Sunday, 26 December 2010

Urals Federal District - Once upon a time, in a land far, far away . . .

It might seem odd to anyone who doesn't know their culture very well, but Russians love fairy tales!  Or skazki as they're called in Russian.  I've also been interested in fairy tales since my Uni days, when we studied Angela Carter and explored themes such as feminism and contemplated Little Red Riding Hood's revenge!  I find fairy tales fascinating and I think they have a lot to say about culture.  Although this type of storytelling has been around for an incredibly long time, writing them down only really became fashionable in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Brothers Grimm being two of the most famous fairy tale writers.

What is a Fairy Tale?

Interestingly, Fairy Tales don't need to have fairies in them and our use of this phrase stems from the contes de fées of Madame d'Aulnoy in the late 1690's.  In other languages they are called a variety of things, Skazki in Russian simply means 'Tale' from the verb 'skazat'' (to tell).  In German, they are called Märchen which means 'wonder tale' and is the preferred reference term for those who study folklore.  At Christmas time, fairy tales are all around us - whether it's the school panto, Santa Claus or re-runs of Shrek on the television, Christmas is filled with the magic of fairy tales and far away lands. 

Urals - the Mystical Copper Mountains

One of the Soviet Union's greatest fairy tale writers was Pavel Bazhov, born in a small town in Sverdlovsk Oblast called Sysert.  His most famous collection is called Малахитовая Шкатулка (Malokhitovaya Skatulka) The Malachite Casket - malachite is a semi-precious stone of an amazing Emerald colour and is mined in large quantities in the Urals.  If you have ever been to Moscow, you'll have seen malachite in the cities' markets in the form of jewellery, such as bracelets and earrings.  In the olden days, it was believed to have magical qualities and was worn as a protection against witchcraft and spells! 

Bazhov came from a very modest background and he got involved in revolutionary politics at an early age, eventually becoming a Bolshevik and fighting for the Red Army.  In a time when the Soviet Union was trying to rid itself of all superstitions, it's interesting that Bazhov's work gained such widespread approval, but I imagine that there is something in the Russian soul that yearns for a bit of magic and happily ever after!  There had been other even more famous storytellers, who were popular before the revolution, such as Alexander Afanasyev and Alexander Pushkin.  Many ballets were inspired by Russian fairy tales, Swan Lake being one of the most famous. 

The Tale of the Stone Flower

One of Bazhov's most famous stories, Сказ о каменном цветке (Skaz o kamennom tsvetke) The Tale of the Stone Flower was made into ballet by the Soviet composer, Sergei Prokofiev.  This tells the tale of a skilled artisan Danila (Daniel) who has been tasked with making a beautiful vase featuring a flower motif, the flower being made out of precious stones.  In his quest for perfection, he searches for a precious stone which has a naturally occuring floral pattern and this brings him into contact with the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, a type of witch, who promises to show him the most beautiful stone flower on earth.  When he sees the flower and tries to return to his village, the Mistress captures him, turning him into stone. 

Meanwhile, back in the village, Danila's evil landlord, Severyan (which means 'Northerner'!) who sent him on the quest in the first place, is trying to seduce Danila's fiance, the beautiful Katerina.  Like all good heroines, Katerina remains true to her man and sets off into the mountains to find him.  The Mistress sees Katerina and decides to follow her in the form of a golden lizard until she gets close to where Danila is frozen in stone.  When the Mistress sees Katerina's distress and how humans can truly love each other, she decides to return Danila to his fiance and they all live happily ever after!

I'm posting a YouTube video below, which shows a scene in which the Mistress reveals herself to Katerina.

Propp's Morphology of a Folktale and the Universality of the Fairy Tale

Many scholars and folklorists have recognised the universality of Fairy Tales.  Although the Tale of the Stone Flower will be new to most non-Russians, I'm sure we all recognise the formula.  It even reminds me of the Ramayana which I blogged about back in June.  Propp was a prominent Russian formalist, who created a structured analysis of folkloric texts and came up with a common formula folk tales.  I won't go into too much detail on this, as it is quite detailed, but I want to present the characterisation that Propp outlined, which should cover most fairy tales.

Fairy Tale characters

Propp identified 8 main characters in fairy tales.  A fairy tale doesn't need to have all 8 characters, but I imagine most will at least have a villain, a hero, a donor and a princess!

The Villain - in The Tale of the Stone Flower, Severyan, also Lord Farquaad in Shrek or the Fairy God Mother in Shrek 2 and 3.
The Donor - this is usually a magical character who helps the hero along - this is the fairy god mother in a traditional fairy tale, in the case of The Stone Flower this is the Mistress of the Copper Mountain.
The Magical Helper - for example, the Dragon in Shrek.
The Princess or prize - Princess Fiona in Shrek and Katerina in The Stone Flower.
The Father - who usually helps identify the false hero and is often used as a narrator.
The Dispatcher - a friend, who prepares the hero for his quest, eg. Donkey in Shrek.
The Hero - eg. Shrek or Danila.
The False Hero - eg. Prince Charming in Shrek 2 and 3.

What does 'once upon a time' actually mean?

The phrase sounds a bit strange in English, probably because, like fairy tale, it's a direct translation of the French Il était une fois - again the first contes de fées in English, came from France.  Interestingly, from a linguistic point of view, I've noticed that the translation of 'once upon a time' in a lot of languages has some kind of repetitive/rhyming sound.  In languages across the world that are very different, the opening words of a fairytale are suitably dramatic, to catch the attention of the listeners/readers.  I've put some examples below:

Hajitek ma jitek (Algerian Arabic)
Biri var idi, biri yox idi (Azeri)
Bylo nebylo (Czech)
Fadó, fadó, fadó a bhí ann (Irish)
Mukashi mukashi (Japanese)
Ilgeri-ilgeri (Kyrgyz)
A fost odata, ca niciodata (Romanian)
Bir varmış, bir yokmuş (Turkish)
Ngày xửa ngày xưa (Vietnamese)

The Russian version also rhymes but, in true Russian fashion, the phrase you use depends on the gender and number of characters involved, eg. Жил-был (zhil bil) (male), жила-была (zhila bila) (female), жили-были (zhili bili) (plural). 

The Death of Santa Claus

The Russian version of Santa Claus, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) was branded as bourgeois and an ally of the Church during the intensive post-revolutionary 1920's.  I'm not sure what happened to Ded Moroz's helper Snegurochka (Snow maiden) - she's probably driving a tram somewhere in Moscow!  Much more so than in the West, you can see the direct connection between the Russian Santa Claus and the fairytales in which he appears. 

In modern times, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka have made something of a comeback in Russian culture and in 1998, the village of Veliky Ustyug was designated as the official home of Santa Claus, in much the same way as we deem Lapland to be Santa's home.  Also, the Nenets people of Yamal in the Urals have their own version of Ded Moroz called Yamal Iri (Grandfather of Yamal) who carries a magical drum which he beats with a stick covered in fur, to drive away evil spirits. 

I've just got a taster of fairy tales in Russia and around the world and, hopefully, in future blogposts, I will be able to return to this subject and learn even more!

