How elephants can teach Russian

Do you know Vovochka?.

For all fellow Russian-learners who have frequently felt the urge to tell the language where it can stuff its logic-defying genitive plural and infamous verbs of motion, Notmrsputin strongly recommends the wonderful new time4russian blog. Written by a teacher who patiently endured my garbled efforts during lessons at Moscow’s excellent Russianlab language school, the blog ditches the dreaded fake conversations common to many language courses (“Delighted to meet you Ivan Ivanovich – tell me more about your spark plug factory in Omsk…”) and offers jokes, Soviet-era songs and cartoons, films (subtitled, fortunately) and even a rather strange but oddly appealing video of a talkative lady in national costume making soup. The blog makes uses a learning method in which a Russian text is first broken down into small chunks with lots of literal English translation, then re-read without the translation. It’s pleasing – the system doesn’t interfere even with a long and really quite weird Russian joke about shooting coloured elephants (the day that joke seems anything but odd is the day to apply for Russian citizenship), and the method plus the wackiness, humour or sheer interest of the posts (history of Tetris anyone?) definitely helps words stick. Удачи, then, to all students of this infuriating but extraordinary language – we may never achieve fluency, but at least we’ll laugh trying.

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The protesters who went out in the cold

I have a dream - Putin behind bars on a protester's handmade poster

Vladimir Putin now knows this much: freezing temperatures are not enough to halt the protests in Russia calling for fair elections, an end to corruption and – not least – his own departure.

At the latest Moscow rally this weekend (4/2/12), tens of thousands of protesters bundled up warmly and again turned out to show their opposition to election fraud and express wider political frustrations – the third time Muscovites have taken to the streets since December 10.

Like the first two demonstrations – in Russian called “митинг” (meeting) – the event was peaceful, good-humoured and humorous, with costumes, mock horses’  heads, witty home-made banners and a green dragon made of balloons that constantly threatened to tangle up protesters walking alongside. Unlike the first two, this one – as my two daughters and I can testify – was toe-numbingly cold. As the photo below shows, the rally started at Oktyaberskaya (close to Gorky Park’s massive Soviet-era entrance) at -16 degrees celcius, and by the time we reached exposed Bolotnaya Ploschad (the final rallying point on an island in the river Moskva opposite the Kremlin), the temperature was nearer -20.

Temperatures hover at -16 at the rally's start

Of course, while we weedy Western Europeans wouldn’t usually dream of spending two hours pacing slowly along a street in sub-zero temperatures, Russians are pretty blasé about the idea, particularly when there’s a need to prove a political point. In case anyone was thinking of wimping out, one supporter of the demonstrations had posted an encouraging picture on her Facebook page urging others to turn out:

"Frost doesn't scare us"

Hmm. Anyway, it worked: there were tens of thousands of people on the street, though as always with demonstrations the world over the numbers are disputed. It’s never possible to gauge the size of a moving crowd accurately from within, and I wouldn’t try, but it’s safe to say the police figure of 30,000 demonstrators is much too low and the organisers’ figure of 120,000 too high, and that the numbers were certainly sufficient to fend off suggestions that the protests would lose momentum. Most they were in their thirties or forties, or older – there were fewer much younger, despite the widely-held view that the protests have mobilised a previously apolitical twenty-something generation, but a fair sprinkling of grandparent age.

The atmosphere was calm, cheerful – even jolly – we could almost have been heading for a literary or music festival. But faces were purposeful, too, as we queued to pass through a line of outdoor airport-style security gates (the police made me open my flask of tea, but let me keep it). A couple in their early 40s behind me – English-speaking, educated and typical of many of the demonstrators – explained their reasons for coming along to all three protests. “It’s obvious,” said the man, his black puffa jacket adorned with a white ribbon reading: “For Russia without Putin”. “We’re sick of seeing corruption, tired of the elections being abused; we don’t want a Russia like this. At first, when everything was changing fast in the nineties, people accepted this kind of government to keep things stable, but now they have looked around them and the times have changed – they don’t want it any more.”

