Russian Easter preparations

40 days of fasting before Easter:

 

For 40 days before the great event, Eastern Christians observe the Great Lenten fast in which no meat, meat products, milk, eggs, alcohol or oil is consumed in meals.  This tradition which is marked by all the Orthodox churches worldwide calls believers to prayer and repentance and is a small illustration of the isolation and plain diet which Christ experienced in the wilderness during the 40 day period prior to his resurrection. 

Women cover their heads with a scarf before entering a church.

 

The fasting begins with Maslenitsa (Масленица): This is also known as Cheesefare Week, Butter Week, or Pancake week and combines both a religious and folk holiday. It is celebrated during the last week before Great Lent—that is, the seventh week before Pascha (Easter).

Maslenitsa signals the coming of the fast and celebrates with feasts of pancakes. Sometimes it is called “Cheesefare” week, the last week when cheese is okay for consumption.  The previous week was called “Meatfare” week for the same reasons.

During Maslenitsa week, meat is already forbidden to Orthodox Christians, making it a “myasopustnaya nedelya” (мясопустная неделя) “meat-empty week” or “meat-fast week”. During Lent, meat, fish, dairy products and eggs are forbidden. Furthermore, Lent also excludes parties, secular music, dancing and other distractions from the spiritual life.

Setting aside certain foods, parties and celebrations, (some couples choose to abstain from sex, or curtail frequency during the fast), etc, have to do with self discipline, a key Eastern principle almost completely unpracticed by Christians in the West. Western Christians are often surprised at the strictness of the routine but their Eastern brothers and sisters refuse to practice the kind of “cheap grace” faith so often found across the West.

This also helps baffled Westerners understand why a normally nonreligious person will join in the Pashka (Easter) fast 40 days before Easter and again in the Orthodox Nativity fast for 40 days before Christmas. Its part of the Eastern mindset that self discipline is good for the body, good for the soul, and good for mental health.

In countries such as Russia, Bulgaria, Belarus, Armenia, Greece and Ukraine, etc, the government changes it’s diet for the Easter fast. In Moscow the Kremlin kitchens are among the nation’s largest producers of Easter bread & cakes.  The Easter celebration is by far the most important in the Russian Orthodox Church. 

The Orthodox Lenten fast, which is entirely vegan (no meat or animal products),  is of sufficient popularity that most restaurants advertise “fasting” menu options during this time.

Descent of the Holy Spirit Church at Russia's main monastery of Saint Sergius, Sergiev Posad, Russia.

The week before Easter, Palm Sunday, is called “Pussywillow Sunday.”  The cold climate of Northern Europe and Eastern Asia doesn’t allow for too many palm trees, and traditionally pussywillows, which begin to bloom right around Easter, symbolized triumph and victory, just like palm trees did in ancient Palestine.  Leading up to Palm Sunday, you can buy pussywillows from small street vendor kiosks in just about any town.

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Russia’s view on the safety of nuclear power

(Moscow) The following is a statement from Dmitry Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation on the future of nuclear power:

The attention of the public around the world is focused on the events in Japan, where more than 25,000 people are dead or missing.

Russian rescue teams were involved in clearing the debris after the earthquake. They are returning home now. We have increased supplies of fuel and have delivered humanitarian supplies. Many ordinary Russians are ready to help the Japanese people: they are collecting humanitarian aid and have offered to host the individuals who have lost their homes. I think that is a normal human response.

At the same time we have been watching with apprehension the relief efforts following the earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima-1nuclear power plant. The events there have intensified the debate about the development of nuclear power industry worldwide. Various opinions are being expressed casting doubt on the safety of nuclear power. We know and remember everything that has happened, including another great tragedy that we will commemorate in April this year: Chernobyl.

On the other hand, we know that today nuclear power provides the most economic solution to generating electricity. It is also the safest way, provided that the relevant rules of design, construction and subsequent operation of a nuclear power plant are rigorously observed.

It is clear that these rules and standards should be the same for all countries. We must review the existing legislation, including domestic laws and the international legal framework. I believe that it can certainly be improved.

Additional requirements should probably be introduced, as well as restrictions for the construction of nuclear power plants in high-risk seismic zones. There must clearly be common international regulations, particularly where there is a risk of a devastating earthquake followed by a tsunami. The existing Russian rules and regulations on nuclear power prohibit the construction of nuclear power plants where there is a risk of maximum strength level earthquake, an 8.0-level earthquake. In Russia, this standard is already in place, and it should be adopted internationally because we all know what damage such a catastrophe can cause.

