Thursday, 31 July 2008

Cyber-nationalism on the rise

The Economist carries an article highlighting the rise of ‘cyber nationalism’ (I tip my hat to O’Neill for this one). The crux of the piece is that the internet is making it easier than ever before for nationalists to disseminate material and organise activities, with all the chauvinistic baggage that that entails. The magazine gives a series of examples from around the globe, but a quick examination of the blogosphere closer to home would have revealed that nationalist propaganda is not the preserve of America, Russia or Serbia. If the web were your only guide, you would conclude that the United Kingdom is composed of tribes who loathe each other and are straining to break a union in which they remain only because they are coerced into doing so.

Humanist Group demand British rights for British citizens

Les Reid of the Belfast Humanist Group has endorsed Diane Abbot MP’s campaign to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. It is a troubling anomaly that women in Northern Ireland are not afforded the same rights in this regard as women in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is still more troubling that many so-called unionists seek to retain this anomaly, rather than insisting that women in Northern Ireland enjoy the same rights as their counterparts across the water.

"Since Northern Ireland is part of the UK, the same rights and facilities should be available here as elsewhere in the country."

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

McElduff in good sense shocker - Republic of Ireland is not the same as Ireland

I wouldn’t normally find myself agreeing with Provisional Sinn Féin’s Barry McElduff, but a complaint he raises regarding politicians in the Republic appropriating the term ‘Ireland’ to describe their state, or “this notion that the 26 counties constitutes Ireland”, as Mr McElduff puts it, strikes something of a chord.

Of course the reasoning by which McElduff arrives at his conclusions is predictably off kilter. The Republic has every right to refer to itself as a ‘country’ or a ‘state’. However he is certainly correct to sever the notion of people in Northern Ireland asserting their ‘Irish national identity’ from the existence of the Republic of Ireland state. The idea that Northern Irish people need access to the Republic's institutions to express their Irish identity is based on similar conflation of the terms 'Republic of Ireland', 'Ireland' and 'Irish'.

Playing a full role in Northern Ireland’s institutions compromises nobody’s Irish identity. There are two states within Ireland and both recognise and respect the Irish identity. Neither should (or can) exercise a monopoly on either the Irish identity or the term ‘Ireland’. Perhaps Mr McElduff should carry this logic through to its conclusion when he considers football eligibility.

Westlink road improvements - the verdict? Still shite!

The much vaunted Westlink improvements, which have caused disruption on Belfast’s roads since 2006, opened a few weeks ago. Sort of. An underpass now takes motorists destined for the M1 motorway beneath the Broadway Roundabout, the largest junction which formerly impeded traffic leaving Belfast by this route. This forms the most crucial part of a scheme which is designed to allow traffic to flow more freely in and out of the city.

Even allowing for cones which are still blocking some lanes and the ongoing pootering about from various workers, I am ready to officially declare the results – SHITE. Don’t get me wrong, I have used the Westlink over the last fortnight, whereas once I avoided it like the plague, despite it being much the most direct route home. But this is July. The schools are off, people are still away on their holidays and already the road is beginning to wheeze and struggle with the volume of traffic. Several points of congestion are building up. What will it be like come a rainy day in October?

No doubt if the improvements hadn’t taken place the Westlink would have remained even less navigable. But I can reveal now, to all those who may be in doubt, that it will still be a nightmare. As usual these alterations are too little too late. The roads are constantly five years behind the standard they need to be for the traffic which uses them. Belfast remains a city with awful road infrastructure and no viable alternative in terms of public transport.

Disgusting Milk Cup attack cannot be justified

I’m perpetually amazed by the capacity of Northern Ireland to throw up an incident which can inspire even in the most inured of its residents, a refreshed sense of exasperation and shame. Of course it is inaccurate to believe that it is something peculiar to this country which makes its citizens declare periodically, ‘oh for god’s sake, I’d almost forgotten this place was so bad’, but in a league table for frustration and embarrassment, I’d imagine the benighted ‘decent people’ of Northern Ireland would not be found in its lower reaches. We are perpetually surprised by how low some of our compatriots can go.

Attacks and abuse suffered by two youth football teams from Dublin who were competing in the Milk Cup, launched by a drunken rabble outside the teams’ accommodation in Coleraine, inspires in me those all too familiar feelings. I’ve enough faith in the readers of this blog to think that these words are not necessary, but in the unlikely event that someone is tempted to qualify their condemnation or provide some attempt to justify these attacks, let me make it quite clear – I don’t want to hear about tricolours, pro-IRA shouting or whatever. These things are irrelevant. What we’re talking about here is an attack on school-children by a drunken mob and that is unjustifiable.

The Milk Cup is an unqualified ‘good thing’, which is a rare phenomenon in this country. It brings youth teams from around the globe together in a festival of football and friendship. To host this tournament shows Northern Ireland in a positive light, it benefits the North West and it benefits young local players, both in terms of their football and as people, by allowing them to pit their skills against equivalents from all manner of cultures and ethnicities. It cannot be endangered by the sectarian proclivities of a drunken mob of hooligans.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

An instructive disagreement

The SDLP’s reaction to the UUP / Conservative talks has been confusing Michael Shilliday on Slugger O’Toole and well it might. Alasdair McDonnell’s measured response is at odds with that of his party colleague John Dallat.

McDonnell sees the process in a context of normalisation and realignment, which for unionists will take place on an East-West axis and which nationalists will seek to develop North-South. In contrast Dallat has resorted to a more atavistic interpretation.

“People realise that partition has failed everyone and benefited no-one. Now we get a re-launch of a recipe which last existed in the dark days of Thatcher and the crazy policies of ‘shoot to kill’ and outrageous claims that ‘we are as British as Finchley’”
“Do the Tories not realise that they should at least occupy a neutral position? At best they should be preparing their former Unionist friends for a New Ireland which is free from sectarianism and partitionism?”

On the one hand we have a statement which recognises that unionists aspire to play as full a role as possible in the United Kingdom’s governance and respects those aspirations. On the other we have a statement which implies that unionism is in and of itself doomed and sectarian. Dallat’s statement is entrenched firmly in the tradition which views unionists merely as confused Irish nationalists who must be corralled and bullied out of their unsustainable and illogical position, borne only of bigotry, which is holding back the inevitable, pre-ordained 32 county republic.

Despite the unpleasant and intolerant terms in which Dallat advances his argument, there are sound reasons why an Irish nationalist would be appalled by the arrangement. It proposes to offer Northern Irish voters a chance to participate more fully in the national politics of their state than ever before. It threatens to diminish the importance of the constitutional issue in Northern Ireland’s politics and places the normalisation solidly within the context of the United Kingdom. Dallat has a right to be annoyed even if he does not have a right to squeal about sectarianism and the innate evils of partition.

Whether it informs the perceived duty of British political parties to act as midwives for a united Ireland, or whether it is the ‘endism’ which Arthur Aughey has highlighted in those who believe the United Kingdom is already fated to split up, the nationalist propensity to present their favoured ends as inevitable does not mean that everyone who opposes those ends is standing in the way of progress, good sense and equality.

Keane does not complete the jigsaw

Sometimes I weary even myself with the negativity I bring to following football. However I must again register scepticism as to whether investing £20m in Robbie Keane is likely either to provide the crucial part of the jigsaw which brings the title to Anfield or represent good value, considering that the player is a 28 year old centre forward.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that Keane is a good player, and I’m pleased to have him at the club. I just wonder whether, at the price, if he is to form the centrepiece to Rafa Benitez’s close season reshuffle, whether that is enough. Rumours abound that flush with cash from the Keane transfer, Tottenham will attempt to lure David Villa to north London. Without slighting Keane, I know which player I would rather have linking up with Fernando Torres, and which player I believe would be more likely to provide the impetus for a title challenge. Neither do I believe that Gareth Barry offers the answer for Rafa Benitez, particularly at the expense of a world class midfielder like Xabi Alonso.

