Daily Archives: June 24, 2007

June 24, 2007 — Contents


(1) The Sunday Photos

(2) The Sunday Travel Section

(3) The Sunday Business Section

(4) The Sunday Funnies

(5) The Sunday Exorcism

The Sunday Photos

A postcard from the unheated, unlighted “school” in Chechnya, courtesy of the Russian Kunstkamera blog (click through the link for many more photos of Chechen schools) by way of Global Voices. GV notes one Russian commenter on Kunstkamera states “So what? It’s okay. In Russia, almost any village school looks like this. There are places that are even worse. And there’s never been any war there.” This is the classic neo-Soviet response, the attitude that destroyed the USSR, and it spells doom for Russia as well. A Chechen journalist and blogger responded: “but this doesn’t make it any less outrageous…”

Russian Mail-Order Brides,” an art installation in Toronto,
Canada, based on images taken by the artist from the Internet
(click the image to view it full size).

From English Russia, a massive commercial vehicle driving at speed on a public highway in Russia without it’s front wheel and . . .

. . . no, it’s not a Mercedez, it’s a Suzuki that’s been pimped to look like a Mercedez, and it’s not a one-off, but a going business in Russia these days, along with massive copyright and trademark fraud of every other describable kind. The saddest thing about these two photographs is not that they can be taken or what that says about the state of Russian society, but that if shown to a Russian they would produce laughter and enjoyment rather than concern for the nation’s future. This explains why as many as 1 million Russians are lost from the population every year and why Russians labor for an average wage of $3 per hour.

The Sunday Travel Section: Pasko in Vologda

Hero journalist Grigory Pasko delivers another Russian travel guide on Bob Amsterdam’s blog, this time a snapshot of wealthy Putin’s Russia from the city of Vologoda, a typical “sidewalk” of which is shown above. Volgoda is a city of 300,000 and the center of an oblast, equivalent to the capital of an American state.

Having visited various cities of Russia, I can’t avoid noticing the roads. My most recent trip, to northern Russia to report on the construction of the land portion of the North European Gas Pipeline, was no exception. Not only the roads of Vologda and Babayevo left their impression on me, so too did the comments of those people who in one way or another are responsible for the condition of these roads.

On 10 June, Vologda turned 860 years old. I got to observe the preparations for the celebrations when I passed through the city on my pipeline journey.

Two circumstances immediately caught my eye. First, there are almost no sidewalks in the city. Instead, there are pits and sloughs. Even at the bus stops, there are yawning water-filled potholes, and the people stand and wait off to the side of the stop itself so as not to get soaked when the bus drives through the giant puddle when arriving at the stop. And second, the preparation for the celebration was clearly felt in one place – on Kremlin Square (near the St. Sophia and Resurrection cathedrals, the Vologda Kremlin). Why just there? Because the Patriarch of All the Russias had promised to come and attend the city’s celebration.

It is an unspoken but firm rule in all the Russias that holes in the roads are patched up only for the arrival of the big bosses. Of course, the holes should be patched not in the roads, but for starters, in the heads.

On the day of my arrival, the local newspapers were writing about how it was planned to spend a record sum – 250 million rubles – in the year 2007 for improvement of the roads and streets of Vologda (I immediately remembered Samara, where 3 bln. 840 million rubles was allocated for these same purposes, but the roads still weren’t done). And in Vologda too, the local power had already hastened to note: it is difficult to spend such a quantity of funds, because “mechanisms, specialists and materials” are needed (they forgot to mention that you also need integrity, brains, and a conscience). It was particularly noted that problems of provision with asphalt are found under procuratorial oversight («Vologodskiye novosti», 23 May 2007) (Goodness gracious! What DOESN’T the Russian procuracy get involved in?)

It is noteworthy that this same issue of the newspaper reports about an increase in the discharge of pollutants into the atmosphere by 60 tons just this year alone. Indicated among the number of principal polluters are, you guessed it – asphalt-concrete plants.

Nearly all the local newspapers quoted generously from an appearance at a press conference by the deputy head of the city, Valentin Gorobtsov. He, in part, told that it was planned to spend 470 million rubles in 2007 alone for provision of urban amenities in all of Vologda (once again I recalled Samara).

Gorobtsov also uttered a wonderful phrase that shed light on the essence of such a purely Russian phenomenon as “permanent road repairs”. He said: “On the road leading to the park, we are going to do a good hole repair. And just past the cemetery, we will restore an asphalt path for pedestrians.”