“Ten years ago, there was a kind of deal with Putin,” added his partner, tightly wrapped in her scarf. “The idea was, we would give him a lot of power, and he would sort out the mess of the health service, education, the social system, the infrastructure. He kept the power but never sorted out those problems.”

This couple, like many people we saw at the rally, were not representing any party, or wearing anyone’s colours; only expressing personal, if shared, discontent. The number of home-made banners reflects the same lack of affiliation – something that is both the strength and weakness of the protests. Do-it-yourself placards make it harder for the authorities to claim the demonstrators are simply mouthpieces for domestic or foreign critics, rather than exasperated individual voters, but they emphasise the lack of formal, united political opposition. The various opposition parties with their many-coloured flags and banners are there too, of course, but polls show none comes close to challenging the Putin-supporting United Russia (which wheeled out a rival rally in the low tens of thousands in Moscow yesterday). Translating this rainbow alliance (everything from the Bolshevik Party to neo-fascist nationalists) and myriad of individuals (agreed on what they don’t like but not necessarily on what they want) into coherent political opposition will take significantly longer than the four weeks left until the Russian presidential elections on March 4. Putin may be rattled by what has happened on the streets, but no one here expects him to lose, and so – if he keeps his patience – the ball remains in the protesters’ court to maintain public interest and faith that reform is possible. There have been some concrete achievements – there will be cameras in polling stations and a network of volunteers to watch out for malpractice – but there will be no re-run of the Duma elections that sparked the protests.

At the rally, though, the placards raised spirits, prompting fellow demonstrators to de-glove long enough to take snapshots. Here are a few my daughters and I liked:

"We won't give presents to Vova" (short for Vladimir i.e. Putin)

No translation needed.

"A little duck: quack quack; Putin: blah blah" (loses a bit in translation)

A play on a Soviet cartoon about a wolf, with the punning caption "Putin, go away!"

"We will defeat you elegantly"






















The”meeting” ended with speeches from artists and politicians – brief, in deference to the  icy temperatures, a rock song and the release of hundreds of white balloons. The mood remained friendly, chatty and positive throughout – I saw more conversations between strangers than I’ve noticed in 18 months here. In Bolotnaya Ploschad, two men of around  40 sharing a bottle of Coke with added brandy jokingly teased us: “On the one hand it’s great you’re here; on the other it just means the authorities can say the demonstrators are all funded by foreign governments…”

Both worked in marketing – one selling White Birch vodka (Russia’s second biggest brand, though he claimed he privately advised friends – and particularly cocktail-swigging westerners – simply to buy the cheapest brand since all vodka was pretty much the same). His friend, meanwhile, was frustrated at the soft-focus photograph on an election poster for presidential candidate and oligarch Michail Prokhorov, arguing he should “take a look at the way Yeltsin did it”. In Russia, as anywhere else, politics is nothing without its images.

Posted in Moscow, not Mrs Putin's Diary, Russia, Russian elections, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Carnations, pin badges and a party: how Russians voted with their feet

Elections 2011 - the rest needs no translation...

A week or so before the Duma elections whose rigging has this weekend brought tens of thousands of Russians onto the streets in peaceful protest, I had a telling encounter with a stranger in a supermarket.

Curious to know the reason for the minutely-printed legalistic notices pinned up in the soft drinks section, I asked a fellow shopper, who explained that, because of a football match at the nearby Luzhniki stadium, sales not only of alcohol but all drinks in glass bottles were banned for the afternoon.

But the man, a smartly-dressed thirty-something, didn’t stop there. “You probably do not understand this because in your country you do not have an autocratic government controlling your life,” he continued. “Here we have only 12 more years of Putin.”

When dissatisfaction with a political regime reaches the stage that citizens vent their frustration to foreign strangers in supermarkets, it’s obvious a critical point has been reached. Russians – certainly the young or youngish well-educated Muscovites I meet – are sick to the core of being taken for granted, of having to live with the daily experience, big and small, of corruption either ignored by, sanctioned or – worst – conducted by the government claiming to represent them.

The familiar round of bribe-paying – anything from “fines” to traffic police for alleged violations to cash for university places or high marks – is grinding, depressing, degrading. But until recently, in my experience, Russians have described it with a sad shrug, and a sense of inescapability: “This is Russia”.

