Putin – In the eyes of Common Russians

 

 


Putin: In the eyes of Common Russians

‘Putin is heading us back to the dark days of cold war, he is a dictocrat, upto needless aggression, etc.’ are the impressions I carried.

And the experience at immigration during my recent visit to the country seemed to confirm such misgivings. The lady passenger ahead of me took close to 7-8 minutes to clear – she was the first in my queue and me the second. She looked around bored and tired. From where i was i could see nothing but a covered enclosure with transparent glass only on the passenger side well above the waist level. I thought there must have been something wrong in her Visa or something which was upto close scrutiny and hoped that it would not otherwise take more than 2 – 3 minutes.

The lady immigration officer asked me to remove my specs and had a close look at my eyes like an eye doctor doing retinal examination. Then she took out a hand held lens and started peering into my eyes in the Visa and then the Passport first page. She must have carried on some other verification for the next 2-3 minutes. Then a colleague of hers dropped into her cabin … i thought she must have been taking too much time and he was there to expedite. She told him something and he pretty much repeated the procedure. He had his own lens, which looked larger. I thought he would say that it was OK to proceed. But after a couple of minutes more their supervisor came. She briefed him. He motioned me to take off my specs in a stern way. I did. By that time i was feeling nervousness creeping in on me. He had a different device – perhaps a miniature microscope. Peered into my eyes in the visa and the PP but said nothing before going out. I started apprehending some action perhaps being taken aside for some serious questioning or … like they do sometimes in Hong Kong airport (if you travel in a group they would pick one and take them aside for 1-2 hours interrogation without giving any information to the others who will be made to wait it out patiently. Well it has happened to me twice… but it may be wrong to generalise). But luckily she started Xeroxing the Passport which brought some relief. I would not have minded 70-80 minutes if the lady had peered into my eyes directly using the tiny lens. But no such luck. After 8-9 minutes of intense silent interrogation, Kumaroa4wsky or Kumarachev was let into Russia.

Some insights or conclusions

What follows is based on my in depth talk with just 4 of them – the tourist guide (who was with us for 3 ½ days (and whatever small small but serious conversations, i had with her), the cheerful and handsome doorman of the hotel who spoke flawless English (he had studied English in school and worked for sometime in Thailand and Egypt before taking up his job in St Petersburg although he himself is from a place called Rastafarin (hope i have recalled the name correctly – some 200 Km up north of even St Petersburg, I never believed some city could be even north of St P), a Cafe manager and a Girl or a lady corporate professional in mid-20s who helped me in translating my request for Vegetarian to English and i stuck up a conversation of sorts. And some casual conversation with an Andhra Student who is doing his Phd in paediatrics and is employed during evening times in an Indian Restaurant and a couple of locals. So you can dismiss the whole thing as not being representative. It is OK.

I have largely related it as if I was talking to one person – saves me some bother in writing. Excuse.

