Sunday, 11 December 2011

Protesting in peace

They came in their tens of thousands. On Bolotnaya square, just across the river from the Kremlin walls protesters gathered to vent their anger at United Russia and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Their message was simple. We don’t want a revolution. We want a re-run.

Russia’s parliamentary elections in early December were widely seen as rigged. All over the country stories and video phone footage abounded of voters bullied or bribed and opposition parties refused the chance to compete on trumped up technicalities. When it came to polling day, even if it was hard to verify, there seemed to be even more evidence of massive electoral fraud. In polling stations across Russia’s vast territory there surfaced videos and accounts of ballot boxes stuffed with fake ballot papers and bogus voters casting multiple and even mass votes at one or many locations. Once the vote counting started, the stream of revelations pushed the outrage to boiling point. In one video which quickly became a youtube sensation an electoral official is filmed secretly filling in extra ballot papers.

All of the accusations centre round the ruling United Russia party. Both President Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, who intends to run for a third term as president next year, are closely connected to the party. United Russia and Putin may have brought some stability and order to Russia in the last decade. But as harassed and oppressed opposition groups point out, it’s come at the cost of real democracy.  In yet another embarrassing exposure Medvedev, astonishingly on national TV, thanked the head of the now hated electoral commission saying, “you’re a magician,.” “Oh, I’m just learning,” was the wry answer.

"Guys! Vacate the area!" a call for Putin and Medvedev to go. 
While the pixies of the polling station might have found the vote rigging funny, many others did not. They took to the streets in a series of demonstrations. The response was all too predictable from Putin and Medvedev’s government. Police went in with the batons against the noisy but peacefully protesting crowds. Busloads of clueless school kids were brought in from surrounding towns and in return for some money or a Macdonalds held a counter rally hailing Putin as a great leader and ‘celebrating’, yes this was the term used, ‘celebrating’ the successful conclusion of the elections. What joyful little democrats. Except they weren’t. Independent journalists went and asked the school kids what made United Russia was so great. They forgot their prepared answers and just shrugged amidst the whirling litter of big mac boxes.

Meanwhile state TV channels invoked disgust in their audience by patently ignoring the protests and lying through their teeth that the ‘celebrations’ were all that was going on. The internet was awash with images of pariah newsreaders and slogans (they’re more pithy in Russian) such as ‘in Russia we have this profession, to lie every evening’ (on the evening news).

Not all the opponents of the protesters abandoned their fanaticism so easily. The pro-Putin youth movement ‘Nashi’ (which means ‘ours’ in Russian) and who are often derisively (but justifiably) referred to as Nashists, were behaving in their usual vicious manner. Attacking the protesters or provoking them they then walked away while the police dragged the struggling opposition supporters into armoured trucks and carted them to prison. Most of the time though the police acted unaided. It was their provocateurs, says the protesters who were hiding amongst the crowd and it was the police who were all too ready to wade in batons flailing. Hundreds were sent to prison for terms ranging up to fifteen days for the very public disorder the police and pro-Putin fanatics had stirred up. A famous opposition blogger, called Alexey Navalnywas one of those detained. He told reporters on the street through his cell window that he was being treated well. The protesters maintain he and his fellow ‘political prisoners’ should never have been put there in the first place and should be immediately released.

The black and orange sign reads, "Putin, leave of your own will!" In one of those weird ironies of Russian politics, Putin is not actually and official member of United Russia, but the point is purely academic. Everyone knows the party is his creature.

Which is why everyone was so surprised when, at the biggest protest rally in Moscow for perhaps a decade on December the 10th there was not a single arrest or disturbance. Even state TV decided, or was told, this is too big to ignore and finally decided to show the demonstration. The crowd yelled their outrage and chanted slogans like, ‘re-election’, ‘Russia without Putin’ and ‘shame on you’. They shared with the politicians, poets and journalists on the small stage the realism that they couldn’t change the country drastically overnight. But they also had answers for United Russia and for Putin. This rally came just days after the first and violent ones. Navalny and many others were still in prison. Some had dubbed this the ‘white revolution’. Many carried white ribbons to symbolise a desire for clean and fair elections and to wash away the dirty malpractice which had infected their country. Days before Putin had seized on the word ‘revolution’. He said these people were a menace and tried to raise that old fall back spectre, foreign interference. The protesters, he said, were acting on a signal from the USA. Hillary Clinton had said, as had millions of others Russian and otherwise, that the elections were not free and not fair. Putin painted that as a signal to the protesters to the try and cause mayhem in Russia. Nonsense replied the protesters.

But Putin’s nationalist talk didn’t stop the huge rally. The police, to their credit, behaved moderately and with civility. Most observers were surprised and delighted (not a word usually associated with Russian politics) that a noisy rally with a very major and serious anti-government message was full of politics, passion, and peacefulness. All went home with a sense that something of lasting importance had been achieved. It’s unlikely, all agreed, that they will achieve their primary demand, a re-run of the election. As the speakers reminded the crowd though, even without that they won’t have long to wait until the white movement has some confirmation of whether they have been heard. There’s a presidential election in spring 2012. Before this week most had begrudgingly shrugged and concluded that Putin’s victory was all but inevitable. For the moment it still seems likely Putin will be president once more. But after this, just maybe he’ll have to try and win without using any ‘magic tricks’.  

"We demand a re-check of our voices!" That's the literal translation. But Russian is a creative language too. It's really a call for a re-run of the election, and a shout of outrage that democracy has been too long absent from Russia.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Russia Belarus- Half your sovereignty for half price gas

This is the deal reportedly being done between Belarus and Russia as President Alexander Lukashenko visits Moscow.

Belarus gives complete control of its state gas transit monopoly Beltranzgaz to Russian Gas monopoly Gazprom for $2.5 billion. Gazprom already owns half of Beltranzgaz.

In return Russia halves its gas price for Belarus. It pegs it close to its own domestic Russian tariff. That’s probably going to be a drop from $300 per thousand cubic metres down to around $150. Customers in Europe have to pay the market rate of well over $400 per thousand cubic metres.

So how much political influence can energy buy you over another supposedly sovereign state? There a lot more than just gas flowing around here.

Belarus is in big trouble. It’s been poor and alienated for some time. Alexander Lukashenko was ‘elected’ for a fourth term last December amid riots which he brutally put down. He’s been in power since 1994. His only international friend with any clout is Russia. But friendship might be rather a generous word. Belarus’ economic situation has gone from bad to worse. It mostly exports agricultural products and tractors, mostly to Russia. Its economy is in dire straits, facing its own economic crisis and rampant inflation.