Such an earthquake never affects just one state. Unfortunately, it also poses varying degrees of danger to the neighbouring countries, and indeed for the entire planet.

There is another important point which has to do with the future development of nuclear energy. It is probably more expedient to build new nuclear power plants, with cutting edge safety mechanisms, than to extend the lifetime of old ones. Russian nuclear industry professionals, – and I have talked to them about this more than once, – are ready to take on the responsibility for building nuclear stations not only in Russia but also in those countries with which we have contracts for such construction projects. We have recently discussed the construction of nuclear power plants in Turkey with our Turkish partners. Akkuyu NPP will be built using a brand new control system designed for the entire life cycle of the nuclear facility. We will set up a joint venture responsible both for the construction and operation, and this is a fundamentally new approach and at the same time a guarantee of the NPP’s safe operation.

Kudankulam NPP in India is another Russian nuclear project that features a passive heat removal system, which will continue cooling the reactors even during a power cut such as in Japan and thus prevent a catastrophe.

That is a very progressive approach, and we believe that it is vitally important to maximise the level of safety at nuclear plants everywhere. As a recognised leader in NPP development, Russia believes that fast breeder reactors are very promising. These reactors already have their own passive or ‘inherent’ safety system. In addition, their use can dramatically reduce the accumulation of spent fuel, which, as you know, can also cause problems. It is not necessary to enrich uranium, which can greatly increase the access to the peaceful atom for many countries that seek it.

The Fukushima disaster makes us think about expanding the mandate of international organisations responsible for nuclear power safety. Moreover, it should have different powers, appropriate to every given situation that would make it possible for each such organisation to address the problems within its scope of responsibility. It is also necessary to observe the principles of openness and absolute transparency.

Russia is already conducting public inspections at its NPPs, checking their reliability and seismic stability, despite the fact that our country, as I have said, has the most stringent standards.

Public control is carried out by the media, non-governmental organisations and other public associations. Public information centres will be set up in cities that have nuclear facilities.

The level of radiation, now and in the future, must be measured automatically and constantly communicated to various information websites, including www.russianatom.ru, a special website dedicated to this issue. In my opinion, this practice should be officially recommended by the IAEA as an international authority for all NPP operators.

Most importantly, we must work to increase public confidence in the development of the nuclear industry worldwide. It has great potential. 

Editors note: Many countries have given essential assistance to Japan in the immediate aftermath of devastating earthquakes earlier this month. Russian personnel from the Centre for High-Risk Rescue Operations and the Emergency Situation Ministry’s Far East Regional Centre, along with rescuers from the Central Airborne Rescue Detachment and the Emergency Situations Ministry Department for Aviation and Air Rescue Technology have served in Japan following the crisis.

President Medvedev (left) and RusHydro CEO Yevgeny Dod (right) inspect the Sayano-Shushenskaya Hydroelectric Station in Russia's Khakassia region.

Diplomatic update: From April 3 to 8, Prince Philippe from the Kingdom of Belgium will be in Russia on a working visit as head of the Belgian economic and trade delegation.

2.2 million Russians reported missing!

Those 2.2 million missing Russians are missing from the census, that is. In bad news for a country working hard to reverse a population decline, the numbers from the 2010 Russian Federation census are out and the numbers don’t look look good for the largest geographical country on the face of the earth.

Russia has a lot of things going for it: The largest freshwater lake in the world (Lake Baikal holds more water than all the US “Great Lakes” put together), the country spans 11 times zones and possesses abundant natural resources including almost all the minerals in the periodic table (thanks to our namesake Dmitry Mendeleyev for that handy table!), boasts the 11th largest city in the world with Moscow’s bustling 15 million population, and is home to Mount Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe with no less than 7 active volcanos spread over it’s summit.

Final approach on the north side of Europe's tallent mountain, Mt Elbrus in Russia. Foto by: Александр Сорель

Cities like Moscow grew but the biggest population decrease was recorded in the far East with most of the loss accounted for ethnic Siberians migrating to China. The data is still preliminary but it seems that the census counted just under 143 million as compared to the 2002 census figure of 145 million, a loss of 1.6 percent. Government officials are likely to find a nugget of good news in that the rate of decrease is slowing from previous decades.

Moscow apparently isn't aware of a population decline, the city population rose to 15 million. (photo: Dolboeb Nossik)

Meanwhile, it is official: women outnumber men by millions in Russia. That is likely good news for International marriage agencies who like to tout that claim to male bride seekers, much to the chagrin of those who chafe over the population loss of young women who marry and most often leave for other countries.