  1. I asked one of them which politician they hate the most – past or present and pat came the reply – Gorbachov. G represented an ideal statesman for me. I have grown up worshipping his style of ‘perestroika’ and had always imagined that his was the boldness we lacked and should emulate for quicker economic progress. For me it was like a big dampener. And who is the second one …’Yeltsin’. ‘What is about them that you hate?’ I ask. They could not deliver – there was chaos all around. The public sector employees were not getting their salaries paid for six-seven months and Russia was largely Public sector at that time. They did not have a clue on how to handle it. In such a chaotic state corruption was rampant. Disastrous their regime was.
  2. ‘Putin?’ I asked‘. He has brought order back to Russia. It is functional again. He promised to pay the salaries on time and re-start pension to pensioners and he did deliver on his promise.I ask her who amongst the Soviet socialist time they liked best. There was some vague facial expression/gesture as if she doubted if there some such period like ‘Socialist, who?’…as if the period did not matter. I prompted her with some names … Gromykov, Krushchev, Brushnev, etc. There was only disinterest, although she was middle age and sure have lived through their regime. Whether it is collective amnesia or selective amnesia (of the 5/6 i asked) i do not know. ‘We all knew that the previous scheme of things (referring to the order before 1990s) was not sustainable and would one day collapse … yet G and to a lesser extent Y were disasters.
  3. I ask one of them ‘which one thing they would like to change in their society or desire their politicians to do’. After some deep thought, ‘Would like lesser corruption’. Has it come down of late. ‘Yes it has. But still when i have to bribe some officials or approach someone in authority through someone to get some papers or permissions, it hurts me to feel that I have to do it on my own soil’.
  4. Another one said that Putin stands for the Russian people. He connects with us and tries to deliver what is in our best interest. He is trying to re-introduce religion again. Russians were always peace loving people and God fearing. We had our Russian Orthodox Church. I don’t know whether we believe in God strongly, but attending Church has become fashionable once again. We may quarrel within the country, regionally but when it comes to an external enemy we all stand up together … and thats where this man scores. He stands up for our country. (Another fellow traveller recalled Putins recent remark … ‘it is not for me to decide whether to punish the terrorists or not. It is the Gods duty. It is my duty to send them to Him’).
  5. They all respect the Chinese. ‘China has done a lot for the Siberian/Asian side of Russia by infrastructure development. You know Russia does not have that much money these days and the economy is in a bit of problem… so their help is very much admired. Never mind their habits as tourists but they are there in large numbers.’ Earlier I learnt from one of the tourist guides that when the Chinese come, 4-5 of them crowd around the exhibits in the museums or monuments and spend endless time in photos excluding everyone else including their own group members. Even as a guide it is difficult since at any point of time you can address only the 4-5 nearest to you. They are completely oblivious to others’ conveniences and sensitivities’.
  6. I saw it first hand during the concert of Russian folk dances in their main theatre hall. Our group made up the majority, came first and were seated in the centre part of the audience from where we had the best view of the performances. There was a 20 minutes break during which some wine and snacks were served in the adjacent hall. When we came back all our seats were gone. Every single seat in the central part first 3-4 rows of seats had been taken by them. Any jackets, Russian Topis etc left behind on our seats found themselves deposited in the back rows. And a few front seats which were vacant were also reserved with bags and Hankys for their friends or folks who were still relishing their Champagne in the adjacent hall. Siege of sorts or ouster. Distasteful it felt. This notwithstanding there is unanimous appreciation for the Chinese by Russians. Chinese were the largest contingent of visitors last year – of the 6 million visitors last year they were 2 million.
  7. Jobs are not in plenty. They may be difficult to find. But things are far more organised. There has been no pronounced increase in Divorce rates… looked like status quo maintained. Surprisingly none of them seemed to mind the Russian period of Czars and Czarinas (pre 1917) and talk of most of them in awe, respect and admiration. (I thought that they were hated figures for their excessive wealth and highly opulent lifestyle and not caring for the common people like a communist government would have… but I could not find much success in unearthing the reason behind what looked counter intuitive to me).