Russia wants political influence over Belarus and for there not to be an anti-Russian revolution there. Lukashenko is pro-Russian, so for the time Moscow is content to subsidize him. But many think they want more. Russia has Belarus over a gas barrel so to speak.

Belarus has joined a Customs Union along with Kazakhstan and Russia. As part of membership both Astana and Minsk have agreed to give up many government powers to the control of the customs union. Most will be administered in Russia. It could even see Belarus abandoning its own rouble in favour of the Russian rouble.

All of this might make sense when Belarus is desperate to stabilise its currency and increase trade. But giving away the entire gas monopoly, government controls and potentially even the currency? These may become deals the Belarusian people come to seriously regret, with the additional cruel irony that they have no say in the matter while they’re being struck.

Friday, 4 November 2011

500 days to Mars and back, all without leaving earth

The six 'crew' enter isolation in their mock space ship on June 3rd 2010.

The Russian hypesters say we've virtually already travelled to Mars. Russia's most famous cosmonaut Sergei Krikalyov and others say it's a waste of time. It's certainly achieved little more than as an isolation experiment, but Mars 500 has been quite a feat.

The six 'crew' of the mock spacecraft have managed to stay locked in for 520 days, over 17 months. I suspect submarine crews may have managed longer, but it's still a very long time to be stuck with five other men with only routine to keep you company.

Of course that is just what a Mars mission would entail, just with varying amounts of gravity and possible death in the icy vacuum of space also thrown in. NASA is vaguely aiming for such a mission in the 2030's. Russia and it's agency ROSCOSMOS will likely be a major partner as long as the two don't do something silly and fall out. They work very closely together at the moment and both will be watching the results of this experiment with some interest.

For one of the questions the Mars 500 experiement is trying to answer is, how will us homo sapiens cope in such isolation for such a long time?

The fear is of 'social narrowing'. A human stuck in the same narrow company with nothing much to do for such a long time is thought to experience a deadening of social interaction. Scientists at antartic research stations withdrew into themselves, stopped eating together, and wore a vacant expression.

Back in orbit there have even been reports of 'space madness', with crew freaking out when they dwelled too much on the fact they were in a metal box floating in the void.

Luckily, none of that happened in this experiment. Despite many bookies predicting one or other of the participants would leave, that fights would break out and that some of them would even go insane, they've got along relatively well and no one has quit.

All six were carefully psychologically selected. They were all from scientific and engineering backgrounds, happy to bury their head in a problem or work together on one. None of them were given to childish attempts to gain power or attention. They were also well attended to from the outside world.

There were some notable moments such as when they made a cardboard christmas tree or all clubbed together to perform a guitar hero rendition of blur's song 2. But the scientists were amazed to see how much the six men came to believe in their world. When halfway through the trip a mock mars landing took place the crew took it deadly seriously. One observer noted how their heartbeats were 160 a minute. Yury Gagarin's when he became the first man in space was only 152!

Controversially the organisers at Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems did decide to withhold potentially depressing news from the outside world. But the six men were allowed free communication with their families (albeit with a realistic 20 minute time delay) and had regular communication with the control room.

They'll have a full debrief and the researchers will make sure they're all sound now it's over. But they can be proud of themselves for enduring and undoubtedly contributing to the day when a real mars mission takes humanity that bit further into the exploration of space.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Russia's town in the Arctic- Cold Logic?

Valery Rzhevsky- Very confident his model will become a northen
Russian outpost.

He calls it Umka. A town in Russia's frozen northern arctic coast. Or at least it will be according to architect Valery Rzhevsky who designed it. He says it will be a base for engineers working to extract oil and gas from under the arctic sea bed.

"It will also be a port on the northern sea route," he enthuses. Russia has long dreamt of opening a route along it's northern coast for ships from the Atlantic and North Sea to the Pacific. "This would put a port on that route for ships and their attendant ice breakers to stop at." Valery goes on to describe how the town of 5000 people would be enclosed from the elements by giant insulated metal walls. Inside would be a gym, a park, a swimming centre and even an orthodox church.

But Valery also freely admits it's part of an unashamed grab for territory in the arctic. While the UN convention on the law of the sea tries to assess various claims to the arctic seabed, Russia especially has not been waiting for the process to finish. In 2007 the famous Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov used a special mini submarine to plant the Russian flag on the arctic seabed. He and other Russians claim a huge area of seabed including the north pole is a geological extension of the Russian continental shelf under Russian territorial waters. That would give Russia control over potentially vast natural reserves of gas and oil. The arctic is estimated to hold up to 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered gas.

Many fear an arms race gearing up in the region with Russian, Canada, Denmark and Norway and the U.S. among those building and training new arctic military and naval forces. But as for the $6.4 billion arctic town, Chilingarov is sceptical, telling Rzhevsky when he saw the plans, "it's not yet forbidden to dream in Russia." It will take a long time to see if this project really does materialize, or is just a Russian white dream.

A model of 'Umka', the arctic town. The church is in the foreground,
the port in the distance.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Sleuthing at speed- Encounter with Encounter

In dark, abandoned houses round Moscow you can see them gather nearly every week. Groups of lights about the rubble flit about for an hour or so then leave. They gather at abandoned factories, in woodland, by lakesides and in car parks. Always at night, always flitting around in small clusters then leaving.

Move closer and the initial mystery will be revealed. These are not, in fact, fairies. They are the players of the action mystery game, Encounter.

Started back in the 90s by the Belorussian Ivan Masliukov the game is rather like a supercharged car treasure hunt. Each team needs a vehicle and a laptop (as well as torches and perhaps an array of other useful artefacts or gadgets). Clues are delivered by logging on to the military looking encounter system. Then the competition is on as anything from a handful to hundreds of teams race throughout the night to various checkpoints throughout the city solving riddles and collection codes. Pictures of long dead artists, words plays on the name of local parks or sites, passwords given by talking to fake ‘strangers’, even announcements on the car radio. They can all be the source of codes. Each code unlocks the next clue.

I was lucky enough to travel around a game with Masha Bardashun, one of the organisers who had come from Minsk to supervise a game in Moscow. When I asked her what attracted people to the game, she said it was about an escape from the drudgery of everyday life. “Even so called entertainment in everyday life can become dull,” she said. “Going to the cinema six times a week, going to restaurants after work, encounter is for people who want a thrill and to spend their night totally differently.”

Since its inception Masliukov’s game has taken off around the world and spawned many versions like it. Andrey Naumov, another of this game’s organisers told me about the possibilities going international has brought. “Now we can set a challenge to find a code say, in, New York. You would have to ring a player there and ask them to help you. Of course they would be wise to help because they might need your help in the future!”

