13 February 2011

Some Fun at Domodedovo

I saw Ed Force One parked at the Domodedovo airport in Moscow yesterday.

Ed Force One is Iron Maiden's tour airplane, piloted by the band's singer, Bruce Dickinson.  Mr. Dickinson is a commercial airline pilot while not busy with rockstar duties.

The "Ed" in "Ed Force One" refers, to Eddy, the band's mascot for the longest time.

Eddy Piggybacking Ed Force One

Iron Maiden was one of 1980s more successful heavy metal acts with inspiring album titles like "Killers" and "Dance of Death."  Ed Force One is an aging (and discontinued) Boeing 757 - a befitting airframe for quinquagenerian rockstars, way past their prime.

Perils of Passage, Part V

I am a frequent traveler.  Living in Moscow and traveling abroad frequently, I use Moscow's largest airport, Domodedovo, for most of trips.

Having been the subject of a terrorist attack on 24 January 2011, Demodedovo airport has implemented new "security" measures.  Whereas before passengers used to whisk through the airport to their airline counter, where they conglomerated with a small crowd hoping to check in and hand over their luggage, passengers are now forced to conglomerate in large groups in an attempt to X-ray their belongings before they can enter the airport.  

There were 200-300 individuals at my X-ray check point hoping to make their entry.  Of course, like me, all of those passengers had just came off of the roads where their luggage was in their full control.  In other words, thanks to the new "security" measures, it is now even simpler for a terrorist madman to attack the airport merely by getting out of his car, taking his suitcase bomb, merging with a large crowd at the airport entrance, and detonating the bomb.  And, instead of killing only 36 people, this time, the terrorist can score into the hundreds easily.

"Security:" A Bigger, Easier Target

This is the new "security."  Balderdash!

To add insult to injury, United Airlines's computerized security system determined that, somehow, my three-year-old daughter who was traveling me, was a "security threat."  This determination instigated a new "security procedure," which comprised of getting the bags X-rayed by going through the same X-ray point again and then having the carry-one luggage hand-inspected. 

This is completely surreal.  A three-year-old girl is considered a security risk.  To "improve" security, they put her belongings exactly through the same process that somehow did not make her safe the first time around - and obviously failed the second time because manual intervention was needed.  

Welcome to a more "secure" airport.  Incredible.

12 February 2011

Kremlin's K Street

K Street is a major Washington, D. C., street.  K Street is famous, or perhaps infamous, because it is recognized as national center for lobbyists and advocacy groups of various sorts, all of whom try to influence elections or national policies.

Moscow, being a large capital city like Washington, has its own version of influence peddlers.  The most expedient way to influence government in Russia is through hiring professional bribers.  Like American lobbyists, Russian professional bribers are generally ex-government employees who understand the political power structure and have a vast network of personal contacts.  The combination of these factors allows both the American lobbyist and the Russian professional briber to grease the wheels for motion in the right direction.

Lobbyist At Work, Washington Style

Of course, there are differences between the American and Russian variants of wheel greasing.  The American version typically entails directly or indirectly swaying public opinion to determent election outcomes.  The direct method is helping fund the (ever more expensive) election campaigns of various candidates.  The candidate then determines how to best use that money during the campaign cycle so that he can win.  The indirect method is through publishing papers, funding research (that generally has a known, desired outcome), or writing op-ed pieces in well-circulated newspapers.

Lobbyist At Work, Moscow Style

The Russian variant is rather efficient.  As his job title implies, the professional briber greases wheels by greasing palms.  The money goes directly in the pocket of he who has decision making power.  Of course, results are not guaranteed, but due to the efficiency of the Russian method, one can influencing public officials with more certainty than in the US.

Some readers may be reaching a conclusion that I am implicitly stating above; namely, the political systems of Russia and America are basically the same (I have heard this claim multiple times).  In fact, they are not.

While there clearly is room for corruption in the US, existing American laws impose a level of transparency that is not known in any appreciable degree in Russia.  This transparency forces better behavior by American special interest groups - many of whom would likely resort to the Russian efficient method if they had the chance.

Transparency Makes for Better Behavior

Influencing policy and governmental action is a essential part of the democratic process.  Gaming the system is fundamental to the character of the rational human being.  The trick to good behavior is the right rules for playing, and enforcement thereof.  Without these rules and their enforcement, all of us - whether we are Russians, Nigerians, or Americans  - are subject to nothing more than being human with all of its flaws.