Until now of course. This weekend, some 50,000 people turned out in Moscow alone to protest at the corrupt conduct of the December 4 duma elections, whose “results” saw support for the ruling United Russia party crash from a two-thirds majority to a bare 50% (and this only after manipulation quickly highlighted in words and images on social networking and web news sites).

It’s worth emphasising here how significant that scale of protest is in Russia, where demonstration is often restricted not only by state intervention – refusing permission to gather or limiting protests to absurdly small numbers – but by individual citizens’ internal policing. When I posted on my Facebook page my intention to join Saturday’s demonstration in a square across the river from the Kremlin, a smart and highly politically-aware Russian friend rang me expressly to urge me to take care. “There will be nationalists and thousands of Nashi (the pro-Kremlin youth movement) there,” she said. “You know about demonstrations but not Russian demonstrations.” Another Russian friend echoed the warning: “It’s dangerous. Better not to go and not even be outdoors on Saturday.”

Many of the thousands in Bolotnaya Square will have felt the same, but this time their desire to show their frustration in public rather than in personal conversations or the virtual protest zone of vKontaktye (Russia’s Facebook) overcame their long-learned caution.

The elections, with their “carousel” systematic repeat voting, ballot stuffing, mysterious lost votes and shameless jamming of news and election monitoring websites, have provided the immediate trigger, of course. But the powerful sense of being taken for granted, almost laughed at, by the “vlasti” [powers – those in charge] took hold earlier in the autumn, when prime minister Vladimir Putin revealed his plan to run again (unopposed) as president, opening the prospect of another 12 years under his uncompromising rule (and by the way, he added, the arrangement with his tandem partner President Medvedev was cooked up a couple of years previously, with no one feeling the need to consult the voters).

No electorate is stupid, and Russians are smarter than most. Many of the older Soviet generation may remain resigned, fatalistic and fearful of challenging the system – and United Russia does have plenty of supporters – but younger people, facing the prospect of a dozen more years of stagnant political rule, did not take Putin’s news lightly. Time and again since September, Russians I know – teachers, friends, acquaintances, school students; many of them from the supposedly non-political 20-something generation – have spoken of their frustration, indignation and anger at having their country’s political future mapped out for them. They shrugged or laughed bitterly at the very prospect of the duma elections, which they universally expected United Russia to win handsomely (not least as no convincing opposition is forthcoming or permitted). Many spoke repeatedly of moving abroad, rather than see key career and family-building years overshadowed by more of the same corruption – adding to the existing brain drain that is a serious threat to Russia’s future success.

In essence, they were actively trying to distance themselves not from their country (even those wanting to move away), but from those running it – they wanted foreigners like me to know the government’s rule was not in their name.

When election day came last weekend, there was no sense of excitement or pride: where once  “vibori” [elections] had the atmosphere of a prasnik [celebration], the day passed like any other. Those I know either didn’t vote, or discussed how best to vote for “none of the above”. One told how a friend had been sent to the polling booth by employers at his factory with instructions to photograph his ballot as proof of a United Russia vote. Even with widespread forced voting, I still suspect the turnout was nowhere near as high as the two-thirds officially claimed.

It was the audacity of the ballot-rigging, combined with the speed and efficiency with which the internet was used to catalogue it, that really brought Russian voters from private and online dissent onto the streets. Russians adore social networking – vKontaktye is huge – and in a media-controlled state they are extremely adept at using the freedom of the internet both to disseminate information and to get round obstacles (including paying for music and film, but that’s another story). Once the momentum grew, the organisation of protest was simpler in Russia than perhaps anywhere else – and evidence of growing support helped others put aside their caution even in the face of fairly heavy-handed arrests at an initial demonstration in Chisty Prudy, central Moscow.

The 50,000 or so who took to the streets, many – probably most – for the first time, want to see the elections re-run. They do not, and this is important, want a revolution in the Arab Spring sense (or the Russian one), no matter what hysterical outsiders may claim. They have had plenty of change over the last 20 years alone, they know exactly what turmoil is like, and they want their country to stay stable at a time of global volatility. But they want no more of the shameless manipulation, the taking them for idiots, the pre-packaging of their futures.