Of course it doesn’t always go according to plan. As Masha explains, reality can sometimes intrude into their fantasy world. “We once put many codes on a cow shed near Minsk the day before the game. When the players arrived there we started getting confused phone calls saying there was no shed. When I arrived I realised the shed had been knocked down that day! Woops!”

As the small hours crept on we sped from one checkpoint to the next. It’s this speed that’s caused controversy for the game. Putting teams of young drivers on the road at night to compete chasing after objectives is certainly a risk. More than once it has resulted in crashes and even deaths. Organisers say that safety is down to individual teams and no point scoring is worth irresponsible driving. But a question mark still hangs over the safety record of the game.

For many though, the danger is just what they crave. One team member I spoke to only wanted to do the driving. He’s helped organise a few games but his real passion was the chance to drive to the limit when the roads were nearly empty. Certainly, if youngsters want to do these games, trying to stop them is virtually impossible.

As the night hours ticked by I thought we were doing well. But as I was to discover, we were nowhere near the lead. In the end we emerged at the finish point, a café where all the teams met, to find the winners already on their main course!

So much for our sleuthing, but I have to say my encounter with encounter was a thrilling way to spend the night!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Volgograd voyage- Day Six- Steel Coffins

We travelled out west to a tiny village west of Volgograd called Kisilyov. There archaeologists had found an old soviet tank buried in the mud next to a pond. We arrived to see them dragging the nearly 70 year old hulk out of the mud and water. Crowds of locals gathered around.

A digger and a bulldozer heaved in turns on two long cables as the men around shouted and waved their arms. Eventually we saw the metal emerging from the mire. Once it was pulled out a team moved in to hose the tank off and peer inside it. There wasn’t much left except the chassis.

We found out from the local battle archaeologists that it was from the 20th division and, like the bodies of infantrymen we had seen excavated some days before was lost in a desperate battle trying to stop the Germans closing in on Stalingrad. The archives marked the vehicle as lost and most battle excavators thought they would never find it. But they literally stumbled upon it when they dug a trench through an old pond here. They found four T-34s, the famous and ubiquitous war winning tank, and this one, called a T-60, in this small rural valley. All were made in Stalingrad.

Thousands of T-60s were built between 1941 and 1942. It’s a tank that’s been largely forgotten since the war, but in 1942 there simply wasn’t time to switch round the machines that built them to producing more useful T-34s or other hardware. ‘Build something, anything,’ was the ethos as so many factories had been captured or evacuated east with the resulting disruption to output. However even before 1942 the T-60 had quickly become known as ‘the mass grave’ by its crews. It was a light tank, and even by the outbreak of war was dangerously inadequate for fighting against its Wehrmacht foes. Even some of the more powerful small arms rounds could penetrate its armour. The resulting tactics were to rush as many T-60s as possible forward, to try and swamp enemy defences. This in turn ended in the ‘mass grave’. Production was stopped in 1942.

I tried to picture the scene sixty nine years ago as the storm of war arrived at this peaceful corner of Russia. I couldn’t see any bodies in the tank, but I knew there would be many around. This was just a machine that we’d brought to the surface, but the evident chaos of its final moments gave us a stark window back into that maelstrom. The scars left by the grinding behemoths that are industrial systems at war, are not easily removed.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Portrait of a Russian- Lyubov Komar- Grief and democracy

Lyubov Komary, with some of her pictures behind her, including the black and white photo of her son Dima.

As we enter Lyubov’s flat she comes to greet us with smiling informality and launches straight away into chatting. Incense is hanging in the air and a cat scurries about from room to room. One room has a large cabinet all across one wall stacked with books of all kinds. In the main room, on two tables are laid out photos from August 1991. Larger prints are propped up against the wall too. Most show Lyubov’s son, Dmitry.

Dmitry seemed from the photos to have been a happy boy. Later the photos changed to ones of a handsome young soldier, who served over two years in Afghanistan. Then comes the drama of the coup attempt of August 18th-21st 1991. But Dima (a diminutive form of Dmitry) isn’t in these photos.

When it became clear on the 19th of August that some members of the communist party were trying to sideline Gorbachev and take power (the reason for all the tanks and police on the streets) Dmitry had told his mother that he was going to stay with a friend in Moscow. In actual fact he had answered the call of Aleksandr Rutskoi, an anti-coup politician and close ally of Boris Yeltsin (at this time) who hailed all former Afghan veterans to come and defend the white house (the site of the Russian Supreme Soviet, basically the national parliament and by this point a symbol of the democracy crowds of people had gathered to protect). Even though she didn’t know what he was doing, Lyubov says she knew something was happening. “I felt uneasy and there was a ringing in my ears.” Then, on August the 21st, just as the turning point came and the coup began to collapse, the ringing in her ears suddenly stopped. “I knew he was dead, “ says Lyubov. Soon after came the phone call she was dreading.

Also in the flat was another man and friend of Lyubov’s, Gennady Veritilny. He had been near the white house and had seen exactly what had happened. We asked him outside later. “He was on top of a pro-coup armoured personnel carrier, trying to open the hatch to pull the crew out. He was shot but not killed. His body fell in front of the armoured car but it carried on and ran him over, killing him.”

Dmitry was one of three people killed during the coup attempt. The other two were shot. Thousands flooded to their funeral on the 24th of August 1991. At the centre of it was Lyubov. “I was like a zombie for three years afterwards, “ she says, “my other son and daughter had to help me not to commit suicide.”

Now Lyubov can put Dmitry’s sacrifice into context, but she doesn’t come to a very happy conclusion. “At the time he was defending democracy. The coup plotters were simply power crazed.” However, when I asked if she thought Dmitry’s death had been in vain or not, she replied, “Now with all the corruption in Russia and the people we have in power, that’s not the Russia all those people fought for and my son died for.” Lyubov also thinks the coup plotters from the ‘Gang of Eight’ as it was called, were let off. “The putschists (‘putsch’ is another word for coup) aren’t in prison nowadays, they have high positions, money and power again. So in the end, they won.”

Dimtry Komar did help stop armoured personnel carriers gathering into position for an attack on the white house. That may have helped save the white house, and Russia’s fledgling democracy. Given his perspective at the time, few would say that Dmitry died in vain. It’s what’s happened to Russia’s democracy since, darkly ironic seeing as fear of a chaotic aftermath of the Soviet Union was one of the coup plotters' main motivations, that has, in Lyubov’s mind, inexcusably cheapened the sacrifices made back on that fateful night in August 1991.

