Cantab behind the curtain: The Modern Gulag Archipelago?

TCS Moscow Correspondent 22 September 2014

"Ooh, Russia? You’ll have to be careful."

Or so I heard from all family members/friends/strangers who found out that I was going to be living in Moscow for a year. Indeed, a cursory glance of Britain’s press, online and print, broadsheet and tabloid, would lead one to think that Russia was a Orwellian police state where ordinary people would attack foreigners in the street – in between fighting bears and drinking vodka ad mortem.

While alcohol may be the cause of half a million deaths per year, this sensationalist depiction of life in Russia is obviously false. Firstly, it is important to recognise the disconnect between people and government: the Kremlin might be in an economic war against the West, but Russian elections are so rigged it would be shortsighted to assume that the people agree with and act upon Putin’s rhetoric. Similarly, in the UK, we are not all Etonian Tories (except maybe at Oxford). Secondly, Moscow is a global city where the West makes deals and conducts business every day: it’s no Pyongyang.

That being said, the Ukrainian crisis has made one key thing harder for an EU expat in Russia: it is impossible to find good cheese. In retaliation to US and EU sanctions against the Russian Federation, the Kremlin responded by banning European food imports, meaning that while McDonalds and KFC are on every street corner, mature Cheddar cheese is a nigh unobtainable luxury. Sadly, Russian cheese tastes seem to be for anaemic soft cheese devoid entirely of flavour or character – as if cheese was something to be endured as quickly and as forgettably as possible, like on-the-spot passport checks.

In general, however, the feeling towards the West in Russia is almost identical to the one we have towards them: that the other side still holds a Cold War grudge and is out to cripple their old ideological enemy. In fact, the Russian opinion seems slightly more reasonable: NATO has attracted a number of post-Soviet states such as the full complement of Baltic States, the Czech Republic with its old partner Slovakia and the eastern half of Germany. It’s arguably the equivalent of Russia joining a formal military alliance with South America, Cuba and Mexico – there is a deliberate message of menace. One of the reasons that Putin is so popular in Russia is that he stands for the restoration of pride in the country which produced some of the world’s greatest literature, educated the only Millennium Prize winner (to date), and sent the first man to space. 

As the old saying goes, only a fool knows everything, and yet this is the style of diplomacy both the First and Second Worlds adopt in assuming their monologic discourses where any dissenter must be both wrong and an enemy by definition. Maybe if we were more open to different ideas and cultures, the world really would be a more accepting and peaceful place. I am, however, perfectly comfortable in categorically denying that there is anything good to be found in Russian cheese.