Image credits:

The flag is the coat of arms of Bazhov's birthplace, Sysert and I've taken this from Wikimedia Commons, where it was added by

The image of the stone flower is by flickruser - Monceau - you can see more of her photos at her flickrstream

The image of Shrek is by flickruser - Rafitorres who is a web designer from Miami.  You can see more at his photostream

The image of Ded Moroz and Snegurochka is by flickruser - 2sirius a.k.a. Peter Vanderheyden who is from Vancouver in Canada.  You can see more at

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Urals Federal District - Urals Rock

As part of my learning experience about the Urals region, I decided to immerse myself in Urals Rock!  Not as painful as it sounds, Urals Rock was a music scene that developed around Ekaterinburg (then known as Sverdlovsk) and spread across the Soviet Union like wildfire, with bands such as Agata Kristi, Nautilus Pompilius and Chaif topping the charts and becoming associated, like all the best music, with the changes that were happening in society, as the Soviet Union fell apart. 

Agata Kristi

Russia's version of The Cure, Agata Kristi are a rock group from Sverdlovsk Oblast who named themselves after the English writer, Agatha Christie - eternally popular in Russia.  They come from a small town called Asbest, which has the dubious honour of being named after the towns's Asbestos industry - only in Russia!

I was a massive fan of The Cure, when I was a teenager and, whilst I quite like Agata Kristi, I think they sound quite different to The Cure and probably earned the comparison because the lead singer's hair looks a bit like Robert Smith's. 

The video I want to share with you is called Сказочная тайга (Skazochnaya Taiga), which means Fairytale Taiga from their 1995 album Opium.  The Taiga is a massive boreal forest that stretches right across the top of the world, including the Urals region.  To be honest, it's not so much a Fairytale Taiga, as a nightmare one.  The imagery is dark, angry clouds, drunken stars and Satan lurking in the forest at night collecting fresh souls!  The song makes an interesting reference to the розовый снег (rosovy sneg) or pink snow, perhaps a reference to the fact that the last Tsars' family, the Romanoff's, were murdered in Ekaterinburg?

By the way, the video shows scenes from one of the most famous and best-loved Soviet movies, Иван Васильевич меняет профессию - Ivan Vasilievich changes Profession - which is a comedy about Ivan the Terrible time-travelling and arriving in the Soviet Union.  It also shows the actors as they were in the '90's, having a reunion and watching scenes from the movie. 

Nautilus Pompilius

Nautilus Pompilius (named after a type of sea mollusc), also known more simply as Nau, were big in the 1980's and possibly started the trend of rock bands coming from the Urals region.  I must admit, I know quite a lot of Russian music, but I didn't listen to any of these bands, as they were popular long before my time in Russia.  I really like this band though and they remind me of The Cure much more than Agata Kristi does.

They were also from Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk) and a lot of their hits in the 80's will long be associated with the Gorbachev regime and perestroika

The song I want to share with you is from their 1989 album, Человек без имени (Chelovek bez imeni) or 'Man without a name' and is called Падший Ангел (Padshiy Anghel) or Fallen Angel.  It's not one of their most famous songs, by any means, but I really like it, especially the opening riff, which could be straight from one of The Cure's albums.  Sorry about the sound quality, which is a bit tinny!

The lyrics are, predictably, quite gloomy - dreams about running in the forest at night, being chased by wild animals with eyes like lamps.  The singer describes himself as an angel who has been ripped from the sky and thrown to earth - I guess it could be a metaphor for the political situation people found themselves in, one day living in the clouds of a socialist dream, the next day finding themselves in a depressed world, being hunted by wild animals!


The song I've chosen by Ekaterinburg rock band Chaif is an iconic song that many Russians love and will sing at parties.  It's a bit maudlin, but being Irish, I like that!  It comes from their 7th album Давай вернёмся (Davai verniomsa) Let's go back which was released in 1991, around the time the Soviet Union fell apart. 

The name of the song is Никто не услышит (Nikto nie uslishit) Nobody's Listening, but it's also known as Ой-йо (Oi-yo) after the plaintive refrain of the chorus.  In the first verse, we hear how the singer misses his friends and feels depressed by the news in the papers.  In the second verse, he explains that his neighbours have hit the booze, because the factory is on strike, his wife has left him for another man and all the time in the background, politicians on TV are telling him how society is going to continue, but he rejects this because he knows that they are lying.  In the final verse, he dreams of the spring time when he'll be able to go fishing with his mates and forget about the troubles of the world.

It's a very Russian застольная песня (drinking song) and I feel his pain!!


A much lighter sound, also from Ekaterinburg, is a soft-rock band called Chicherina (named after the lead singer, Yulia Chicherina).  The song I've chosen Блюдца (Bludtsa) Saucers, is basically a love song about a young girl who sees that everything around her, even the sky and sea, have got someone, but she hasn't.  The main lyrics are all about broken plates/a girl cries/girls laugh, which I think is a metaphor for having your heart broken, then crying about it, but eventually you'll be able to laugh again! 

Interestingly the video shows Yulia messing about on a golf course with her mates, smashing up expensive vases and having a tremendous amount of fun - I guess that was their idea of a good day out in Ekaterinburg in the 1990's. 

Smyslovye Gallyutsinatsii

Not the easiest name to remember, but a fantastic band, I've become a bit obsessed by one of their biggest hits, Вечно молодой (Vechno molodoi) Forever Young, a song that was also made famous as the title track in Брат 2 (Brat dva) Brother 2 - a popular Russian movie from 2000. 

Smyslovye Gallyutsinatsii translates as something like 'Semantic Hallucinations' and the lyrics of the song are quite cryptic 'I could drink the sea/I could be someone completely different' - the sound of the sax in the background absolutely gets under my skin and I love it!  There's also a fantastic remix by DJ Nejtrino, which you can also find on YouTube at the following link:

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Urals Federal District - Beef Stroganoff

Beef Stroganoff is not so much a typical Russian dish, as a recipe that is typical of Russian dishes.  What I mean is that you won't necessarily find a lot of Russians cooking a dish and calling it Beef Stroganoff (or Beef Stroganov - I prefer the slightly Frenchified spelling with double 'f'), but you will find a lot of Russians throwing together beef, mushrooms and onion, whipping it into a frenzy of soured cream and dumping a whole load of fresh parsley (петрушка) on top!

I picked this dish because it is one I've never cooked before, but also because of the historical connections with the illustrious Stroganov family, who were instrumental in opening up the Urals region to Russian colonisation.  Beef Stroganoff has travelled the world and has become popular in its more traditional forms in Hong Kong, Britain and the US.  It has also been adapted to suit local tastes in countries as far apart as Sweden and Brazil.  The dish I made was inspired by a recipe I found at


300g of steak, sliced into strips
1 large onion
150g of button mushrooms
100ml of Beef stock
A dash of Worcestershire sauce
A cap-full of good quality French brandy
I garlic clove (crushed)
4 tablespoons of sour cream
A handful of fresh parsley (chopped), plus a few sprigs of parsley to garnish
Salt and Pepper to taste


It was a very easy dish to make -

First, I fried the onion and mushroom over a medium heat for about 4 minutes, then I poured in the stock and Worcestershire sauce, let this come to boiling point, before turning down the heat and cooking the vegetables for another five minutes with the lid on and two minutes with the lid only partially on (to let out some of the steam). 

Once I'd cooked the veg, I removed them with a slotted spoon and put them in a warm dish with a lid on top.  I then added the strips of beef to the pan, bunged up the heat and let them brown in the remaining liquid. 

I remember when I was a child, our next-door neighbours bought an electric cooker and we thought it was the coolest (and poshest) thing ever, miles better than our own gas cooker!  What I wouldn't give now to cook with gas rather than electric.  I find you can control your cooking better with gas, increasing or decreasing the heat very quickly, an electric hob isn't quite as exciting any more :-(

It also meant that I couldn't 'pour in the brandy and ignite it', as the original recipe suggested.  I did try to think of ways of igniting the brandy, but decided against it for health and safety reasons (and because I quite fancy keeping my eyebrows, the Christmas photos wouldn't look the same without them!).  In the end,  I just well . . . added the brandy slowly and watched the alcohol evaporate before I'd had a chance to stir in my crushed garlic.

