Interview: Tim Newman
Some people fall in love with Russia, and so they move to Moscow. Some people, like me, fall in love with Russia so much that they go and live in Siberia. But Tim Newman fell in love with Russia so much, he went to a part of Russia so far away that Vladivostock is the big city out West.
Tim moved to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, on the island of Sakhalin, back in September last year to work in the oil industry. Clearly the life of a Siberian oil baron is an idle one, because he’s found plenty of time to blog about the trials and tribulations of life in the harsh White Sun of the Desert, not to mention found the time to answer my questions:
1. Why did you start blogging?
Originally, I�d read Peter Briffa�s Public Interest, found it to be a very witty take on the Guardian and Independent reading left, and thought I�d have a bash at doing the same. I quickly realised I couldn�t, but found that going through the motions of reading the papers and writing down my opinions released a lot of frustration. Obviously my style of blogging has changed a lot now, but that�s why I started.
2. What are your goals for White Sun of the Desert?
For the blog to become a popular place for people to come to read about life on
3. What have been your best and worst blogging experiences so far?
The best is seeing the reasonably large and overwhelmingly positive reaction to my writings on
The worst has probably been when somebody says something unkind about one of my posts. This has only once happened on a post about
4. Which blogs about
Surprisingly few, actually. Sadly, I find many blogs about
5. What first sparked your interest in
When I was 18, in 1995, I went on a school trip to
6. What do you love about
I love the people. They are great fun to be around, or even just to observe. I�ve never met a nation of people so unconcerned about anything, especially what people think of them. They are never embarrassed, rarely offended, and they are the friendliest, most hospitable people I have ever encountered. A meeting with a random stranger in
I hate the way the Russians, collectively, are completely useless. They do not cooperate with each other at all, view each other with suspicion, and shrug their shoulders and accept things which many nationalities would never put up with. There are historical reasons for this of course, but I still find it very frustrating the way Russians complain daily about their appalling standards of living and their own countrymen shafting them royally, but do nothing about it. I also find it frustrating the way Russians are often incapable of connecting the state of affairs on the ground with the manner in which they are governed. It is not unusual for a Russian to complain about the lack of water about a minute after telling me that Putin is a much better leader than �that idiot� George Bush. Bush may be an idiot, but even rural Americans under Bush have running drinking water, reliable electricity, and an abundance of fresh meat and vegetables, whereas Russians under Putin have watched their country�s enormous potential remain largely unrealised whilst having to live under conditions which in many cases have barely improved since the 1960s. Very few Russians realise that the reason they see old women climbing hills in the snow carrying buckets of water, the reason they get stopped by dodgy police and made to cough up a bribe, the reason they are not able to travel to Moscow to seek better work is because their leaders have their priorities all wrong. Yet according to them, their leader is great and not really responsible. For somebody who genuinely wants to see the lot of Russians improve, it�s as frustrating as hell.
7. If you could recommend one book about
Like La Russophobe, I�d probably have to go with Anne Applebaum�s Gulag. It�s a superb book, which goes a long way to explaining why Russians behave as they do, often in a manner which is incomprehensible to a westerner. If somebody wanted something a little less depressing, I�d recommend Peter Hopkirk�s The Great Game. It reads in places like a real life Indiana Jones, and for a history book it has almost no boring bits.
8. What is your favourite place in
Divorces are expensive, so I have to say
9. If you could invite three Russians, past or present, to a dinner party, who would they be?
Anatoli Boukreev, the best high-altitude climber ever to come out of
10. On balance, do you think Vladimir Putin’s Presidency has been good or bad for
Probably good, but this is not saying much. Certainly, his presidency has stabilised the country after the chaos of the Yeltsin years, and the economic stability has certainly been good for ordinary Russians, and was probably the most important thing to get right. However, economic stability could have been achieved by a president who did not hound the media, did not jail those with whom he had political scores to settle, and did not wage war on Russian soil with a brutality not seen in
11. Do you think
No. I believe most Russians, and you�d need most of them on board if representative democracy was to work, are so detached or uninterested in the political process that they�d never embrace the idea. As I said in my answer to Question 6, most Russians I have met do not see a link between the state of affairs in the country and the politicians, or even if they do, they simply shrug their shoulders and say there is nothing that can be done anyway. In today�s
12. Do you think the average Russian’s life today is better, or worse than it was in 1989? Why?
Better. Much better. The last 3-5 years or so have seen vast improvements in the lives of ordinary Russians. Whereas there are some casualties left from the collapse of the Soviet Union (of course, many more died in the immediate aftermath) such as the elderly, who have a terrible time in modern Russia, the general feeling I can glean from younger Russians is that this is probably the best period in Russia�s history (which admittedly isn�t saying that much). Russians are now able to travel abroad, which they do in droves and love it; they can go abroad to study, which they also do in large numbers; and they have the opportunity now to really make something of their lives. Or course, many don�t take this opportunity, but at least now the bright, hard-working, Russians are able to use their talents to improve their own lives immeasurably. Put another way, with the exception of one or two die hard ex-Communists over the age of 50, every Russian I have spoken to on the subject would not want to go back to communism. They all appreciate that times were seriously hard when the
13. If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing, what would it be?
Stop making the catastrophic mistake of thinking a country can get rich by extracting natural resources through gigantic, state-run monoliths and erecting enormous bureaucratic barriers to keep out foreign goods and services. It�s been tried umpteen times before, it doesn�t work, it will fail, and Russians will all be poorer. If I was allowed to give them one other piece of advice before being dragged from the room by my feet, I�d tell them to remove the ridiculous law which requires all residents to be registered somewhere. The ultimate effect of this is to prevent the free movement of labour, and probably keeps Russians poorer than any other policy currently enforced.
The benefits: it makes Russians feel good about themselves, makes them feel strong and important, and allows them to blow a raspberry at their old enemies. It also makes the
The drawbacks: pretty much everything.
15. What changes in policy (if any) do you think the European Union should implement to deal with
Build nuclear power stations, lots of them, and stop buying Russian gas.
16. You’ve been living in the Russian Far East for a while now. What’s the best thing about living there? The worst?
Aside from the heaps of fun I get from just being in
The worst thing is not being able to buy stuff which you take for granted at home, such as fresh meat and vegetables. I find myself having to import stuff like Kiwi shoe polish. The ten hour time difference with the
17. Many middle Eastern countries have nationalised oil industries. Given that
There are many, but
18. You’ve travelled around
Remove the visa requirement for visitors from certain countries, or at least make them available on arrival. The cumbersome, lengthy, and expensive visa process must put off tens of thousands of people visiting