  8. I had a long chat about marriage, girl friends and divorce rates with the doorman on a cold night with stiff breeze. He had a permanent smile plastered on his face … one of juvenile or young adult optimism. He was full of banter. I asked him about his marriage. Not married. Girl Friends?. Two but one now. Why not two I ask, cheekily. Only one boy or girl friend at a time allowed. Why I ask. There is a rule that we can have only one at a time. ‘Oh! Is there a law like that?’ ‘No. Not if you are a Muslim. Their religion allows multiple marriages’.  ‘Even in Russia?, I ask. ‘Yes, there is nothing against it’. ‘How come then only for Russians a different restriction.’ I understood that the rule of one for one and only one at a time is more of a custom, religion and society matter and not one of Law.
  9. I could sense some animosity towards Nazi Germans and the way they destroyed many of their monuments and starved more than a million people to death during their 900 day siege of St Petersburg in the 2nd World war. Surprisingly there is no animosity towards Catherine the Great who was of German origin. And if I heard it right, within six months of coming over to Russia as wife of Peter the III, (from Peter the Great lineage) had an affair with one of the Guards and had (reportedly) her husband killed and then ruled Russia for 34 years on the trot. She did wonderful work. I pointedly asked the lady about the paradox… of admiration for one who killed one of their kings from the founding and the most admired ruler families. ‘She had the courage to stand up, rule firmly although she was new to the place, she took fate and future in her hand although she had no way of knowing what and how strong the reaction will be … and then delivered over 3 decades of peace and progress. So why should we not admire her’. I thought there was a tinge of chauvinism in her argument – a kind of I am a woman first (so I will admire the one who could stand up for her conviction), a Russian next.
  10. I asked about the recent skirmishes and conflicts in Turkey, Crimea, Syria, etc. ‘Our constitution permits help to any nation who asks for help. The Syrian President had asked for help and so it is justified for Russia to help him in whatever way we could. About the other two there are many day-to-day issues since lots of families are split between Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. We have relatives and friends living in there and very difficult to reach help to distressed, care for old age parents who may be there, parents to send money to jobless children, etc.’
  11. I asked about the impact on travel and tourism due to recent events. ‘We were bracing up for the worst. We were anticipating a significant drop. As against 20 tour groups my company would have hosted for American tourist groups on an average between May to November in a normal year, our company has had just 6 this year. I have heard that the US has issued advisories telling their people not to travel, that we will be put to a lot of unwanted hassles in immigration, their passports taken away etc. (don’t know if any such thing has been issued by US). Usually late November and December are leisure times for us Guides… we have holidays and not much workload in the cold weather. But this year I am still working and there are two more rounds to go and the next 20 days are tight. The French and Chinese have made up in large numbers. For the French, Russia seems like a weekend outpost. They come at all times – Christmas, New Year, Weddings, just merriment, etc.
  12. On the final day I could not resist asking of my frightful experience at the incoming immigration and if that was the most effective way of promoting tourism and inviting guests. What followed was a lengthy justification. ‘We are a peace loving people. But we are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In 2006 we lost many children in bomb attack in Moscow. So our President is very watchful and has initiated tough measures to ensure your safety and our safety. Would you like your safety and security to be compromised while you are here. Would you even care to visit our country if there were frequents incidents. I hear that you face similar problem in Kashmir and on your border with Pakistan? Wouldn’t you like to deal with your problem resolutely and with tough measures?She set me on a thought train…her resolute defence (almost chiding me) and our own inability to deal with our problems in stiff and decisive ways. After her admonition (should I call it), I could not but feel sheepish… may be stupid. There is a surprising oneness of opinions about most things amongst Russians. We debate each and everything ad nauseum. May be that is the hallmark of a democracy. But at least on matters of terrorism, wish we spoke as one. Like the Russians. ‘I think a few minutes more wait at the airport is justified to ensure such safety. The authorities have a problem with your names. So they have to spend extra time to decoding letter by letter. And you also came in through Dubai which does not have strict controls. So it is easy for anyone to use it as a transit point. We welcome these measures and feel safer for them. But you would have noticed once you are in the city it is safe … there is no intrusion or policemen watching you or following you. You can walk around at midnight without fear’.

