Interview: Tim Newman

Tim Newman and his cigarSome 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 Sakhalin. There are an awful lot of foreigners coming to Sakhalin and for most they are taking a leap into the unknown. There is very little information available, and I have found that a number of people have contacted me to ask me specific questions about what to expect when they get here, ranging from what clothes to buy to what housing allowance to ask for. It would be good if my blog could become the central point of reference to anyone wanting to know about what it is like to live in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

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 Russia, especially the accounts of my travels to Nizhnekamsk and Yalta. I do not go out of my way to write positively about Russia, but I�m glad to say I have only once received any negative feedback about what I�ve written on the subject. I am especially pleased that Russians like what I write as much as foreigners do.

The worst has probably been when somebody says something unkind about one of my posts. This has only once happened on a post about Russia, but it�s happened a lot when I wrote about more controversial topics, such as the Middle East politics. I don�t enjoy criticism, especially the type which I should not lower myself to respond to but feel uncomfortable about letting slide. In general, I have had very few genuinely unpleasant blogging experiences.

4. Which blogs about Russia and the former Soviet Union do you most enjoy reading?

Surprisingly few, actually. Sadly, I find many blogs about Russia to be little more than a constant whine about the policies of the West and the idiocy of the western media. Even if the blog itself does its best to keep itself interesting, often the comments drag it down into the repetitive tedium which I used to read in the Middle East newspapers on a daily basis. And I generally find Russian bloggers� analyses on events in the west to be as daft and predictable as the western media�s analyses of events in Russia. The blogs I really like are those which have a personal touch and exist for a purpose other than to �educate� or provide analysis of Russia, and usually steer clear of politics but instead tell you something you didn�t already know, preferably with lots of photos. For these reasons, I like Siberian Light, Snowsquare, and when it was at its prime, there was little which could come near Scraps of Moscow. Possibly the best blog about Russia I�ve read was the short-lived Laika the Space Dog, which promised so much with some truly excellent, well researched articles but inexplicably stopped (on my birthday) last year. There are of course some excellent blogs out there dealing with Russia and the former Soviet Union which serve a great purpose and are well written, but sadly the heavy political content makes them not as enjoyable for me as the more light-hearted blogs.

5. What first sparked your interest in Russia?

When I was 18, in 1995, I went on a school trip to Central Europe, which took in Berlin and the Czech Republic among other places. You could still see signs of the Russians in East Germany and Berlin, and the Czech Republic had a very �Russian� feel to it (Russian in the sense of �the other side of the Iron Curtain�). This sparked a fascination with Russia and the former USSR, which left me wanting to learn more about this mysterious and intriguing place which represented �the other side� in the Cold War. This fascination waxed and waned at various points between 18 and 25, but when I was 26 I accepted an invitation to go to visit a rather dubious female in a decrepit town in Tatarstan, a couple of days by train due east of Moscow. I came back from the visit overwhelmed by the place, particularly the people, and knew I just had to go back and explore it some more.

6. What do you love about Russia? What do you hate?

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 Russia can quickly turn into a genuine and lasting friendship after a single evening, provided you can keep pace with the vodka consumption. I especially like the men, who � like me – are often reckless idiots. I also like the women, when viewed from a safe distance. It�s also be true to say I love the feel of the place; I have no idea exactly what that means, but Russia is one of the few places I am genuinely content to be living. It�s great fun, even if your water and electricity doesn�t work.

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 Russia, what would it be?

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 Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?

Divorces are expensive, so I have to say St. Petersburg. I really like the city in the summer when the White Nights are on, specifically at the Finnish Gulf on the top end of Vassilevski Island. There are lots of places I�d love to visit in Russia: Sochi, Pyatigorsk, Mt. Elbrus, Samarra, the Urals, Irkutsk, the Altai region, Yakutsk, Vladivostok, Komsomolsk-Na-Amure, Magadan, Kamchatka. I�ll do �em all at some point.

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 Russia; the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn; and any knowledgeable veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

10. On balance, do you think Vladimir Putin’s Presidency has been good or bad for Russia?

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 Europe since the Balkan wars ended. So perhaps it would be better to say that Putin�s presidency has been on balance good, but could have been so very much better.

11. Do you think Russia will ever embrace the style of representative democracy now favoured in (most of) the rest of Europe?

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 Russia, the leaders are as remote from the ordinary people as they were in the Soviet times, or indeed the Tsarist times.

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 USSR ended so suddenly, and that the collapse took many lives, but they are over the worst and they can finally start to enjoy the things that we in the west have been appreciating for years.

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.

14. Russia has developed a much more assertive and confrontational approach to foreign policy over the past couple of years, particularly in its near abroad. From Russia’s perspective, what do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach?

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 US feel uncomfortable, which makes Russians feel even better.