They are also, I think, excited by the feeling yesterday’s protest gave them. There are white ribbons and white carnations to wear, pin badges excoriating “the party of crooks and thieves”, witty handmade slogans, and thousands of young people all together on the street – and the state, despite a menacing-looking police and army presence, has let them do it. It’s cool, and it’s heady – the websites and face book groups are full of thrilled personal accounts: one read “today was the best day of my life”. The demonstrators took a risk, and so far it’s paid off: they can feel a sense of power, achieved from the bottom up, not through the hall of mirrors that is Russian politics. Their numbers were great: too big to be twisted and misrepresented.

Will they get what they want? Maybe all bets are off now, and Medvedev has today promised an inquiry into the electoral fraud allegations, but I still find it hard to believe we’ll see fresh Duma elections: the concession is too great, the required admission of corruption too profound. Nevertheless, the government, including Putin (booed at a bare-knuckle fight last month in an early indicator of the scale of discontent) has been shaken by events, and cannot now maintain its comfortable assumption of a smooth power handover back to Putin in presidential elections in March.

Again, I wouldn’t bet against Putin’s return: it’s an incredibly long journey from street protests encompassing a broad range of discontent and political standpoints to a viable opposition candidacy. But whatever happens now, Moscow feels different. Things have changed. The future may be uncertain, but how much better than a certainty few wanted.

A footnote: The Moscow Times website quotes what must be one of the wittiest do-it-yourself posters of the demonstration. It read: “146 per cent of Muscovites want honest elections” – a reference to a report on election night in which the percentages for one region between them added up to 146 per cent.

The Moscow Times:

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Russian school pictures – worth a thousand words?

It’s autumn term in Moscow – season of mists, mellow fruitfulness (well, in the top-end supermarkets anyway) and school photographs.

A few weeks ago, my five-year-old son’s teacher at dyetsky sad (kindergarten) told me at pick-up time that a photographer would be coming to school the following Monday. Knowing the seriousness with which Russians treat children’s appearance (clothes calibrated precisely to climate, elaborately-plaited hair and so on), I obediently swung into action, hosing Ned down in the shower, washing his hair in the face of stiff resistance and forcing him though a combination of bribes and threats into the nearest we have to smart clothes (his least scruffy jeans and a clean top with a shark on it).

At this point I should reveal Ned’s usual look. It is loosely based on Horrid Henry, with a touch of Superhero and maybe a dash of Dennis the Menace. Here he is:

Ned as himself

Monday came, and I sent Ned off to kindergarten looking, if not well-groomed, at least vaguely tidy and free of porridge stains. “How did the photo go?” I asked him at pick-up. “Fine,” he said. “I had to wear a cloak.” Boys and their super-hero fantasies, I thought indulgently as we walked home.

A few weeks later, as I collected Ned and as we went through the usual 20-minute clothes-changing ritual (of which more in a future post), his teacher proudly handed me an envelope.

This was the photo inside:

Ned as... someone else

I almost fell into the heated snow-suit-drying cupboard. Was this my son? What on earth had happened to him? Who was he supposed to be, and what on earth was going on with that Burberry cape? Under that streetlamp, he looked like a sort of Cossack Mr Tumnus. And however had they persuaded him to hold that bear?

As so often here, what astonishes a British eye is simply daily normality in Russia. The dyetsky sad costumed portrait, it turns out, is an entirely standard feature of kindergarten life. Ned’s costume nods to the Russian fairytale hero Ivan Tsarevich; apparently he could just as easily have been sporting velvet knickerbockers and waving a quill in homage to Pushkin (I’m quite glad we escaped that one), or have been dolled up in pirate hat and cutlass to sail Moscow’s Seven Seas.

My friend Tatiana, a mother and grandmother, told me: “We have pictures of our son and grandson as explorers, spacemen, cowboys – everything. The first few are fine but when you have 20 on the shelf then maybe it is too many.”