On balance Putin seems would win 4.5 votes out of 5 – and straight from the heart. One of my friends reasoned that Putin is from St P which explained his popularity. Me thinks that how much a politician is hated is an inverse function of the distance … people in Assam and Punjab may not hate Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi as much as Tamilians with the possible exception of Laloo who is ‘hatedmired’ all over India…so the admiration for Putin is counter intuitive.

I thought Russians would be stiff, uncommunicative, not so helpful, English would be a problem and many such hangovers from the socialist days and what one heard of such days. But there was warmth all around, there were plenty of people who spoke English… when i asked for directions they were willing to walk some way to put me onto the right track, when i ask for a specific shop to pick some item, the hotel receptionists didn’t just stop at giving directions but suggested other alternatives (things to shop as well as stores), I could feel safe enough to go for my morning walks at 6 am in the cold weather when not many are in the streets, (in Winter the Sun does not seem to be up before 10-11 am till which time street lights are on), found them humorous and ready for banter… may be the immigration were doing their job alright.

Lessons in ease of doing business … we have a long way to go

bali saraswati

I know what follows sounds very pompous me trying to show off a bit too much. But pl pardon.

I was in discussions with my boss yday morning and my secretary came in to announce that the South African Ambassador was in our office and he wanted to see me. He had once about a year before come to our office and met us re some business proposals and to seek our inputs on what should go in the free trade pact proposed with India where it can be of mutual benefit.

It was highly unusual someone ranking so high coming in like this – my boss gave my secretary a stern look and visual dress down for his foolishness. I said that it could be some consul staff or someone who he has misunderstood.

Sure enough there was a reminder after 2 minutes from our staff in the meeting who were perhaps flustered. I excused from my boss and went across to the conference hall – where indeed there was the High Commissioner (as Ambassadors between Commonwealth countries are called). I was perplexed. I thought that it would have been a big goof up by my secretary who perhaps would have fixed up the meeting but forgot to update my calendar. My confusion must have showed since those inside the meeting already clarified that there was no prior appointment but the HC felt that my presence would lend continuity and hence the request.

I could not ask him the purpose and quietly sat there to see how things developed. He had come there with some private parties owning large tracts of land for lease for plantation to explore some development proposals. He also sat through to see in what manner he should facilitate the proposal with his government and how he should push things with the Indian govt re the proposal.

In India if you so much as see any businessman and politician or bureaucrats within the same postal district there is so much noise and ruckus as if they are sworn enemies and they should ideally exist in denial of each other. If the Bureaucracy and politician get so little feedback from each other how are they to evolve meaningful policies, I wonder.

Recently in Bali, I liked a particular piece of Saraswati bust size in crocodile wood (that is what they claimed anyway). Looked magnificent and I thought I should have it in my drawing room. Croc wood is like Cedar and makes for fine carving and it exudes some oil which gives it some added sheen. This was just outside the main entrance to Airport. I thought I would get better carvings inside the airport duty free shops and checked in. But after passing thruough the check in, security, taxes (there is some strange system there), and immigration I went over to duty frees but could not locate an equivalent piece.

And by that time I was madly in love with the piece and wanted to get out of the airport to get it (after my exit had been stamped). I went and asked the Chief of Immigration and he asked me why, what piece, which shop, and how is it important, etc. Finally ‘is that so important and you can’t do without it’. I replied ‘it is important to me but i don’t know if you would see it the same way.’ He gave me a once over with his eyes and said, ‘OK please deposit the passport here and tell my name to whosoever asks. Although they are not in my control they would mostly oblige. On return ask to bypass the immigration and collect the passport’.

That is what I did. I wonder such a thing would be feasible in India. The official would have hummed and hawed till i ran out of time or got frustrated and left.

So much for ease of doing business … we have a long way to go.

Girls who reminded me about Smile

Usha and Liza

I was in ISB Hyderabad recently for a leadership course.

I found the staff at the executive dining hall particularly young and energetic, with a smile almost permanently plastered on their face, darting from place to place to serve the diners, no noise or murmur despite the varying workload – be it the breakfast time or Lunch. There were 5-6 of them.

One of them was a young lady. I do not know what is it that makes a smile on a lady’s face so much more embellishing than it is on a man’s face. Continue reading

Meeting Mr Medge – President of Mumbai Dabbaawallas assn..

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This is as near a compilation as my memory permits. Prone to errors of understanding – not intended though. You may find some inconsistencies.

Met Mr Raghunath Medge in Jaipur where he had come to deliver a lecture. Over soup first for 5-6 minutes and the PowerPoint presentation by one of his colleagues who is also dabbawala. Medge had a disarming (or winning) smile (notice the photo)– something that comes only with confidence and clarity. Continue reading

Rats and the Bureauc’rats’

Rats and the Bureauc’rats’

This is not a fib. Shows me in an awkward light. But it is OK.

I have been living in a flat in the 4th floor which belongs to a MP, in a fairly decent locality of East Delhi for the last almost 10 years now. His wife in whose name the flat stands has visited our house 3-4 times in the last 10 years and he – never. I have attended his Iftars a couple of times and met him once in his office. Very decently behaved.

