Russia Today

“‘We believe Russia is a great empire that other powers want to tear away parts from.  We need to restore our power, occupy our lost lands, grab Crimea from the Ukrainians,’ the football supporters say, then in the same breath: ‘We want a Russia for Russians, all these darkies from the Caucasus and Central Asia need to go home.’

This has always been the paradox of the new Russian nationalism: on the one hand wanting to conquer all regions around, on the other wanting an ethnically pure great power,” says Peter Pomerantsev,  Soviet-born British journalist, author and TV producer who lived and worked recently in Russia for nine years (195-196).  His book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia provides many glimpses into modern Russia.


“Nothing is True and Everything is Possible”

“[T]he great drama of Russia is not the ‘transition’ between communism and capitalism, between one fervently held set of beliefs and another, but that during the final decades of the USSR no one believed in communism and yet carried on living as if they did, and now they can only create a society of simulations.  For this remains the common, everyday psychology: the Ostankino [the Russian government T.V.] producers who make news worshiping the President in the day and then switch on an opposition radio as soon as they get off work; the political technologists who morph from role to role with liquid ease–a nationalist autocrat one moment and a liberal aesthete the next; the ‘orthodox’ oligarchs who sing hymns to Russian religious conservatism–and keep their money and families in London.  All cultures have differences between ‘public’ and ‘private’ selves, but in Russia the contradictions can be quite extreme” (199).

“A PR man with a deep tan and the nasty smile common to upper-end foreign-service KGB men told us that all the corruption scandals related to Skolkovo [Moscow’s high technology business area] had been solved.  . . . I asked whether the ‘modernization’ project had failed; every week there were more arrests of businessmen and -women, and more than 50percent of people were now employed by state companies.  Pools showed that young people no longer wanted to be entrepreneurs but bureaucrats.  The PR man shrugged and answered that the President was fully behind Skolkovo.  . . .

[W]e were accompanied by a young man named Sergey Kalenik, a member of the Kremlin youth group, Nasi. . . Sergey wore a hoodie, goatee, and skinny jeans and looked like any hipster youth you find in Brooklyn or Hackney–then he opened his mouth and began to sing paeans to the President and how the West is out to get Russia.  Sergey was from a humble background in Minsk, Belarus.  He first made his name by drawing a really rather good manga cartoon that showed the President as superhero doing battle against zombie protesters and evil monster anticorruption bloggers . . .

The cartoon was so successful Kalenik was introduced to senior government officials, and his career as a young spin doctor was launched. ‘Politics is the ability to use any situation to advance your own status,’ Sergey told me with a smile that seemed to mimic . . .KGB men.

‘How do you define your political views?’ I asked him.

He looked at me like I was a fool to ask, then smiled: ‘I’m a liberal . . . it can mean anything!'” (76).

What about the women in Russia? How some Russian girls “get ahead” is to find a sugar daddy.

“The one thing Oliona will never, ever think of herself as is a prostitute.  There’s a clear distinction: prostitutes have to have sex with whomever a pimp tells them to.  She does her own hunting.  . . .

‘But what about love?’ I ask Oliona.

Oliona says, ‘My first boyfriend.  Back home in Donbas [a coal-mining area of Ukraine, taken over by mafia bosses in the 1990s, now controlled by Russia].  That was love.  He was a local authority.’

Authority is a nice word for gangster.

‘Why didn’t you stay together?’

‘He was at war with another gang–they used me to get to him . . . They took turns.  Over a week. . .But then he made peace with the other gang.  And that was that. . . I left town’ (17). . .

Usually Oliona wouldn’t even think of talking to me [Pomerantsev; she’s] one of those impossible-to-acccess girls who would bat me away with a flick of her eyelashes.  But I’m going to put her on television, and that changes everything. . . she can’t wait to tell the world; the way of the gold digger has become one of the country’s favorite myths. . . .

‘Business theory teaches us one important lesson,’ says the instructress [in the documentary How to Marry a Millionaire (A Gold Digger’s Guide)].  Always thoroughly research the desires of the consumer.  Apply this principle when you search for a rich man.  On a first date there’s one key rule: never talk about yourself.  Listen to him.  Find him fascinating.  Find out his desires.  Study his hobbies; then change yourself accordingly.’