Once the meat was well-cooked, I returned the vegetables to the pan and cooked gently for another few minutes, before slapping on the four tablespoons of sour cream and dumping a flourish of parsley on top.  I mixed the sour cream and parsley in with the other ingredients, let it cook for another five minutes and, hey presto! the result was a successful Beef Stroganoff.

I plated it up with mashed potato, on the recommendation of my Russian partner.  I think Beef Stroganoff is traditionally served with rice in Britain and the US, but Russians prefer to have it with potato.  The result was tasty and I look forward to making it again, perhaps adding a few spices to make it a bit more interesting.

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me on my personal camera.  Please feel free to use or reproduce any of these images, for non-commercial purposes, on a share-alike attribution basis, as defined by the Creative Commons License.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Urals Federal District - Dr Zhivago

I've read a few 'heavy-duty' Russian epics in my time (eg. Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment) and Dr Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, is a novel of epic proportions.  I must admit, a mere twenty pages into the novel, I found myself double-checking the publication date (1957), as the style it's written in is like something straight out of the 19th century.

Pasternak and Zhivago

Pasternak was a well-known writer and poet in the Soviet Union, long before Dr Zhivago was smuggled to the West by Pasternak's friend Isaiah Berlin.  The novel was an instant hit in the West, but suppressed in the Soviet Union, because of the political views it espoused.  It's quite telling that Dr Zhivago was only published after Stalin's death and that Pasternak continued to live in the Soviet writer's colony outside Moscow, Peredelkino, despite having written such a controversial book.  When Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, he faced great pressure from the Soviet government to turn down the award, which he dutifully did.

Having read a bit about Pasternak's background, after finishing the novel, I can't help drawing parallels between Pasternak and his fictional hero Dr Yury Zhivago.  Both Pasternak and Zhivago came from fairly affluent artistic backgrounds (Pasternak's father was a well-known Russian painter).  They both sympathised with the revolution initially, becoming more and more disillusioned as the horrors of the Civil War reduced Russia to a barbarian state.  They both decided to stay in Russia, despite the repressive nature of the new Bolshevik government. 

Something that's difficult for a lot of Westerners to understand is how much Russians love their country.  I think we all presume that life is so hard there, they would rather be anywhere else, but it's almost as if the opposite is true!  Practising the third conditional with my students in Moscow, the question 'If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you like to live?' invariably received the answer Russia, whereas I'm sure a lot of people in Ireland and Britain could think of more exotic places to live (Barbados, Tahiti etc.)  At first, I thought this was a lack of imagination on the part of my Russian students, but I realise now that the question is simply a 'no-brainer' for most Russians.

Pasternak stayed in the Soviet Union, likewise Zhivago refused to flee to Mongolia or China, or to rejoin his wife and children in Paris.  In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, published 80 years earlier, the main character Raskolnikov would rather stay in Russia and accept his punishment, than go into exile in America.  Zhivago is not an actual surname in Russia, but is a play on the Russian word for 'life/live' zhizn/zhit'/zhivoy.  Dr Zhivago symbolises the continuation of life in Russia, after a period of great turmoil and upheaval. 

The Personification of Nature

There are several themes running through the novel, one of the most glaringly obvious, and treated beautifully in the language he uses, is Pasternak's personification of nature.  Just as Dr Zhivago (a human) symbolises some kind of natural life-force, Russia herself, her landscapes and the familiarity of her seasons, become human in their moods and actions.  Something as natural as a snow-storm is given a life and character of its own.  As Lara's innocence melts away in the spring, so the 'water drops lisped, the thaw muttered its spells'.  Pasternak gives nature its own language, therefore making it human, as language is what separates us from the non-human world.  As the boats are moved in early winter from the river to the people's gardens, they're described as 'migrating storks'. 

There are two very touching scenes in the novel that illustrate this.  The first is when Dr Zhivago is travelling with his family from Moscow to the Urals and the trees along the way are described as holding out napkins of snow to the train, a reference to the Russian tradition of welcoming guests by holding out a napkin with bread and salt.  The second scene is when Dr Zhivago leaves the train and goes wandering in the forest, he lies down on the sun-speckled forest floor and melts into the natural background.  It's when he is most at peace and far-away from the troubles of the human world around him. 

It's ironic that so many Russians now live in horrible industrial cities, far from the 'nature' that they love so much.  Perhaps the cities are horrible because Russians don't really believe in them and are simply waiting for the long summer evenings and weekends at the dacha, the joy of hunting for mushrooms in the forest and roasting sausages on an open fire, far away from the crowds of people and endless bustle of trains and cars.

Trains and death

Which brings me nicely onto another theme, not just in Dr Zhivago, but also in novels like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  Like a lot of countries, Russia's fate seems to have been sealed by the development of the railway.  There's the Trans-Siberian Express, of course, one of the world's most famous railway journeys, six and half days from Moscow to Vladivostok and a lot of towns in the Urals region and Siberia owe their very existence to the fact that they were built to service the Trans-Siberian route.  A large chunk of the novel happens on the train journey from Moscow to the Urals fictional town of Yuryatin (probably based on Perm).  Trains symbolised progress and movement, societies in transition, as the world was transformed by this revolutionary method of transport.

I can't help noticing how often trains are responsible for the deaths of characters in Russian novels.  Dr Zhivago's father commits suicide by throwing himself off a moving train, Dr Zhivago has a heart attack whilst travelling on a tram in Moscow, Anna Karenina commits suicide by throwing herself under a train.  It's an interesting sub-theme in Russian literature and one I would like to explore more.  Not only in Russian literature either: I seem to remember that Lantier in Zola's La Bete Humaine also died by falling off a moving train.  Just as nature is idealised in novels from the 19th century onwards, industrial innovations like the railway are feared and regarded as a cause of death. 

Lara's ruin and the English novel

The subtitle of the edition of Dr Zhivago that I read is 'One of the greatest love stories ever told'.  Whilst reading the novel, I realised that it's much more than a love story and there are bigger themes at play than this subtitle suggests.  Nevertheless, Zhivago's passion for Lara Antipova is an important theme in the novel, as is his love for his family and Tonya, his legal wife.  What I found most interesting about all of this is that Lara's story begins (rather than ends) with her being ruined by an older gentleman friend of her seamstress mother.  I couldn't help comparing this to the heroine of an English novel, whose ruination would, most definitely, come at the end of the novel. 

One thing I love about the Russians is that they are quite practical about 'matters of the heart' and don't tend to take a moral high ground or judge other people's relationships, in the way that we love to do in Ireland and Britain.  Lara is not condemned for being a fallen woman, but becomes the real heroine of the novel, an incredibly kind woman who is even more respected, it would seem, because of the fact that she isn't perfect.  Zhivago's wife, Tonya, who is morally 'pure' and would be a perfect character in a Jane Austen novel, becomes irrelevant in this Russian one and can't support Zhivago when he needs her most.  Likewise, the fact that Zhivago is 'living in sin' with Lara is barely relevant to the events of the book and, in many ways, their relationship is one of the only things that makes sense in the chaotic world they find themselves in. 