05 February 2011

Arrested Thinking

Not long after the bombing, I received an American email saying:
With the bombing in Moscow I heard it was a Chechen suicide bomber ... Russia is in a precarious position. Under the Soviet Union so much was incorporated into Russia by force. Now many want their "freedom." ... Russia has a lot of problems with the countries that were part if the iron curtain. Russia has a lot of problems with people who did not and do not want to be "russified" due to "russification."
Within 24 hours of getting this email, a Russian stated something along the following lines to me:
Chechens are a special nationality.  They are aggressive by nature and know no other way.  You can easily distinguish them by their hair, skin, and clothing style.  The only way Chechens make money is through kidnapping, murder, and extortion.  Russian troops have fought, are fighting, and will continue to fight with Chechens because this is just who they are.
Both of these statements come from highly-educated, multi-lingual people with degrees from excellent universities.  They both have significant world-travel mileage under their feet.  And they both express simplistic narratives that provide an easy explanation to a difficult situation.  In other words, both are subscribing to stereotypes.  And as stereotypes go, they have a veneer of truth that lends credibility to the mountain of fiction they cover.

I am not an expert in Russian Caucasian affairs and will not attempt to provide any version of truth here, but I want to point out a few things about the American and Russian versions of the stereotype.

An American Perspective:
This Hammer Crushes Souls Behind the Iron Curtain

The American version of the narrative that explains the recent Moscow bombing works with Americans because, for more than a generation, America was locked into an existential conflict with the Soviet Union.  Russia, being the backbone, heart, soul, and brains of USSR, had a special place in the American psyche.  Russia was seen as an aggressive nation that subjugated other countries behind the Iron Curtain and crushed the individual's soul and initiative where it could for the sake of the communist collective.

The current American narrative of Russia's internal conflicts, as reflected in news and opinion pieces from most US news outlets, is an extension of the same narrative that applied to the USSR.  Russians are the same aggressive, oppressive bunch and the recent terrorist acts are "cries for freedom" from a subjugated people somewhere within Russia's borders.  This narrative represents a familiar model that is easy to understand.

While there are multiple problems with this narrative, it will just suffice to point out that Americans view another analogous situation closer to home completely differently.  That analogous situation is Quebec's ambitions for independence from Canada.  Americans view this situation with puzzlement and suspicion, and another example of those troublemaking French francophones.  So much for "cries fo freedom."

A Russian Perspective
All Chechens Are Murderous Kidnapping Thieves Like This Guy

Sadly, the Russian version of the narrative - in this case pointed at Chechens - is far more destructive, partially because it is self-fulfilling.  This narrative serves to somehow dehumanize Chechens and justify the harshest actions against a people because, according to the narrative, there is nothing worth redeeming in a Chechen's soul.  And s long as this narrative and others like it exist, the statement of "Russian troops ... will continue to fight with Chechens" shall remain true.

Pure Fiction
Like Other Russian Stereotypical Images of Chechens

Making a case for enlightened self-interest, and I believe that self-interest being trying to preserve the Russian state and stopping the killings of Russian citizens everywhere (including Moscow and Grozny) at the hands of Chechens or ethnic Russians, it seems like a good idea to get beyond the stereotype and form a deeper understand of peoples inside Russia from all ethnic backgrounds.  While a deeper understanding of other peoples does not guarantee an end to all conflicts, it will go a long way to destroy self-fulfilling caricatures of other people who seem to ask for nothing but war and abuse and only give that in return.

03 February 2011

Citizen's Arrest

I am experiencing a new phenomenon in Moscow post the most recent bombing:  Random citizens are stopping me on the streets to ask where I am from.  After I answer them, these activist citizens become satisfied, smile, and tell me that I am OK.

Bouncers have also started to block me from entering some restaurants that I frequent, but I get a pass once the management gets involved.

My wife says that my street attire, a dark sports winter coat with black gloves and a tight-fitting skullcap, make me look like a hoodlum, hence explaining the recent stops.  I have pointed out to her that, by her standards, I have been dressing like a hoodlum for the length of our marriage, including the last year in Moscow.  The point is that the citizen's arrest activity is a new phenomenon in Moscow; but this phenomenon will soon pass once life regresses back to normal once again.

After the 29 March 2010 Moscow subway bombing, I was stopped three times.  All three occasions were by the "militia," or the federal police force, and always at the metro's entrance.  Those questionings also stopped as life regressed back to "normal."