premier Inn (!) and, as per the name, it’s quite a spruced-up place. Well furnished. Airy. Nice. And though I can see planes coming and going about 500 yards away, I genuinely can’t hear them. I’m writing this with a cool Peroni in the Inn’s bar. There are a good number of people here: enough to keep me occupied by people-watching every 10 minutes.

The two bald blokes in the corner (one of whom is hunched hilariously over a creme brûlée, trying to figure out how to tackle it) – building contractors, I reckon. Who knows. I’d never ask. Given everyone’s in-transit status, we’re all happy to be holed up in our own bubbles. No unsolicited conversation, please.

Yes, so, I’m heading to Moscow tomorrow morning.

(one more moan, sorry: later this month EasyJet are introducing £100 return flights from Manchester-Moscow. Not soon enough! Instead I have to head down to London, stay overnight, and change in Zurich tomorrow afternoon. Needless to say I’m paying for the privilege.)

Anyway, I’m very excited, in a nervous fashion. I’ve been to Russia twice before, first very much as a tourist, and second not so much as a tourist but still with a group of friends.

This time I’m alone and I have actual scary responsibilities: working with the Moscow News, a weekly English-language newspaper, for the next three weeks.

My Russian is, well, ne horosho, though enough vocabulary is latent within me to stumble quite plausibly through uncomplicated prose. It’s the spoken stuff I’m worried about, since I’ve barely uttered a word of the language since A-level – almost two years ago.

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Hilariously I’ve been watching these marathon videos to try and resurrect my conversational listening ability. Every year Putin does a sort of Question Time show, in which generally obsequious audience members pose mostly softball questions at the Russian President, prompting him to go off on one about economic statistics and how Russia is outperforming the West etc. Dimbleby would have none of it.

I’m reassured by the fact that I had precisely these fears before visiting St Petersburg last time, and that the trip turned out to be among the best couple of weeks in my life. This is slightly different because I’m travelling alone, something I’ve never attempted before. A couple of friends reassured me that it’s fantastically liberating. Perhaps, but the lack of a fall-back option (namely, just hanging out with a friend) is fantastically daunting.

I’ve made a separate ‘Russia’ tab on my much-neglected blog. That’s a statement of intent as I intend to post fairly regularly for the next three weeks.

Unless I’m having a frikkin’ awesome time, in which case the blog will remain lodged in the backwaters of cyberspace.