They’re 80 years old! August 2nd marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Russian military division known as the ВДВ, or Воздушно-десантные войска (V-D-V, Air Landing Forces). Often called “flying infantry,” the ВДВ rapid response military paratroopers were formed just 11 years prior to the outbreak of conflict in the Great Patriotic War (World War II).
The very first division ВДВ (V-D-V) unit was organized in 1931, in the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) military district, with an initial group of 164 soldiers commanded by E.D.Lukin. The current head of the VDV is General Vladimir Anatolevich Shamanov who was appointed to the position by the president of the Russian Federation on May, 24th 2009.
Celebrations are happening all over Russia. The city of Voronezh is celebrating the Unit’s 80 year anniversary with festivities this week to include unsealing the base of a monument in which an antique parachute had been deposited. The parachute, along with small items collected from every Republic of the (former) Soviet Union is now on display. In the northern coastal city of Murmansk, civilians can learn how modern day parachutes are made, folded and stacked.
In Ulyanovsk, ВДВ paratroopers will present an exhibition of arms and combat material along with parachute landing demonstrations. An elaborate parade is scheduled in the city of Tula.
Military gear and hardware has advanced for the paratroopers over the years but the familiar blue striped shirts remains part of a constant tradition for this proud division of Russia’s military.
Up to 1946 the ВДВ was part of the structure of the Air Forces but in 1991 the ВДВ was recognized as an independent arm of Russia’s military services. Since the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the number of VDV divisions has been reduced from seven to four.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has returned to Moscow after meeting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi Milan last week. Trade and economic cooperation was the main subject on the agenda, with discussions focused in particular on joint projects in high technology sectors.
Russia and Italy are working together on projects in nuclear and electric power industry, which are implemented together with Italy’s Enel company. Russian companies are also working with Italy’s Finmeccanica conglomerate companies on the medium-haul Superjet 100 project, assembling AgustaWestland helicopters in Russia, and modernising Russia’s railways.
International issues were also on the agenda at the talks, with the two leaders exchanging views on building a new European security architecture and Russia’s initiative to conclude a new pan-European security treaty, Russia’s relations with the European Union and NATO, the global financial crisis, energy security, the results of the G8 and G20 summits in Canada, the situation in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and Iran’s nuclear programme.
Mr Medvedev and Mr Berlusconi also touched on the subject of upgrading Russia-EU relations, in particular, the problems with introducing a visa-free regime.
Cultural cooperation was also an important discussion item at the talks. The two countries will organise cultural exchanges with the Year of Russian Language and Culture in Italy and the Year of Italian Language and Culture in Russia in 2011.
We could subtitle this as “What does a Russian President do when a powerful Prime Minister is also involved in day to day operations of the country?
Despite what you may read in newspapers and magazines, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin work very well together, but still, for such a good relationship they also spend a lot of time apart. Some will say it’s a puppet on a string relationship while others view it as a well coordinated division of labour with the occasional bump in the road.
Readers of the Mendeleyev Journal were treated to a timely photo-by-photo description of President’s Medvedev’s trip to the USA which began in San Francisco and continued in Washington (DC) before moving up to Canada for the G20 and G8 meetings. Coverage included the historic moments when President Medvedev set up his very first Twitter account, and his first Twitter message.
In his travels many are surprised to learn that he is very proficient in English. True, in official meetings and interviews he speaks Russian and uses an English translator (standard protocol), but the Russian President is quite fluent and handily uses English in “off the record” moments.
A good example of this was the “Hamburger Summit” in suburban Virginia when US President Obama hosted President Medvedev for a genuine American hamburger. Upon arrival in separate Secret Service cars, Mr Medvedev quickly realized that his suit jacket was unnecessary and he threw it in the back seat of the Mr Obama’s car. Then he asked “is it safe?” to which Mr Obama replied that it was safe and no one would steal it.
