Putin Must Pay

Putin Must Pay demonstration - Dancin' in the StreetPutin Must Pay. According to the latest assessment from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 1,438,000 internally displaced persons in Ukraine. They have fled their homes in Crimea and in Donbas, from the occupation army of the Russian Federation. Putin invaded Ukraine 15 months ago, and he has not made any sign of paying to repair the damage, or to alleviate the suffering of human beings he has caused. Far from it, he has made it worse by illegally annexing Crimea, despoiling Donbas, and prosecuting hybrid warfare against Ukraine using auxiliary troops led by special operations forces of the Russian army.

Putin Must Pay demonstration - Ukrainian dancersA group from Toronto came up by bus to demand “Putin Must Pay” in front of the Russian embassy in Ottawa. August 24 is the Day of Independence of Ukraine, so it was a celebration as well. Mostly it was a celebration of the tolerance, respect, and peace that we in democratic societies like Canada and Ukraine enjoy, and which the unfortunate people in Russia and in its conquered territories do not.

International Women’s Day

AmaryllisHappy International Women’s Day! In Canada, this day is barely noticed, except by the dwindling number of effective feminist organizations, who quite correctly chastise government and industry for women earning lower wages than men for work of equal value. In the Soviet Union and in its successor state, Russia, March 8 was and is a day to condescend to women … to “put them in their place” with over-dramatic and insincere praise. But in Ukraine, International Women’s Day has evolved into a day of respect, a day of human dignity. To those who mark this day as a day of human dignity, I say Happy International Women’s Day.

Sham Referendum In Crimea — Why not Ottawa, too?

Mock Referendum at Russian EmbassyToday, March 16, a sham referendum is being conducted in Crimea by the de facto Russian authorities. This vote is not what we in the West know as a choice referendum, but it is a Soviet-style affirmation referendum. The people under the gun in Crimea are being asked to vote “YES” to annexation to Russia or “YES” to independence for Crimea which would lead immediately to the declaration of Crimea as a “subject” of Russia. There is no possibility to vote for the legal status quo, which is to remain an autonomous and peaceful part of Ukraine.

To mock the sick parody of democracy that is being put on show in Crimea today, there was a demonstration and some street theatre in front of the Russian embassy in Ottawa. Here you see us being asked to vote “YES” or “YES” to Mother Russia. As you can see, it was under the watchful eyes of a mysterious fellow wearing a balaclava and unmarked military gear. Don’t worry — he was only there for our “protection”.

CTV News sent a reporter to our mock referendum, and their six o’clock news item contains a short interview with me. Our local demonstration starts at the 4:44 mark of this video: CTV Ottawa News at Six, March 16

This is one of my ballot papers and the 500 “Putin bucks” I was paid for voting. I say one of my ballot papers, as I voted three times. “Vote, and vote often” is a maxim of corrupt democracies the world over. One protester loudly exclaimed as he voted the required “YES”: “I died three months ago, but I rose from the grave so I could vote for Russia!” We had a good laugh, but that kind of falsification is precisely what occurs in these Soviet-style affirmation exercises.Mock Referendum at Russian Embassy

More seriously, I am deeply worried for the Ukrainian and Tatar minorities in Crimea, and for the ethnic Russians and Russian speakers who are decent people and who don’t need Putin’s “protection” from anything. The illegal referendum in Crimea is a pretext for continued aggression by Russia against Ukraine. The world is united against Putin’s great folly, and the people of Crimea and of Ukraine must be defended.

Russia and Mongolia pictures

Michael on horseback in MongoliaThere I am, a Canadian cowboy, with my trusty Koolah hat[10] — tall in the saddle and ready to conquer the steppes of central Asia. Robin took this picture of me riding a Mongolian horse in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, east of Ulaan Baatar.
I have done up an album of photographs from the Russia / Mongolia trip. Follow this link to pictures of Russia and Mongolia and let me know what you think.

Thank you, Mrs. Kuzmenko

Peter the Great StatueOn a hot summer’s day in Moscow, my brother Robin and I were rescued by the kindness of Galya’s mother, Nadezhda Stepanovna Kuzmenko.  Moscow is not a pedestrian-friendly city, and it is not welcoming at all to independent travellers who do not speak Russian.  After much texting to arrange an “approxi-meeting”, we were picked up by Mrs. Kuzmenko outside the Tretyakov Gallery, and escorted to a restaurant to enjoy a business-lunch — which was transliterated just like that into Russian (бизнес-ланч), which I thought was funny.  In Moscow they call for taxis using mobile phones, which is great for the locals but leaves tourists out in the cold.  Mrs. K. got us a cab, though, and we were off to the Moskva River adjacent to the Hotel Ukraina to take a cruise as far as the Kremlin and back.

Although the cruise is meant to be a restaurant boat, it was a great way to get to know the city.  I took this photograph of the Peter the Great[9] statue as our river boat cruised leisurely by.  This statue was erected in 1997 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Russian Navy[8].

For some reason, Nadezhda Stepanovna thought I was “clever.”  I can’t think why, as my attempts to communicate were mostly a dumb show.  She didn’t know English, I don’t know Russian, and my struggles to express myself in my almost-completely-forgotten Ukrainian were comical, at best.  Robin would toss in some French (which can be helpful with some of the Russian nouns), and we got by OK for the afternoon.  With her open and generous spirit, we couldn’t have come across a better host for our welcome to Moscow.

