Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Royal Academy of Arts, From Russia Exhibit

The exhibit that almost wasn't.

The Royal Academy of Arts exhibit titled From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870–1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg opened last weekend and runs through April 18th. Demand for tickets has been very high, and many of the planned events are already sold out. Despite the recent controveries between the UK and Russian Federation, the unprecedented exhibit opened with few complications, and has outstanding reviews, as it brings together some of the great paintings of the late 19th and early 20th century. From the RA website:
This landmark exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts presents modern masterpieces drawn from Russia’s principal collections: the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Hermitage Museum and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. For the first time, works from these museums have been gathered for a single exhibition.

Over 120 paintings by Russian and French artists working between 1870 and 1925 will be displayed together in an exhibition which surveys the main directions of modern art from Realism and Impressionism to Non-Objective painting. Works will include paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse together with those by Kandinsky, Tatlin and Malevich.
The exhibit will also included various events, including evening lectures, lunch-time lectures, and workshops. There is even a contest to win a FREE trip for two to St. Petersburg (open to residents of UK and Northern Ireland only - I checked). Entries for the contest are accepted until April 18th and the winners will be contacted on April 21st.

For those of you unaware of some of the complications with making the exhibit possible, the Russian government wanted assurances that the paintings would not be siezed and possibly returned to heirs of the former owners. Many of the paintings had been in the private collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov prior to the Russian Revolution. However, as explained in the Time's Online article by Mark Stephens:
The Russian Government took no good title to the pictures, leaving the legitimate owners, and now their heirs, every right to claim what should have been theirs. That right to have stolen cultural property returned is embodied in our domestic law as well as being a modern cultural and civilised norm that has crystallised into international law.

Perversely, Russian law prevents reclamation of looted art in government hands. This means that the only opportunity to recover stolen artworks is when they travel abroad — hence the controversy about whether the works would actually be sent for exhibition.

The Russians could have lawfully “nationalised” the cultural objects taken during the revolution. The difference between the thieving State and the legitimate compulsory purchase is not a fine one. The State must pay compensation to anyone from whom it takes assets — a bit like the compulsory purchase powers exercised by local authorities. The absence of compensation makes the acquisitions by Russia illegal.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

From the Mail-Order Bride Files - Russian Universal Wife

I thought this was a bit amusing, thought I would pass it along to the masses.

Universal Wife by ICQ. Made in Russia. Cooks. Washes Laundry. Dishwasher.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Lenin at the South Pole

Michael Field of Fairfax Media in Australia/New Zealand has the story of a group of scientists traversing Antarctica that were surprised to discover a Soviet artifact left behind at the most remote location on the most remote continent - A large plastic bust of Lenin.
In the middle of no-where – literally the point on Antarctica furthest from the sea – an imposing bust of revolutionary Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin peers out onto the polar emptiness.

The Inaccessibility Pole marks the point on Antarctica that is furthest from the ocean. At 3,718 metres above sea-level it is in the Australian zone and seldom visited.

The (Norwegian-US) Scientific Traverse this week made it to the Inaccessibility Pole for New Year's Day and found a one time Soviet Union base buried under the ice. The group's website says Soviet scientists first visited the Pole in December 1958 and built a small cabin there. After several weeks they left, putting the bust of Lenin on top of the chimney facing Moscow.

"Today the bust is clearly visible from many kilometres away, and remains as they left it on the chimney, although the cabin itself is buried under the snow," the explorers say.

The current expedition plans to leave something more substantial in the form of an automatic weather station. They will also drill a 90 metre ice core.

One of the drillers, Lou Albershardt, told an US website that they took six weeks to reach the pole, noticing Lenin from a long way out.

They all speculated on what the bust might have been made out of; marble or concrete.
“You wouldn’t believe it. He’s plastic.”

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Nigerian Energy Security, Russian-Style

It appears that Gazprom truly have it in their hearts and minds to be more than just the Russian national natural gas company, and to strengthen their own "energy security" as much as possible with every year. According to the Financial Times (and via the Associated Press) Gazprom is making an all-out effort to secure Nigerian gas deposits.
Russia's state-owned gas giant Gazprom is reportedly eyeing a "mindboggling" stake in Nigeria's energy reserves in a bid to trump US, Chinese and Indian interests.

In a dispatch from Abuja and Moscow, the Financial Times quoted a senior Nigerian oil industry official as saying Gazprom was offering to invest in energy infrastructure in return for access to the country's vast gas deposits.

"What Gazprom is proposing is mind-boggling," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"They're talking tough and saying the west has taken advantage of us in the last 50 years and they're offering a better deal... they are ready to beat the Chinese, the Indians and the Americans."
Actually, what they are apparently intent upon is to secure all available sources of imported natural gas for Europe, which is far more reliant upon natural gas imports than the United States (at least at this time.)