Ordering burgers at Ray’s Hell Burgers was interesting, too. Mr Medvedev asked that his burger be cooked “well done” and watched with real interest as Mr Obama paid the bill to the cashier. Mr Obama however changed Mr Medvedev’s order to “medium well” without asking, but Mr Medvedev seemed to trust his judgment.
One should never think that President Medvedev just travels around the world while Vladimir Putin really minds the store. That is just not accurate. President Medvedev is very interested in the country’s justice system (he’s a trained attorney and professor of Law) and last week the President signed executive orders granting pardons to several Russian citizens who had confessed to their crimes and served a substantial portion of their sentences before applying for clemency. (For those interested, the pardoned citizens were Igor Belikhov, Alexei Vankov, Gennady Vasilenko, Ivan Vinogradov, Anton Krivodanov, Alexander Zaporozhsky, Vitaliy Lomakin, Dmitry Malina, Sergei Selivanov, Sergei Skripal, Stanislav Subbotin, Igor Sutyagin.)
This past Thursday German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Russia for a series of town meetings known as the Russian-German intergovernmental consultations, an affiliation aimed at increasing German investment in Russian business interests.
While in Yekaterinburg they toured the famous Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land, built in 2000-2003 on the site where former Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family were executed following the Bolshevik Revolution.
The Russian president works on Saturdays, too. Being President of a world power is not an “hourly wage” job. There is always something to do and today, Saturday, Mr Medvedev submitted the candidacy of Rustem Khamitov for the post of President of the Republic of Bashkortostan to the National Assembly (Kurultai) of Bashkortostan, and he submitted the candidacy of Andrei Nelidov for the post of Governor of the Republic of Karelia to the Legislative Assembly of Karelia.
Frankly, these submissions are a formality. The local Assemblies will put on a show of consultation and voting, but these are appointments…not mere suggestions.
The Russian President faces an illegal immigration problem, too, just as in other parts of the world. The long touted “Customs Union” between several former Soviet republics and Russia has begun to be implemented and President Medvedev expressed concern over the demographic situation in the Far East, as well as the lack of special mechanisms in most Russian regions to attract highly qualified professionals.
President Medvedev is between a rock and a hard place as the new procedures go into effect in Russia’s Far East. He holds to the opinion that lack of more open immigration policies hinders the regions’ social and economic development. However, he also sees the the urgent need to stem the tide of illegal migration coming from China in the form of low skill illegal immigrants.
On a trip to Blagoveshchensk the President repeated that he wants professional immigrants, saying “we certainly need foreign specialists, primarily highly qualified professionals, and we need them in the Far East as much as in the central parts of the country because we should launch new production facilities here.”
The Far East of Russia presents some unique challenges in that the local population continues to decline at very disturbing rates. As of January 1, 2010, the Far Eastern Federal District had a population of 6.5 million people. In the first four months of this year, the population decline was 7,000 people, of which 5,000 were lost due to migration either somewhere else in Russia or out of the country altogether. The flood of illegal immigrants coming across the borders from China is a very big concern for the Kremlin.
Finally, he is like other Presidents in giving awards and building (restoring) relations with Russia’s neighbors. Last week he awarded the Order of Friendship to Andrejs Zagars, General Director of the Latvian National Opera, for his great contribution to strengthening Russian-Latvian cultural ties.
The President also awarded the Order of Honour to Raymonds Pauls, composer and member of Latvia’s Saeima (parliament), and the Order of Friendship to Arvids Barsevskis, rector of Daugavpils University. Mr Pauls and Mr Barsevskis were decorated for their great contribution to strengthening and developing Russian-Latvian cultural ties and popularizing the Russian language in Latvia.
Mr Pauls has been more than simply a music entertainer. During Soviet times he served as a member of the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR, and from 1988 to 1993 was the Latvian Minister of Culture. In 1993 he became an advisor to the President of Latvia.
Future travel: President Medvedev’s next scheduled foreign trip will be a working visit to Milan (Italy) next Friday, 23 July, at the invitation of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Had you been in an Orthodox Church this week you’d have learned that 18 July is the day of the feast of Saints Elizabeth and Saint Barbara. Saint Elizabeth and Saint Barbara were the most prominent of what are called the “Alapayevsk Martyrs.”