Gold Digger Academy. A pool of serious blonde girls taking careful notes.  Finding a sugar daddy is a craft, a profession.  . . . ‘Never wear jewelry on a first date, the man should think you’re poor.  Make him want to buy you jewelry. Arrive in a broken-down car: make him want to buy you a smarter one.’

The students take notes in neat writing.  They have paid a thousand dollars for each week of the course.  There are dozens of such ‘academies’ in Moscow and St. Petersburg . . .

‘Go to an expensive area of town,’ continues the instructress. ‘Stand with a map and pretend you are lost.  A wealthy man might approach to help.’   . . .

Oliona lives in a small, sparkly new apartment with her nervous little dog.  The apartment is on one of the main roads that leads to billionaire’s row,  Rublevka.  Rich men put their mistresses there so they can nip in and visit them on the way home.  . . . Oliona came to Moscow with next to nothing when she was twenty and started as a stripper at one of the casinos, Golden Girls.  She danced well, which is how she met her sugar daddy.  Now she earns the basic Moscow mistress rate: the apartment, $4,000 a month, a car, and a week-long holiday in Turkey or Egypt twice a year.  In return the sugar daddy gets her supple and tanned body any time he wants, day or night, always rainbow happy, always ready to perform.

‘You should see the eyes of the girls back home.  They’re deadly jealous,’ says Oliona. . .  But her sugar daddy promised her a new car three months ago, and he still hasn’t delivered; she’s worried he’s going off her” (8 -10).

But there is also another kind of new Russian woman: self-made, independent, rich.  Yana Yakovleva “was tall and strong and flame-haired. . . She had been running the company since she was twenty with one other partner.  Now she was thirty-four, they had dozens of employees, and she could afford to turn up late wearing high heels.  It was the sort of company the general public rarely notices but that makes good money: importing and reselling industrial cleaning fluids to factories and army bases.  Yana came from a family of academic scientists; her father had taught chemistry, and now she made her money in the chemicals industry.  Soviet knowledge transmuting smoothly to post-Soviet economics.

[But the Drug Enforcement Agency showed up at Yana’s  expensive gym — and took her to prison.] ‘You think prison is something bad that happens to other people.  And then you wake up and my God you’re a convict. ‘ . . .

‘We are charging you with a particularly serious crime, said Vaselkov [the Russian Drug Enforcement Agency detective]. . . . ‘You have been trading in diethyl ether,’ said Vaselkov.

Diethyl ether was a chemical cleaning agent.  Yakovleva’s company had built its business around it, importing it from France and selling it on.


‘It’s an illegal narcotic substance.  You are being charged with the distribution of illegal narcotics.’

Some misunderstanding, thought Yana, just some misunderstanding.

‘But we have a license for it,’ answered Yana, almost laughing.  She was being charged with trading what she traded.  Since when was a cleaning agent used in every factory a narcotic substance?  It didn’t make any sense.  She had been trading in diethyl ether for over a decade.  it was like telling a chocolate bar factory that chocolate was illegal.  Or a jeans factory that jeans were illegal (79-83). . . .

Her cell was for first-time offenders.  Half were twenty-something girls, virtually all in for drugs. . . The other half of the women were in their forties and accountants; they were in for white collar crimes like Yana.  The elder women would fuss around the twenty-year-olds: ‘Make sure you wash the cups’ and ‘don’t swear.’ Most of the older women had worked in small businesses: estate agents, travel companies.  . . . after a while a couple of them told Yana what had happened.  The companies had been fiddling taxers, but the male bosses fled the country in time to avoid getting caught, and it was the female accountants who went to prison.  After all, their signatures were on everything.  The women had been doing nothing more illegal than any other business in the country, the same double bookkeeping every small company needed to do if it wanted to survive.  But either the tax police needed to fill some arrest quotas, or they wanted to scare someone else, someone bigger, and needed to make an example, so they had gone after these companies.  Still other women were sure the hits on their companies had been ordered by rivals or bureaucrats who wanted to bankrupt them and then take over their companies.  This was called ‘reiding’ and was the most common form of corporate takeover in Russia, with more than a hundred recorded cases a year.  Business rivals or bureaucrats–they have long become the same thing–pay the security services to have the head of a company arrested; while they are in prison their documents and registrations are seized, the company is re-registered under different owners, and by the time the original owners are released, the company has been bought and sold and split up by new owners.  These raids happened at every level, from the very top–where the Kremlin would arrest the owner of an oil company like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then hand the company over to friends of the President–right down to local police chiefs taking over furniture stores.  It was the right to do this that glued together the great ‘power vertical’ that stretched from the President down to the lowliest traffic cop” (90-91). . . .

