I picked-up a copy of the Moscow Times during a recent visit to the city of that same name. The former USSR is a fascinating place, and where I have travelled extensively and have many friends there, extending from the edge of western Europe to the other side of Kazakhstan. For so many years we feared "The Russians", in the cause of the cold war and all other complexities that prevailed upon us in the aftermath of World War 2, summarised well by George Orwell (real name Eric Blair - no relation to Tony as far as I know?) in his satirical novel "1984" which rather than being a prognosis or prophetic anticipation of future events, was a parody of 1948, with its references to rationing and other such events that we might well anticipate again, especially in regards to fuel and indeed food if we don't begin to support our indigenous farming industry.
The Moscow Times tells that the strength of the Rouble is likely to create antagonism over trade. When I first visited Russia under communist times, the official exchange rate was one rouble for the pound, although I was taken aside by a pleasant young man who offered me ten times the official bank rate. He offered me other distractions too, but I have no persuasions in this direction, and am used to being offered money and sex in travelling throughout eastern Europe and Russia. It is a simple matter of trade, of course, but caveat emptor!
In the Sochi, Krasnodar Region, Russian Railways have endorsed a project for refurbishment of their transport system in collaboration with Austria, Slovakia and Ukraine at a cost of $4.3 billion with the formal intention of accelerating trade connections between Asia and Europe. What does strike me is the immense task that President Dmitry Medvedev (successor to President Putin) has in coordinating the vast region of distance and culture that is the former USSR. When I first visited Armenia, my host, Professor Hrant Yeritsyan from the Yerevan Physics Institute took me to the Sergey Parajanov museum (Parajanov was born in Georgia but adopted and became adopted by Armenia, and fell into a 5 year jail term on charges of homosexuality and subversion, which I do not know the veracity of, although it is widely commented that these were "trumped-up"). He was most famous as a film-director and deprived of artistic materials while serving his time, he made puppets from pieces of abandoned fabric. He died of lung-cancer aged just 65, but I often feel that like James Dean and Marilyn Munroe he probably lasted long enough to do what he was planned for on this earth.
I mention Parajanov in part because I admire his artistic skill and integrity but also that Professor Yeritsyan said to me at the Parajanov Museum, "Chris, sit here, because President Putin sat here", indeed along with other leaders of related nations including Georgia, which has since has a bust-up with Russia over reasons that I can't quite understand. My Russian friends tell me that it's all rather complicated, but politics usually is, isn't it?; anyway I can claim to fame that I sat at the same table and in the same chair as Vladimir Putin, who seems to be quite well respected among the former soviets of my affectionate acquaintance.
In a mirror of the West, there is also an article in the Moscow Times to the effect that of the 300 workers employed at a gear-cutting machine plant in the Saratov Region, only 17 are working exclusively on the jobs they were hired for... this reminds me very much of the situation in British Universities, where you end up doubling as secretary, porter, and all else while raising cash to pay the salaries of administrators... it is in large measure the reason why I left the university system formally anyway, and set up my own business. My novel University Shambles is a light-hearted glimpse of how bad things can get in any corporate organisation when things go badly awry, and that includes universities. That said, from what I gather, the Russian university system maintains its high standards, while ours in Britain anyway, has descended into the proverbial.
About time the government addressed the matter of professors with no published work etc. rather than continuing the pretence that we are a far better educated nation. We could take a lesson or two from the Russians, who actually care about these things whereas our political system, and its knock-on effects, is run by lawyers and people from public ("private" in US nomenclature) school with degrees in really useful subjects like "classics" from Oxbridge and having destroyed our industrial base we have to put the kids somewhere, and call it a "university" whether that accolade is justified or probably not.
 The Moscow Times, May 29 - 31, 209 Weekend.
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