The practice may be an institution for Russians but still catches Westerners unawares: another English mother with a child at Russian nursery told me she splashed out an absurd Moscow sum on a (shiny) suit for her son in her concern to ensure he met smartness standards, only for him to be photographed in a miniature safari suit, surrounded by soft toy animals.

After the initial shock, I’ve become rather fond of Ned’s portrait. It could only have been taken in Russia, and will always be a record of his time here. But more than that: for all its strangeness, it isn’t kitsch, or demeaning. It isn’t ridiculing Ned; indeed it’s taking him seriously – albeit within the confines of a rather idealised Russian approach to early childhood and the preservation of innocence (the adoration lessens as kids get older). He isn’t unhappy: he sat there in his cloak perfectly willingly – I only wish I knew how they persuaded him – and is not embarrassed by the result.

And the school photo isn’t the only manifestation of a very particular, and earnest, attitude here to portrait photography. Even the universally appalling passport-type pictures are afforded the same uncompromising treatment to ensure children look their best. One English friend took her three-year-old son to have his photo taken as a coat peg marker at his new school, only to find the photographer, disapproving of the boy’s t-shirt and shorts, swiftly airbrushed them out and photo-shopped an adult suit on instead. “He looked like a businessman with a little pin head,” she recalls. Only with difficulty did she prevent the same photographer photo-shopping out a scab on her daughter’s chin, acquired in a playground fall. “He was horrified I was happy to keep it in. He didn’t even want to charge us for the photo.”

The same unashamed desire for photographic perfection can be witnessed daily in the streets and parks of Moscow. Walk through any pleasant spot – the beautiful estate at Tsaritsino, say, or the bridge over the Moskva beside Christ the Saviour cathedral – and you will repeatedly bump into camera-toting young people, all posing unembarrassedly for each other. Girls peep askance from under fringes, or from behind fans of glowing autumnal leaves. Decked out in their best clothes (including heels, naturally), they lean on railings, pouting into a friend’s lens, neither smiling nor frowning.

The pictures are often shared via vKontaktye (in Contact), Russia’s hugely popular social networking site (Facebook is nowhere here). Like the dyetsky sad portraits, they are posed, but unself-conscious. Familiar – we all take photos of our kids and friends – but at the same time a world apart.

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Belt up part II – how the Virgin Mary won Russia’s elections

It’s a week since the scrap of cloth billed as the Virgin Mary’s belt arrived in Moscow following a tour of Russia, and the response in the city has been so extraordinary I thought it was worth a follow-up post. The queues to see the relic reached several kilometres long, and the wait stretched to 26 hours from the end of the line to the cathedral (a distance of four metro stops).

Interest has been so great that the belt’s stay has been extended a day till Monday, and organisers have had to dispense with the conventional Orthodox ritual of kissing the relic (or at least its box). To speed things up, the reliquary is now set on an arch, under which worshippers must walk at a rate of 80 per minute – something of a let-down, possibly, after shuffling along for a whole day and night in below-zero temperatures.

Aside from the continuing frustration over the road closures and traffic jams, the phenomenon has prompted a lot of soul-searching here over why so many Russians are prepared to turn out in the cold for a bit of camel hair, especially when it looks as if few will do the same at the voting booths in Duma elections in a couple of weeks.

For the Orthodox Church, already enjoying a resurgence and snowballing membership since the USSR fell apart, the public display of faith is an apparent triumph: devotion doesn’t come much plainer than this. Not everyone agrees, though: even among the faithful, the extremity of the response (at least half a million people have turned out in Moscow alone, and another two million elsewhere in Russia) smacks a touch too much of superstition, of a kind of mass hysteria. In the same way that Britain divided over the hyper-emotional response to Diana’s death, one part of Moscow’s population cannot understand the other.

“They are fanatics,” said my daughter’s young violin teacher dismissively. Another 20-something Russian female friend also has no time for the worshippers, pointing  to news stories here revealing that at least one other supposed section of Mary’s belt has been sitting in a Moscow monastery for years, apparently untroubled by visitors.