The 2010 census cost the state nearly 17 billion rubles ($600 million) just in case anyone is counting (pun intended). Officials say that the continued decline was due to natural loss of population (more deaths than births) during the period measured.

There is helpful data from the US Dept of Census also on the Russian life expectancy rates: http://www.census.gov/ipc/prod/ib96-2.pdf

Middle East events create hectic days for Moscow

The past several days and weeks have been packed with activities starting with the visit of US Vice President Joseph Biden which began in Finland, continued to St Petersburg and Moscow before traveling on to Moldova. The VP’s visit marked the highest ranking American ever to travel to Moldova.

Biden’s Russia visit had been previously planned but the visit by Secretary Robert Gates was situational due to events in Libya. To clear the calendar for UN actions the previously scheduled meeting between President Medvedev and Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, was pushed forward several days and several other diplomatic meetings were either cancelled or rescheduled.

In a nutshell, all the frantic travel between the two capitals has been the result of a deal crafted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which the USA will modify certain aspects of the planned antimissile defenses in Europe in exchange for Russia’s permission (via the UN Security Council resolution) to coordinate a UN no-fly zone over Libya. Also, Russia will have the first position to go in and rebuild Libya when that help is needed.

Despite all the calendar jockeying, President’s Obama and Medvedev made time for a telephone conference regarding Libya today. But the most fun was the Deep Purple concert in Moscow on Tuesday night. Before the concert and just an hour after Secretary Gates had left the presidential residence, Deep Purple arrived at the Gorki compound for tea. The band was greeted by the sight of Medvedev’s old reel-to-reel tape player blaring their songs.

Mr Medvedev met yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday which had been prescheduled before the events of the last weeks. Because he would be meeting the Prince of Saudi Arabia today, the meeting with PM Netanyahu was conducted at the Russian presidential residence at Gorki and thereby accommodating the Saudi Prince at the Kremlin Senate Chamber the next day.

Prince Saud Al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia in Moscow with the Russian presidential administration.

His Royal Highness Prince Saud Al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia is the Saudi Foreign Minister and these days is often the public face of the ailing and elderly King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Russia had summoned the Prince to express the desire for close coordination of Saudi Arabia’s and Russia’s policies in the Middle East and North Africa in light of the major events taking place in these regions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Presidential Aide Sergei Prikhodko were present as the Prince provided details on the recent events that have led to the Saudi decision to send military units to the Kingdom of Bahrain. Most of those troops are a combined force from the Saudi military and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) joint armed forces. Prince Saud Al-Faisal explained that the decision was made in response to a request from Bahrain’s lawful government, and based on a collective security that binds the GCC members.

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Deep Purple rocks Moscow at Medvedev’s house!

Lets say that you were a rock music fan and you’d just ordered your country to abstain on an important Security Council vote that in effect allowed a military action to start against a client country and then followed that decision with a weighty meeting with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Were that you, you’d be tempted to want an evening off, right?

Perhaps a good rockin’ concert would be in order! That was just the ticket for the man who as a kid collected rock albums which by the way was an illegal activity in the Soviet Union back in the day. Who better to rock your world on a night off than the British legends known as Deep Purple! So, if you had the opportunity would you invite them over for dinner? You bet.

President Medvedev welcomed Deep Purple Lead singer Ian Gillan to the presidential residence in Gorki.

As a youth Medvedev was an avid Deep Purple fan of Deep Purple so it was no surprise that the rock group from the UK  met their top Russia fan for tea at his residence outside Moscow yesterday on the eve of their concert in the Russian capital.

Just hours after meeting with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, President Medvedev greeted Deep Purple to the presidential residence as their songs played on an old style reel tape recorder. To everyone’s obvious delight drummer Ian Paice gave his drum sticks to the president.

Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice presented Mr Medvedev with a set of drumsticks.

Medvedev’s love for Deep Purple, who pioneered heavy rock with songs such as “Smoke on the Water” and “Highway Star,” began when he was a 13-year-old schoolboy living on the outskirts of Leningrad. Prior to Medvedev’s election Deep Purple was flown to Moscow in February of 2008 as guests of honor at a concert in the Kremlin.

Members of Deep Purple with the President, Gorki presidential residence.

When I started listening to Deep Purple, I of course could not imagine that I would be sitting with you at this table,” Medvedev told the band. He also described Russian rock fans as among the “most devoted fans from the time of the Iron Curtain.”

For his part, Mr Medvedev drank tea with the rock idols while recalling how he listened to the band in his tiny flat in Saint Petersburg locked behind the iron curtain of the Soviet Union.