Volgograd voyage- Day 5- Uryupinsk

Rural Russia has its own beauty as the sun rises over it, a kind of vast, relaxed embrace. Even at the roadside shacks selling shashlik (kebabs on a skewer), honey and snacks there was a practical, unglamorous friendliness that is hard to find elsewhere. Uryupinsk is the town we were heading for. In Russian it’s spelt Урю́пинск, but I’ve spelt it close to the sound of the word which is pronounced rather like this, Uriyu(the ‘u’ in both places is pronounced like you would say the double ‘o’ in ‘book’)pinsk.

If you ask a Russian about Uryupinsk they will probably laugh and say, in their own charming way, that it’s ‘in the ass’. This is the way Russians say it’s a s**thole. Russia has its fair share of those, but Uryupinsk has become the symbol for all things and places backward and rural. It’s populated in these stereotypes with idiot bumpkins. One local related to me an apocryphal but entertaining tale of an Uryupinsk school child who was asked by his teacher who the photograph of the famous socialist thinker was. The boy thought for a while, then said that sorry, he couldn’t tell because the man had too much beard on his face. Any guesses? Answer at the bottom if you’re like the child.*

But having been there, I would say the Russians are rather harsh on poor Uryupinsk and it’s people. It’s a poor place and looks very ex-soviet but that makes it alike most other Russian towns. A small café served us nothing very much at all except some greasy chips and tea. Then we went to see the lady we had come here to meet. She is without doubt a remarkable woman, and you will without doubt not have heard of her.

Pelegea keeps about ten goats, a flock a chickens, a gaggle of around ten noisy geese, some cats and a noisy dog. Every day she tends to them and feeds them. She collects the eggs from the chickens and sells them. She combs the soft haired goats and spins their wool by hand on a rickety wheel. She then makes shawls and clothes from the wool and sells them too. She does all this herself. Pelegea is ninety years old.

Her husband died when he was fifty. Even all these years later Pelegea says she feels lonely without him. She strikes up a song as she spins her wool. The tune warbles and dances along with her weathered voice. Her song doesn’t sound sad, but Pelegea informs us after that it’s a lament for him. Having said that Pelegea isn’t a melancholy woman. Lively and motivated, she keeps a vegetable garden on the outskirts of town as well. She says she just can’t sit down. As I see her wrestling with them I’m afraid that some of more delinquent goats may knock her over as they struggle to avoid a combing. But she always stays up with the help of her stick, which she affectionately refers to as her ‘grandfather’.

Actually Pelegea’s goat keeping isn’t that unique round here. Although Uryupinsk may be famous to most Russians as the back of beyond, any of the residents will proudly point you to their goat statue, their wool spinner’s statue or their goat museum. Yes, Uryupinsk prides itself on its goats.

And life goes on in Uryupinsk just as it does anywhere else. Pelegea isn’t just the proud head of her livestock. She had three grandchildren, though as she tells us one was killed in a car crash many years ago. She has five grandchildren and now seven great grandchildren. Some of their pictures adorn the walls, smiling from somewhere in the countryside, or standing proudly in their army uniform.

If they have a spirit as tough as Pelegea, they’ll do Uryupinsk proud.

* Karl Marx

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Portrait of a Russian- Oleg Baklanov- The Engineer from the Gang of Eight

When Oleg Baklanov sat down at the press conference of the newly formed State Committee on the State of Emergency on the 19th of August 1991, he was First Deputy Chairman of the Defence Council of the USSR. He was also, in this moment, one of those who sought to save the country, as they put it, from Gorbachev’s reforms. In particular they wanted to stop his Union treaty which would have given more power to the Soviet republics and, so they thought, would mean the end of the Soviet Union.

Oleg doesn’t like the word ‘putsch’. He told us not to use it before our interview because he says it’s an overly negative word coined by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. He directed us to an article written by a Russian academic more recently defending their actions. ‘The Patriotism of Duty’ it’s titled. This is more how Oleg likes to think of what he and his fellow plotters did.

But for most of his life Oleg Baklanov wasn’t centrally involved in Soviet politics. He was a prestigious engineer and rocket scientist, helping to design and oversee huge improvements in Soviet rocket and space technology.

However, as the crisis of the Soviet Union developed throughout 1991 Baklanov became one of those convinced something had to be done to stop the breakup of the USSR. In March a plebiscite had found the majority of people wanted the Soviet Union to remain intact. It is this plebiscite that Oleg referred to as justification for the opposing the union treaty. Like others involved in the coup attempt he is very negative towards Gorbachev. “The Union treaty was against the will of the people,” he told me.

As a result tanks went into the streets of Moscow on the 18th of August 1991. When people found out what was happening on the 19th, and that Gorbachev was not, as the coup members had said, ill, they barricaded the Russian parliament which became the symbol of Russian hopes of democracy. When the President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin (not president of the Soviet Union, that was Gorbachev, yes two presidents, Russian politics at this time contains too many name changes too fast, a sure sign of trouble) stood on a tank whose crew was sympathetic and rallied the people to defend democracy and Gorbachev, Oleg says he knew the Emergency Committee, or coup plotters if you prefer, had to back down or open fire. Neither he nor his fellow coup members were prepared to kill civilians.

Oleg does maintain that the current tale of the August coup is a pack of lies spun by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. For example, it’s widely accepted that Gorbachev was shut up inside his Crimean villa where he had been on holiday, and his phones cut off so he couldn’t have contact with the outside world. Both Baklanov and Vasily Starodubtsev who I interviewed in another post say that’s not true. “We didn’t block Gorbachev,” protests Oleg, “we didn’t want to seize power either. We were already in power, we didn’t need to do that. We wanted to save the Soviet Union.”

The coup had failed by the 21st of August and the plotters were arrested, apart from the interior minister who shot himself. Most were given amnesties after light punishment. Oleg Baklanov returned to the space industry and is still a director of the Russian space technology agency.

But he does allow himself a little wistfulness, perhaps justifiably, at what could have been. “If the Soviet Union could have been maintained we could have avoided the state of modern slavery that exists in Russia now. So many people from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other former Soviet republics come to Russia looking for work and end up working for nothing as modern slaves. This is terrible when they could have worked where they lived in the Soviet Union,” Oleg says.

Oleg himself is a child of the Soviet Union. He was born in Kharkov in the Ukraine. He's nearly eighty now but doesn’t want there to be only negative memories of the USSR. He’s chairman of the society of friendship and cooperation between the peoples of Ukraine and Russia. His list of scientific and engineering achievements in the cosmonautics field is vast. He most probably wouldn’t have achieved all he has if it weren’t for the Soviet Union. So although one might not excuse the methods of Baklanov and his fellow conspirators in those fateful August days, we can perhaps sympathise with the genuine respect he felt for the system he was trying to save.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Volgograd voyage- Day 4- Waterways

Ship 'Volga-Don 101' enters the first lock of the canal.