Alapayevsk (Алапаевск) is a small Russian town in the Sverdlovsk Oblast with a population just over 40,000 and located where the two rivers Neyva and Alapaikha meet. It is north of Yekaterinburg.
Given the gruesome history of the town, it was curious that Alapayevsk was the name of a Soviet missile ship which was stopped and inspected by US Naval forces during the 1960’s Cuban Missile Crisis.
Although many readers may recognize Alapayevsk as the boyhood home of famed Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, it was here that Grand Duchess Yelizaveta (Elizabeth) Fyodorovna (Елизаветы Фёдоровны) was murdered by the Bolsheviks on 18 July 1918.
The Bolsheviks were out for Romanov blood in 1918, and killed alongside Duchess Elizabeth were other Romanov family members, including the Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, Romanov Princes Ioann Konstantinovich, Konstantin Konstantinovich, Igor Konstantinovich and Vladimir Paley. Also murdered were the Grand Duke Sergei’s secretary, Fyodor Remez and Sister Varvara (Barbara) Yakovleva from the Grand Duchess Elizabeth’s convent in Moscow.
So, just who was Yelizaveta (Elizabeth) and why was she murdered?
Yelizaveta was the second child in the family of Grand count Guessen of the HesseDarmstadt grand-duchy in Germany, Louis IV and his wife the princess Alice, daughter of England’s Queen Victoria. Another daughter of this family, also named Alice, would later become the last Tsarina of Russia, Alexandra Fyodorovna, in the final years of the Romanov dynasty. The future Tsarina Alexandra was 12 years old when her older sister Yelizaveta (Elizabeth) was married at age 20.
Elizabeth became the wife of Romanov Grand Duke Serge Alexksandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II. Elizabeth was an artist, well as much as was allowed for the kind of life that was expected of a Grand Duchess.
She quickly grew to love Russia and embraced the Orthodox faith as would her sister the Empress. The Grand Duke was a deeply religious man who strictly observed the fasts, went to church frequently and visited monasteries. The Grand Duchess followed her husband everywhere and never sat down during the long church services even though members of royality were allowed the luxury of sitting. Privately she told friends that she experienced a wonderful feeling of mystery and grace, so different from what she had felt in her native Lutheran church.
She wrote her father asking his blessing on her decision to convert to Orthodoxy, something the Grand Duke had not made as a marriage precondition. Her father replied only as to the extent of such pain it caused him to hear of her decision. Nonetheless on 25 April of 1889, on the celebration of St. Lazarus, the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna received the sacred anointing and was baptized into the Orthodox faith.
On 4 February, 1905, when the Grand Duchess was leaving for an art workshop, she was startled by the sound of a nearby bomb explosion. Her husband served as the governor of Moscow and was assassinated in the Zamosvorechnye district on Bolshaya Ordynka Street. As she ran toward the sounds of stunned by-standers, she saw a soldier stretch his military overcoat over the maimed body of her husband. The princess, granddaughter of the Queen of England had become a widow.
Soon after the funeral Elizabeth began to live in the lifestyle of an Orthodox nun, a voluntary decision. She surprised both relatives and friends when she sold her palaces and took vows of poverty, moving to a small property she had acquired within the city of Moscow on which she constructed a hospital; an orphanage for girls; and quarters for the sisters. There was also a dining hall where 300 meals were served daily to the poor. In 1910 a separate church was built on the property dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God.
Selling her magnificent collection of jewels, including her wedding ring, she began to devote her life to the organization of this community dedicated to care for the poor. The cloister was called (Марфо-Мариинской обители) the convent of Saints Martha and Mary, intending it to be as the home of Lazarus visited so often by Jesus Christ. The members of the convent were invited to unite the role of Mary (listening to the words of Christ), and the service of Martha (as if they were taking care of Christ), since he was present in his brethren the poor.