Keane is a subtle player with an eye for goal. He should provide a crafty foil for Liverpool’s Number 9 with his clever link up play. But Liverpool need much more than Robbie Keane to win the Premiership.

Monday, 28 July 2008

St Petersburg, setting aside the illusion

St Petersburg as an illusion, as a confection in which reality is mutable and nothing is quite as it seems, has become something of an easy cliché. It has its roots in the city’s history, geography and literature and it reflects conflicting strands of Russian culture which manifest themselves graphically in Petersburg. In common with many clichés, there is a nugget of truth around which it has formed, but simultaneously it casts an occluding shadow upon its subject which compromises those accounts submitting unquestioningly to its logic.

St Petersburg is not an ancient city and its development did not have the organic quality which confers a more natural, inevitable feel upon other great world centres. The story of its foundation even dates the city to a specific day, May 27 1703, when Peter the Great is said to have thrust his sabre into the soft turf on which was built SS Peter and Paul’s Fortress and declared ‘here shall be a city’. Peter moved his court to St Petersburg in 1712 and it became Russia’s imperial capital until the Romanov dynasty was overthrown.

In the main Peter did oversee the construction of his new capital from scratch and at the expense of many thousand of serfs, who died in the attempts to raise a magnificent city from an inhospitable swamp. His vision was grand and classical, based on a network of canals, a grid of broad streets fronted by palaces, which the country’s nobility would be compelled to populate, and commodious squares befitting the capital of a great European nation.

It is an exaggeration to portray St Petersburg as a place lacking the layers of history and development which characterise other great cities. Around Peter and Paul Fortress a spontaneous settlement had already grown up when Peter was still drawing up plans for a formal city centred on Vasilevsky Island. And at Peter’s death in 1725 his vision for St Petersburg was by no means realised. Others would assume the mantle for growing and developing Peter’s legacy on the Gulf of Finland.

St Petersburg does however remain overwhelmingly a product of Peter’s modernising, Europeanising vision for Russia, with all the problematic baggage that that entails. In his magisterial cultural history of Russia, ‘Natasha’s Dance’, Orlando Figes describes an early St Petersburg where neo-classical facades concealed a much more Russian reality, whereby noble families would graze animals in their courtyards and maintain the trappings of their boyar backgrounds, within the privacy of their own dwellings.

Such realities nurtured and informed the perception of the city as somewhere in which a dichotomy existed between appearance and reality. Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky in turn embellished this perception through their own imaginative interpretations and the notion of St Petersburg as a sepulchral city populated by phantoms, in which reality is a deceptive and slippery concept, gained momentum in the popular mind.

With imaginations inflamed by such imagery, it is easy for visitors to the city to indulge in flights of fancy. In Jonathan Dimbleby’s lachrymose book, ‘Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and its People’, he rolls out his architectural musings to the citizens of St Petersburg itself. The young women are beautiful, but they are also hollow facades, housing nothing authentic or genuine. Apart from being an awe-inspiringly silly and patronising observation, Dimbleby’s comment represents the type of facile generalisation which it is all too easy to fall into, having preconceived what a city might be like through the prism of popular imagination.

The frontispieces of St Petersburg may form a stage-set, against which the life of the city takes place, but nevertheless that street life is enough reality for anyone and it thrums with vitality. Nevsky Prospekt is Petersburg’s main artery. Extending from Palace Square and the Admiralty it performs a sweeping turn at Moscow Railway station and proceeds to Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Arriving at the railway station laden with luggage, we elbowed our way a third of a mile along the gentle slope down which the street proceeds toward the River Neva. Even at noon on Sunday the street is thronged with shoppers, hawkers of various goods (from souvenirs to new born puppies) and promenaders wishing to be seen.

Our accommodation was on the main street itself. An anonymous door beside McDonalds was buzzed open at out request and we stepped from the well-healed thoroughfare outside into a foul smelling, dingy stairwell which was crumbling to bits. The next morning the stairs bore evidence that an occupant had urinated on them during the night. To extrapolate from the state of our hostel and its building, a metaphor alluding to the physical and mental contours of the city itself is too easy and too glib, but it would be wrong to deny that beneath the carefully maintained exterior often lurked a shabbier reality in St Petersburg.

The hostel itself was an ex kommunalka, the shared apartments which accommodated much of Russia’s urban population in Soviet times and still prevail where new wealth has yet to impact. The kitchen was in a state of decrepitude unchanged from its previous incarnation. Some new showers and toilets had been haphazardly fitted, but our double room did not have a working lock and masonry would crumble from the walls whenever we forced the door open.

Worst of all though were the occupants, a set of self-styled ‘bohemian’ charlatans, who tried to confer on themselves some artistic glamour, presumably justifying their subsistence in something akin to a squat. Personally I was more irritated by the aging stage Irishman from Cork, who apropos of nothing would blurt out such meaningful aphorisms as ‘you give them your brains, they take your virginity’, to an audience of impressionable acolytes. Although running him close was the half blind Kiwi owner, who styled himself an ‘artist who paints with words’ (he worked for a local English language listings magazine) and wasted no time boasting to both my girlfriend and myself that he had managed to sleep the previous night with one of his guests.

With the counterpoint of such accommodation, if the splendour of St Petersburg is a confection or an illusion, it was a welcome one. We spent almost every day, from early in the morning, until dusk (which in high summer arrives somewhere approaching midnight) immersed in allegedly spurious grandeur.

One of the buildings I was most awed by surprised me somewhat. The received wisdom is that the Church on Spilled Blood, build by slavophile Tsar Alexander III on the spot where his father Alexander II had been assassinated in 1881, is a gaudy anathema which forms a jarring contrast to the neo-classical buildings pre-dominating in Peter’s city. I found it a much subtler building than I had expected, outfitted in less strident colours than St Basil’s, combining Russian onion domes with more European motifs and charmingly situated on the Gribodeov Canal.

St Petersburg’s other great public buildings, parks and squares, whether they ultimately leave you cold with their ostentation and scale, nevertheless are designed to awe. Many of Russia’s best museums are situated inside these cathedrals and palaces. The Hermitage Museum features the Winter Palace’s state rooms, built to underscore the wealth and splendour of the imperial family for the edification of foreign dignitaries. Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovsky built Mikhailovsky Palace which now houses the Russian Museum, repository of a wonderful collection of Russian art. Kshesinskaya Mansion was once home to the prima ballerina whose name it bears, a lover of Nicholas II; now the State Museum of Russian Political History presents a series of fascinating exhibits within its spacious rooms.

Around St Petersburg lies a ring of impressive imperial palaces and their extensive grounds. A hydrofoil leaves from just below the Winter Palace, taking visitors to Peterhof, the Tsars’ Baltic Versailles which lies out in the Gulf of Finland. In addition, one of the idiosyncratic little yellow minibuses, which provide a slightly hair-raising service to Russian locals, runs from Moskovskaya metro station to Tsarskoe Selo. This town, known in Soviet times as Pushkin, has two palaces. Catherine Palace is another magnificent building in the Peterhof mould, set in tranquil gardens. The Alexander Palace sits several hundred yards away and it lies derelict and unvisited by the coach tours which patronise its illustrious neighbour.