The drawbacks: pretty much everything. Russia has managed to get itself a reputation as being unreliable on any issue you care to mention, ranging from energy security to business to terrorism to nuclear proliferation. Russians may argue that this reputation has been unfairly earned, but the reputation is there, and the result will be less inward investment, greater difficulty for Russians to access western countries for business and pleasure, fewer opportunities for Russians to work in a western company, fewer countries interested in buying Russian natural resources, and increased isolation of Russia as a whole.

15. What changes in policy (if any) do you think the European Union should implement to deal with Russia’s increasing dominance over energy supplies?

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 Russia, the best thing is the sense of adventure you get from living in a remote corner of the world. There is a pretty good �we�re all in it together� feel amongst most of the expats and a good few of the Russians, and life here is rarely dull. Being a small town, most people know each other and it is very easy to develop a healthy social life. Of course, the work opportunities should be mentioned too, which is why I�m here in the first place.

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 UK is a pain too, and I rarely get to speak to my friends and family back home. Coverage of the Premiership is non-existent here too, which I find a bit frustrating.

17. Many middle Eastern countries have nationalised oil industries. Given that Russia now seems determined to take its own oil and gas industry down a similar path, do you think there are any lessons that Russia could learn from countries such as Saudia Arabia?

There are many, but Russia doesn�t seem to be learning them. No country, with the exception of Norway, has managed to extract hydrocarbons safely and efficiently whilst maximising revenue via a nationalised industry. And Russia isn�t Norway, it�s more like Saudi Arabia. If Russia keeps going down the path of energy nationalisation, its operating companies will end up bloated, inefficient, prone to political interference, and riddled with cronyism, and its facilities will be unsafe, poorly maintained, outdated, and will leak stuff everywhere. Recovery rates from the reservoirs will be poor, and production will run at less than it should. The best thing Russia could do is to carve out its reserves into licensing blocks, sell the rights to the blocks to the highest bidders from anywhere in the world, and tax the production, whilst forcing the companies to follow international standards of heath, safety, and environmental legislation, which would be incorporated into Russian law. Then Russia really would get rich.

18. You’ve travelled around Russia quite a bit in the past few years – what tips would you give to a Russian Tourism Minister?

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 Russia, especially cities like St. Petersburg which would be ideal for a last minute, weekend break for Europeans. And whilst they�re at it, they should remove the ridiculous requirement that tourists must register in every place they stay in Russia. Unless you stay in a hotel where they arrange your registration for you, getting registered is a real pain and the whole process serves no real purpose other than to indirectly supplement the meagre incomes of militiamen.

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7 Responses

  1. Blair Sheridan says:

    A very good interview. And really a very good idea.

    Well done to you both!

  2. “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.”

    Be still, my heart!

    BTW, I didn’t select Applebaum’s GULAG I selected Solzhenitsyn’s, but Applebaum’s work is truly excellent and has the virtue of being more modern and hence likely more attactive to modern readers.

  3. GER O'BRIEN says:

    That was a very interesting interview with some good points made and clearly Tim’s view isnt coloured by hatred like you-know-who. The situation with visas for foreign tourists baffles me as well. The Russians could make endless money from tourism if they only got rid of at least the invitation part. How many of our aquaintances at home have said to us ”I’d love to visit Russia”? Putin says he’d drop visa requirements with pleasure if only the EU would reciprocate, but we know that aint going to happen. Another excellent point is that Russians fail to connect standards of living with the state. For example, have you noticed Tim and Andy how Alexei Kudrin is not on ordinary Russians radar at all? At home the Finance Minister is the second in command of the country practically. Here its the defence minister. It doesnt make sense. The point as well about there being ‘something about Russia’ is very true too. I cant explain it either, but its a place I love for all its troubles. And its potential is enormous.

  4. ferhan bugay says:

    ? liked the interwiew, and ? also like russian collectivilty. they are strong people…

  5. Lyndon says:

    Tim, I’m touched – thanks for the nice word about Scraps. The comment on the visa issue for foreigners is right on point. You periodically hear about a plan to introduce some sort of special weekend visa for SPB, but it never seems to happen or get implemented properly. They just change the regulations on registration every couple of years for maximum confusion (see a few recent posts at Sean’s Russia Blog). I can remember having to explain the registration process to newly arrived expat colleagues – very hard to do without growing frustrated but at the same time wanting to laugh at the futility of your frustration.

    And yet somehow, regardless of all of that, I have to agree with another one of your statements – “I love the feel of the place.”

  6. Dinc says:

    Great interview!

  1. February 23, 2007

    […] blog about Russia.  This week the blogger is none other than me, and you can read the interview here. Posted by – Tim Newman @ 9:12 am, Posted under: Blogging, […]