The Suffering of the Jewish people in World War 1

An interesting theme that Pasternak raises in the novel and one, I admit, I've never thought about before, is how badly the Jews were treated during the First World War.  I guess it's inevitable that the horrors of WW2 and the Holocaust have obscured the discrimation and suffering that Jewish communities experienced before that.  There's no doubt that Jews also suffered horrendously during World War One.  From the Russian point of view, this war was fought on the Eastern Front, modern-day Ukraine and Belarus and those parts of the old Russian Empire where the existence of Jewish communities was 'tolerated'.  Pasternak was Jewish, as were many of the Bolshevik leaders.  Russia has the third biggest Jewish population in the world (the country with the biggest Jewish population is the United States, with Israel being number two).  It's a theme I'd like to explore even more, as it's something you don't really hear much about. 

10 reasons why I think the book was banned

When I first started reading the novel, I couldn't understand what was so controversial about the book that meant it couldn't be published in Russia during the soviet period.  I started making a list of reasons as I was going along and, as you'll see below, I have come up with 10 main reasons why the soviet authorities would have opposed the publication of this novel. 

1. It was anti-nationalist.  There is a paragraph early in the novel when Zhivago questions the nature of the Russian national identity, a very controversial issue in Russia, even in modern times.

2. It had a spiritual quality to it.  It's not a religious book, as such, but the way Pasternak idolises the natural world, would have raised a few eyebrows in Soviet Moscow!

3. It wasn't suitably upbeat about the revolution, but also told of the hardship, starvation and suffering that happened after the October Revolution.

4. The novel depicts trade on the black market, even at the height of revolutionary anti-capitalism, a view that wouldn't have been condoned by the soviet authorities.

5. During the epic train journey to the Urals, Zhivago suggests that the new worker's revolutionary government didn't really have the peasant's best interest at heart and that it was only substituting one kind of repression (under the Tsars) with another (under the Soviets). 

6. As the train passes through the Volga region on its way to the Urals, Zhivago witnesses a country in open revolt against the competing Red and White Guards.  The novel depicts the period as anarchic and highlights a massacre by the Red Guard, which is not a version of history that would have been accepted by Pasternak's government, even in the 1950's.

7. In his conversation with Semdevyatov, on the train, Zhivago openly slates Marxism as a type of politics that is far from the truth.

8. At times it would seem as though Zhivago openly sympathises with the Whites.

9. Zhivago is disillusioned with the revolution, especially when he rejoins Lara in Yuryatin.  Again not the progressive opinion officialdom would expect a Soviet writer to portray.

10.  Towards the end of the novel, Pasternak refers to the existence of gulags, a very controversial issue at the time and one that led to fellow-Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn being expelled from the Soviet Union and stripped of his citizenship in 1974. 

The Movie

As part of my learning experience, I watched David Lean's award-winning screen adaptation of the novel, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.  It was a great pleasure to watch this visually-stunning movie again, especially as the novel was so fresh in my mind.  Lean took to heart a lot of the criticisms of his adaptation, but I think he did a great job.  He was criticised for cutting down the number of characters and reducing the First World War scenes to a five minute narration sequence, but I think it was probably a good idea to do both these things.  Movies can't handle the complexity of novels and are definitely more watchable if the number of characters is kept to a logical minimum.  Not surprisingly the movie was banned in the Soviet Union and wasn't shown in Russia until the mid-90's. 

Image credits:

I've used the flag of Perm for this blogpost, although Perm Oblast isn't part of the Urals Federal District, it is deemed to be in the Urals and Pasternak spent some time living there and probably used Perm as the basis for his fictional Urals town, Yuryatin.  This image was shared on Wikimedia Commons by wikiuser Panther and you can see its description page at

The painting is by Boris Pasternak's father, Leonid, and depicts a young Boris with his brother Aleksandr.  It is copyright free and in the public domain. 

The image of the book cover is one I took myself, I read the 2002 Vintage edition (Random House).  The photograph on the cover depicts White Russian Troops 1919 (c) Corbis. 

The images of stills from the movie were also from photos taken by me.  These stills are being used to illustrate this blogpost and promote David Lean's movie version.  By publishing these photos, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of these images on the Internet or anywhere else.  These photos are not meant to bring the actors into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blogpost, but are meant to promote the amazing performances of these actors in this movie. 

The first still shows Julie Christie in the role of Lara Antipova in the scene where Lara and Yury Zhivago are reunited in the library at Yuryatin.

The second still shows Omar Sharif in the role of Dr Yury Zhivago, as he reads the all-important letter from Moscow, informing him that Tonya has moved to Paris with his children.

The third still shows Omar Sharif in the role of Dr Zhivago, after he has deserted the Red Guards and is walking back to Yuryatin through the bitter Siberian winter. 

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Urals Federal District - an Overview

It's 4,730 miles (7,613 kilometres) from the Togolese capital, Lome, to Ekaterinburg, capital of the Urals Federal district.  It's so typical of Russia that my first two posts are taken up by explaining the nature of the Russian Federation and the bureaucracy involved in administering this massive country!  This post is intended as an overview of the Urals Federal Region and its six constituent parts.

If the Urals Federal District were a country, it would be the 17th biggest country in the world.  It's a bit smaller than Indonesia and bigger than Libya.  It's also slightly bigger than the biggest US state, Alaska.  Although this massive region only contains 8.5% of Russia's entire population (UFD has the same amount of people as Greece), the people and businesses in this region pay a whopping 42% of Russia's tax bill.  It's by far the richest region in Russia and produces 90% of Russia's natural gas and 68% of Russia's oil. 

During the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90's, the governor of the Urals Region, Eduard Rossell, tried to establish a Urals Republic.  It lasted a mere 10 days, before being dissolved by the (ironically, Urals-born) Russian President, Boris Yeltsin.  With all of its wealth, I can understand why the Russian Federation would be reluctant to let go of the Urals Region. 

The Urals Region was 'opened up' to Russian colonisation in the 1550's, after the defeat of the Tatars, paving the way for Russian colonisation of the entire Ural Region, Siberia and the Far East.  The Urals Federal District today is made up of four oblast or regions and two autonomous okrug.  They are:

Kurgan Oblast (1) - a 'small' region, about the size of Ireland, north of the border with Kazakhstan.  This region has a population of about 1 million people, most of whom are Russian and is administered from the city of Kurgan.  Kurgan is one of the oldest Russian settlements in the region, being founded in the mid-17th century and is a stopping point on the Trans-Siberian railway.

Sverdlovsk Oblast (2) - is the heart of the Urals Federal District and with its administrative centre at Ekaterinburg, capital of the whole Urals region.  The region is named after a Jewish Bolshevik, Yakov Sverdlov.  It was common practice after the Russian Revolution to rename 'Tsarist' cities like Ekaterinburg after prominent revolutionary figures, especially dead ones like Sverdlov (who died in the 'Spanish flu' epidemic of 1919). 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many cities decided to revert to their original names, the most famous being St Petersburg (a.k.a. Leningrad).  In a particularly Russian manner, ie. not hedging one's bets, whilst the cities returned to their Tsarist names, the oblast retained their Soviet names (just in case!).  Hence we have Ekaterinburg as the capital of Sverdlovsk region and St Petersburg as the capital of Leningrad region!

Tyumen Oblast (3) - is another 'small' region, about the size of Tunisia!  It has a much more mixed population, being only 70% Russian, with around 7% each of Tatars and Ukranians.  Before I moved to Russia, I didn't really realise how ethnically diverse it is - again, associating everything with Russian culture and ethnic Russians. 