Deep Purple bandmembers pose for a presidential photo, Russian presidential residence.

As the guests arrived their songs were blaring at full volume from an old reel-to-reel tape player staged just for the occasion. The band applauded and lead vocalist Ian Gillan joked that he always thought presidents were old men. Mr Medvedev is 45.

As readers can see in the video below, the band played to a packed crowd at Moscow’s large indoor arena, Olimpiisky stadium. Built originally for the Olympics, the stadium holds up to 80,000 and hosts a variety of sports and music events.

Most “Kremlin watchers” in Washington don’t understand Russia

Whether in government, the press, or just the typical citizen, most American’s simply don’t understand Russia. That creates a great deal of frustration for those that might desire a clearer working relationship, especially in light of the important roles both countries play on the world stage.

Perhaps for this writer that fact came to a head with the trip of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates north to Saint Petersburg and then south to Moscow to meet with the leadership of Russia. Its really sad when nobody from Washington seems to have a clue. Obama? Sorry to disappoint you. Secretary of State Clinton? She gets an A for trying hard and that indeed is worth noting. One could even question whether she could be more effective if she was serving a professional administration with foreign relations know-how and experience, but thats not going to change in the near term.

The press, including those who supposedly are ‘Russian watchers?’ Hell no. Shoot, I like the term ‘Kremlin watchers’ as it conjures up images of some dedicated journalist staking out a spot on the roof of the nearby State Historical Museum or perhaps stradling the glass roof of the GUM department complex across Red Square while trying to see what is going on inside the Kremlin walls.

For starters, the self proclaimed title of “Kremlin Watcher” is sort of antiquated anyway–except for ceremonial events, the daily work done by the Russian government is conducted from the official Presidential Residence in Gorki, at a secluded enclave on the outskirts of Moscow and at the Russian “White House” on the Moscow River, where the Prime Minister conducts business.

Fresh speculation was added by the outburst by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin when he claimed that the coalition actions of the United Nations amounted to a “Crusade” against African countries. President Putin immediately labeled those comments as “unacceptable” and put distance between himself and the Prime Minister while reaffirming Russia’s possible role as a mediator.

Perhaps my comments in today’s edition of the National Review reflect this best: As someone who covers Russia on a consistent basis, one could be amazed that some might view this as being the first sign of discord between the two! Medvedev has sternly rebuked Putin publicly on several issues in recent months, including Putin’s comments on the Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev trial, on Putin’s comments regarding the rights of citizen’s to meet and protest, and he has called Putin to task for his comments on Echo Radio and Channel 4 TV regarding the upcoming presidential elections. In a previous instance he used the term of “immature” and in this instance he used “unacceptable.”

Medvedev has also gone public recently with a list of ideas which run counter to Mr Putin, including a return to direct elections of regional governors instead of by Kremlin appointment, as one example. Starting around the time of the crash of the plane that took the lives of Poland’s leadership, Medvedev has adopted use of very direct language when communicating with the Prime Minister’s office, employing more direct terms like “order” instead of the more polite communication of his first 2 years in the office.

Even the placement in Russia’s security cabinet and interior ministry meetings are also very different. In the early years each man would be at the head of a table, at opposite ends, with advisors present. Today, Mr Medvedev chairs those meetings and the Prime Minister is seated at the side along with other ministers.

Perhaps some of the so-called “Kremlin watchers” should open their eyes and see the obvious.

Now with that being said, this writer is through for today. It has been a long week.

Thank you for reading the Mendeleyev Journal.

Russian President hosts US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Medvedve, centre left and Gates, centre right. (photo: Presidential Press Service)

In a meeting at the official presidential residence in Gorki, the daily presidential working office of Russian Federation, President Dmitry Medvedev hosted United States Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in Moscow. While cordial, the meeting was candid with special emphasis from Mr Medvedev on Russia’s position on anti-missile defense systems in Europe and surrounding Russia’s borders. The two sides also held a productive discussion on the crisis in Libya.

In regards to Libya, Mr Medvedev gave his assessment and expressed concern over how the UN Security Council resolution on imposing a no-fly zone over Libya is being enforced, as well as the possibility of victims among the civilian population resulting from the indiscriminate use of air power. However Medvedev repeated Russia’s readiness to engage in a mediation role to help settle the Libyan conflict. That may of been one of the primary reasons for the US Secretary’s trip.

Included in the meeting were members of Russia’s Security administration led by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Medvedev’s trusted Presidential Aide Sergei Prikhodko. Traveling with Secretary Gates was American Assistant Secretary of Defense, Alexander Vershbow.