On birthdays and Downton Abbey

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Letters from Moscow

On birthdays and Downton Abbey

Lucy Logan Green begins her blog from Russia with Moscow’s birthday, Russian nationalism, and German cheese

Moscow’s 867th birthday fell on my first weekend in the city. The день города – literally ‘the day of the town’ – was a two-day festival of parades, fireworks and general merriment on September 6 and 7. As a westerner, the nationalism that fuels days of public celebration in Russia was a source of concern. My host family actually warned me not to go see the fireworks in Red Square on Saturday night. They said it was possible some rowdy men would hear me speaking English and, in a burst of patriotic spirit, decide to prey upon a foreigner. If I wasn’t worried before that conversation, I was after.

But, the next day, I found myself asking why. The only things I actually witnessed – from watching the parades go past and seeing pictures online – were people dressed in what can only be described as ‘Abba-esque costumes’ atop huge, brightly coloured floats and stringent policing of the street during the events. There were no tanks driving down Tverskaya – the main street in Moscow – and no other visible displays of military force. Yet, I still worried about being an English-speaker on a national holiday in Moscow. Sure there were weird dances by mini sailors, and there were people dressed up in military garb (whether fake or real, I really have no idea), but no one was at all hostile. In fact, they seemed interested, and even pleased, that a foreigner had come out to celebrate Moscow’s birthday with them.

As much as we do not want to be blamed for what David Cameron does, the Russian people do not deserve to be blamed for Vladimir Putin.

Talking to people in Moscow – and in particular young people – what strikes me most is how disengaged with politics they are. If I dare to bring up Ukraine in conversation, my new Russian friends don’t cringe or worry about what to say to me, they simply say that they don’t really know what’s going on. They always refer to it as a ‘war’, but between who seems unclear, as they certainly do not consider Russia itself an aggressive party in the conflict.

Their ignorance of the facts is certainly symptomatic of what gets reported in Russian newspapers and on Russian television. But, isn’t that the same everywhere? When we turn on BBC News and see Russian troops performing military exercises on the Ukrainian border, or when we read in the Guardian that they are illegally infringing upon sovereign Ukrainian territory, we’re falling victim to the same bias. It’s just from the other side.

All of this entrenches the stereotypes that mire our perceptions of the Russian people. As much as we do not want to be blamed for what David Cameron does, the Russian people do not deserve to be blamed for Vladimir Putin.

Putin will remain defiant in defending Russia’s position until there is not one foreign good left on the supermarket shelves.

See the economic sanctions that have been imposed upon Russia by the west. There has been no significant impact upon those who’ve made the decisions causing the sanctions. Nonetheless, in Moscow, the only complaint I have registered is from a friend who is annoyed by the absence of her favourite German cheese in the supermarket. When I asked her if there was any shop she knew that may still stock it she said: “No, but I bet Putin has some”. She didn’t say this with malice, merely resignation. She doesn’t realise that the sanctions are supposed to be moving Putin into a weaker position. She continues to believe – as do I – that he will remain defiant in defending Russia’s position until there is not one foreign good left on the supermarket shelves.

The supposedly dangerous nationalism that stopped me from seeing the fireworks on my first weekend has been put into perspective recently. I was asked by one of the girls whom I live with when the next season of Downton Abbey was going to air in Britain. The popularity of Downton Abbey – and western television series, in general – should have stopped me from worrying too much about a normal Russian’s view of the west.

While the leaders of this country may be exercising their atrophied Cold War muscles, the people are pretty determined to be as cool and up-to-date with Western culture as they can. Any patriotic rhetoric that we perceive abroad therefore appears to be only for our eyes, and not the eyes of the people who it should in fact be influencing. I feel pretty confident that I could have seen some great fireworks without anything to worry about – apart from the fact that I’m an English girl without the faintest idea of when the next series of Downton begins…

Featured image credit: Wikipedia user Meghas

On birthdays and Downton Abbey Reviewed by on October 14, 2014 .

Lucy Logan Green begins her blog from Russia with Moscow’s birthday, Russian nationalism, and German cheese

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