Thursday, 28 August 2008

Size Matters

The recent conflict between Russia and Georgia has led onlookers to make constant references to the two countries' vastly different sizes. Tiny Tbilisi pointlessly stands up to Mighty Moscow; the enormous Russian army rolls over the top of Georgia's boutique forces.

With such comparisons commentators are unlikely to be wrong. But some of the references to size by those involved in the conflict have been very wide of the mark.

The Russians have been careful to emphasise that they intervened on behalf of the underdog, the minuscule breakaway state-let of South Ossetia. Mr Saakashvili, the Georgian President, was the bully, say the Kremlin: so power-crazed that he could not even countenance giving autonomy to a tiny piece of territory, whose people only wanted national self-determination.

True as this may be - and Georgia's initial invasion of South Ossetia, including attacks against civilians, was clearly wrong - Russian references to the separatist region's size have ignored one obvious fact. Such a tiny place is very unlikely to be feasible as an independent state. And even if it were to pull that feat off, it would be very unlikely to provide the good governance and strong institutions that its poor, helpless, jobless, and now homeless inhabitants so urgently need.

As President Medvedev signed the decree acknowledging South Ossetia's independence earlier this week, there was no mention of its size. On 8 August, when current hostilities began, there were only 70,000 people in South Ossetia. At its largest, in 1989, there were just 90,000: the same number as were taking their seats in the Bird's Nest stadium for the Olympic Opening Ceremony just as rockets were starting to rain down in Tskhinvali.

If it were really to become a country, it would be Europe's smallest, barring Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein and the Vatican City. Perhaps its leadership might consider turning the place into a haven for rich tax exiles (other financial shenanigans - laundering and the like - have been alleged for many years).

Even little Kosovo, whose declaration of independence from Serbia this year was interpreted as a provocation by Moscow, has a population of over 2 million. Bosnia has almost 4 million people. In the world outside Europe, an irredentist South Ossetia could be gazundered only by 6 other states: Dominica, the Marshall Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, Palau, Tuvalu and Nauru. And that assumes that all of the displaced people are willing to come back home in the absence of an infrastructure or a functioning economy.

Would a request to join the Russian Federation be long in coming? Surely not. But the saddest thing for South Ossetians is that they are unlikely to prosper on their own or in union with either of their two neighbours.

As it has underlined South Ossetia's diminutive stature, so the Kremlin has sought to highlight the enormity of Georgia's crimes. This reached new heights of exaggeration in the perspective-less (many would say tasteless) remarks of Dmitrii Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO . He is quoted in yesterday's International Herald Tribune comparing Saakashvili's attack on Tskhinvali with the destruction of New York's World Trade Centre in 2001.

"There are two dates that have changed the world in recent years: September 11, 2001, and August 8, 2008. They are basically identical in terms of significance. September 11 motivated the United States to behave really differently in the world. That is to say, Americans realized that even in their homes, they could not feel safe. They had to protect their interests, outside the boundaries of the U.S. For Russia, it is the same thing. We were sitting in our homes, the national discussion was internal. Now this Georgian attack is perceived as aggression, and made us realize that we cannot stay home. We have to go outside our homes to protect ourselves on new frontiers."

One violent death is too many and Georgia should be held to account for those of around 100 civilians in South Ossetia - according to estimates by Human Rights Watch and others. However, this is far from the 2,100 toll laid at Tbilisi's door by the Russian Government in irresponsible acts of propaganda.

Russia was closer to the mark when it compared its own worst terrorist atrocity - the Beslan School Siege of 2004 - to the Twin Towers disaster. But it did far less to investigate that crime and hold to account all those responsible for the high death toll there, than it has shown itself eager to do in South Ossetia.

Small wonder!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

What does 'View from Vokzal' mean?

The title of this blog recalls the great Anglo-Russian cultural links of the past, and connects the place where I live with the country I am fascinated by.

As many of you will know, vokzal (вокзал) is the Russian word for a railway station. It was not always so, however: the word was first used to refer to pleasure palaces where the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian upper classes could walk through delightful gardens, play fairground games and listen to music. They also got drunk and engaged in dangerous liaisons there too.

The Russian aristocracy took the idea for these places from the British and from London, in particular. The most famous example was the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, just south of the Thames from Pimlico and enormously popular from about 1660 onwards. They finally closed in 1840. If you try saying Vauxhall with a strong Russian accent - Vok-sall - you get quite close to vokzal.

But how do you get from there to railway stations? Well, the first Russian railway, built in 1837, led from the centre of St Petersburg to pleasure gardens in Pavlovsk. The terminus there was much more than just a ticket hall and waiting room, also being used for concerts, dances and polite, Tsarist cavorting: hence, it was known as a vokzal. New stations, even when they were considerably less glamorous than the original, were given the same name. Ironically, Vauxhall in London didn't get its first railway station until a year later than its Russian namesake in 1838.

And where does Vauxhall's name come from? It has nothing whatsoever to do with travel and instead derives from the name of the man who owned the area in the 13th century - Faulke de Breaute, the head of King John's mercenaries. He lived in Faulke's Hall. Use the same strong Russian accent as before and you will see how this can sound like Vauxhall!

The Other Russo-Georgian War

At the Olympic Games, Russia's haul of medals is much reduced this time, leaving them with it all to do in the last few days of competition. So far they've got 16 Golds and 50 medals in total, putting them in 4th place. Last time, in Athens, they ended with 27 Golds and 92 medals overall; in Sydney, there were 88 medals, of which 32 were for first place. The overfilled treasure chests of Soviet times - culminating in Seoul's 55 Golds and 132 medals - are a distant memory of sports superpower status.

But, in regional terms, Russia is still head and shoulders above its rivals by a long way. The next former Soviet state in the medals table from Beijing is currently Ukraine in 11th place with 5 Golds. And then comes Georgia, in 19th place, with 3 Golds and 3 Bronzes. The small Caucasian nation is being outgunned on the track, and in the pool and the gym just as comprehensively as it has been in Tskhinvali, Gori and Zugdidi over the past few weeks.

In war, it is only absolute power that matters: the small and vulnerable can take no comfort from their relative strength or bravery as they quake in the shadow of superior firepower and innumerable troops. At the Olympics, however, relative pleasures are permitted (whatever the tears of disappointed silver medallists might suggest to the contrary). A quick analysis shows that, person for person, Georgia has performed much better than its larger neighbour. With only 4.5 million of a population, the Georgians have won a gold medal for every 1.5 million people living there. Russia (population: 142.5 million) only gets one gold for every 9 million inhabitants. If Georgia performed as well as it has done and had a population as big as Russia's it would have won 95 Golds by now.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


I've been meaning to start writing a blog for some time. Recent events in the Caucasus have finally galvanised me into action.
I've been learning and writing about Russia, the Russian Empire, the USSR and the post-Soviet world for years now. As we are all finding at the minute, the place is as fascinating and hard to understand as ever: huge disparities of wealth; enormous hospitality combined with terrifying patriotism; and a jaded view of democracy.
Like all blogs, this one will mix some of my thoughts on Russia with those of others who are more eminent and erudite. I hope it sparks debate and shines a few rays of additional light on this dark area.