The last Tsar commissioned this palace and it seems more evocative of the family’s grizzly demise for being allowed to crumble into decrepitude with its surrounding park growing wild. Tracing a solitary path through grass and wildflowers around to the front of the building, what was once a stately front drive is now a long, overgrown meadow. At the rear of the house a small memorial to the murdered Romanovs has been maintained, a few fresh flowers sit in front of a cross bearing the image of the Tsar, his wife and children.

Leaving the established tourist trail in St Petersburg pays most dividends. We spent an evening in the streets around the Haymarket, where Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was set. Whilst the squalor which the author describes is no longer there, the streets retain enough atmosphere to pleasingly invoke his great novel. Another evening we spent in Tinkoff’s bar and brewery watching young Russians let their hair down in manic fashion. These were places where the St Petersburg façade which attracts criticism drops away and the city’s character, as well as that of its people, asserts itself.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Glasgow by election: Time for unionists to wake up

O’Neill has subjected the failures which led to Labour’s Glasgow East by election capitulation to rigorous scrutiny over on Unionist Lite. His thoughts on the inadequacy of the unionist response to Scots' nationalism are instructive. Labour’s caning at the hands of the SNP, and indeed the general trend which propelled the nationalist party into power at Holyrood, are indicative of disillusionment with the government, rather than a genuine desire for Scotland to become independent from the rest of the United Kingdom. However, the intricacies of motivation leading the Scottish electorate toward a nationalist party are increasingly irrelevant.

That party are on a roll. They are increasingly popular, mainstream unionist parties are failing to capture the imagination of Scottish voters and without any need to specifically endorse the dissolution of the Union, it is being incrementally damaged and the cause of Scottish independence is being strengthened by default. The Conservatives have only a slender foothold in Scotland and as O’Neill remarks, they seem to lack the stomach to unambiguously oppose nationalism. Surely as David Cameron attempts to bolster his party's regional and unionist credentials, it is time for his party to make a stand? The Liberal Democrats have similar problems. Labour has traditionally been Scotland’s biggest party and as voters turn against Brown and his government, the SNP appear to many to offer the only viable alternative.

This is a lamentable situation, because that party are in a position to do untold damage to Scotland and to the Union. They offer short-termist, populist solutions to intractable problems which will be impossible to reverse once in train. As economies undergo a downturn it is an observable phenomenon that the certainties of nationalism, accompanied by its cousins, xenophobia and racism, prosper at the polls. O’Neill points out that the new SNP candidate for Glasgow East has form in this regard, chastising a Glasgow school for displaying too many English George Crosses in a classroom display.

The Labour Party’s problems are largely of its own making and it is difficult to muster much sympathy for Gordon Brown’s predicament. Unfortunately its demise in Scotland could have far more serious consequences than simply bringing about a change in government. That is why it is necessary for unionists to galvanise in opposition to the separatist, Balkanising, xenophobic, nationalist menace represented by the SNP. The consequences are otherwise too serious to contemplate.

Pictures from St Petersburg and environs (2)

Zenit fans in buoyant mood?

Raskalnikov's part of town. Near Sennaya Ploschad (haymarket square).

And the house where it has been deduced Dostoevsky intended the student to live.

The palace at Tsarskoe Selo (formerly known as Pushkin).

Built by the last Tsar, Alexander Palace in Pushkin is not so well maintained.

A memorial to the murdered Romanovs.

More real for its dereliction. Alexander Palace.

The palace's overgrown main approach.

Palace on the Fontanka.

Statue in the Summer Gardens.

Siege of Leningrad depicted in Socialist Realist art.

St Issac's Square from the church's colonnade.

View toward the docks.

Pictures from St Petersburg and environs (1)

Catherine the Great's statue off Nevsky Prospekt

Moyka River from Nevsky Prospekt

Palace Square

Church of Saviour on Spilled Blood

Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul

Palace Embankment and the Winter Palace from the Peter and Paul Fortress

Statue of Peter the Great. The Bronze Horseman of Pushkin's poem.

White Nights. Nevsky Prospekt at 11.30pm.

Pushkin's statue in Arts' Square.

Staircase in Winter Palace, part of the Hermitage Museum.

Soviet motoring at its best. The Volga.

Peterhof's Grand Cascade

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Empey/ Cameron statement should be welcomed despite difficulties it raises.

For some time it has been known that Sir Reg Empey has an interest in aligning the Ulster Unionist Party more closely with David Cameron’s Conservatives. At the UUP’s AGM the leader’s speech committed the party to working closely with the Tories in the European Parliament. Empey’s instinct looks set to crystallise into a more concrete arrangement with the two party leaders releasing a joint statement in today’s Daily Telegraph and setting up a joint working party to examine increased cooperation between the UUP and the Conservatives.

The possibilities are at once both exciting and problematic. Many Ulster Unionists instinctively wish to move closer to the centre of UK politics and play an increased role in defending the Union as a totality. Alignment with the Conservatives certainly lends more scope for this pan-unionist vision, as well as offering the tantalising prospect of involvement in central government. On the other hand, many members feel that their politics lie closer to other mainland parties, rather than to the Tories and the party is still tainted by its association with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a constitutional change imposed from on high without seeking the consent of Northern Ireland’s people. It is worth having a closer look at exactly what is under discussion, as well as touching on the possibilities and complexities which it raises.

The joint statement refers to “the creation of a new political and electoral force in Northern Ireland” and explicitly commends the notion of Northern Ireland MPs “supporting and serving in a Conservative Government”. Whilst such ambitions certainly imply more than friendly cooperation between the two parties, neither is it specifically stated that a merger, or takeover, is the intention. Certainly the arrangement’s motivations are outlined in extremely positive terms. The Conservative Party wish to underline their commitment to Union, by active participation in politics in each of the United Kingdom’s constituent parts. Both parties wish to normalise and integrate politics in Northern Ireland, “an unambiguous partner within the wider United Kingdom family”, which “needs to be brought back into the mainstream of UK politics. It needs more full-time MPs working in the House of Commons, taking part in all the national debates”.

As a civic unionist, clearly such rhetoric echoes and augments my beliefs and the arguments that I have been putting forward on Three Thousand Versts. In this statement we see concrete steps being put in train to offer the type of politics for which many in the UUP have long been arguing. We see the parochialism and Ulster nationalism, which is prevalent within Northern Ireland’s politics currently, being explicitly challenged.

David Cameron’s motivation in pursuing closer links to the UUP lies in his desire to broaden his party’s appeal beyond England. In seeking to become a truly ‘national’ party he will necessarily strengthen the party’s unionist credentials and in common with his Ulster Unionist partners, Cameron can claim finally to be taking concrete steps in order to arrest decline in support for the Union and counteract the localist forces exacting centrifugal influence on the ties which bind the United Kingdom together. Mick Fealty, the Daily Telegraph’s editorial and Tory blog Conservative Home have applauded the initiative from the Conservative perspective.

What then of the Ulster Unionist perspective and the complexities of which I made earlier mention? The Telegraph’s editorial states that the incipient deal will secure for the Conservative Party an extra MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon. This simple contention raises graphically some of the difficulties inherent in forging an understanding. Hermon is some distance from being an instinctual supporter of the Conservative Party. Indeed the UUP’s only MP has aligned herself closely with New Labour’s policies throughout her time in Parliament. Other UUP members and representatives might also feel estranged by any alliance with the Tories. Fred Cobain, a senior party member, and MLA for North Belfast was strongly opposed to previous flirtations between the parties under David Trimble’s leadership. Similarly Michael McGimpsey, one of two UUP ministers in the Northern Ireland executive, would be considered to lie to the left of the national political spectrum.

