Friday, September 03, 2004

The View From Over Here


The bloody end to the siege in North Ossetia was depressingly predictable. This afternoon I've mostly been watching the remarkable live coverage on Sky News and it's been interesting to compare that with the more censored images Russians have been seeing. Only one of the local channels (NTV) has had live coverage all day and all TV stations have shied away from using the shots of the heaviest exchanges of fire and the most gory pictures of victims. Often the Russian news coverage consisted of a still picture of a map with a reporter commentating from the scene and one channel (Rossia) switched away from the firing as it reached its height and resumed its normal programming. Apparently the radio news is much freer here, and the Russians who want to know what's really going on prefer that to the local TV.

President Putin's going to be addressing the country later on. Don't ask me what he's going to say because it'll all be in Russian but it seems he's going to re-emphasise his tough policy on the Chechen problem. I'm sure he'll survive this crisis but how much he personally will be damaged by it depends much on how the storming came about. Various reports suggest the terrorists began firing on hostages as they tried to make a run for it and/or one of the terrorists may have accidentally set off a suicide bomb. That - coupled with the Kremlin's early insistence that many of the terrorists were not Chechens but "Arabs" - will help Putin politically both here and around the world. There's no doubt the Russian forces on the ground were caught by surprise so perhaps senior officials in the Defence Ministry may be made to take the blame for the chaos at the school, rather than Putin and others closer to him.

There's some concern we haven't seen the last of the attacks. The suicide bomber from the metro station attack here has been identified as the sister of one of the suspects in the plane bombings from last week. The two shared a flat in Grozny with a third woman being blamed for the other plane attack and a fourth who is presumed to be still on the loose. This weekend's City Day celebrations here have been cancelled in case she or anyone else had planned to target them.

One of the papers here has apparently said Chechens have taken "145 million hostages" across Russia - ie, the whole population. I doubt the public mood is quite like that and as I travel east from tomorrow it'll be interesting to see if attacks in Moscow and the Caucasus have much impact on the rest of this huge country.

Thursday, September 02, 2004



Went along to the Sky News bureau earlier, just missing most of the team as they went to the airport to try to get a flight to Vladikavkaz to cover the ongoing hostage crisis. Passenger flights from Moscow and St Petersburg down there have been stopped but the news media managed to club together to get on a plane.

Since I arrived in Russia ten days ago there have been four terrorist attacks. Two planes were blown up last week then there was the bombing outside an underground station here a couple of days ago. I wouldn't say it's had much impact on the ordinary life of the country though. There are young-looking soldiers stationed in pairs in and around the metro and the Kremlin's shut to everyone but pre-booked tour groups, but that seems to be about it. The mentality of the local people appears to be to shrug slightly and get on with everyday life, even though there are widespread local reports (of admittedly questionable reliability) predicting more attacks by Chechens. There's not much visible mourning or grief as you'd expect in the west either, just flags at half-mast for one day last week after the planes went down. I suppose people are more used to terrorist attacks here than in all western countries - even Britain - but the apparently relaxed attitude of everyone is still a bit of a surprise to me.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Paying My Respects


Spent the day acting as a groupie for dead Russians. Red Square was largely sealed off after last night but I still managed to get into Lenin's tomb. It's surprisingly simple, just down some stairs and into a room, walk round the body and in 30 seconds back out into the sunshine. He looked very peaceful, but then he has been dead for 80 years. More surprisingly he's got a black and white spotted tie on proving that fashion wasn't one of the Bolsheviks' strong points.

After leaving the tomb you have to follow the path past various other Soviet luminaries who have their ashes scattered in the Kremlin walls. The most important get busts, among them four of the other five dead General Secretaries. Brezhnev looks stern, Andropov quite cheerful, Chernenko uncharacteristically healthy and Stalin just appears bored.

The only Soviet leader not buried there is Khruschev (ousted as leader and forced to die in obscurity) so I went down to the main cemetery in town where all other illustrious Russians are buried. His tomb was pretty vulgar. More interesting was Gogol, whose statue stands above his grave looking pretty foppish. He wouldn't have looked quite so chipper had he known he was going to be accidentally buried alive, but then that serves him right for sleeping in coffins.

Finished off with a look round the Second World War museum, which features a lot of exhibits referring not to Soviet soldiers but to "patriotic men defending the Motherland" while the Germans are invariably called "vile Fascist dogs". A lot of fascinating stuff in there not least a series of dioramas of key battles. My feet are sore after a long day's walking, so I'm looking forward to a good sit down tonight.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Under Attack


I've only been here 36 hours and already the terrorists are on to me. I was nowhere near the scene of tonight's attack being out on a tour of the city courtesy of Bron's parents who are very hospitably putting me up. The hostel we stayed in last night was a lot nearer, but my big moment of on-the-scene reporting that makes my name is going to have to wait.

Moscow looked great in the fading light, some remarkable Stalin-era buildings and Victory Park were stunning all lit up. Looking forward to seeing some more tomorrow.



Fourth class down here wasn't so bad, a bit like being on a bog standard bus for nine hours, only with a bar car that sold beer out of one of those ice cream fridges. It was half empty so just about bearable. On arriving at the Leningrad station I thought the train had turned round in the night because it's exactly the same as the Moscow station in St Petersburg. Nothing like Soviet central planning.

If there's one thing the Soviets got right it's the metro. Moscow's probably the first city I've seen with an underground to better the unfairly criticised Tube. Trains here come every two minutes, the palacial stations are worth visiting in themselves, and it's great fun going down to the super-deep lines (deep so they could act as bomb shelters in the event of nuclear war) on the long escalators because they whip down there a third faster than the escalators in London. You could have hours of fun going up and down, and given the difficulty in reading the cyrillic station names that's just as well because you usually have to.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Vladimir and Volleyball

St Petersburg

The pretentious theme of the trip continued yesterday with a visit to the Nabokov museum at the dirty sod's old house. Besides being a pervert he also had a strange obsession with chess and butterflies. No sign of either at St Isaac's Cathedral which we headed to next, yet another fantastically opulent 19th century monument to the wealth of imperial Russia. The interior is dramatic and incredibly gaudy and there's a fine view from the colonnade across to the equally sumptuous Winter Palace. No wonder the peasants got pissed off.

We found a quiet, trendy sort of bar and stayed there far too long. Lots of locals got far too excited about the women's volleyball and drank plenty well into the night. They seem to be good drunks though the Russians, at one point a bunch of them got up and started singing the national anthem which is the same as the old Soviet one. It was so patriotic I half expected to find some tanks rolling down the street when we left the bar, but thankfully it was all quiet.

Getting the train to Moscow tonight. We've got tickets for a fourth class coach. Yes, that's fourth (count 'em) class. Who knows what state we'll be in by the time we get there but it should be fine as long as we're not sharing with farm animals.