It might surprise people to know that Tyumen Oblast, as an example, has dozens of different ethnic groups (in a population of about 3 million people) and is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the Russian Federation.  These groups include Germans, Greeks, Koreans, Roma, Armenians and Bulgarians, to name but a few.  It might also surprise you to know that there are half a million ethnic Germans in Russia and about 100,000 ethnic Greeks!  I'm sure that they are all Russian-speaking and they hold Russian passports, although they keep links to their 'home' culture and language, with varying degrees of success. 

Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug (4) - is the homeland of the native Khanty and Mansi tribes.  They are Ob-Ugric peoples and their Uralic languages are distantly related to both Finnish and Hungarian!  Long before the Russians arrived on the scene, the Urals region gave birth to a range of cultures, including Hungarian tribes, possibly the Celts and some people even believe that all Indo-European cultures came from this region!  If I have time in a later blog, I'd like to explore some the language families of this part of Russia, as I find this subject fascinating and an area of Linguistics that I know very little about.

Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (6) - is a region in the far north of Russia, bordering the Arctic Ocean.  It is about six times the size of England, but with the same population as Bristol!  It is the homeland of another Ob-Ugric tribe, the Nenets, although they only make up 5% of the total population.  I have a personal connection with Yamalo-Nenets AO, in that my sister-in-law spent some time living and working in its second biggest city, Novy Urengoy.  I never got the chance to go there, but I remember her stopping off to stay with us in Moscow, before embarking in the three or four day train journey to this remote region. 

Chelyabinsk Oblast (5) - centred around the city of Chelyabinsk, is a place I know practically nothing about.  I do know that it is one of the places that the Decembrists, early 19th-century revolutionaries, mostly from St Petersburg, were exiled to.  Among the Decembrists were many of St Petersburg's intellectual elite and their exile to the east, led to the Urals and Siberian regions being considered havens for intellectual and political freedom.  Many Decembrists were, famously, followed into exile by their wives, inspiring generations of Russian writers and poets, when their turn came to reinterpret the events of Russian history. 

I think the whole region languishes in obscurity for most people from the West, being somehow hidden behind the veneer of Russia.  There's a lot more to this region than meets the eye and I want to spend the next few weeks unravelling the secrets of this region and measuring the impact Urals culture, people and industry has had on Russia as a whole. 

Image credits:

Yet more evidence that I must have been Russian in a former life is our common love of flags.  I find the array of Russian flags really beautiful and have used sources in Wikimedia Commons to find flags for this blog, as well as the map of the Urals region.  The history of each of these files is quite complicated and sometimes involves several wikiusers, so it's probably easier for me to provide the links to the original file descriptions (below):

Flag of Ekaterinburg:

Map of the Urals Region:

Flag of Kurgan Oblast:

Flag of Sverdlovsk Oblast:

Flag of Tyumen Oblast:

Flag of Yugra (Khanty-Mansi AO):

Flag of Yamalo-Nenets AO:

Flag of Chelyabinsk Oblast:

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Urals Federal District - здравствуйте!

Russia is a country that is very close to my heart.  I have a Russian partner, I speak Russian and lived in Moscow for two years, so I've read a lot of books about Russia, eaten loads of Russian food, watched movies and become immersed in Russian culture to the point that it will be quite a challenge to find 'new' stuff for this blog.  That's why I'm starting with the Urals - I've travelled a lot in European Russia, but the furthest east I ever got was to Tatarstan, in the Volga region.  The Urals are my natural next step in terms of learning about Russia and a region that I know very little about, as I'm sure is the case with most of you reading this blog!

One thing I learned about Russian officialdom is their love of bureaucracy.  It would seem that the more complicated the process is, the more it is perceived to be efficient.  Russia is the biggest country in the world, by land area, and all this bureaucracy stems from an effort on the part of civil government to control this massive land and bring it under the centralised control of Moscow, often thousands of miles away from where Russian citizens live. 

This intense bureaucracy is recognised in modern times by the phenomena of 'federal subjects'.  Russia is a federation, made up of a complicated array of 83 legal 'subjects' including:

21 republics
46 oblasts (or regions)
9 krai (which were historically 'border regions')
1 autonomous region, a legacy of Soviet times, this is the autonomous Jewish state in the Far East.
4 autonomous okrug (or districts) - the main difference between these and the regions is that they tend to be located in the far north, near the Arctic circle - they are nominally recognised as being the homelands of a native minority and they have less independence than republics.
2 federal cities - Moscow and St Petersburg

I think it's hard for someone in Western Europe to understand the nature of the Russian Federation, when we have a really strong concept of a unified nation, but I guess it's similar to the federal system in the United States of America, where states can make their own laws but belong, ultimately, to a greater nation.  Again, it's a wee bit more complicated in Russia. 

Something I realised when I was living in Uzbekistan was that, whereas I had been brought up to think of the Soviet Union being more or less synonymous with 'Russia', in actual fact, it was indeed a union of soviet states, which is why, when the union fell apart in the early 90's, countries like Uzbekistan suddenly found themselves independent, whether they liked it or not. 

The Soviet Socialist republics were like the top layer of bureaucracy - from a legal point of view, the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic was no more than an equal partner in this union.  Of course, the reality is that Russia did dominate the governance of the Soviet Union, although I'm sure most of my Russian friends would disagree with this assertion.  I can understand why, for most people in the West, Russia and the Soviet Union was one and the same thing. 

It also explains why the Russians fought so hard to keep Chechnya in the Russian Federation.  Bizarrely, from a Western point of view, they gave up the Baltic states and countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan, without so much as a whimper, knowing that, legally, Russia had no claim on these independent soviet states.  With Chechnya, it was a whole different ball game.  As Chechnya is a republic within the Russian Federation, letting Chechnya become independent would set a precedent for the other 20 republics in the Russian Federation (eg Taterstan, Dagestan, Karelia) and would leave the Russian Federation in danger of simply falling apart. 

The reason I've chosen to divide my blogging about Russia into federal districts, is because I believe these more or less accurately divide Russia into parts with very different historical and cultural experiences.  European Russia is made of up five federal districts:

Northwestern Federal district - centred around St Petersburg, with its history linked to Karelia and Finland, Peter the Great's window on Europe and its proximity to the Baltic states and (nowadays) the European Union.

Central Federal district - the federal subjects around Moscow.  I don't care what anyone says, to me, the Central Region and Moscow is the heart and soul of Russian identity. 

Southern Federal district - is the heartland of border tribes such as the Cossacks, but also my partner's nation, the Kalmyks.

North Caucasian Federal district - which is made up of several Caucasian republics and is mostly known in the West as the scene of conflicts - Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan etc.  This district is a real thorn in the side of the Russian authorities and continues to threaten the survival of the Russian Federation.

Volga Federal district - the Volga is the blood that runs through the body of European Russia - it's an immensely fascinating region and contains a real mixture of people, languages and cultures.

Asian Russia is made up of three federal districts, each of which would rank top of the list of the world's biggest countries, were they independent states.  They are:

Urals Federal district - Russians believe that Asia somehow starts at the Ural mountains - it's a region which is famous for its natural resources and it is the source of a lot of Russia's wealth.

Siberian Federal district - Siberia has an incredibly strong identity within the Russian federation and, out of all the federal districts, it's the only one that could properly be identified as a 'nation' in its own right.  Certainly most people in the West have a greater sense of Siberia as a place, than they would do of most of the other federal districts.

Far Eastern Federal district - by all accounts, the landscape around Vladivostok is more like that of Japan or China than that of European Russia.  This is another massive district, nine time zones from Moscow, with places like Anadyr being on the same longitude as Auckland, New Zealand (170* East). 