I am a UUP member and I would personally be reluctant to describe myself as Conservative. My only vote on the British mainland went to a Liberal Democrat candidate. So what of the variegated national party sympathies which can be found within the UUP?

The changing nature of national politics and the repositioning of the Tory party which David Cameron has undertaken offer some resolution. The Conservative Party has moved to address social and welfare issues in a fashion which has found it much more firmly in the centre ground. In contrast, the Labour Party has assumed the mantle of Thatcherite economics and its policies on privatisation and social issues are often arguably to the right of the Tories. Certainly in debates about civil liberties, individual freedoms and the encroachment of government into the realm of the private individual, the Conservative Party are currently advancing more liberal arguments than Labour.

In addition something which Ulster Unionists must take into account is the increasing centrality of the constitutional debate in national discourse. Alongside economic, social and foreign policy issues, the very existence of the Union and the form which it should take is now a pivotal issue in the national political conversation. The importance of being involved in this conversation should not be underestimated. In Michael Kerr’s book ‘Transforming Unionism: David Trimble and the 2005 Election’ the author argues that differences between Ulster Unionists’ national political allegiances should take a back seat when it comes to the overarching issue of defending the Union itself. He specifically posits a closer relationship with the Tories as the best possible means by which to realise an Ulster Unionist revival and better defend the Union. With the Union debate currently in the crucible of British political argument, thanks to Labour’s asymmetric devolution experiment, Kerr’s contention is strengthened. Ulster Unionists have a chance to affect this debate, affect Conservative Party policy and normalise politics within Northern Ireland in the unambiguous context of the United Kingdom. This process ultimately offers a far greater prize, whereby the subtleties of political difference can in the future be expressed much more readily.

Of course the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party have historical connections. The relationship ended in acrimony after Margaret Thatcher’s government imposed the Anglo Irish Agreement in the 1980s. There remains to this day a degree of residual mistrust amongst unionists in Northern Ireland toward the Conservative Party. That mistrust is somewhat abating as the Tory party has changed and as the situation in Northern Ireland has changed.

Broadly, as a civic unionist, as a pan-UK unionist, I welcome the statement and the possibilities it suggests. If managed correctly it offers an exciting opportunity to move unionist politics away from the parish pump, revive genuine unionism as opposed to its ‘Ulster nationalist’ competitor and strengthen the Union throughout this Kingdom.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Devolution, ethnic nationalism and Balkanisation

The Glasgow by-election provides a pretext for Tristram Hunt to raise the spectre of Balkanisation on Comment is Free. He indicts successive British governments, but the present Labour administration in particular, for indulging localism and neglecting coherent promotion of the values and history of Union. On the same site, and in the Guardian itself, Simon Jenkins takes a similarly coruscating view on the international community’s role in the Balkans themselves, and foresees the phenomenon which has taken its name from that region being rolled out in other trouble-spots throughout the world, with baleful consequences.

Hunt’s argument is incorrigibly gloomy, but it contains several pertinent points as regards the failure of the present government and its predecessors to engage in constructive promotion of the Union. Few unionists would seriously contest his contention that ‘rather than stopping nationalism dead in its tracks, the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have only intensified cross-party calls for the Balkanisation of Britain’, a situation for which the Labour government must take direct responsibility. Hunt is quick to identify the irony that the same party which has provided succour to separatists has most to lose from the chords which bind the United Kingdom together being loosened. After all, a strong Labour Party by necessity would expect to draw much of that strength from robust support in both Scotland and Wales.

The conundrum which Hunt outlines may make Gordon Brown’s belated attempts to highlight the dangers which the Union faces genuine, but it does not absolve him from the responsibility for that weakness, which he now regards as a threat. Nor is the situation quite as ominous as Hunt’s doomsday scenario might suggest. Whilst the SNP may conceivably strengthen its position at Holyrood, it remains a minority administration.

Whether Salmond’s party seeks an early referendum on Scottish independence or not, an honest enquiry of the electorate will not elicit the response they are seeking in the foreseeable future. Neither is it plausible that a Conservative government will be returned in 2010 without Scottish representation. A resurgent Tory party will not lose Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and there are several other Scottish seats which they will realistically target in the next General Election. And whilst I have argued that the Conservative position on the Union can be worryingly contradictory and ambiguous, Hunt is surely vastly overstating the case to suggest that the party’s mainstream is moving rapidly toward an English nationalist position.

Where the article is strong is in highlighting the lamentable trend toward “ethnically codified national entities at the expense of broader civic federations” which gathered pace in Europe post 1991. Hunt identifies specific instances whereby the Labour government has encouraged localism at the expense of promoting unionist values, even within the last few years. He is right to question the coherence of the government’s message in this light. He is also correct to allude to the ideological lacuna which allows the United Kingdom, in its international role, to sustain Balkanisation and separatism, whilst opposing the same trends at home.

And it is in this respect that Simon Jenkins’ article chimes melodiously with Hunt’s message. Jenkins unequivocally celebrates the apprehension of Radovan Karadzic, but he identifies a failure of international law to exact swift, fair and consistent justice in many previous cases. He points to the prolonged ‘bureaucratic farce’ which Slobodan Milosevic’s trial became as well as The Hague’s failure to convict Croats or Bosnian Muslims for their war crimes and acts of ethnic cleansing.

The failure of international law, Jenkins sees as contributing to Balkanisation, with the west as ‘a willing and bumbling partner’. This trend Jenkins predicts will soon be extended to Afghanistan. He views the promotion of these ethnic states as a short-term solution which will ultimately have a poisonous influence. That influence might be extended closer to home than Jenkins makes explicit.

It's all about me! Alex Salmond wants a popularity contest in Glasgow East

Tomorrow’s by-election for the Glasgow East constituency will no doubt assume much greater significance in the triumphant narrative of the victor than it will be accorded by the defeated party. Margaret Curran is the candidate that Labour hopes will retain its Westminster seat, and she must fend off a challenge from John Mason, of the Scottish Nationalist Party.

O’Neill has been assessing Labour’s campaign, with the aid of statistics provided by the Scotsman, and he is not particularly impressed with their efforts. The article from which he draws the statistics gives an instructive insight into the rampant ego and hubris which fuels Scots’ nationalism’s Il Duce, Alex Salmond. Under its leader’s tutelage, the SNP is fighting its campaign with little reference to the respective merits of the two main candidates. Salmond has announced that this election is a ‘referendum’ on the popularity of the Scottish Parliament as against the Westminster Parliament and has extended a challenge to Gordon Brown to engage in a debate with him in the constituency, in the run up to the election. He is attempting to turn the by-election into a straight popularity contest between himself and the Prime Minister.

In truth the election will not determine the future of the Union and nor can its result be extended to imply the Scottish electorate’s verdict on the respective merits of the national parliament as opposed to their devolved institution. It is a local contest which will certainly reflect to some extent voters’ thoughts on the parties represented, their constitutional positions and leaders, but additionally will be informed by the electorate’s assessment of the merits of the candidates put in front of them, as well as a range of specifically local considerations.

British Unionist in Russian

A neat conjunction of some of the themes of this website, the picture above shows a newspaper, in Russian, called ‘British Unionist’. The shot was taken in the State Museum of Political History in St Petersburg. Clearly the ‘unionism’ which this propaganda sheet is promoting is the trade union variety, rather than the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Nevertheless I remain slightly tempted to replace the banner with something featuring this photo.

