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Week of July 8, 2003

Program 0327


Russian Oil | Transcript | MP3

Moscow Driving | Transcript | MP3

Russian Beer | Transcript | MP3

Russian Electric Orchestra | Transcript | MP3

Fall of Kursk | Transcript | MP3

Be Like Putin Remix | Transcript | MP3

Bering Strait | Transcript | MP3

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

ROBERT EBEL: The future is defined by reserves in the ground. And where are these reserves? Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and I would add, Russia.

KEITH PORTER: This week, the United States looks to a former enemy for oil as Common Ground turns the spotlight on Russia.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Russia is a land of extremes—from extreme weather conditions to extreme driving.

ALEXANDR NIKOLAYEV: [via a translator] There is no secret here. All the stunts they show in the movies are executed by our ‘first graders.’

MCHUGH: Plus, a strange musical relic from the Soviet Union’s history.

ARTEOM TROITSKY: Since the fall of Stalin’s regime the Soviet Union was a swinging country. And we did have a lot of fun. And we did dance the Twist in the beginning of the ’60s.

PORTER: Common Ground‘s special report on Russia—coming up next.

[Musical interlude]

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Russian Oil

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MCHUGH: Common Ground is radio’s weekly program on world affairs. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. This week Common Ground spotlights Russia. It may seem hard to believe America’s cold war foe could be a solution to US energy needs. The potential for Russia to serve as an optional source of crude oil has ramifications far beyond the basic economic realities of reliable supplies of cheap petroleum. But as Priscilla Huff first reported in April, Russian oil must come through both pipelines and politics.

[The sound of stripper wells pumping on the Siberian plains.]

PRISCILLA HUFF: Stripper wells on the Siberian steppes suck oil to the surface. The supply is significant, but getting the petroleum to market is not. Its a problem of geography—or is it? Red Cavaney, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, says Russia’s problem is distance.

RED CAVANEY: They are very interested in serving our market. The difficulty they have at the present moment is they are essentially landlocked with much of what they’ve got, so they need to develop pipelines and other sources.

HUFF: And that’s why the Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the CEO of Yukos, one of Russia’s largest oil companies, wants to convince Americans Russia has the potential to be a cheap and reliable source of oil.

MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY: [via a translator] You see that the biggest chunk of our total costs is the transportation component—and that’s even in the case when we transport the oil through a pipeline. Unfortunately, we don’t always do so today. So in order for us to deal with the problems of a pipeline system, we need to build at least two new pipelines—one to China and one to Murmansk.

HUFF: Khodorkovsky has a vested interest. His company, Yukos, has proven reserves of about 12 billion barrels of crude oil—about 20 percent of Russia’s total audited reserves of 55 billion, though some estimates double and even triple that amount. Robert Ebel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says that’s why Russia is part of tomorrow’s energy forecast.

ROBERT EBEL: The future is defined by reserves in the ground. And where are these reserves? Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and I would add, Russia.

HUFF: In comparison, 261 billion barrels of petroleum lie beneath the sands of Saudi Arabia, while neighboring Iran and Iraq average about half that. It’s this proximity of key Middle Eastern oil producers that prompts one member of the Senate Energy Committee to ask a complicated question. Republican Jim Bunning of Kentucky.

US REPRESENTATIVE JIM BUNNING: The United States is genuinely helping with pipelines and everything in Russia, to bring their crude oil to port, thus I hope eliminating the problems that we have in the Middle East, because of the instability in the Middle East. Do you all think that Russia can play a significant part in alleviating, not our demand so much for importing, because that would still be importing, but the instability of the Middle East?

HUFF: Robert Ebel of CSIS confirms the concern, politics is a greater worry than pipelines.

EBEL: Because oil has become a truly international commodity, the United States, as with other oil consuming countries of the world, stands vulnerable to any event , any where, any time, that would effect energy supply and demand.

HUFF: Khodorskovsky, the businessman, argues Russia has both a political role and economic.

KHODORKOVSKY: [via a translator] Here I think a Russia that enjoys respect in the Middle East will be a much more useful Russia for America than a Russia that has no respect in the Middle East. So as a result, Russia needs to understand what, what its economic advantages here are.

HUFF: Just about a decade after glasnost and perestroika ended the Cold War and just years after the Russian economy nearly imploded in a vacuum of no rules barred rampant capitalism, Russia’s top oil companies—Lukoil, Yukos, Sibneft and others—they’re now eager to expand, especially into the lucrative American market. British Petroleum finds Russian oil attractive enough to invest $6.75 billion to form the nation’s third largest energy firm. Lord John Brown of BP gave his stamp of approval to Russia’s oil prospects.

LORD JOHN BROWN: This decision to significantly increase our commitment to Russia demonstrates in the very clearest way possible BP’s growing confidence in the improving Russian business climate. It underlines our belief in Russia’s economy and the business transformation that is underway here. It also recognizes Russia’s growing engagement as a major player in the world’s economic system.