As we emerged onto the bridge we saw it. The Volga-Don Shipping Canal. What struck me first was how picturesque it was. Smart grass banks ran down to the lock. Above it, on a hill up stone steps was the manager’s office. It was like a minor noble’s house. We first entered the plotting room, and there the picturesque gave way to planning.

It was built in the 1950’s, but apart from the Russian it looked much like I would expect such a facility anywhere in Europe. Charts showed which ships were entering and leaving locks right across the 100km channel linking the Volga and Don rivers. A cross section also showed the lock system, nine locks lifting ships up 88metres from the Volga and another four lowering them 44 metres down to the Don on the other side. Three powerful pumping stations bring water up from the Don to maintain the water level. Phones kept ringing for the ‘dispatchers’. They would give permission for ships to enter and leave locks and for the water levels to be changed.

When we went down to the lock itself though, the communist engineering pride couldn’t be hidden among the trees on the banks. The arch above the lock entrance was topped an each side by a metal statue of a collection of Soviet banners. The project was finished in 1952, the year before Stalin died. It was a typically Stalin like project. The first plans to join the two rivers date back to the Turks who owned most of the region in 1569. Many others tried, most notably Peter the Great, but none of them had access to the vast number of slave labourers created by the Gulag prison camp system. Stalin did, and by the year of its completion there were 100,000 of them toiling and dying to finish it. As with projects across the Soviet Union, it’s a monument to engineering ambition, built on the misery of a totalitarian system using slave labour.

The controls may be modernised, but the lock systems are the same as they
were in the fifties.

The lock doors opened with a call from the dispatcher. In floated the ship slowly. Then up it went when the pumps were switched on and out the other end. The system is in the process of going digital so we saw a mixture of fifties style working and modern computer technology. It was an impressive sight. They reckon the canal has shifted numbers approaching half a million vessels since it was built and 12 million tonnes of cargo passes through every year.

However the canal isn’t without its problems, as its manager Alkensandr Naumov, told us. “The water level gets harder to support, with less and less melt water each year because of less snow.” There have also been problems caused by the Volga hydroelectric station upstream, he adds, “The hydroelectric plant sometimes starves us of water so that we can only let in smaller ships, or half full ones.”

Alkensandr Naumov says they have problems these days with one of the things
you need most in a canal, water.

If you can put aside the cost, this is at least an engineering achievement the Soviets and now the Russians can be proud of. All they need now is the water to run it.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Volgograd voyage- Day 3- Empty Acres

We drove north from Volgograd along a bumpy road, turning in to the yard of a former cooperative farm. This was the farm office, now the local centre for the company ‘Krasnodonsky’ that succeeded its Soviet ancestor. The company has pigs, chickens and arable crops in land parcels spread out across a vast area. Despite being the main office many pig sheds were also located here and the air was rich with the scent of them. The boss of the operation, like the operation itself was typical of many across the former Soviet Union. He wore a suit, had a very high opinion of himself and liked to think that his importance meant he could tell us how to go about our job. When we politely told him what we needed to film, he was initially hostile to any access at all (funny, I thought we’d surmounted that hurdle when we arranged to come all this way) but to his credit he eventually gave in and even let us see something rather unconventional on a Russian farm.

We followed one of his managers out into the open semi-steppe, the sun was bright and the grass and scrub stretched to the horizon and beyond. This is what you think of when you think of Russian agriculture. There were crops here and there, but it hardly seemed as if there was much urgency about planting much of it. Eventually we pulled into a yard next to what looked rather like chicken sheds. But as we got out of the cars a strange sound greeted our ears, a sort of bass thump, as if delivered by one of those beat box musicians who do all the sounds without instruments. There it was again, and again. Ah! I thought, so this is where all those beat boxers come from. They’re training regiments of them in Russia to flood the shopping malls of Europe! Not quite, round the corner of the sheds I saw them, hundreds of emus. The farm housed 460 in total, used mainly for their meat.

Emus, in Russia. Who would have thought?
But he's not wearing a mortar board as emu professor, it's the top of the shed.

We asked their keeper, Nina Markina, what she thought of her wards. “They have a strong temperament,” she said, “at first I hated them because they’re very aggressive, especially when they have young, but after a couple of seasons I learnt their personalities and I can control them more easily now.” The bass thumps are a form of communication, not a form of bird a cappella. The eggs are hatched in incubators and for their first few weeks the young birds are kept in a special pen. But what brought Nina out here to the beautiful but very isolated countryside and kept her here? There were a few wooden houses nearby but that was it. Of course, it was all about money. Her daughter was in university, her son approaching his school leaving exams. And would they come back to help her when they were educated? “No,” she said, “I don’t want them to come back here. There’s no opportunity here.”

Nina Markina had grown used to working with the big birds,
but didn't want her children following her.

That is a refrain I’ve heard much from Russians. They look down on ‘the village’ as they call it. Of course many young Russians still come from the countryside. But few want to go back there from university or their first jobs in a town or city. The countryside, once such an inspiration for Russian musicians, painters and writers is now largely derided. In many places in the world being a farmer is seen as carrying with it a good, wholesome upbringing, even sometimes aristocratic qualities. Not here. Perhaps it was the Soviets’ love of the cities, but all those living in the countryside are, on a stereotypical level, seen as a bit backward. This is proving an increasing problem for Russia as its countryside, and agricultural sector, are being speedily depopulated.

Anastasia Ivanova thought working on a farm wasn't bad,
but there aren't so many like her in Russia.

We arrived next to a chicken farm about an hour’s drive away. It looked and worked much like its European counterparts. Rows of chicken sheds housed thousands of birds at different stages of growth running around on the floors of the specially environmentally controlled spaces. But as well as the modern set up, it was also here that we met some of the young Russians who are bucking the trend of leaving the countryside. Anastasia Ivanova was twenty four. But as she explained, working for Krasnodonsky’s chicken farm seemed a sensible option. “They train us in vetinary science and pay us a reasonable wage,” she said. “I trained as a vet for this kind of work, there would be no use for me in the city.” Anastasia also had her complaints though. She wanted more government support for Russian farm staff. “They could give us some subsidy for rural housing for a start. It’s very difficult to live here otherwise.” President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have often talked about agriculture as one the Russian government’s big priorities. But despite the rhetoric and considerable flows of money, Russia’s agricultural storage facilities and transport networks are falling apart, and there still aren’t the incentives to create enough Anastasias to run the sector in the future.