Do you understand? In Russia, they don’t repair roads, they repair HOLES. And pedestrian paths – where else, if not only by the cemetery?

On a related note, in the town of Babayevo of Vologda Oblast the roads are just as bad as in Samara Oblast, where I was recently in the days of the work there of the Russia – EU summit. The head of the town of Babayevo told a correspondent of the local newspaper «Nasha zhizn» [“Our life”] the following. It turns out that 200 thousand rubles have been allocated from the budget for “hole repair”, 700 thousand – for full asphalt paving of streets. But the head of the Rayon had complained to me that the gasmen aren’t participating in any way with their money in the construction and repair of roads.

What other good things has the power done for Vologda? The representative of the power went down the list: they will put up 300 additional garbage urns [Translator’s note: Instead of trash cans or baskets, Russian cities boast tiny pseudo-classical urn-shaped trash containers cast from concrete or metal. Because they are so small, they get filled instantly, and there is always a pile of trash on the ground around them. However, they are too heavy to lift, and some are permanently mounted on swivels, so when the time comes to pick up the trash, the driver of the garbage truck sits in the cab smoking while an elderly lady steps out, tips the urn over and empties its compacted contents onto the sidewalk, then uses a short broom made of bundled twigs to sweep the mess into a small dustpan and throw it piece by piece into the back of the truck. See image below.], they will continue beautification with the planting of flowers, all of the city cemeteries have already been brought “into compliance”, they have “accomplished the bronze-plating of monuments”, they have organized the delivery of war veterans to holiday events, they have erected a stage for the orchestra…

All of this from the point of view of expenditures costs mere kopeks. I made it a point to find out the expenditure side of the Vologda budget in 2006. It turned out that 193 million rubles were spent on so-called “whole-country questions” (that is, “bronze-plating of monuments” and erecting stages for orchestras). For comparison: 148 million rubles were spent on the whole housing and public utilities infrastructure of the city, and 47 million on culture.

Once upon a time, a native son of these places, the Russian poet and writer Varlam Shalamov, who spent just a hair less than two decades in the Stalinist camps of the GULAG, wrote about Vologda: “Sometimes it’s too dusty, vulgar, and carnal; other times it’s too exile-like. And too lacy.” Lacy – he’s referring to the famous Vologdan lace craft. I saw examples of it in the stores of Vologda – beautiful and very expensive. Nowadays another kind of “lace” is in fashion: the promises of the power of a good life for people. Good roads barely make it to the very bottom of the list of what constitutes a “good life”. Only life keeps moving ahead, while roads are something Russia has never had, and still doesn’t have.

(Also see Part I and Part II of this series)

The Sunday Funnies

On the fingers are written in descending order the names Ivanov, Medvedev, Zyuganov and Kasyanov. On the thumb is apparenlty written “successor” although the entire word (“преемник”) is not visible. Source: Illustrator. It would be interesting to have a Russian reader explain the meaning of this gesture to a Russian, and whose hand they think is shown — Putin’s or the voter’s.

The Sunday Business Section: Another One Bites the Dust (Investor in Russia, that is)

Forbes reports on what happens when you invest in Russia: The Kremlin steals your investment, and you leave feeling lucky it didn’t burn down your house as well. When you leave the Russian market, your stock price jumps even if you lost your shirt. The Kremlin continues its practice of systemmatically driving out all foreign influence from Russia, still believing after so many failures that it can be successful on its own.

BP played Russian roulette, and if it didn’t exactly win, it also didn’t lose. It will have to hand control of the Russian Kovykta gas fields to state-controlled Gazprom, but it will get paid $900 million, a far better outcome than might have been expected. Gazprom (other-otc: OGZPY – news – people ) announced that it would be buying TNK-BP’s 62.7% stake in Rusia Petroleum, the company that holds the license for the eastern Siberian gas fields. The deal also invovles TNK-BP (other-otc: TNKBF – news – people ) selling its 50.0% interest in Eastern Siberian Gas, which is building the project. TNK-BP is a joint venture between the British oil company and the Russian consortium the Alfa Group, controlled by billionaire Michael Fridman. Though not unexpected, the news is a blow for BP (nyse: BP – news – people ), which has invested $600 million in the project so far. The project, which is expected to cost a total of $20 billion, would also have brought BP substantial gains, as the fields’ gas reserves are estimated at 1,900 billion cubic meters. Still BP and its joint venture could have got a far worse deal than they have. Though $900 million significantly undervalues the gas fields, things could have been a lot worse, had the Kremlin just confiscated the stake.