It's a challenge, blogging about the world's biggest country, but I'm going to take it one step at a time, the first step being the Urals!

Image credits:

The map of the Russian Federal Districts is from Wikimedia Commons and is a derivative work by wikiuser SeNeKa - you can see more information on this file at it's information page

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Togo - Mia do go!

It's time to say goodbye to Togo!  I've just realised that I've spent the past two months blogging about Togo, which is an incredibly long time (note to self - blog a bit faster in future!!)

Anyway, it's been an interesting journey and I've learned a lot about Africa, languages, Dead Aid and phosphorus.  As usual with my final blog I want to highlight some of the other things I learned along the way, but didn't have time to blog about.  I learned that:

The largest religious belief in Togo is indigenous beliefs, unlike other African countries, Christians and Muslims are both minorities. 

Often in Togolese villages there are no doors to knock on, so people usually clap to let you know that they've come to visit.

Blacksmiths are revered in West African societies and masks play an important part in traditional rituals.

The Ewe people worship the female-male moon twins Mawu-lisa and they are also famous for their 'talking drums' the vu gbe.

Togo was one of the first Allied victories in World War One. 

Lome wasn't the capital of Togo during the colonial period, as the capital of German Togoland was at Aneho.  Togo's second largest city is Sokode. 

I learned about the stilt dancers of Atakpame and the Taberma people of Northern Togo and Benin who are famous for their fortified dwellings.  When a son gets old enough he shoots an arrow from his father's house and wherever it lands, he will construct his own house, known as a tata

I learned that children in West Africa are often named after the day of the week on which they were born.  Kofi is a popular boys' name and means 'Friday'.

I learned about Le Mouvement Togolais pour la Democratie which is Togo's exiled opposition movement. 

I learned that the Pope John Paul II visited Togo in the early 80's.

I learned that in some traditions a stillborn baby's hand is cut off, to stop it from returning to the womb and creating another cycle of miscarriage.

I learned about mianta-mianta, a fern that reacts quickly to the human touch.  

I learned about the monster Ague and how reptiles are believed by the Mina tribe to be the 'children of the earth' because they touch the earth with their whole bodies when they move.

I learned that France is called Yovode, literally 'white man's country'. 

Most of all I learned that I have still got a lot to learn about West Africa and the countries there - I look forward to my next 'journey' to that part of the world. 

Image credits:

The image of the young boys playing on a street in Lome was taken by flickruser * hiro008 aka Dietmar Temps.  Dietmar is from Cologne in Germany and works in the communication media.  He also has experience working as a photographer for film crews and television. 

You can find out more about Dietmar's work at his website  Thanks to Dietmar for sharing this wonderful image with us, using the Creative Commons License. 

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Togo - Moyo's theory on the failure of Aid to Africa

Not specifically related to Togo, but rather a text that deals with Africa as a whole continent, I was told about Dambisa Moyo's book Dead Aid by a Kenyan economist I met at a writer's day here in London back in July.  I've been itching for an excuse to read this book, so I'm using Togo as my platform for the issue of Aid, which is one that practically every African nation has been affected by. 

The culture of giving Aid

I must admit, I was pretty sceptical at first, when I understood that Moyo's main argument was to stop all Aid payments to Africa and throw African nations into the maelstrom of a capitalistic, market-based economy.  I guess, culturally, as a Westerner, I've never really questioned the logic behind aid to Africa - it's always just seemed to be the 'right thing' to do.  Especially being Irish, with all of the charity work that Irish aid agencies have got involved in, through (I believe) a genuine desire to improve the lives of people who are worse off than ourselves - the culture of aid-giving is something I was brought up and never thought to question, before I read Moyo's book. 

In some ways it's reassuring to think, no matter how much I have distilled the leftist political beliefs I developed in my teenage years, that I am still open to learning something new about the world, to looking at things from a different angle and questioning things that I would never have thought to question before.

African economists

Perhaps one of the most attractive things about this book is that it was written by an African woman from Zambia.  The debates about African economics and the future of the continent have been so dominated by the theories of white politicians, white economists and white celebs, it's refreshing to read something by a black economist and I genuinely believe that Africa's 'problems' will only ever be solved by African people.  The West and white Europeans have dominated African history for far too long! 

Having said that, I don't think Moyo's arguments are inherently African.  She is Oxford-university educated and, perhaps, her views are merely a product of her education.  Her arguments have evolved from a very Western way of thinking and I'm a little bit weary of the idea that she might be used by (Western) free-market economists, to pursue sinister right-wing solutions to the situation Africa finds itself in today.  I guess what I'm saying is that it would be much harder for a white, Western economist to put forward the solutions that Moyo does - in our very liberal way, we might accept her right to do this, as a leading African economist and a black woman, whereas her arguments should be analysed for what they are, without reference to the colour of her skin. 


Moyo's book is peppered with statistics, most of them incredibly alarming and the bottom line is that despite the estimated $300 billion that has been given to African nations since the 1970's, the reality of life in Africa is that it has gone from bad to worse during that period and levels of poverty in most countries is much higher than it was 40 years ago!  Moyo believes that, not only has aid to Africa not worked, it's made things much worse.  There is definitely a lot of logic in the argument that Africa has become aid-dependent and the whole continent is like one big welfare state.  I also share Moyo's belief that aid has discouraged entrepreneurship and stifled economic growth, led to an increase in despotism and made little difference to the lives of the average African. 

Different types of Aid

Moyo divides aid into three categories:

Charity aid - ie. non-governmental donations from ordinary people - the type of aid most of us will be familiar with.

Disaster relief - eg. charitable donations given to Haiti or South East Asia, after the tsunami. 

Systematic aid - ie. direct cash transfers from a Western government to one or more African governments.

Moyo's main focus is systematic aid and I was really surprised to learn that this makes up the majority of aid that is given to African nations.  She does criticise the other two forms of aid as well and I was really upset to learn about the Bush administration's President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief which pledged $15 billion to Aids/HIV relief over a five year period (2003-2008), but with the proviso that at least 1/3 of this went to organisations that promoted 'abstinence' and that none of this went to clinics that advised women on abortion.  It's absolutely outrageous that aid could be qualified in this way and I can't believe the blatant moral colonialism of the PEPFAR programme! 

Also, the whole Haiti thing makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable - I read a book about eight years ago that opened my eyes to the desperate situation that Haiti is in, so I've been very aware of the issues Haiti is faced with and the lack of interest or concern that the West had shown about Haiti prior to the horrible earthquake earlier this year.  All of a sudden, concern about Haiti became very fashionable and I know people mean well, but this sudden concern really bugged me and seemed incredibly superficial.  Almost a year later and the world has moved on and the challenges that Haiti faces are more serious than ever. 

The origins of Aid

Moyo gives a very concise overview of the origins of Aid in a Europe devastated by the Second World War.  She talks about the significance of the Marshall Aid programme and how instrumental it was in ensuring that European nations got on their feet again and rebuilt their shattered economies.  Moyo makes some pertinent comparisons between the Marshall Aid programme and current Aid to Africa, namely that the Marshall Aid programme was timebound (5 years) and had a very tangible purpose (restructuring), whereas Aid to Africa has had no timeframe and been confused in its purpose.  She also highlights the fact that most government to government aid in the 70's and 80's was in the form of loans, with interest rates so that, by the 90's debt repayments ended up dwarfing grants in aid from the West.  Ironically, we now have the absurd situation where vast sums of money are flowing south to north and from the poorest nations to the richest ones. 