For anyone who might be curious, the painting which currently forms the background for Three Thousand Versts’ banner is ‘Barge Haulers on the Volga’ by Ilya Repin. Repin’s powerful canvas hangs in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg and the painting is often held to allude to the latent political might of Russia’s people. And yes, I did go to see it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Foster decision is both desperate and selfish

Arlene Foster was elected as a councillor for Enniskillen to Fermanagh District Council in 2005. Subsequently she resigned the local government seat in order to concentrate on her role as MLA and minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. Following the death of Councillor Joe Dodds of the DUP, it transpires that Foster will fight the resultant by-election with the intention of retaining the seat and once again taking up office as a local councillor. The DUP’s decision betrays desperation and disregard for both the electorate and the importance of local government.

The post of Economy Minister should be sufficient to occupy any politician on a full-time basis. Given that Foster has ambitions to become a Westminster MP, there is a possibility that she may be spread still more thinly in two years time. What level of attention would she be able to afford her council constituents and the business of the council given her current duties, never mind if she wins a subsequent election and assumes more? We know that the DUP accords Westminster a low priority, but with its insistence on dual and triple mandates, necessarily constituents are being short-changed.

Another issue attends Foster’s selection for this election. Fermanagh Council’s Ulster Unionist group leader, Bertie Kerr, precipitated a by-election when the DUP tried to co-opt a student called Thomas Hogg to the council as a replacement for Joe Dodds. Kerr was lambasted for his actions, indeed he continues to be lambasted for his actions, which he took on the basis that Hogg was not a suitable candidate for cooption. It seems that now the electorate is to be consulted as to who should represent them at council level, Hogg is not considered a suitable candidate by the DUP either, which begs the question, why was there response to Mr Kerr so vociferous in the first place?

Fielding Arlene Foster in a council election in order to avoid a second by-election defeat is a move which is both desperate and selfish. In conjunction with Iris Robinson’s comments, which increasingly make her sound less a spokesperson for the party’s fundamentalist wing and more someone who is a little unhinged, surely some of the more circumspect unionists who had to swallow hard before casting their vote for the DUP will be encouraged to reconsider?

Novgorod - cradle of the Russian state

As regular readers of the blog will recall, my struggle with a mouse in Belfast is ongoing. No enticement I can offer will beguile the cunning pest into a mouse-trap. Coincidentally the personal lowlight of my trip to Russia was also rodent-related.

On only two occasions did we shell out for the convenience of a taxi in Russia. Once to convey us from our hotel in Novgorod, a mile up the road to the train station and once beforehand in Moscow, when we had a rather longer ride to Leningrad Station with luggage. On this first occasion it was a blazing hot day, even at 10am. Rather than wait in a stuffy lobby for our cab, my girlfriend and I took our bags and sat on a grassy bank, under some shady trees. I was happily immersed in the excellent ‘Football Dynamo’ when two large rats came capering through the grass and one of them scurried in amongst our luggage, as if intent on setting up home there.

My girlfriend is more circumspect than I when confronted with rodents and its passage over her croc barely elicited more than a remark. Meanwhile I had seized my bag, flailed it wildly at the vermin and let loose a string of expletives. It was fortunate that the taxi chose that moment to arrive, as I simply was not going to return to my reading amidst such infestation.

Luckily I had the imminence of a Russian train journey to sooth my anxiety and Russia’s railways could teach British Rail a thing or two about efficiency and service. Our train did not leave until the late evening, so we visited left luggage and took the metro to Mayakovsky station in order to visit Patriarch’s Pond, the location where the devil appears, intent on wreaking mayhem in Stalin’s Moscow, in Bulgakov’s ‘Master & Margherita’.

Whilst Satan did not appear in the form of gentleman magician Woland, accompanied by his gargantuan cat, Behemoth, there was certainly a slightly disquieting presence in the Georgian restaurant which we visited for lunch and he was trailed along by a small dog. This character was extremely expensively dressed and seemed to be either strung out on something, or was affecting complete indifference to all those around him. He was a young man, with an extremely statuesque young woman in tow. He spoke to neither her nor the waitress who fussed around, providing the dog various delicacies to eat. Meanwhile its owner stared vacantly ahead without acknowledging anyone or anything. There were very few people in the restaurant and it was easy to begin inventing fanciful scenarios as to who this person was and why he was accorded such attention, despite his irresponsiveness to everyone else. Was he, for example, some godfather of organised crime?

Such speculation aside, we spent a relaxing day beside the pond in the sun, reading and preparing for the journey ahead. Dinner was rather shamefully consumed in the type of American diner which Russians frequently relish. American culture elicits exactly the same response from Russians as it does elsewhere, a mixture of attraction and repulsion. Certainly this place, with its omelettes, burgers and CNN had a large crowd of locals quaffing beer and ordering immense quantities of food.

Having travelled back to Leningrad Station, we retrieved our bags and settled down to wait for the train to Novgorod, which was to spirit us to the ancient city through the night, arriving at 6am the next morning. Train stations are frequently interesting places, mixing the excitement of distant destinations, the bustle of humanity on the move and a slightly unseemly underbelly which seems invariably to gravitate toward the streets surrounding a major station. Komsomolskaya Ploshchad houses Lenigradsky as well as Yaroslavsky and Kazansky stations, three of the major railway stations in Russia, from which the Petersburg train, as well as the famous Trans Siberian railway, depart. It is simultaneously an exciting and slightly intimidating square. Big, busy and noisy, business people and tourists on the move mix with itinerant workers, the homeless and incapable drunks. Before we entered the station we attempted to find somewhere to sit and consult a map. It was difficult to find somewhere that did not bear the stench of urine.

Inside, the station was no less busy, but a great deal more orderly. Crowds gathered to scrutinise the arrivals / departures board, or to buy last minute provisions for journeys which, in such a large country, can last for days on end. As is customary, the Novgorod train arrived in good time. It transpired we were to share our berth with a middle aged woman, who had already found her bunk and was immersed in a series of word puzzles, and a rather dapper business man. The first hour of our journey afforded enough light to watch Moscow’s suburbs disappear, sporadically at first, and then in many miles of wooden dachas amongst birch forest.

From our arrival at 6am the next morning, precisely the time we were scheduled to arrive, Novgorod made a favourable impression. It is a town of some 200,000 people, but the feel is unmistakeably provincial, even bucolic. Despite its historic significance to Russia’s national story, despite the Russian tourists who populate its Kremlin and beach, Novgorod feels like a large village. It formed an excellent counterpoint to the metropolises of Moscow and St Petersburg.

At 6am the town’s white stone station was softened by early morning mist. Inside, the sleepy passengers, many of whom seemed to be young girls preparing for a day out in St Petersburg, occasionally drowsily stroked a pair of cats, which worked the room with an air of proprietorship. As we got our bearings I was corralled into immediate conversation with an enthusiastically befuddled young man called Sergei, in the mixture of Pidgin English and Russian which had become lingua franca for such encounters. After several minutes a militiaman arrived and insisted on moving Sergei’s friend, who was lying comatose along an adjacent bench. As they were removed from the concourse my new friend bid me a cheery ‘dos svidanya’ and raised a salutary hand in parting. Walking the half mile or so to the city centre, along a pleasant tree lined boulevard, we passed several more benches of early morning revellers as we searched for suitable accommodation (the benches themselves were not deemed appropriate). After a brief disagreement about cost, it was the clean, modern and comfortable Akron Hotel which attracted our custom. It took only twenty minutes or so for them to get a room together, which we were able to avail of from 8am, seeking the refreshment of an hour in bed and a shower after a fitful night’s sleep on the rails. So much for the clichés about Russia and its lack of a service culture!