The convent quickly developed, and the sisters’ also added an orphanage for chldren who had been deserted by their parents. A house for young women, workers, and students was organized to give inexpensive or rent-free lodging to them. In addition to the hospital there was a school for training Red Cross nurses, and during the war the sisters established makeshift battlefield hospitals for the badly wounded.
The Communists were not happy about her presence in Moscow, however and on the Orthodox “Bright Tuesday,” 13 March 1918, Elizabeth was arrested. As a member of the royal family the Communists feared the influence she had with common citizens and thus she was deemed to be a member of the White opposition and a threat to the Bolsheviks.
She was ordered to leave Moscow and join the Imperial Family in Ekaterinburg. She asked for two hours to make the necessary preparations for the long journey but was denied. She and two novice nuns, Sister Barbara and Sister Katherine, were escorted by Latvian Guards to the Urals.
She could have escaped Russia if she’d had earlier accepted an offer of assistance from a Cabinet Minister who traveled from Sweden to Moscow at the request of the German Emperor to take her out of the country. She acknowledged that he was right, that indeed horrible times lay ahead for Russia, but she wanted to share the fate of her adopted country and its people. Her decision became her death sentence.
Elizabeth and Barbara along with five other members of the Russian imperial family and a secretary were taken to a mine in Alapayevsk and were murdered by the Bolsheviks on 18 July 1918. Guards reported that the prisoners where thrown into the mine shaft and when Bolshevik soldiers heard several who had survived the fall singing special “Pasha” (Easter/Resurrection) songs, hand grenades were thrown down into the shaft. The singing was silenced and soldiers sealed the shaft.
Their bodies were later found by the Russian White Army and taken in coffins through Siberia, and then into Beijing, China to the Russian Embassy compound, which was not yet in Bolshevik control. They were laid to rest in the crypt of the St Seraphim Cemetery Church outside the northeastern city wall of Beijing in April 1920. The coffins with the holy bodies of Elizabeth and Barbara were exhumed and sent from Beijing to Shanghai in November. The coffins departed Shanghai in December by sea and arrived in Jerusalem on January 1921, for their final resting place in the crypt at the Church of St Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives.
The convent existed as a monastic community until 1926 when the Communists closed its doors. Beginning in 1944 the workshops of the Igor Grabar Russian Icon Restoration Centre were located in the old convent buildings.
The revival of the Martha and Mary Convent began in 1992, when the Moscow City government under Mayor Yuri Luzhkov turned over the site of the convent to the Orthodox Patriarchate. However, the keys to the main cathedral of the complex, dedicated to the Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God, were only turned over by the Grabar Centre at the end of 2006 after funding for restoration was obtained via a grant from Russian Railways.
Since 1921 the relics of the Holy Martyrs Yelizaveta and Varvara (Saints Elizabeth and Barbara) have been kept in the Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem but in 2007 fragments of their relics were returned to Russia.
In 2002, His Royal Highness Prince Charles commissioned British composer and convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, John Tavener, to write a choral piece in memory of his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The work was entitled, Elizabeth Full of Grace, and celebrates the life, death and glorification of Saint Elizabeth the Grand Duchess.
The following are excerpts from an article by Claire Berlinski in the Spring edition of the City Journal:
In the world’s collective consciousness, the word “Nazi” is synonymous with evil. It is widely understood that the Nazis’ ideology—nationalism, anti-Semitism, the autarkic ethnic state, the Führer principle—led directly to the furnaces of Auschwitz. It is not nearly as well understood that Communism led just as inexorably, everywhere on the globe where it was applied, to starvation, torture, and slave-labor camps. Nor is it widely acknowledged that Communism was responsible for the deaths of some 150 million human beings during the twentieth century. The world remains inexplicably indifferent and uncurious about the deadliest ideology in history.