Our third visit of the day was 150km away. Narrow streams cut gullies into shallow rolling grassland. Only one low line of chalk hillocks stood out and aside from small copses, there were few trees. This terrain ran up to fields, cultivated where the soil wasn't too thin and rocky to prohibit it. We turned off the road onto a dusty dirt track. The small villages of wooden huts we passed seemed abandoned, until locals emerged going about their business. Then looming over the horizon in this very poor and barren landscape we saw them, three huge, state of the art John Deere tractors stood with their planting rigs behind them, filling up with wheat seed for planting. Krasnodonsky was not only a local concern. It was owned by a holding group somewhere in a big city office. The capital they had invested was what enabled them to buy five of these huge tractor and planting rigs. Just as well. They were planting a field 264 hectares in size (a field this size is nearly unheard of in the UK). The five rigs had 30,000 hectares to plant in total and were working 24 hours a day to do it. Now the potential of modern technology, applied to Russia’s vast land mass was plain for me to see.

However once again we were back to old problems. I noticed all of the men driving, loading, controlling and maintaining these machines were old. When I asked why there were no younger men here the answer was depressing. These machines are too valuable, I was told. We wouldn’t trust younger men with them. It’s this kind of attitude that is holding Russian agriculture back. Fair enough the men had a point, but not even a single young apprentice was there learning how to run these machines for the future. As the three tractors drove off down the field, looking like a scene from an old Soviet propaganda reel, I was impressed at how far some of Russia’s agriculture has come. But I was also worried. For when these men grew old, who would there be to man those 30,000 hectares then?

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Portrait of a Russian- The Peasant Leader from the Gang of Eight

His hero Lenin behind him, Vasily says they only stopped  the coup to avoid killing civilians.
Well that's a small improvement on Lenin then.

It was mid morning by the time we had bumped our way to Spaskaya, a village 175km south of Moscow. I’ve been on worse roads, but it always makes watching the sunrise that little bit more difficult. We turned off the main road, and there it was, the ‘Central Administrative Building’. No village hall or local council here. Most old Soviet districts have their pillar saying their name, complete with rusting hammer and sickle, their statue of Lenin, and their central administrative building.

A central administrative building is usually block shaped, concrete with some attempt at stone façade (usually brown), and half empty. We were not disappointed. This one conformed to shape and style, but had sprouted an impressive thatch of ivy which had gone uncut for many years. Inside we passed through the dusty lobby, up a dusty staircase onto a dusty landing. To our left was the only room on the long corridor where we could see activity, to our right, six or seven faded red soviet banners in a cabinet, their metal hammer and sickle clad spear tips still looking ferociously defiant. In some places the USSR has clung on more obstinately than others.

Which is precisely why we were here. I haven’t usually found you can tell an awful lot from a man’s business card. But when Vasily Starodubtsev emerged from his door just to the right of the flags, his card described the man in triumphant terms. It reads-

The Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, The State Duma (fair enough, he is a serving member of parliament)

Committee of Agriculture, Deputy

The Hero of Socialist Work (An impressive achievement, but perhaps better on a CV, and with a spellcheck)

Corresponding member USSR State prize laureate (well done comrade)

Russian Academy of Agriculture Science (fair enough again, he chooses the priorities on his own business card)

To be fair this was the English side of his business card so it would be pretty rich of me not to forgive the grammar. But after a few minutes talking I soon realised the reason for the parade of Soviet achievements. He started by putting up a stout defence of Lenin, saying many people disparaged him, but that he had created a new civilization. I tried to find common ground with this former head of a successful ‘Kolkhoz’ (collective farm), by revealing that my family are farmers back in England. Nods of approval, followed by the words, “he who provides bread, provides truth.” I was starting to feel like a hero of the Soviet Union myself.

Vasily Starodubtsev has rare views for these days and ones getting rarer in Russia. He wants the Soviet Union back. He firmly believes that if the Soviet Union had survived Russia would not have some of the major problems it does today. The huge gap between rich and poor, the declining population and the general weakness he perceives in its world position. He was prepared, as others were on August 18th 1991, to try and launch a coup to make sure the Soviet Union wasn’t broken up. Goodness knows, he might be right and Russia may have been a better place today if they had succeeded. We shall never know.

Mr Starodubtsev was Chairman of the peasants Union of the USSR back in August 1991. He and seven others formed what has become known as the ‘gang of eight’, high ranking figures in the communist party who are widely believed to have imprisoned Mikhail Gorbachev in his Black sea holiday home and tried to take control of the country.

Vasily strenuously denies they ‘imprisoned’ Gorbachev. The story commonly told is that border guards operating for the plotters closed off his compound, called ‘Foros’ after the village it was near. His telephone lines were cut and he was told he must stay there. “No telephone lines were cut!” Insists Starodubtsev, “Gorbachev could have left whenever he wanted, he was just too scared to come back to Moscow.” This is certainly another version of the story. Fellow conspirator Vladimir Kryuchkov, the chairman of the KGB is on video admitting they put guards around Foros and cut off the phones. I couldn’t work out why Mr Starodubtsev was so convinced of the righteousness of his version of the story, a version that clashes with the one so widely told, so strikingly. Perhaps he has convinced himself of his own version events. Perhaps he knows the truth but will cover it up until the day he dies. Perhaps, he’s right. He wasn’t at all unsure though, and as sure as his story was his opinions of his opponents.

Everyone that gathered to defend the White House, Russia’s parliament building (yes the U.S. doesn’t have exclusive rights to that name!) was drunk, crazy or had been hired, according to Mr Starodubtsev. The crowds that gathered there on the 19th of August were immense. They wanted democracy, they didn’t believe what they had been told about Gorbachev being ‘ill’, and they wanted to protect their chance of a democratic Russia. Vasily says also that their self appointed leader, the dynamic, rabble rousing, and at this time sober Boris Yeltsin, was also out of control and didn’t give a hoot about the Russian people. In the end Starodubtsev’s view would coincide with the Russian public’s about Yeltsin. But at this moment he was hailed as the defender of democracy.

But Vasily’s harshest criticism was reserved for Gorbachev himself. “ I feel the worst kind of things about him, the worst. He’s a traitor, pure and simple. He always talked, he never actually did anything to help the people.” This was just a fragment of his tirade. In fact, on this Starodubtsev too now has many people on his side. Never mind what world leaders think of Gorbachev. The people he was supposed to serve, the Russian people, largely hate him. They blame him for ruining the Soviet Union and squandering its and Russia’s territory.