But Volodiya, our building’s caretaker (in his 50s), was surprised when I suggested it was “strange” that so many elderly people were prepared to brave hours in the sleet. “Why strange?” he asked. “The Russian nation is very emotional.” I still do a double-take at this self-image: a Russian teacher once told me Russians like watching Brazilian soaps because they feel they have a similar emotional national character and I nearly choked on my coffee (take a look at the set faces in a Moscow metro carriage and you’ll see what I mean). Yet of course it’s true, only the emotion isn’t the overtly passionate Latin sort, being about suffering and endurance combined with powerful love of homeland.

Superstition is in there too – Russians revel in beliefs about good and bad luck and rarely say goodbye to anyone without wishing them good fortune. Irena, my Russian teacher, is among those regarding the queue for the belt as a depressing sign of primitive superstition (or just old ladies wanting a bit of excitement), but also offered a more sympathetic interpretation. In hard times, when pensioners in particular live on meagre incomes and must often endure poor healthcare and other services, they find their comfort where they can. The crowds pinning their hopes on a scrap of cloth reflects the hopelessness of the political situation in Russia, the harshness of life for many, and the lack of popular faith in politicians to change things, Irena believes.

So what of the politicians? In Britain, where I worked as a political journalist, Tony Blair’s advisor Alastair Campbell famously said his boss “didn’t do God”. Not so here: far from running from religious fervour, Putin and his United Russia party have been more than happy to leap on the belt bandwagon and claim its alleged powers to cure infertility are aligned with the government’s drive to boost the birthrate and increase Russia’s flagging population.

Russia is the world’s fourth fastest depopulating country: according to the UN, its population will simply die out in 800 years if trends stay as they are. Watch this space for news of a belt baby boom in nine months’ time…

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Belt up! – the Virgin Mary comes to Moscow

Christ our Saviour, pilgrims queue

Pilgrims at Christ the Saviour - it takes ten hours to get this far

My friend Tamara rang this morning, apologising for running late (she takes my daughter and hers to school). “I’m sure God will punish me for this but BLOODY PILGRIMS!” she wailed. “They’re everywhere: I can’t even get the car out.”

It’s true: a slice of the centre of Moscow has been overrun for the last five days, mainly by elderly women padded out in multiple furry layers and wearing headscarves under their hats. Roads have been closed; traffic diverted; numerous drivers’ tempers lost, as tens of thousands of worshippers queue patiently for several kilometers along the Moskva embankment.

The attraction, surprisingly in a city whose icons are the iPad, the high heel and the Mercedes, is a bit of old belt. Not just any belt, obviously: a chunk of the Virgin Mary’s girdle, made of camel hair (a bit scratchy, surely?) and preserved for centuries since its owner headed heavenwards. In other words a holy relic: now on tour in Russia and drawing crowds of Orthodox believers on a scale that makes U2 concerts look under-populated.

The belt is usually kept in a monastery on Mount Athos, Greece (I imagine it’s the only women’s accessory up there), but has been toted round a series of Russian cities over the past few weeks, ending up in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – the vast white and gold post-USSR replacement for an Orthodox cathedral razed under Stalin. Pilgrims are flooding in to kiss the relic, which is believed to have special powers to treat infertility and promote health.

Whether or not the belt (strictly, it’s a cincture, faith fact fans) works its magic is one thing: I don’t mean to be unkind, but most of the worshippers are well past the age where they can accurately test its alleged properties. Personally, though, I’m gripped by the mechanics of religious devotion on an industrial scale: particularly when these rub up against the daily routines of a pretty godless megopolis like Moscow.

Walk out of the metro at Kropotkinskaya – my stop for language school – and you’re met by a sea of worshippers, milling about and trying ineffectively to navigate a line of barriers, police and icon-toting beggars and cross the road to get to the cathedral. Those with disabilities, with children or pregnant (or with special holy “business class” tickets – even the Church operates Russian “Facecontrol”, it seems) get directed one way by police with megaphones, while others have to plod several kilometers away to find the end of a huge snaking queue. Here they will stand for ten hours or more, braving sleet and below-freezing temperatures, diverted only by trips to the numerous specially laid-on portaloos and fast food cabins.  For true stoics, the wait continues all night, with warm buses and free tea and porridge available alongside the line.