Thus invigorated we set out to explore Lord Novgorod the Great in an optimistic frame of mind. Broad tree lined streets lead to a spacious park facing Novgorod Oblast Duma. A ubiquitous Lenin might lurk under a shady canopy of deciduous trees, but the park’s centrepiece is undoubtedly the town’s 10th century Kremlin, also known as the Detinets. Amongst the collection of churches and museums which the Kremlin houses, sits a vast monument to the millennium of the Russian state. An enormous bell is encircled by the pre-eminent figures of Russia’s history and culture. Erected in 1862, the monument posits the establishment of Novgorod (literally ‘new town’) by Varangian chieftain, Rurik, as the moment from which the Russian state can be dated. The Norse prince’s ancestors would form a dynasty which played a pivotal role in ruling Kievan Rus and then Russia until the 16th century.

Novgorod’s quiet history museum houses a range of Viking trinkets testifying to the city’s origins. Rurik made it his capital, predating by at least 20 years the capture of Kiev by his son Oleg, and the foundation of Kievan Rus, from which most scholars trace the origins of the Russian state and its attendant national identity. Novgorod’s importance to Russian identity is magnified by its retention of independence when much of the rest of the modern state was under Mongol occupation. The principality in some respects kept the flame of Russia’s statehood alive, despite its strongly independent inclinations when Ivan III began to forge something akin to a unitary state in European Russia.

Today the Kremlin’s ancient belfry overlooks a man made beach created beside the River Volkhov. From an adjacent pier boats take tourists on an hour long cruise through the adjacent marshes, to the edge of Lake Ilmen. Solitary fishermen bob on the waters in their little dinghies, oblivious to the larger boats and onion domes which rise from the surrounding countryside. It is a beautiful and tranquil trip.

During our stay there was a beach volleyball tournament in progress and the sands were populated not only by sunbathers, but by various competitors as well. Meanwhile horses cantered alarmingly around the Kremlin’s parkland in the charge of children, feet away from people stretched out to sleep on the grass.

Across a footbridge and the Volkhov River the park continues, housing the churches and ruins of Yaroslav’s Court, what remains of the towns 18th century market place. None of these attractions are thronged with sightseers. It is quite possible to wander amongst them un-jostled and unhindered, taking snap shots and enjoying the sunshine, whilst polishing off another delicious Russian ice-cream. After an afternoon spent relaxing, it is only a short stroll to the Detinets restaurant, set in the medieval walls of the Kremlin itself. For about £10 I was able to try caviar, enjoy a delicious beef stew in sour cream and cap things off with Novgorod’s own local brand of vodka. The surroundings were splendidly atmospheric.

Although we only spent two nights in Novgorod, it is a destination I will remember for a long time. On Saturday we took a fifteen minute bus ride into the countryside, which the town melds seamlessly into, goats grazing the verges long before buildings become scarce. After almost leaving the bus at a couple of wooden villages, we decided that we had arrived at the Museum of Wooden Architecture. The museum comprises a collection of beautiful traditional wooden buildings rebuilt from various villages in the Russian countryside. The staff were in national costume, but the slightly untended paths overgrown by wildflowers, the young locals having wedding snaps taken, its location where the Volkhov broadens into Lake Ilmen and an ability to walk a little off the beaten track where the crowds would dissolve, made this place charming, rather than gimmicky or kitsch.

On Saturday night, walking along the river to an outsized Soviet statue of Rurik and a bellicose memorial, bristling with images of automatic weaponry, to the town’s occupation in World War 2, we rather regretted that we had not scheduled more time to stay in Novgorod. As the suburban train pulled out toward St Petersburg the next morning the feeling though was gratefulness for the welcome that we had been accorded by the town’s friendly and relaxed locals.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Russia, censorship and Jonathan Dimbleby

I’m currently reading Jonathan Dimbleby’s ‘Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and Its People’. The pretentious title is not representative of the book’s content. Dimbleby writes nicely and he has synthesised his reading of the country’s history and literature in an accessible fashion, but in no respect does he penetrate to the heart of a land or its people, simply because he is too busy bemoaning the wrong-headedness of the land’s people. And in any case he seems unable to appreciate any landscape or culture that cannot be compared to England’s Home Counties.

Perhaps I will review the book when I have finished it. There is certainly entertainment to be derived from reading the thoughts of a frustrated, frankly lascivious little man, enduring some manner of mid-life crisis in a foreign land which he obviously had little inclination to visit in the first place. On this occasion it is the political analysis which Dimbleby advances, deriding all alternative synopses offered by the Russians he meets as ‘dispiriting’, ‘depressing’ etc., which made me reflect on some of the things which I noticed in Russia.

His thesis is that Russia is an autocratic state which lacks basic freedoms which we in ‘the West’ take for granted. Furthermore he insists that, despite any protestations to the contrary, that Russians are not ‘free’ in any meaningful way. I intend later to blog my enjoyment of the laid back town of Novgorod with its riverside beach (see the photos which I posted below). Dimbleby’s lugubrious observation, as he watches Russians enjoying themselves on the same beach, is that this seeming freedom is a hollow charade. He impugns the poor holiday makers for being oblivious to his arch prescription.

Self-evidently Dimbleby is being astoundingly patronising in his observations. He continues, in other passages of the book, to liken Putin’s regime to that of Stalin and to the reign of Peter the Great. He believes that Russia is an authoritarian, oppressive, totalitarian state. He does not believe that Russians have acquired any great dividend of freedom beyond that which they enjoyed during Soviet or tsarist times.

It would be naïve to argue that Russia is a model democracy or anything like it. It would also be naïve to deny that there are not curtailments to freedom of speech which would not be tolerated in many other European countries. But neither is it accurate to portray Russia as a police state in which people are impeded in reading what they like or thinking what they like. To fail to acknowledge that Russians have acquired freedoms far in advance of those which existed under Brezhnev or Khrushchev for example, is simply to distort the truth.

Russians can travel abroad, more or less unhindered by their own government, although sometimes curtailed by visa regimes of those countries which they wish to visit. There is untrammelled access to the internet, where it is possible to read a diversity of opinion from both home and abroad, something which cannot be said of China, to take an example. Russian cinemas are full of all the latest Hollywood blockbuster movies and book shops are laden with translations of foreign books, including almost all the recent popular titles which have been written about Russia.

In St Petersburg the largest book-shop, ‘Dom Knigi’ (pictured), covers three floors and its collection of titles is extensive. As someone who fails utterly to understand the man’s appeal, I was a little perturbed for example, to discover that Jeremy Clarkson’s latest collections of ‘PC busting’ diatribes merited a translation and multiple copies. Gordon Ramsey also appears to have a readership for his cookery books in Russian. Somewhat more surprising was an extensive display of the books of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who some allege was disposed of by the government after her coruscating attacks on the Kremlin and its campaign in Chechnya. These books are amongst the most controversial political works about Russia published anywhere in the world. In addition, those who read English can purchase Edward Lucas’ Russophobe diatribe ‘The New Cold War’ and a wide range of books by other academics and journalists about modern Russia, many of which are critical of the Kremlin and the government.

None of these facts can excuse limitations on a free press or attempts to limit opposition in Russia, but nevertheless the case against should not be overstated. Russia is far from a police state, it is also far from a country subjected to fastidious censorship.