Live Aid and the work of Western celebrities

Moyo's book is called Dead Aid for a very important reason and, although she acknowledges the well-meaning involvement of Western popstars and celebrities in African affairs, she slates their contribution as ignorant and damaging.  Of course, she's incredibly aware of the fact that Africa has an image problem which can only ever scare away potential investors and she feels that the interference of Western celebs in the Aid debate only highlights the unattractiveness of Africa as a place to invest money and reinforces the negative perceptions westerners have, which over-simplifies the economic reality faced by the continent.  She also believes that they don't really know what they're talking about and I share her concerns that people in the West are more willing to listen to someone like Bob Geldof or Bono, than listen to the opinions of African economist like Moyo. 

Again, I grew up in the 80's and remember the Live Aid concerts and all the charity-work in relation to the famine in Ethiopia.  Ireland in the 80's was hardly the richest country in the world and, I guess, it felt strangely reassuring to know that there were people out there that were worse off than yourself.  Often the poorest people in western societies are the ones who will give most and, rather than be cynical about it, I would like to think that there was a genuine empathy in Ireland during the 1980's, where people understood that we were suffering as a nation, but that there was still enough money around to ensure that others weren't going to starve to death, especially at Christmas time!  It's no coincidence that both Geldof and Bono are Irish and I think there's something deep in our mentality that makes us feel strongly about aid-giving, especially famine relief.  I'm sure there are direct parallels to the Great Famine that wiped out 2 million Irish people in the 1840's and sent another 2 million overseas in search of a better life. 

Democracy and economic growth

There is no doubt that stable democracies are more likely to experience economic growth and Moyo also deals with Africa's colonial past, the Berlin conference that randomly threw competing tribes into European-style nations and how decades of ethnic rivalry, civil wars and (in the extreme case of Rwanda) genocide have only made things much worse.  When most African nations were gaining independence in the 1960's, Nigeria, with its rich oil deposits, was heralded as a future African success story.  Whilst Nigeria is still in a strong position economically, its history is one that is typical of the failures of African nationhood - in many ways, civil war or inter-tribal wrangling is one of the biggest obstacles that an African nation faces. 

Quite controversially (from a Western perspective) Moyo states that democracy isn't always the best thing for an African nation and that democracy, especially in nations that have precarious ethnic divisions, can slow down economic growth and led to a lack of clear decision making.  I think I understand what she means and, unlike some of her critics, I don't believe she was espousing benign dictatorship as a political model, but that she recognised the need for stronger political leadership in African nations.  Moyo also believes that a functioning democracy is an ideal partner for economic growth, as politicians will be held accountable to the public who vote them into office.  The reality for a lot of African nations, of course, is far removed from the democratic 'ideal' that exists in the West. 

Western dependency on aid-giving

Moyo also points out that an estimated 500 million Western jobs are tied up in the aid 'industry', including the very existence of institutions like the World Bank.  There is a strong argument that the West has become dependent on the idea of giving aid to Africa and I guess it's undeniable that anyone who works for the World Bank, or even an aid-giving charity, will automatically refute Moyo's arguments, because it's in their best interests to do so.  Whilst I was reading her arguments around this, I had some even more sinister thoughts that Western governments are somehow using aid to get rid of excess cash from our taxes, to keep a low baseline of earnings in western countries and maintain the rich/poor divide that keeps the whole capitalist wheel spinning in perpetuity.  I'm weary of right-wing arguments on the subject, but you do have to wonder, during this time of austerity and cutbacks to important social services, especially here in the UK, why the development aid budget has been so strongly protected by our current government. 

Moyo's proposals for African economic growth

Importantly, Moyo's book isn't just about the failure of aid in Africa.  She has also come up with a plan to stimulate economic growth in African nations, which is divided into four main strands:

1. International bonds  I'm not an economist, but I did manage to get my head around the concept of International bonds and how a country can raise capital against its very existence.  Moyo promotes the raising of international bonds as a good alternative to Aid, as it is time-bound and has conditions that are meant to ensure that the capital is used wisely.  Moyo's argument is that when aid is given again and again to African nations, with no end in sight, then it's more likely to be spent foolishly by the nation's elite (eg on shopping trips to Paris!), as they have no real motivation to invest in the country's infrastructure, or improve the conditions of their poorer compatriots.  Moyo's critics have said that she is overly-optimistic in putting this forward as a solution to Africa's economic woes and, indeed, since her book was published last year, the international bonds market seems to have fallen through somewhat and the global economy is even more mistrustful of Africa's ability to fulfill its commitment to such bonds.  Only three African nations have ever issued bonds - South Africa, Ghana and Gabon. 

2. Direct investment.  I agree with Moyo that direct investment is a win-win situation for African nations and the nations that choose to invest in Africa.  With around 1 billion people, Africa has a large chunk of the world's population and (potentially) the world's consumers.  Geographically, Africa is at the centre of the world, much closer to European markets than countries in Asia or the Americas, but Africa lacks the infrastructure that is necessary to compete in a global economy.  Rapid transport, hi-speed internet and an educated workforce are the things that will drag the African economy into the 21st century global market. 

Moyo gives an interesting analysis of China's ongoing investment in African infrastructure and I think she's right to be optimistic about Chinese interests in the African economy and how this can have a much more positive impact on the lives of African people, than 40 years of Western aid-giving has had.  I think it's quite easy for people in the West to turn their noses up at Chinese investment (in Africa and elsewhere) and fall back on our practised mantras of Chinese self-interest and lack of commitment to human rights, but the reality is that whilst the 21st century global economy is being driven forward by countries like China and India, Europe and the West is in danger of being left far behind.  Moyo points out that any investment in Africa over the past ten years has reaped impressive returns and I share her optimism that the African economy isn't doomed to an endless cycle of corruption and economic stagnation.  The future for Africa could be very bright indeed!

3. Free trade - I touched on this before, when I was blogging about Lesotho, but what Africa needs much more than billions of dollars in handouts is the chance to sell its products in western markets on an equal footing with local producers.  I'm a great believer in European unity, but economic measures such as the Common Agricultural Policy are crippling Africa's future which, like it or not, will have an effect on Europe's political and economic stability.  It's hard to understand the world we live in, where an average European cow is subsidised to the tune of $2.50 per day, whereas most Africans live on less than a dollar a day!  Which are more important, cows or people? 

In fairness, she also apportions part of the blame on African countries themselves, that are perpetuating outdated colonial bureaucracy around import and export duties and trade between African nations.  In a bid to make a quick buck, African governments are shooting themselves in the foot.  Moyo quotes an interesting statistic to illustrate this, in that it's cheaper to ship a car from Japan to Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire ($1500), than from Abidjan to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia ($5000).  African nations need a common market just as much as European nations do. 

4.  Microfinancing - One of the most interesting of Moyo's solutions is the growing industry of microfinancing.  Again, not being an economist, I'm still trying to get my head around this, but I guess it's a bit like a credit union.  Rather than rely on world-famous banks, who are nervous about investing in small African businesses and don't wish to deal with small sums of money, which is less profitable to a big corporation, Moyo suggests the development of microfinancing corporations, that raise money from donors in the west, or even from Western governments, then lend this locally, enabling African entrepreneurs to get a foot on the ladder of industry.  It's an interesting concept and Moyo cites several examples from around the world, notably the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and points to the success of this type of financing.