On the heels of Putin's infamous New Years gambit of 2006, where natural gas to Ukraine (and by extension, Europe) was shut off with much television drama, Europe had decided to not be quite so heavily reliant upon Russian natural gas. Their imports of Russian gas have fallen a few percentage points each year and alternative sources have been weighed and sought out, where available.

Since that time, access to and transport of central Asian gas via pipelines has initially fallen in Russia's (meaning Gazprom's) favor, with new agreements with Kazakhstan to build new pipelines across Russian territory and the Caspian Sea.

And now we are seeing a Russian gover ... I mean Gazprom strategy to secure Nigerian gas resources as well. Yes, it is hard to see where the Russian government ends and Gazprom begins, even more so with Gazprom Chairman of the Board Medvedev the likely successor to the Russian presidency.

In many ways, this Nigerian move makes sense for Gazprom/Russia's long-term energy and business strategy. Most estimate that at current high levels of production, Russian petroleum will be largely gone in 10 to 20 years. However, their natural gas resources are immense and securing all possible alternative sources of natural gas could certainly place Gazprom in a long-term position of setting the market for generations.

And that is apparently what Vladimir Putin meant by Энергетическая безопасность (energy security).

Secure all the energy you can and sell only to the highest bidder.

Post-Script: Sean Guillory hit this topic hard as well. Lionel Beehner of the Huffington Post and his recent "Why Russia Matters Less Than We Think" column now has the unfortunate distinction of providing bad analysis at the most inopportune time. Yeah, Nigeria is more important than Russia. Who could end up owning who?

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Pauper or Oligarch - The Strange Case of Putin's Wealth

As Putin seeks to move from the role of President to Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, we've witnessed a possible inside look into the financial windfall he may have amassed during his time as President.

According to the Central Election Committee, President Putin declares the following assets:

  • 77.7 square meter apartment in St. Petersburg
  • 150 square meter land parcel in the Moscow region
  • 2 Volgas registered in his name (1960 and 1965 vintage)
  • 230 Shares of St. Petersburg Bank Stock
  • R3,700,300 ($151,409) in total savings (3 bank accounts)
  • R2,011,611 2006 annual earnings of ($82,311)
    It was widely reported at the time of a European Union summit in October that this declared income and assets would make Vladimir Putin among the poorest of the developed world's leaders. There was also some casual debate among bloggers and commentators that this didn't include assets in his wife's name, which may be substantial.

    Since that time, we have been treated to the declarations of Stanislav Belkovsky, supposed Russian analyst, and his assessment that Vladimir Putin is worth over $40 billion and among the richest men in the world.

    Belkovsky lists as Putin assets, owned secretly through various other parties and nefarious private means:

    • 37% of Surgutneftegaz (estimated worth of $18 billion)
    • 4.5% of Gazprom (estimated worth of $13 billion)
    • over 50% of Gunvor (estimated worth of $10 billion)
    Small wonder that he can afford all those expensive tailored suits.

    Today via Forum.MSK and Johnson's Russia List, we are treated to the long-winded and rambling observations of Julia Latynina, who sees the scandal of these two disparate assessments of Putin's wealth growing.
      It is amazing that Belkovskiy already said this a couple of weeks or three weeks ago, and everything was somehow kept quiet in the beginning, but now the scandal keeps spreading and spreading and spreading."

      "I can tell you from my own experience, that a colossal number of correspondents from Western publications started calling me just in the last week to ask me what I think of this."

      Belkovskiy stated "that Putin controls 37 percent of the stock in Surgutneftegaz, 4.5 percent of the Gazprom stock, and 75 percent of the stock in the Gunvor company," the writer went on to say. "I should remind you that the Gunvor company, with capitalization estimated at $15-20 billion, now sells a huge amount of Russian oil, including the oil belonging to Yuganskneftegaz.

      "I should also remind you that Khodorkovskiy was once accused of minimizing his taxes by selling oil from a company he owned through offshore firms also owned by him. This was called a crime.

      "Obviously, if you calculate the price at which the Rosneft state company must have been selling oil to the non-state Gunvor offshore company for it to amass capitalization of $15-20 billion -- and I have never heard that any of Khodorkovskiy's offshore firms had capitalization approaching this figure -- you have to wonder: If what Khodorkovskiy was doing, moving money from one of his own pockets into another of his pockets, is a crime, then what would you call what people are doing when they move money from the state's pocket, namely the Rosneft company, to a private pocket, namely the Gunvor company?

      "Gennadiy Timchenko is believed to own 50 percent of the stock in the Gunvor company. This elderly man has been in the oil business for a long time and has been a close friend of President Putin for a long time. In view of how many points Putin lost in the international arena because of the YuKOS affair, we have to conclude either that Putin is an extremely bighearted man, giving presents of this type to his friends, or that these friends are just the front men for someone else.