Iain Dale's blogging guide time again

Last year I knew very little about blogging when it transpired that Three Thousand Versts had been chosen as 224th best political blog in Britain by the .... blog reading public I suppose on Iain Dale's blog. This year I know a little more. Iain Dale is asking once again for readers to vote for their top 10 political blogs. The e-mail address being I've already voted for my favourites. Have fun compiling yours.

Pictures from Novgorod

6am Novgorod station.

The Novgorod Duma.

The Millennium of Russia Monument.

Novgorod's Kremlin and beach.

Historic churches in Yaroslav's Court.

The Museum of Wooden Architecture.

Great Patriotic War monument.

Novgorod's beach and the languid Volkhov River.

Faux rage at Healy gesture obscures a more pertinent point

David Healy, a man known for his mild mannered self-deprecation and sportsmanship. Were the stories that he had been involved in an incendiary sectarian gesture toward Celtic supporters ever likely to bear much scrutiny? His agent has been outlining the events leading to the striker's mime of playing a flute which reportedly sent a section of the Celtic faithful into a rabid frenzy of outrage.

As Sir Dave took to the touchline he was subjected immediately to a sustained barrage of abuse. A chant querying what Healy was doing on the Twelfth was struck up and he wryly mimicked playing an orange flute. In any sane person’s view it’s called responding to abuse with some good natured banter. Less excitable Celtic fans seem to agree.

If Nil by Mouth, the ‘anti-sectarian’ football group has anything to investigate here, it is simply why a footballer playing for an English team should be subject to barracking simply because of his perceived background as regards Northern Ireland.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Change the record on 'unionist unity'

On Slugger O’Toole Fair Deal picked up on calls from Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Drew Nelson, for unionist unity which were issued from a platform in Belfast on the 12th July. Infusing his piece on Nelson’s remarks with customary DUP revisionism FD implies that there are now few differences between the unionist parties and the difficulties which many unionists have identifying with the DUP’s form of unionism are simply a manifestation of UUP frustration at being outflanked by the Paisleyite party.

This attitude is familiar to those who have watched with a sense of inevitability the DUP leopard change its spots, as it simultaneously protested that no such transformation was possible. It sees all the hypocrisy and machinations of that party as representing ‘clever politics’, it doesn’t understand why all the party’s broken promises and about faces cannot simply be forgotten about and a line drawn under all its past activities, now that it commands the greater proportion of unionist votes. If the sane and secular wing of unionism were ever tempted to submit to this type of thinking, lunatic outbursts such as that produced by Iris Robinson yesterday, should offer wiser counsel.

Leaving aside Fair Deal’s analysis, which despite the plaudits it often receives (and in common with DUP unionism in general) bristles with cynicism masquerading as pragmatism, wallows in parochialism and lacks anything approaching an unambiguous commitment to the United Kingdom as a constitutional arrangement with intrinsic value; it is worth turning briefly to the comments made by Mr Nelson himself.

“Everyone in the unionist family is committed to maintaining the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and the advantages which that Union clearly brings.”

Very blatantly everyone who is truly a unionist is committed to maintaining the Union and its advantages. However when Nelson speaks about the ‘unionist family’ it seems likely that he refers, not simply to those who adhere to a strong political belief in the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but also those who apply the label ‘unionist’ to themselves simply because of the community or culture which they perceive themselves to belong to. Certainly when Nelson refers to the ‘unionist family’ we must assume that he encompasses within this group, all those who belong to purportedly unionist parties, including those in the DUP.

As this blog has maintained ad nauseum, the prevailing attitude in that party has consistently shown that its commitment to the Union with Britain is of secondary importance when set against their perception that they represent a culture of Ulster Protestantism. The evidence has been adequately adduced. The party's reluctance to play a full part in the politics of the United Kingdom, but rather its readiness to exploit any influence they might exact in national politics to win concessions at the parish pump, a tendency to refer to direct rule ministers as ‘squatters’ or even ‘the Brits’, blaming the Westminster government rather than republican terrorists for Northern Ireland’s stunted economy after 30 years of violence, their founder and leader for most of their history spoke with commendation of the possibility of a federal Ireland under Dublin’s sovereignty for goodness sake!

Unionism is not a monolith, and that is particularly the case when the term is used carelessly, to denote all those belonging to a perceived tradition or community. Maintaining a pro-Union majority is important, but equally important is allowing that pro-Union majority to exercise its mandate across a wide range of issues, by giving it the freedom of choice to express the character of its politics. Whilst all political parties encompass a diversity of opinion, to expect those with a genuine commitment to a multi-national, liberal, secular Union, with the rights and freedoms which that entails, to coalesce with those whose unionism is simply short-hand for a crude form of Ulster nationalism, or those whose understanding of the role of government is that it should directly apply the content of the bible, is nonsensical.

Boring for Russia. A long post about Orthodoxy, Communism, Moscow and my holiday

Half past midnight, the early hours of Monday morning, and the motorway from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport into the city is gridlocked. Five lanes of traffic occasionally judder forward a few yards in chaotic peristalsis. There are ancient, lumbering trucks, motorcycles with over-laden sidecars and a ubiquitous collection of Soviet era Volgas and Ladas. Of course there are also gleaming new Mercedes and Audis with blacked out windows, but the humid night air is choked with fumes, to which the catalytic converter is uncharted territory.

We are in the back of an early 90s Lada Riva, driven by a youngish woman who sits beside her mother, neither of whom speak more than a word or two of English. Still, they had been waiting in the arrivals hall of the airport with a large sign bearing my name and my girlfriend and I had been very grateful to see them. Now I am simply hoping that the pervasive smell of overheating engine is emitting from an ancient Latvian truck which sits stationary to our right hand side, rather than the Lada. Neither of the two Russian women seems overly concerned, so I attempt to relax and elicit the result of the European Championship final by text message.

Arriving in Moscow, so late at night, after a full day travelling, is a somewhat disorientating experience. Russia’s capital is after all Europe’s largest city. Its main roads are constantly choked with traffic and the industrial complexes which mark the city’s outer limits take on a fantastical, nightmarish quality to a frayed mind. Wreathed in smoke and smouldering with flame, they loom with preternatural immensity, as if they have escaped from a cinema screen showing a particularly brooding piece of apocalyptic science fiction.

When the traffic finally compresses excruciatingly slowly into two lanes, which pass resurfacing work separated from the open part of the road in nugatory fashion, and the little car is then spat into a reasonably free flow of traffic, it feels like the end of a purgatorial ordeal. We putter through quieter streets and enter the car park of one of a series of high rise Brezhnev era tower blocks. We must initially look confused, because our driver utters a few encouraging words, one of which is ‘gastineetsa’ (Russian for hotel) and points around the corner.

Although I am initially doubtful, it transpires that the building does house a shabby hotel lobby, whose desk is surrounded by a group of three rather drunk men of Central Asian appearance. They are engaged in a long and fractious wrangle with the hotel receptionist. It appears that one of the men is unable to produce a passport and the woman staffing the desk is adamant that he is not entitled to stay unless he can conjure up the document. Any of these men would instantly acquire a bouncer’s job if they were resident in Belfast and they are drunk and angry. Or rather their ire is periodic and subsides every once in a while into a fit of drunken giggles prompted by a remark by one of their number. Two security guards begin to circle watchfully and just as the incident looks likely to reach an unpleasant conclusion the three men decide to leave, lurching unsteadily out the door in a jumble of imprecations and hoots of mirth.