Police marshaling the process appear to be practising for the forthcoming World Cup (coming to Russia in 2018) – there are even vans equipped with riot gear in case of unholy scuffles, and the queue is held back behind barricades at regular intervals. When a barrier is lifted, a scrum of old ladies surges forward, like the start of a furry octogenarian marathon.

Buses, portaloos and pilgrims along Frunzenskaya Nabrezhnaya

Back at the Christ the Saviour junction, old faith meets New Russia in ill-tempered confusion. Moscow’s insanely gridlocked traffic means a blockage at any point sends repercussions throughout the city, and closing off half the embankment is causing chaos. Opposite the cathedral, the oligarchs are still parking their chauffeur-driven Lexuses and Humvees on the road directly outside the fancy Vanille restaurant, blocking the already-choked junction even further (though at least as rows ensue the queuers have something to watch).

This being Russia, the apparently medieval spectacle may also have contemporary implications. The belt’s multi-city tour has been organised by a foundation chaired by Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russia’s state railways and a friend of prime minister Vladimir Putin. Ahead of State Duma elections on December 4, a bit of Putin-backed tummy tickling for Orthodox believers could firm up their resolve to back United Russia (Putin’s party), helping it keep power, the theory goes.

In practice, it will be the lack of a viable opposition, not the Virgin’s 2000-year-old accessories, that will ensure United Russia stays dominant. Contemplating 12 more years of a Putin presidency, no Russian I have spoken to feels inspired to vote at all either next month or in next year’s presidential elections, but I suspect that won’t stop United Russia returning a sweeping majority.

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Summertime all year round

Stop! Don’t change that clock!

Good news, comrades: Russia is enjoying “permanent summertime”. Yeah right, I hear you say, and tractor production is up by 318 per cent, two years ahead of schedule? Mock not: time really has stood still in Russia, in one way at least. When other countries turned their clocks back an hour to so-called standard time this autumn, the country’s nine time zones remained resolutely fixed on daylight saving time – previously reserved for summer.

The change – which sees each member of our family now leave the flat every morning in the dark – is all down to Dmitry Medvedev, the outgoing president whose legacy will now be murky winter mornings where day barely creeps in till 9.30am (and, admittedly, marginally less murky afternoons). The Duma – the lower house of the Russian parliament – gave the nod last April to a bill gloriously named “On the calculation of time” (only the Russians could bring a whiff of metaphysics into the dusty world of legislative terminology). Two months earlier, Medvedev had already proclaimed “the end of wintertime” in Russia.

The aim of the reform, which puts Russia four hours behind London in the winter months (and two behind its immediate neighbour Ukraine, which retained the winter time change), is to wage war on “stress and illness” among Russians (and boy do Russians love pondering illness, its causes and remedies).  With more hours of “useable” light during the working day, the theory goes, people will be happier and healthier. The old time shift, according to Medvedev, “really disturbs the human biorhythm. It’s just irritating. People either oversleep or wake up early and don’t know what to do with the hour.”

And in case you were thinking he was only worried about livestock, he clarified: “I’m not talking about unhappy cows or other animals who don’t understand the time change and don’t understand that the milkmaid is going to milk them at a different time.” So it’s not about the cows, ok?

Poor old Dimitry could be forgiven for feeling a bit sensitive: his great reform hasn’t won universal praise, though 60 per cent of Russians were said to be in favour. Last year there were street protests in the country’s far east after the government wiped out Kamchatka time as part of the same timezone shake-up programme.

From an English perspective, though, such decisiveness elicits a sneaking admiration. In the UK, we’ve faffed about for decades wondering whether to stick to summer time all winter, worrying interminably but fruitlessly about Scottish farmers, road accidents and vitamin D deficiency. Now, it seems real change might be closer – the Daylight Saving Bill (see how prosaic we Brits are compared with the Russians?) is bumbling through parliament and could push our clocks forward an hour year-round – but I wouldn’t bet on it.

In Russia, a country so vast you can’t draw a map of it without showing the curve of the earth, they don’t tinker: they grab the decision by its metaphysical scruff and take it. It may look grey and sleety out of your Moscow window, but remember it is now forever summer in Russia and be grateful.

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