“$900 million is a lot better than $0,” Andrew Neff, an analyst at Global Insight told Forbes.com.

Since the Kremlin threatened to withdraw TNK-BP’s license for Kovykta earlier this year, furious negotiations have been under way to work out a deal that could benefit both parties. Under the agreement that has been reached, TNK-BP will be able to acquire a 25.0% stake in the gas fields. In addition, without revealing specifics, Gazprom, has announced that the companies are launching a $3 billion global venture. According to Neff, Gazprom, will have its eyes on BP’s liquefied natural gas assets, and downstream gas distribution network in Europe. So far European Union states have been wary of giving Russia a large stake in downstream gas distribution. A joint venture with BP would give Gazprom access to this market, in return for maintaining a minority presence in Russia. Since the saga began, BP has been keen to stress that as the project is in the very early stages, the loss of Kovykta doesn’t have an impact on the company’s current valuation. “The gas fields are a plum asset but are not easily developed and monetized tomorrow,” agreed Neff. BP’s troubles in Russia began earlier this year when Kremlin threatened to withdraw the company’s license for Kovykta, saying that it was not meeting production targets. The field is currently producing 2.5 billion cubic meters a year, rather than the 9 billion it is meant to under its contract. However, regulators had indicated that if Gazprom were allowed to join the project the licensing issues would disappear, reinforcing the view that Kremlin’s concerns were political and largely to do with a recent drive to push foreign energy giants out of Russia.

Market insecurities about investments in Russia have been heightened by the frosty relations between Britain and the Kremlin since the poisoning of a former KGB operative in London. But even before that Royal Dutch Shell (nyse: RDS-B – news – people )and its Japanese partners Mitsui (other-otc: MITSF – news – people ) and Mitsubishi (other-otc: MSBHY – news – people ) were forced to drastically reduce their stake in the Sakhalin-2 energy site in eastern Russia. In January, the Russian cabinet approved a bill preventing majority foreign ownership of companies that are categorized as “strategic” including energy. (See: ” BP Losing Grasp On Siberian Gas”). Shares in BP were up 5.50 pence (11 cents), or 0.9%, to £5.85 ($11.69), in early afternoon trading in London.

The Sunday Exorcism

From About.com by way of YouTube, the above video shows a Russian exorcism rite. For those who may not wish to view the possibly disturbing images, according to About.com:

Here’s what you’ll see in this video presentation:

  • After an introduction by Alexey Pushkov, correspondent Julia Grabovskayatakes takes us to a church where a group exorcism – or deliverance, as it is called – is taking place.

  • A young woman struggles violently and howls as the priest holds a crucifix on her head.

  • Then an older parishioner tells us of the “inhuman” sounds she’s heard coming from the possessed, and how some of them even run screaming from the church.

  • The reporter tells us that videotaping of the deliverances is usually not allowed, but the priest sanctioned it in hopes of convincing viewers of its reality. Besides the animalistic growls and screams, the reporter has been told of even more fantastic manifestations – including levitation.

  • The elderly exorcist speaks of his struggle with what he considers the demonic and his dedication to the deliverance rituals, despite criticism, for the sake of his parishioners’ souls.

  • Another parishioner tells how he was cured by the exorcism. He was not able to walk, he says, but after he began to attend services, he regained use of his legs.

  • An older parishioner, restrained by two others, curses at and threatens the priest, resisting his blessing.

  • The reporter tells how this woman was dying of cancer that an operation did not help. She then says that she does not feel anything during the exorcism, but that the crucifix burns the demon inside her.

  • A younger exorcist warns that these demonic entities are intelligent beings that should not be underestimated. They know people’s personal secrets.

  • In the interest of journalistic balance, the reporter next quotes a psychiatrist, who believes the exorcisms may be doing more harm than good.

  • Another “possessed” person fights and curses. (“Panteleimon,” which the woman refers to, is the name for an Orthodox priest.)

  • The younger exorcist counters the psychiatrist, saying that they can usually tell the difference between someone who is mentally ill and someone who is “oppressed by an evil spirit.” Those in need of a psychiatrist are referred to doctors.

  • On the other hand, the exorcist says, he has seen patients in mental clinics that really need exorcisms. He claims to have cured one such patient of schizophrenia.

Are these people truly possessed by evil spirits? Does the video provide evidence? Or are they afflicted with more common mental or emotional disorders, or even just reacting to the expectations of the exorcist and the rite? Although the exorcists are convinced of its reality, you’ll have to judge that for yourself.