But on August 19th, when tanks were on the streets, all the protesters cared about was the supposed deposition of their president. The day before they had switched on their television sets to see Tchaikovsky’s swan lake playing instead of the news. The first statement from the so called ‘State Committee on the State of Emergency’ followed, saying that Gorbachev was ill and that they had taken over the running of the country in this crisis. Few people believed them. Everyone in the press conference who watched Vice President Gennady Yanayev deliver the statement could see his hands shaking. It seemed he didn’t even believe it himself. When then 24 year old journalist Elena Markina stood up and called it a coup, Yanaev’s official words were blown out of the water.

But that didn’t mean the coup was doomed. Not until the night of the 19th August, when three protesters were killed in clashes with troops loyal to the coup, did it really begin to fall apart, says Starodubtsev. The next day, when a group of the plotters tried to convince Gorbachev to resign and to stop his Union treaty which was designed to give more power to the Soviet republics (but which really kicked off the coup because the plotters thought it would destroy the Soviet Union) he flatly refused. They crumbled and that was it. Their moment of destiny had passed. By the end of 1991 the Soviet Union had gone.

Interior minister Pugo shot himself before they arrested him. The rest, including Starodubtsev admitted their guilt in return for light or no punishment. Does Vasily feel guilty at what he did. No he says. But he didn’t want to be responsible for killing innocent civilians (the three that were killed he says, weren’t innocent, again at odds with the commonly acknowledged story).

Vasily is nearly ninety now. He had been the chairman of a successful cooperative farm and had worked hard all his life to try and do the best for it and its members. He still serves Russia as a politician and cares deeply about its future. He is, by all account a decent man and certainly one with strongly held beliefs. As Churchill said, “you have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime on your life.” Vasily has certainly done that. He and his fellow coup members didn’t succeed in preserving the Soviet Union. You could try and tell him that’s because they went about it the wrong way, and that they were on the wrong side of history. But with the self belief or obstinacy of all those who did, or nearly did change history, like Churchill, or Starodubtsev’s own hero Lenin, he wouldn’t listen to you.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Volgograd Voyage- Day 2- Water and Earth

The Volga Hydroelectric station strectching across the river.

 We arrived at one of Soviet Russia’s great flagship symbols. What could demonstrate the irresistible march of Soviet power better than the taming of the mighty Volga river itself. Finished in 1961 the GES hydroelectric power station outside Volgograd is the largest in Europe. Its dam spans the Volga, allowing trains and trucks to cross on its back. Its twenty two generators kick out 12.3 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year (leaving a 60 watt light bulb on for an hour would use 0.06 kilowatt hours).

The Turbine hall, showing the tops of the huge cylinders rotating beneath.

This is all very impressive. But it isn’t as simple as Lenin’s declaration that, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country.” This was Soviet progress writ large. But it wasn’t really the Soviets providing the muscle. It was the Volga. It still does it today, and at great cost.

The Volgograd hydroelectric station is only the most visible example of the damage industrialisation has done to the Volga. The river’s basin contains forty five percent of Russia’s industry and fifty percent of its agriculture. As a result it’s littered with industrial waste. Oil slicks, sunken ships and chemicals scatter its 3500km course. The resulting death of plant and fish species and the vast algal blooms that spring up have led some action groups to label some of the Volga’s tributary rivers ‘dead’.

There are eight hydroelectric stations along the Volga, each providing valuable power but also disrupting the river’s natural flow. Artificially holding back or suddenly releasing water has led to rapid erosion of the banks. Perhaps most famously of all the hallowed sturgeon, the source of black caviar was stopped from swimming upstream to breed, its course blocked by the dams, causing its numbers to plummet.

Within a year all of these houses will have fallen into the Volga.

When I asked the local ecologist Natalia Loponsova if she thought the Volga itself was dying, she shuddered. But, quickly gathering herself again, she refused to accept such a gloomy conclusion. She admitted the damage is extensive, but added, “the Volga is too important, I simply can’t believe she is dying.”

There are in fact new projects to try and regulate how often the hydroelectric plant ‘dumps’ water downstream. There are also studies trying to analyse the mess that needs to be cleared up along the river. But the schemes are woefully short of cash and their recommendations are frequently ignored by industry and the authorities. It seems belief alone won’t stop the banks collapsing, or the fish dying.

We next travelled out into the countryside around Volgograd, returning to the theme of the fight for the city’s survival when it used to be called Stalingrad back in World War Two.

In August 1942, as German troops approached the city the Red Army which had been retreating scrambled to try and create a defensive line. We arrived at the scene of one such attempt. It was a windswept farmer’s field, but around twenty volunteers were digging holes in it. As we drew closer we saw fifteen skeletons in the small clutch of holes they had dug along just a thirty metre stretch. It was a sombre and moving sight.

Sergei Kochetov one of the volunteers who explained the massive task ahead of them.

One of the excavation volunteers, Sergei Kochetov, explained to us that through painstaking research they had identified this as the place where, in 1942, part of the 120th division from Tatarstan to the North had been hurried into position. Hopelessly outgunned against German tanks and without time to create a proper defence they had lost 70% of their men to the Wehrmacht onslaught. We saw just a fragment of that loss, three of four feet under the sandy soil. They weren’t buried but lay twisted and crumpled where they fell. Sergei identified some of them as younger soldiers because their skulls, not yet fully set by age, had crumbled down over the years.

Among the bones we found the paraphernalia of war. Gas masks, helmets, shells, bullets, mines, mortar bombs, magazines full of bullets and grenades. The rubber soles of their boots were still intact on their feet. The belt buckles still rested on their waists and their spoons for their rations lay around them. As the bigger rounds of ammunition were found the projectiles were removed from their casings and the old cordite propellant lit, burning away with a hiss and an orange yellow flame.

With a rare whole boot still attached, a female volunteer removes the leg of a fallen soldier.

“For decades these bodies have lay here,” Sergei explained. “When they were killed there was no time to bury them. Every available pair of hands was fighting. There was a war to win.” But in more recent years teams have been steadily excavating the sites of the Stalingrad battlefront which could have claimed as many as two million lives. Sergei told me he thinks his children will still have hundreds of thousands of bodies to dig up, such is the long shadow of this horror story. Especially poignant are some of the personal mementos they come across. “Sometimes we find a bullet case with a body. Inside is usually a letter to be delivered to loved ones in the case of their death. It’s very moving.”

Some years ago one of their excavations was shown on local TV. The TV station received a call from a man who thought he recognised one of the fallen soldiers referred to. He came to see the group, and found it was his father whose body he had been searching for for years. He was finally able to give him a proper burial.