Galya is very proud of her mother, and rightly so.  Nadezhda Stepanovna received a medal last year from the government of Kazakhstan for her achievements in the energy sector.  She worked for 30 years in the electricity network engineering institute, and was one of the few women on the management team.  Thank you, Mrs. Kuzmenko!

Michael at Lake Baikal

This is me at Lake Baikal on Friday, July 8th.  I threw on my GW Travel[7] robe and splashed some water in my hair to make it look like I had just gone swimming in the frigid waters of the lake.  Actually, I had — and I have witnesses!

Thanks to Katerina Borovikova for taking a great picture.  I suspect, though, that she was carrying the camera and taking photos to avoid going for a dip herself. 🙂

What a treat it was to have a private train that could just stop on the tracks, let us get out and muck about in the water for a bit, and then resume our journey when were were ready to get on with the day.  A trip to remember…

Into Mongolia

Mongolia flagCrossing the Russian frontier into Mongolia was not without a moment of theatre. We were to stop in the town of Naushki, just on the Russian side of the border. As we approached, there were cattle all along the track, and we could hear frantic whistling from the locomotive. Then we stopped suddenly, short of the Naushki station. You don’t need to guess what had happened — we had hit a cow, and in fact had run over it with the locomotive and first two carriages of the train before we came to a stop.

Robin and I saw the unfolding drama from both sides of our carriage. On the right side, the train crew and the engineer were assessing the damage to the bogie. They didn’t care about the cow, as that poor creature was now past being an object of care. Then a man rode up on a horse with a bridle but no saddle. I think it was his family’s cow. Attempts were made to dislodge the remains, but I was too squeamish to be a first-hand witness to that.

Sad as this scene was, a more comic one began to unfold on the left side of the train. A beat-up old Lada trundled along, driven by a young man with an older man in the passenger seat, and a boy sitting outside on the trunk of the car (until he bounced off of it). The older passenger I would guess to be the patriarch of the family, and he cradled a bottle of vodka in his lap. When he stepped out of the car, I would say that that bottle was not his first of the day. He stood silently, expressionless, looking under the railway carriage, clutching his bottle. Then the matriarch of the family came along, riding a bicyle of all things, and immediately set about doing the most practical thing under the circumstances; she had come prepared with a long wooden switch, and proceeded to shoo the remaining herd of cattle away from the train tracks (thus protecting her family’s remaining assets). This, to me, was an object lesson in why the best-run Russian families are matriarchies, and it was taught to me right outside the windows of a railway carriage.

We were informed at dinner that there was damage to some of the carriages, and the wheels were flat. I didn’t know that the steel wheels of a railway carriage could “get a flat,” but it makes sense. Luckily for us, Naushki has a substantial rail yard, and they were able to take the affected carriages away (including our own) and fit them with new wheels. We lost no time at all, as we were stopped in Naushki for Russian border control in any case. By 2 a.m. on July 10 we had cleared Mongolian customs and were rolling through the night towards Ulaan Baatar.


Old BelieverThis lady is from the village of Tarbagatay, near Ulan-Ude in the Buryat Republic of eastern Siberia. The people here are “Old Believers” who were exiled to Siberia by Peter the Great for their refusal to adopt the new rites of worship that were introduced into the Orthodox church at that time. We were treated to samples of their singing and other traditions, which go back to their time before exile in the less forbidding environs of Ukraine and Poland. The Old Believers are called “people of the family” by other Russians, partly as a reflection of the multiple-child families that used to be common among them.

Ulan-Ude is an unremarkable, smallish city, apart from an enormous statue of the head of Lenin which looms over Soviet Square. The idol of their (former) ruler really is the Big Giant Head, which made me think of the old American sitcom, “Third Rock From the Sun.” An absurd association, but absurd as well is keeping a memorial to a dead and disgraced revolutionary 20 years after the collapse of the state he brought into being.

Now we are aboard the train, making our way laboriously towards the Russia-Mongolia frontier, where excessive bureaucratic formalities await.

Lake Baikal

Lake BaikalLake Baikal is the world’s deepest and oldest lake. A staggering one-fifth of the non-frozen fresh water on the surface of the earth is here. I know it is very fresh from my own experience, as I started the day with a swim. The train stopped along our route, poised between mountain cliffs and the steeply dropping shore of the lake, and a few of us hearty souls braved the frigid waters. I was warned that the water temperature was a mere six degrees Celsius, and it turned out to be painfully cold. I foolishly dove right in, and tried to swim underwater for a bit, as I would back home. But after a few strokes my survival instincts kicked in, and I scrambled out of the water fast. A shot of vodka was waiting for me on dry land, and now I’ve earned bragging rights, so perhaps it wasn’t a completely crazy thing to do.

Today is a new holiday in Russia, St. Fevronia Day, a day for family love and friendship. Many newlywed couples were having their pictures taken in the outdoor architectural museum, a short way downstream on the Angara River from the lakeside village of Listvyanka, where we saw examples of traditional Siberian houses, chapels, schools and other buildings.

OmulThis fish is an omul, a species native to Lake Baikal. He’s very tasty, and I know that from the barbeque we had at the end of the day. The train crew set up grills at the end of the train on the platform at Port Baikal, and we feasted on shaslik and omul while watching the sun set on Lake Baikal at the inlet of the Angara River. It brought to mind the old song, “When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day.”[3]