      "Going back to Belkovskiy's statements, I certainly cannot imagine how he could prove them, and I seriously doubt that anyone ever will be able to prove that the figure of $40 billion is correct. In general, Vladimir Vladimirovich is a cautious man, and we saw, for example, that when the transfer of the controlling interest in AO (Joint-Stock Company) Rossiya to another president became inevitable, President Putin did not go against the Constitution and he did make General Director Dmitriy Anatolyevich Medvedev the titular owner of AO Rossiya.

      "I think it would also be impossible to prove that Putin is the actual beneficiary of the Gunvor company or any other company, just as it would be impossible to prove that Putin is the actual beneficiary of AO Rossiya, whose titular owner will be President Dmitriy Anatolyevich Medvedev. It is difficult to believe that after being so excessively scrupulous in the constitutional matter, Putin would be less scrupulous in matters connected with property rights.

      "And there is something else, or actually two things, that should be borne in mind. The first is that Putin, as I already said, apparently is an extremely generous man if he gives presents like these to his friends even though they create foreign policy problems for him. The second is that the issue of property ownership was not raised just before 2008 by accident, because it plays an extremely important role in politics, after all: When President Putin was deciding what he should do after 2008, whether he should go or stay, or when the Kremlin was deciding this, the following consideration must have been taken into account.

      "If he had stayed on after 2008, there was a chance that the regime would have been illegitimate because it would have violated the Constitution, and the West does not like this, so it might have taken an interest in the Gunvor company at the very least. If he had not stayed -- i.e., if he had left -- another problem would have come up, because the people who are the official owners of various companies and who amassed considerable wealth during the Putin years, might say: 'Yes, we are the real owners, no one helped us, and we are not serving as a front for anyone else,' and there would be no way of proving the opposite.
      Latynina goes on from there for a while, spinning sort of dark theories about how the US had to know about Putin's ill-gotten gains. Sure. Like we knew about WMDs.

      No matter how you slice it, something doesn't match up with Putin's lifestyle and is declared wealth. There was some speculation a couple of years ago that with so many lesser mortals accumulating vast sums in the private sector, that Putin may seek to leave office for a high-paying role in Gazprom or heading some other lucrative gas or oil project (such as Nord Stream AG).

      Putin once said, "Надо исполнять закон всегда, а не только тогда, когда схватили за одно место" ("You must obey the law, always, not only when they grab you by your special place"). Some Russians have taken a small measure of pride in judging their President as being a tough and, in their perception, honest man. He was bringing the oligarchs to heel, after all and making them pay for their thefts from the Russian people. Could it be that Putin is the biggest thief of all?

      We are left wondering what will happen when that inevitable day comes when Putin is no longer in power and the law potentially grabs him by his special place. It would certainly prove an incentive to retain political power in Russia at the highest level possible, for the greatest length of time available.

      We are also left wondering about how these clues and details have been planted in the news media, along with other small revealed scandals such as velvet re-privatization.

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      Thursday, December 27, 2007

      Bishkek Press Club Annual Awards

      The Bishkek Press Club is holding their annual awards ceremony on January 4, 2008. Among the award-winners is photojournalist/blogger Elena Skochilo, who will receive an award for "Most Interesting Perspective" for her photojournalism work in 2007.

      Congratulations to Elena for her award and here's hoping for more achievements in 2008!

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      Wednesday, December 19, 2007

      Putin Announced as Time Magazine's "Man of the Year"

      Perhaps not-so-surprising announcement regarding Time Magazine naming Vladimir Putin as their "Man of the Year" for 2007. Reuters has the story of one of the more negative sounding pronouncements of "Man of the Year" in recent memory.
      Russian President Vladimir Putin was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year" for 2007 on Wednesday for bringing his country "roaring back to the table of world power."

      "He's not a good guy, but he's done extraordinary things," said Time managing editor Richard Stengel, who announced Putin's selection on NBC's "Today Show."

      "He's a new tsar of Russia and he's dangerous in the sense that he doesn't care about civil liberties; he doesn't care about free speech; he cares about stability. But stability is what Russia needed and that's why Russians adore him."
      Not a good guy? What, like he beats up old ladies and kicks dogs? I find the statement that he "doesn't care about civil liberties" a bit odd also - I think Putin's perspective is likely quite different, more of a first-things first approach. As much as our press would like to hand-wring about it, I think most Russians aren't feeling their civil liberties being squashed any more than Americans do.

      Personally, these aren't the items or policies for which I would first criticize Putin. Then again, I also think that he gets too much credit for an economic recovery that actually started at the end of Boris Yeltsin's time.

      There is always something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. Putin deserves the most credit for simply having clear ideas on asserting Russia's influence on the international stage, now that the nation has resurgent economic prowess.

      To commemerate the occasion, I'm sharing the following Putin cut-out figure. Now you too can have a little Putin, Man of the Year, watching over your desk!

      When completed, the figure will look like this:

      Variations on the theme can be found here.

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