As Sergei says, that was a one off. But the volunteers, ranging from their teens to their sixties are trying also to give these soldiers some dignity in death at last. They’re also able to read something of each battle in what they find. We found two Russian soldiers collapsed on top of some German 88mm artillery shells, still potentially explosive all these years later. Bomb disposal would have to deal with them, but the excavators agreed that it was probable these men had captured a German gun position before being killed themselves.

At the end of each day the teams wrap up the remains and take them to a room where they lay them out and light a candle for each one. They call it the last post, after the famous bugle call. With a folklore similar to the soldiers’ own all those years ago, they say that the longer each candle burns, the longer that soldier fought on. Well the soldiers themselves wouldn’t have known it, but every second of each candle wasn’t burnt in vain.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Volgograd voyage - Day 1 - The Lady with the Sword

The view from the Mother Russia statue's head.

It looked around us like we were deep in the bowels of a nuclear bunker. Stark metal and concrete were all we could see. Up we wound our way on rough grey steps and steel ladders, the room for manoeuvre becoming less and less. Eventually we reached the last ladder, with a hatch at the top. "Careful here," said our guide, Vitally Shumliansky, one of the keepers of this site, "this is the most dangerous part."

We poked our heads out of the hatch to dazzling sunlight and a panoramic view of Volgograd, one of southern Russia's big cities. The vast, sparkling Volga River cruised along beyond the foot of the hill we were on. In front of me was an enormous grey sword, connected to an enormous arm, connected the gigantic statue of Mother Russia which towers above the city. She weighs 8000 tonnes and stands 85 metres tall, and I had just popped out of her head.

The plaques at her feet commemorate particular heroes in the battle.

You might be more familiar with Volgograd's pre 1961 name, Stalingrad. Here, in 1942, was fought the largest battle the world had ever seen. It is estimated the dead from the battle could number as many as two million. It was the defeat for Nazi Germany that destroyed Hitler's largest army and proved the turning point of the fight to the death between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Mother Russia, standing on a hill called Mamayev Kurgan which was taken and re-taken by the Wehrmacht and Red Army many times, is one of Russia's most famous memorials to that war. The vast statue of a raging Russian heroine holding her sword aloft represents the strength of spirit and the wrath of the Russian and (when it was built) the Soviet people.

She was built in sections with huge steel pipes inside her back and shoulders for strength. At her feet is the hall of memory. With a daily honour guard of soldiers and a sad lament playing amidst golden mosaic walls and an eternal flame, this is the tragedy that sits at the foot of Stalingrad's triumph. Signs of the battle and its cost are littered throughout the city.

The guard of honour in the hall of memory.

Next to the museum dedicated to the battle is an old grain mill. Ironically it was built by German settlers in the 19th century. There were many 'Volga Germans' who moved out to this region of Russia. It stands today blasted and battered, deliberately maintained just as it was during the battle. Huge chunks have been blown out from the brick work by shells and bullets. It’s located about 100 metres from the river bank. This shows how close the Germans came to taking the city and how desperate this last defence was.

A burnt out tank track still lies next to the old mill which saw such ferocious fighting.

Our last memorial was another house, also left as it was. But this was further out from the centre, and had been completely ignored. It had only a few walls left standing, and was overgrown with bushes and weeds. As a local history student explained to me, this had been the makeshift headquarters of the Red Army's 138th division. This part of land, even though it wasn't in the river, was known in the battle as the 'fire island'. Outgunned and totally surrounded, the Soviet soldiers here were battered and blasted by German artillery and subjected to attack after attack. It's not precisely known how many survived or how many managed to escape. But the fire island, like Stalingrad itself, was like hell on earth.

Just as we were about to leave the site, we heard singing. We made our way to the bank of the Volga, only fifty metres away. There stood a ten year old boy, dressed by his beaming mother in the style of an old Red Army soldier, singing beautifully that most famous of Red Army songs, Katyusha. It tells of a Russian girl longing for her beloved who is away fighting at the front. It is a tender, moving song but nevertheless with a lively and catchy tune. Who knows how many times its sound drifted through the battle scarred buildings and across the tiny strips of no mans land to the Germans all those years ago. Every Russian knows the song, every Russian knows the battle, every Russian can picture that vast and terrible figure wielding her sword on the hill. The young boy was a living memorial to this city that had once seen so much death.

A young modern Russian sings a song of his grandfathers, next to the mighty Volga.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Cosmonauts Return

Children with U.S and Russian flags wait to cheer the returning space men.

It was a damp spring day, but warmer than last time I was reporting on returning cosmonauts back in the depths of winter. The three returning crew Aleksandr Kaleri, Scott Kelly and Oleg Skripochka walked up and laid flowers at the base of the statue of Yury Gagarin. It’s an almost hallowed place here at Star City, the cosmonauts training centre north of Moscow. It was just two days before on the 12th April, fifty years ago, that Yury Gagarin became the first man in space.

Yury Gagarin's statue

The three had landed from in a special pod in March after their stint on the International Space Station. After some weeks of acclimatisation this was their official welcome home. In the Hall of Cosmonauts came the showers of flowers, salutatory speeches and applause for six months of orbit, maintenance and experiments.

When I covered the launch of these three men last October it was with Scott Kelly’s brother Mark watching with me. He too is an astronaut and was due to meet his brother in space when Scott was commanding the ISS and Mark was leading the discovery space shuttle's last mission. They would have been the first brothers in space. Unfortunately the discovery's mission was delayed until after Scott came back.

It was also a moment of technical improvement back in October 2010. The Soyuz rocket they were flying was the first of a new generation with a new flight control computer. It did its job well, bringing them to the ISS and back again safely.

For their time circling earth the three helped to measure the effect of radiation on models of the human body and its tissue. The mannequins 'Mr Rando' and 'Matryushka' were stuck out into space to sample radiation levels which scientists rate as the biggest threat to cosmonauts, being twice the level of that on earth.

In the 'Expose-R' experiment organic material from plants, bacteria and insects was subjected to the same treatment to see what organisms might have survived millions of years ago and gain some insight into the mystery of life's origin on earth.

They also received space vehicles from Russia, the U.S, Europe and Japan.

It had been a busy six months, conducted smoothly. This celebration was thanks from star city, from Russia and from the wider world.

When I talked to Scott after the presentation we reflected on the fifty years since Gagarin’s first historic flight. “What do you think will happen in the next fifty years of space exploration,” I asked. “Maybe Mars?”

“Maybe,” replied Scott with a smile, “I’d certainly want to live to see that.”

With space pioneers like Kaleri, Scott and Skripochka, he just might.

Left to right- Scott Kelly, Aleksandr Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka
lay flowers at the base of Gagarin's statue.