For evidence of this indifference, consider the unread Soviet archives. Pavel Stroilov, a Russian exile in London, has on his computer 50,000 unpublished, untranslated, top-secret Kremlin documents, mostly dating from the close of the Cold War. He stole them in 2003 and fled Russia. Within living memory, they would have been worth millions to the CIA; they surely tell a story about Communism and its collapse that the world needs to know. Yet he can’t get anyone to house them in a reputable library, publish them, or fund their translation. In fact, he can’t get anyone to take much interest in them at all.
Then there’s Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who once spent 12 years in the USSR’s prisons, labor camps, and psikhushkas—political psychiatric hospitals—after being convicted of copying anti-Soviet literature. He, too, possesses a massive collection of stolen and smuggled papers from the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which, as he writes, “contain the beginnings and the ends of all the tragedies of our bloodstained century.”
These documents are available online at bukovsky-archives.net, but most are not translated. They are unorganized; there are no summaries; there is no search or index function. “I offer them free of charge to the most influential newspapers and journals in the world, but nobody wants to print them,” Bukovsky writes. “Editors shrug indifferently: So what? Who cares?”
The originals of most of Stroilov’s documents remain in the Kremlin archives, where, like most of the Soviet Union’s top-secret documents from the post-Stalin era, they remain classified. They include, Stroilov says, transcripts of nearly every conversation between Gorbachev and his foreign counterparts—hundreds of them, a near-complete diplomatic record of the era, available nowhere else. There are notes from the Politburo taken by Georgy Shakhnazarov, an aide of Gorbachev’s, and by Politburo member Vadim Medvedev.
When Gorbachev and his aides were ousted from the Kremlin, they took unauthorized copies of these documents with them. The documents were scanned and stored in the archives of the Gorbachev Foundation, one of the first independent think tanks in modern Russia, where a handful of friendly and vetted researchers were given limited access to them. Then, in 1999, the foundation opened a small part of the archive to independent researchers, including Stroilov. Slowly and secretly, Stroilov copied the archive and sent it to secure locations around the world.
When I first heard about Stroilov’s documents, I wondered if they were forgeries. But in 2006, having assessed the documents with the cooperation of prominent Soviet dissidents and Cold War spies, British judges concluded that Stroilov was credible and granted his asylum request. The Gorbachev Foundation itself has since acknowledged the documents’ authenticity.
Bukovsky’s story is similar. In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin’s government invited him to testify at the Constitutional Court of Russia in a case concerning the constitutionality of the Communist Party. The Russian State Archives granted Bukovsky access to its documents to prepare his testimony. Using a handheld scanner, he copied thousands of documents and smuggled them to the West.
The Russian state cannot sue Stroilov or Bukovsky for breach of copyright, since the material was created by the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, neither of which now exists. Had he remained in Russia, however, Stroilov believes that he could have been prosecuted for disclosure of state secrets or treason. The military historian Igor Sutyagin is now serving 15 years in a hard-labor camp for the crime of collecting newspaper clippings and other open-source materials and sending them to a British consulting firm. The danger that Stroilov and Bukovsky faced was real and grave; they both assumed, one imagines, that the world would take notice of what they had risked so much to acquire.
Stroilov claims that his documents “tell a completely new story about the end of the Cold War. The ‘commonly accepted’ version of history of that period consists of myths almost entirely. These documents are capable of ruining each of those myths.” Is this so? I couldn’t say. I don’t read Russian. Of Stroilov’s documents, I have seen only the few that have been translated into English. Certainly, they shouldn’t be taken at face value; they were, after all, written by Communists. But the possibility that Stroilov is right should surely compel keen curiosity.
The Black Sea area is very relaxing! Here is the Burgas/Bourgas (Бургас) region. First stop of course is the railway station.
Burgas is Bulgaria’s 4th largest city and the second most popular seaside resort region. With a current population around 210,000, it is large enough to have most conveniences yet small enough to enjoy without a big city feel.
Some favourite spots are in the smaller towns just north of Burgas. The Black Sea is beautiful in summer and in addition to the Black Sea, there are several large inland lakes around the Burgas region.