Such was our introduction to Moscow, one which saw us crawl into bed after 2 A.M. with a rather chaotic taste of the city in which we were beginning our Russian adventure. Naturally daylight lends anywhere a less foreboding appearance and the next morning revealed that our accommodation was basic, but perfectly adequate and was situated beside one of the main arteries into the city. It also sat adjacent to Ryazansky Prospeky metro station which formed the epicentre of an extensive warren of kiosks. This pre-fabricated market included a range of services, stretching from serving fast food to servicing computers. There were also a scattering of typical Russian ‘café-bars’ and ‘sveti’ stalls selling flowers. For a few roubles at the start of each day, it was possible to equip ourselves with food and drink which was vastly less expensive than in supermarkets or in the city centre. Despite our limited Russian, and their lack of English, the kiosk holders were patient and helpful as we indicated in broken sentences, pointing and sign language, what it was that we wanted.

Through the metro station we had access, for 19 roubles a trip (about 41p), to an extensive underground system which comprehensively covers the whole of Moscow’s municipality. Kitay-Gorod station, on the same line, is close to many of the central attractions and more often than not, we found ourselves emerging in this area (the name literally means ‘China town’). In actual fact the sobriquet is misleading – the area has no particular connection with China or a Chinese community and its derivation is said to come from the original wall of wooden stakes which once designated this ancient trading area’s borders. It does however comprise a series of historic streets which slope away from the eastern side of Red Square.

I have already waxed lyrical about the impact which Red Square has on the visitor. For someone with an interest in Russian history, the effect is magnified. The square is actually more of a rectangle if my sense of geometry is in any respect accurate. Its long flanks are framed by the neo-classical façade of GUM shopping arcade and the east wall of the Kremlin. It is book-ended on the north by the magnificently intricate red brick of the State Historical Museum and to the south by the iconic onion domes of St Basil’s. Along the Kremlin’s wall sits the squat, tapered mausoleum of Lenin and alongside it, a garden containing the grave of Stalin, amongst others.

The Kremlin and the Square sit above their immediate surroundings and with the main routes out of Moscow radiating from this area like the spokes of a wheel, the psychological feeling of being at the very heart of this vast, diverse country is exacerbated by the physical geography of the place. Manifestations of Russia’s cultural and historical past converge in Krasnaya Ploschad and the adjacent Kremlin. The Orthodox Church, whose spiritual influence has shaped Russian character and politics since Vladimir adopted the religion for his Kievan Rus state in 988, demonstrates its centrality with the square’s most eye-catching attraction, St Basil’s, as well as rebuilt Kazan Cathedral and the various churches which lie inside the Kremlin itself.

The church’s tyrannical grip on Russia’s peasantry predates tsarism and the events which forged Russia into a unitary state after the Tartar yoke was lifted. However a symbiotic relationship existed between the two institutions long before Peter I brought the church to heal in the 18th century, firmly subjugating its power to that of his own autocracy. Until 1917 and the fall of the Romanov dynasty the church continued to underpin the monarchy’s despotism as loyal functionary rather than equal partner. Its influence did not end there. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate who wrote Gulag Archipelago, argued that Orthodoxy played a formative role in creating a spiritual vacuum and shaping a mentality receptive to authoritarian absolutes, which made Russia particularly susceptible to the Bolshevik credo.

Today the Orthodox faith is enjoying resurgence. In the fragrant gloom of Kazan Cathedral a constant stream of pilgrims light candles and pray in front of icons. Wherever we find churches, in all three of our destinations, there seem to be plentiful young recruits to the priesthood. In Kazan Cathedral, whilst I am studying the repainted frescoes (the church has been rebuilt to its former specifications since 1991), a young skinhead who looks for all the world like he might be more at home with a football firm, enters the church, crosses himself profusely, lights a number of candles and murmurs a prayer in front of an icon. The juxtaposition is not entirely fanciful, nor may it be a figment of my imagination, Orthodoxy has strong attractions for the nationalist right. In addition, under Vladimir Putin, something of the symbiosis between church and state began to be rekindled.

Although the Kremlin was usurped as the seat of Russian tsars when Peter built his city to the north, the place formed the citadel from which the Russian principalities were forged into a unitary state under Ivan the Great. Its mighty bell-tower was built in his honour. The place is perhaps most redolent, to the modern imagination, of the Soviet Empire. Lenin’s mausoleum lies alongside its eastern wall and Khrushchev’s State Kremlin Palace is the first prominent building which one encounters having entered by the western gate.

Outside that gate lie Alexander Gardens, an oasis from Muscovite hustle and bustle. The gardens run from Okhotny Ryad shopping centre, close to Red Square, along the length of the Kremlin walls, down to the Moskva River. They host the eternal flame, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a series of monuments to Russia’s hero cities of the Great Patriotic War (WW2). Principally though the gardens offer a place for Muscovites to unwind, allowing them to sip beer or kvas and guzzle ice cream amongst flowers and fountains. In the heat of late afternoon, if the rumbling thunder showers which seem relentlessly to prowl Moscow’s skies have abated, enjoying a Baltika here whilst deciding what to do about dinner affords some much needed relaxation after endlessly pounding city streets.

The gardens are a short stroll away from Teatralny Square, where the Bolshoi Theatre hides behind renovation work and an immense portrait of a Samsung television. Opposite this conjunction of modern and traditional entertainment broods a seated statue of Marx, perhaps aghast at the fashion in which communist past and capitalist present rub shoulders so casually in modern Moscow. Teatralny Prospekt leads up the hill to the Lubyanka, where Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka once presided and where to this day Russia’s secret police has its headquarters. I couldn’t help but experience a moment of disillusionment in Lubyanka Ploschad when we sought out the Memorial to Victims of Totalitarianism and found merely a building site. The prominence of Soviet symbols and memorials and the insouciance displayed towards memorials to the victims of that regime was something I found troubling. Whilst this modest place to remember the state’s victims may well be reinstated, to find no notice as to the reasons for its disruption and no alternative place of remembrance was dispiriting.

In contrast the Central Park of Culture and Leisure, or Gorky Park as it is more commonly known, retains its enormous Leninist gates, which date from 1955. Opposite, in the melancholy Sculpture Park, we sheltered from monsoon rain in a long rickety corrugated iron shed which housed an ad hoc art market. About half a dozen people were doing likewise, sauntering amongst the paintings of rather variable quality which were hung haphazardly along several hundred yards of leaky shack. The afternoon was to continue in this vein. Deluges of thundery rain would be interspersed with periods of gloriously warm sunshine. When eventually we managed to peruse the sculptures, they proved to be a charmingly idiosyncratic mixture of displaced Soviet monoliths and whimsical modern creations.

In Gorky Park later, with the sun raising steam from the pathways, we sipped beer and kvas respectively and the fountains exploded in a spectacular show of water and music. Some young Russians capered and laughed, jumping in and out of the water and I experienced one of those blissful moments that occur on holiday. Here I was in Gorky Park, somewhere I’d always dreamt of visiting, drinking an ice cold beer and watching this display. Life was becoming more joyful, comrade.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Some pictures from Moscow (2)

Lengthening shadows beside Ryanzansky Prospekt.

Archetypal Moscow kiosk.

Detail of worker and peasant.

Notorious Lubyanka - former headquarters of the KGB.

The English House. The first British Embassy in Moscow? Established under Elizabeth I for the use of English merchants who had a dispensation to trade in Moscow.

The gates of Gorky Park.

Soviet statue from Sculpture Park.

Wedding cake architecture. One of Stalin's '7 sisters'.