“Of those charged in Russia, 99 percent receive guilty verdicts.  The women in Yana’s cell would return after their trials broken, all found guilty.  Their sentences were worse than anyone could have imagined; five years for possession of one gram of cocaine; four years for faking a prescription; eleven years for working as a cashier at one of the country’s top construction companies whose owner had fallen out with someone in the Kremlin” (98).

Pomerantsev notes, “[A]ll that comes out of this confusion is an ever-growing anger.  There are more of them, hooligans and skinheads, lighting up the square opposite the Kremlin with their flares in marches of hundreds of thousands, chanting ‘jump if you’re not a darkie.’ And when they jump together, the pavement trembles” (195-196).


Author Peter Pomerantsev

Pomerantsev adds, “Putin is a media fiction.  He is the first president entirely created through the media”

Image and quotation from


Russia: The world’s largest country.

Russia Facts  –  from Google:
“Russia, the world’s largest nation, borders European and Asian countries as well as the Pacific and Arctic oceans. Its landscape ranges from tundra and forests to subtropical beaches. It’s famous for Moscow’s Bolshoi and St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky ballet companies. St. Petersburg, founded by Russian leader Peter the Great, has the baroque Winter Palace, now housing part of the State Hermitage Museum’s art collection.
Population: 143.5 million (2013) World Bank
Currency: Russian ruble
GDP per capita: 14,611.70 USD (2013) World Bank
Government: Federal republic, Semi-presidential system, Federation, Constitutional republic”

 Pomerantsev’s book gives a good overview of life in Russia today. Aloha, Renée

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About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

4 responses to “Russia Today”

  1. Rosita says :

    Wow. Wha’ an interesting post! I bet this breaks many of our misconceptions about Russia..did u have even been there anytime? Or wanna go there, if yuh don’t know it? Is that true that Russian summer just lasts a few days ?
    Hope y’all are fine,

    • reneeriley says :

      Hi Rosita: I have little personal experience with Russia, which is one reason I feel this book is so interesting. I took a year of Russian language when I was in high school. My dad – as his second job for awhile – sold home bomb shelters since everyone was worried about the Russians during the Cold War era. According to Oliver Stone’s series, “The Untold American Story,” that period was a result of powerful leaders in the West not living up to their commitments to Russia after WWII. A few years ago, Barry and I had a layover at the Moscow airport. The Russian people we saw there were very worn looking; most were on their way to work in other countries. In Thailand, rich Russians had beachfront properties. The university I worked at in Lin’an, China had a group of Russian foreign students; I was in Chinese language class with them. In general, the girls were pretty and nice, the boys (although there were a few exceptions) seemed rude, disrespectful, and demanding. And Russia is so big that it is likely that the area up by the Arctic Circle has only a few days of summer. However, when I was teaching in Chicago, I once had a student from Siberia who said that the weather in Chicago was colder than Siberia! I do know a young woman who got to be an exchange student in Russia – and she loved it. So, people everywhere are nice. Sometimes the leaders aren’t so good. How are you doing? Aloha,

  2. Ania says :

    Hello Renée and Barry,

    I thought you were preparing a new journey…
    so welcome here for a “stop-over”and more…

    I ‘ve been many times to all the so called eastern European countries, never to russia so I can inform you .

    (also spend 2 x 1 month cycling through these 3 of these countries).

    Best regards,
    Ania (France/Netherlands)

    ps or If you like to visit Burkina Fasso,
    my olderst daughter lives and work there since last summer

    • reneeriley says :

      Hi Ania: Thanks for your offers. We are preparing for another trip, but it is to the U.S. Mainland for my nephews wedding. We’ll also do a road trip from St. Louis to Florida and back to see friends, family, Servas hosts, a new-found cousin, new places, music . . . But we do want to come to eastern Europe in the future. Your bicycling through some of those countries must have been fun – and challenging. We’d like your recommendations. And Burkina Fasso! What is your daughter doing there? I haven’t even thought of going there until now! Thanks for the ideas. Hope all is well with you. Aloha, Renée

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