The entire area is an important industrial, transport, cultural and tourist centre. Burgas has the largest and most important Bulgarian port.
It seems like using the Internet in some parts of Eastern Europe is like sending data in short, and very slow, bursts. That means going to an “Internet Cafe” and it is small, often crowded and the connections are slow.
Given the arrests in the USA of a Russian spy cell perhaps I shouldn’t be writing about short data bursts, but living life on the safe side of the street is pretty boring. We’ll cover that story more fully soon.
So we’ll pick some imaginary questions our faithful readers might ask and provide some answers about life on the train ride from Moscow to the Black Sea.
Q: Is it best to stay in a resort?
There are some nice ones here, but its better to stay in an apartment near the beach.
Q: Is is less expensive to travel by train instead of via airplane?
Not that much less expensive, however there is so much to see and experience via train travel that is simply passed over in flight.
Q: How long is the trip?
The first leg is from Moscow’s famous Kievskaya train station, train #59 which travels to Bucharest in Romania. That is a almost 2 days, with stops along the way in Kyiv (Kiev, Ukraine), and Vicsani and Suceava as well.
The next leg is on a connecting train to Bulgaria, headed to Varna and then our destination just outside Bourgas. The most major stop is Sofia, the fascinating capital of Bulgaria.
Q: Sometimes the city/region is spelled as Bourgas and other times as simply Burgas. Which is correct?
That is a hard question because both transliterations come from the Cyrillic name, Бургас which letter-for-letter is B-u-r-g-a-s.
Translations are never letter-for-letter perfect. The Cyrillic letter у is not a pure “u” but more of a “ou” while the letter Ю carries more of the pure “Yu” sound. That the Cyrillic spelling uses the letter у (ou) might lend weight to the Bourgas spelling is a factor, but considering that highly respected language experts are divided on the question, we just go with whatever seems “cool” at the moment.
What can a traveler do to pass the time on a train?
Good question! The train can be very relaxing. Talk, sleep, play chess, take photographs, play checkers, read, and sleep some more are immediate top of mind suggestions. The scenery is incredible and ever-changing. The places and things you see, and the people you meet, represent a life never experienced on an airplane.
Q: There are photos of some train food, but not the sleeping accommodations. Why not?
Well, there are several different kinds of trains from which to choose. Express trains are not necessarily for sleeping but do have wide and comfortable seating which reclines to a degree. Electric trains usually travel just within a region. Then the “normal” passenger train, and there is so much variety that “normal” is hard to define, usually has first class, second class and coach arrangements.
Choose coach if you need constant interaction with strangers.
However in “coach” there is absolutely no privacy. A first class berth is a better option for family travel.
What are train toilets like?
Just like the wagon accommodations, standards of comfort and modernization vary widely from region to region and country to country.
Toilets generally empty directly onto the tracks below so for sanitary reasons the trains lock the toilets when approaching a city. You need to time your needs carefully because if the doors are locked and it’s still a half hour before the next stop–you are in trouble.
Q: Considering that Moscow is the biggest city in Europe and seeing the type of cramped accommodations from trains to smaller apartments and smaller cars, can one ever get to experience any sense of privacy at all?
The concept of privacy from West to the Eastern world is very different. Most Westerners don’t realize that although Russia is the largest country in the world (1/6 of the earth’s surface) covering almost 49% of the European continent and over 51% of Asia, Eastern Europe really is oriented to the EAST in culture and world-view.
The ideas that constitute “privacy” are often foreign to each of our cultures. Family and community are of highest importance here, and that is completely opposite of the god of Western individualism. The term Soviet which means “committee” or group in Russia was a part of this culture long before communism came along and molded the term for political use.
Family members, extended family, often travel together. This is perfectly typical in this culture, not because mother-in-laws tag along everywhere as a 3rd wheel, but because a small family unit is it’s own version of “privacy” when compared to the millions of people living in Moscow.
Sometimes a different way of thinking just takes some getting used too.