Ironically, one of the outcomes of reading Moyo's book is that I've started seriously looking into the idea of financing an entrepreneur, in Africa or somewhere else.  There is an online microfinancing website called that, despite criticisms about the interest the local microbanks charge, does seem to work surprisingly well.  The idea is that someone in the west can lend $25 to a small community bank in the developing world, they will lend this to a local entrepreneur who will (hopefully) pay this back and then you can get your money back or, as most people will do, reinvest in another entreprise.  I think it's important not to be naive about initiatives like and I still have reservations about how this money is used and whether or not the 'real' person at the other end is being exploited.  Still, it's better to be an optimist than a cynic! 

The impact of Dead Aid

Love it or hate it, I think Moyo's book is an important one and one that you should read, if you're interested in aid-giving and the future of Africa.  I'm going to remain optimistic and share Moyo's view that things can and will change for Africa.  Whilst her suggestion of cutting off all aid to Africa within 5 years might be a bit extreme, I think she has verbalised concerns that a lot of people in the west have been too distracted to take seriously.  She has also convinced me that this endless flow of aid to Africa isn't going to solve Africa's problems and I hope that other African economists and community leaders can take some inspiration from Moyo's words and find a solution that will make the world a better place for the majority of Africa's 1 billion-strong population. 

Image credits:

The photo of the Dead Aid bookcover was taken by me - I read the Penguin edition published in 2010 (Dead Aid was originally published in 2009 by Allen Lane)

The image of the Live Aid ticket is by flickuser Chim Chim, a.k.a. Mark Couvillion, who is a web designer and photographer from Austin, Texas.  You can see more of Mark's photos at

The image of the Chinese man in Ghana was taken by flickruser oneVillage Initiative which is all about Holistic ICT for Ecoliving - you can find out more at their website

Thanks to Chim Chim and oneVillage Initiative for sharing their images with the world using the Creative Commons license. 

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Togo - Venus, Lucifer and the Philosopher's Stone

Togo's main industry is phosphate mining and this small African nation is the world's fifth largest producer of phosphate rock.  Not having studied science beyond the basics at school, I decided to do a little bit of research into phosphorus and what that is exactly, in layman's terms!

A German alchemist taking the piss?

Phosphorus was discovered, or rather, identified in the late 17th century by a German alchemist called Hennig Brand (a very apt name indeed).  Brand had been trying to trying to discover the elusive 'philosopher's stone' - something of an obsession with alchemists at that time, as it was believed the philosopher's stone could turn ordinary metals into gold, thereby making its discoverer a very rich man indeed.  It was also believed that the philosopher's stone would give its owner the powers of a god and raise him beyond the capabilities of mere mortals. 

I guess Brand was working on the theory that each man has elements of god inside him, as he experimented with his own urine, boiling it, making it into a paste, leaving it in jars for days, to see what might happen to the essence and salts that urine contains.  I imagine he was quite surprised one night to find that the results of his experiment had left a sediment that glowed on contact with the atmosphere.  For a while, he may even have believed that he'd finally found the philosopher's stone but, as it turned out, he'd identified phosphorus, a potential goldmine, if he'd only known what to do with it!

So what is phosphorus and what do we use it for?

I've read the scientific definition of phosphorus and I'm none the wiser!  As far as I understand it, it's some kind of inorganic substance that can be found in rocks.  It comes in different forms, but the main two forms are white and red.  White is incredibly reactive to the atmosphere (it's the form Brand 'discovered') and isn't usually found in the open air, hence the need for phosphate mining.  It's used in the production of fertilisers and incendiary bombs, but most famously it was used in matches, as it ignites on contact with certain surfaces.  We've all seen phosphorus believe it or not, as it's that sort of bluey-white glow that you get from matches when you strike them. 

And why do I have phosphorus in my urine?

For some reason I've yet to really get my head around, the human body seems to contain traces of almost every metal and element that exists.  Thus, we naturally have a miniscule amount of phosphorus already in our bodies, mostly in our teeth and bones.  The phosphorus that Brand identified was from urine, however and, apart from the phosphorus that naturally occurs in our bodies, we are also constantly ingesting small levels of phosphorus, which is in the food we eat, getting rid of this again when we go to the toilet. 


The word phosphorus comes from the Greek for 'light bearer', which is also the Greek name for the planet Venus, which appears in the first light of the morning.  In Latin, light bearer is translated as Lucifer, which I guess most of us usually associate with the Devil and this sent me off on a spiral of thought about how the Devil has had bad press and perhaps he was originally a kind of Prometheus, ie. the one who brought knowledge (or fire) to mankind, therefore helping us become like the gods. 

Again, there are interesting parallels with Brand's desire to find the philosopher's stone and this knowledge that only the gods should have.  To this day, in countries like the Netherlands, safety matches are still referred to as Lucifers.  By the way, there are different spellings for the noun and adjective - the noun being phosphorus and the adjective being phosphorous with a third 'o' at the end.

Matchmaking, phillumenists and the Scandinavian connection

I realise this sub-title is probably going to crop up in Google searches of a different kind!  If you've ever looked closely at the head of a match, you will have noticed the sort of patches of chemical that is a combination of gum arabica, ground glass and phosphorus.  In the early days of matchmaking, white phosphorus was used, but this was incredibly dangerous, as it's reaction on striking could sometime result in mini-explosions, not to mention the damage that exposure to white phosphorus does to the human body. 

In the early days, match-sellers would suffer from a terrible disease called phossy jaw, which was a build up of phosphorus in the jawbone, due to exposure to white phosphorus.  Left untreated, this level of phosphorus would eventually lead to organ failure and death.  It was such a serious problem in 19th-century England that the matchgirls of East London went on strike in 1888 because of the hazards of their working conditions.

White phosphorus was eventually replaced by red phosphorus in match production, which was less reactive to the atmosphere and less harmful to the people who were handling matches.  This new type of match became known as the safety match and eventually most countries in the world banned the use of white phosphorus for match production. 

Interestingly, just as people who collect stamps are known as philatelists, people who collect matchboxes are know as phillumenists

For some reason the Swedes have dominated the world of safety matches and the Swedish match company is, to this day, the main player in global match production.  It was a Dane however (Hans Christian Anderson) who popularised the plight of The Little Match Girl in his phenomenally popular short story. 

Phosphorus and the Togolese economy

In many ways the fate of Togo's economy has been closely connected to the world market for phosphorus and phosphate rock.  The main company that mined phosphorus in Togo during the colonial and post-colonial periods was the Companie Togolaise de Mines de Benin.  This was famously nationalised by Eyadema, who suspected the company's involvement in his plane crash in Sarakawa in 1974. 

Phosphorus prices soared in the mid-70's, so that Togo should have really come out the other end a much richer country, but bad management meant that when prices crashed again at the end of the 1970's, Togo was left as poor as it had ever been.  Demand for phosphorus also plummeted in the mid-1990's, sending Togo's economy into a recession.  After Eyadema's demise in 2005, the phosphate industry was once again privatised and the company was renamed Société Nouvelle des Phosphates du Togo.  Phosphate mining continues to play a large role in Togo's industrial output. 

Image credits:

The painting is by the 18th century English painter, Joseph Wright and is called The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher's Stone.  The original painting hangs in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery in England.  This image is in the public domain and (therefore) copyright free. 

The photograph of the matchbox with matches was taken by me.

The amazing image of the Phosphate mine in Togo is from Wikimedia Commons and was uploaded by a wiki enthusiast called Alexandra Pugachevsky.  Thanks Alexandra for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons License.  You can see the source of the image at Wikimedia Commons