The first 9 years we have not had much problems with the flat – no problems from cockroaches and other insects or rats. In the last year or so a lot of people have started remodeling their kitchen or bed or toilets and have had to work upon the pipelines and drainages. And suddenly rats started invading our house about 4-5 months ago. From being an occasional visitor to weekly to daily their familiarity with us seemed to improve with time.

My wife is mortally afraid of them and exhibits a near phobic reaction seeing them. The store is somewhat tucked in and I don’t need to go there for my daily routines. So whenever my wife used to complain or start discussing their presence or disgust I will simply bark back at her and put her down or somehow make it out that she is more of a problem than the rats. From being a weekly routine, it sort of became a daily scene – with the watchman coming to take the trap and leave them in the nearby park. The more frequent their visits, the more frequent my wife’s screams for help and more intense my reaction. But apart from the occasional help with setting the trap – grumpy and grumbling – not much of an intervention from me -at least they were not crawling on our dining table or bed or drawing room.

And suddenly one Wednesday about a month ago my wife had to leave for Chennai for some urgent work.

I prefer to cook my own food whenever she is out. I sort of like it for its meditative value. I need to concentrate to get it right, mixing or clubbing various activities so as to optimize time, scheduling them etc. and during that time, normally I don’t think of thinking about my boss or meddlesome colleagues or irksome tax authorities or Kejriwals or Arnab Goswami or the plethora of scarecrows and demons in our daily life. The 40-45 minutes is a pure yoga for me.

I was greeted by our esteemed visitor when I was preparing to cook that evening. Seeing one run to hiding in the store …I was overtaken by a sort of hesitation… in opening the doors or store, drawers or even the Microwave as if one will jump out at me. From thinking of my cooking routine most of my time went in thinking about my ‘athithi’. After dinner, set the trap and caught one and handed it to the watchmen. Not that they fall for whatever you bait. They have their own taste (hope it does not differ from one to the next) and are highly choosy. But from my wife’s harangues I had learnt some tricks about what gels with them.

The overhang of thoughts about coming face to face him made me lose some sleep. And it sort of visited my thoughts during the office hours next day. Thursday the problem persisted … looming larger. Half the sleep gone and torments from pure imagination invaded me during much of those wakeful hours in bed. Rats had become my new source of meditation.

Friday morning … and evening… it was sort of I had to do something about it kind of situation. I called my driver and society’s plumber on Saturday morning to see how to resolve the issue. Both of them were kind of amused, suppressed though since they may have learnt to live with the problem.

We searched all the possible openings in the house, the drains, the inlets of water, the electrical lines, those which had been recently re-done by others… The plumber was smirking half the time. My driver is a sort of serious but irresponsible kind of fellow. No smirks from him but blindly followed instructions…the plumber became an expert of sorts offering his own logic (mostly counters) to whatever I suggested. He kept saying where there are no droppings there is least likelihood that it may have been a point of entry. (makes sense but to me it did only in retrospect; not then). ‘Do as you are told’ was my shout and refrain and insisted on his plastering or filling whatever it was under scanner. I guess both of them must have been pretty exasperated with me.

My driver pointed to a small gap in the junction box of electricals high in the dining area. There indeed was a gap of may be one cm – good enough for a cockroach I thought but hardly could agree that a rat would be able to squeeze through. But not having made much headway, I told him to get the ladder, open it and see. He did and also saw their droppings. The ply board used as cover to the JB had wilted due to age and bent creating some gaps. I told him to put brown tape around its borders. I sealed the electrical switch box as well which was right inside the store.

Phew! For the rest of the day no rattling noise form kitchen store. Not in the night either. Not the whole of Sunday … and then Monday. I asked the plumber to seal and do up all the damage done during our investigation. And there has been no visitor since then…in fact for the last whole month.

Reflection

My wife of last 25 years was not able to get my attention at such close quarters what a 48 hrs direct encounter did. I am sure most men of my age around the world would behave similarly (at least to their wives I guess!). Unless regulated by rules, social values, culture, policing and punishment, peer pressure, etc. our reaction to others problems are likely to be equally lethargic and insensitive.

Given the current level of insensitivity to others (my neighbors park their car sometimes in mine, in Delhi the whole road however wide is a parking lot, rickshaws can drop or pick up passengers any place – right in the middle of a road busy with vehicular traffic), moral degradation, lack of work and duty consciousness, dilution of values at least in India, our model of bureaucracy perhaps has run out of context.

I don’t see similar degradation in many other democracies, some military regime and communist countries. May be this is representative of countries where corruption is high or they are both two sides of the same coin. May be around independence our Bureaucratic model of governance was appropriate but the background assumptions have so changed that it no longer looks appropriate.

So you have a defence secretary who denies snow boots to Siachen soldiers, bullet proof vests to frontline armymen, and now a massive cumulative deficit of even basic ammunition; Judges and your own lawyer least concerned about administering justice in a hurry, regulators not deciding on price hikes for Delhi Metro (actually problem I am told is a little deeper) for the last 6 years.

Given this should we not insist that for anyone to be eligible to be defence secretary s/he should have spent at least one stint of 4 months in Nathu La pass eyeball to eyeball with Chinese soldiers, one winter in Siachen and at least 3 years with other stations taken together.

I am sure if a son or daughter of the then Cabinet Secretary was in IC 183, we would not have wasted precious 2 hours at Amritsar Airport and we may all be talking of a different scenario than Kandahar.

We should also provide for 10-15% lateral entry into our bureaucracy from end users so that they can sensitize our system.

People say that we should impose a hefty fine on people asking for stay orders in Courts. But me thinks it is a waste of time. People who can pay (the rich) will impose it on the other unfortunate side pining for justice. I think it is the decider whose shoes should be made to pinch. The decider of stay orders is the Judge and we should impose a fine (or fees) on him. Even in a corruption free environment, the day we say that judges will be allowed a quota of 12 in a year and every additional grant will come at the cost of his promotion and increments, he will think deeply before granting one. (or may be he will trade his quota also).

The price of Illiteracy and the cost of literacy

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We have recently started plantation activities in south western Myanmar – Ayyerwaddy state. We had to plant seedling and clones this rainy season. Typically for our plantation trees 1’x1’x1’ pits are ideal. Bigger ones are like babysitting your child till they are 35 years old – a sure way to spoil them. The roots should have it easy for the first few days and after that they should work towards fortifying their hold themselves – that’s when we get optimum results (or so I have been told). Continue reading

Laws of Volutary Disclosure of Black Money, 2015 – too very Limp

The anti money laundering laws have come into effect. The voluntary period of compliance is set at 30th September. Those desirous of escaping punishment and prosecution have to declare their income, pay 30% as tax and a further 30% as penalty in return for immunity.

Continue reading

Air India, the wonderfully adorable rogue

Air India’s (AI) FPlight

I prefer Air India whenever I go abroad if there is a direct flight. I don’t go anywhere near it on domestic routes. Generally they are on time on overseas trips. This time however was different. There was a 3 hour delay – 45 minutes before check in, Continue reading

Of Pathein Wildrats and issue of sustainability

Of Pathein Wildrats and the issue of sustainability

Myanmar is a Buddhist country which is primarily non vegetarian in diet. Prawns, shrimps, snakes, wildrats, rabbits, fish, and poultry along with rice make up their staple diet. Wildrats from being widely available became a delicacy, then pricey and now a rarity due to excessive ‘harvest’.

The irony is that once the catch started diminishing due to its demand the prices Continue reading

Land Acquisition Bill – has Modi bought into wrong legacies?

Land Acquisition – Has Modi unwittingly become a vicarious Villain

I was leafing through some literature for some article of mine in 2001-2 re dam oustees and official compensation.I remember reading that for Bhakra Nangal – a dam with a storage area of nearly 168 sq km, only 3,800 families had been identified as displaced by then. (I must admit i am not able to go back to the source). In June 2012, TOI reported that after 40 years of completion of the dam, it is producing the cheapest Electricity in India but those ousted are yet to Continue reading