HUFF: The former Soviet Union could also be a major player in the global oil market in a second location, the Caspian Sea. Twenty-five billion barrels of proven reserves lie beneath former Soviet republics, like Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. As with the Siberian oil fields, the Caspian reserves are landlocked—hundreds of thousands of miles from deep water ports for easy shipment on supertankers. However, the Siberian oil—like that of Yukos and Lukoil—is safely within the geographic confines of relatively stable Russia. To get the Caspian Sea oil to market, it has to be piped out—across mountain ranges and through some of the least politically stable regions in the world. For example, Azerbaijan is mostly Muslim, with ethnic Azeris threatening battles with Iran over territory, while in neighboring Georgia, Islamic militants with ties to Al Qaeda hide in the Pankisi gorge. And volatile Chechnya is just a short distance away. Yukos’ chief Mikhail Khodorkhovsky sees no business reason to expand in the Caspian region, instead, favoring his Siberian investments. Khodorkhovksy says Russia will remain a good place to buy oil, because Russia’s economy and its government’s power are far less dependent on oil prices.

KHODORKOVSKY: [via a translator] If the overall state budget of Russia relies maybe 20 percent on oil and gas revenues, the role of oil and gas in the GDP of Russia is even smaller. Well, for Saudi Arabia, these numbers are a lot higher. I expect that we’ll see the same thing happening with Iraq, when Iraq starts to rebuild its economy. Nevertheless, if Russia is not able to build its pipeline system, then naturally, Russia is going to lose that chunk of potential production that would be shipped through those new pipelines.

HUFF: New technology and proposed pipelines could make Russia the linchpin to future oil supplies. But oil analysts agree, the real problem is consumption. Americans need to make the connection between the oil that’s shipped from the Middle East, Russia, and even from Alaska’s arctic wilds, to the lights they flip on, the thermostats they turn up, and the car ignitions Americans continue to turn over. For Common Ground, I’m Priscilla Huff.

PORTER: Since this story was first reported, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos, has announced a merger with Sibneft, another huge Russian oil firm, making him the head of Russia’s largest oil company and the world’s fourth largest private energy firm. The merged company’s reserves lie beneath the frozen Siberian tundra, which will likely continue to bolster Khodorkovsky’s arguments he’s a better partner to provide the US with crude oil, as the Middle East and Caspian sea regions remain politically unstable.

[Musical interlude]

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Moscow Driving

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MCHUGH: Extreme sports—games that push traditional and not so traditional sports to dangerous levels—are popular recreational activities with the world’s younger generations. But as Denis Lekovick first reported last January, in Russia, extreme driving isn’t just for entertainment; it’s a matter of survival.

[The sound of Moscow street traffic.]

DENIS LEFKOVICK: Driving in Russia is a daily challenge. The roads are full of obstacles—pot holes, protruding manhole covers—you name it.

[The sound of Moscow street traffic.]

LEVKOVICK: There are painted lines down the middle of the street, but they’re often simply ignored. To avoid a crowded lane, Muscovites will drive on the wrong side of the street or even take to the sidewalk. It’s a driver’s hell and you’ve got to be one hell of a driver to survive. Perhaps that’s why more and more Russians are joining so-called “extreme” driving schools.

[The sound of revving car engines at a Moscow driving school.]

LEFKOVICK: At an abandoned airfield, just five miles from the Kremlin, a dozen or so cars are circling around orange cones, accelerating, then stopping suddenly—just one of the lessons taught at Moscow’s Higher School of Driving.

[The sound of a driving instructor teaching his pupils.]

LEFKOVICK: Head instructor Alexandr Nikolayev takes one look at my perfectly ordinary car and offers to show me just what it can do.

[The sound of a car driving through the cones at the driving school.]

LEFKOVICK: In a moment, my 10-year-old stationwagon becomes a NASCAR racer. We’re speeding on a freshly frozen stretch of Moscow tarmac, when Alexandr suddenly spins the steering wheel to the right and jerks up the hand break.

[The sound of screeching tires.]

LEFKOVICK: The car slides sideways and then turns 180 degrees. Before I know it, we’re moving in the opposite direction.

ALEXANDR NIKOLAYEV: [via a translator] There is no secret here. All the stunts they show in the movies are executed by our “first graders.” The so-called “police turn,” which you can see in almost any movie car chase, is a simple sequence—decelerate, release the pedal, turn the steering wheel all the way, pull the hand brake, and wait for the laws of physics to do the rest. Easy.

LEFKOVICK: The brains behind this operation is Professor Tsygankov. He invented the training method and has turned it into quite a successful business. His office is like any other manager’s workspace, with one notable exception—my host’s chair is nothing but a racing car seat, complete with safety restraints.

PROFESSOR TSYGANKOV: [via a translator] In the fast-developing new Russia people are counting money. Cars are expensive—$30,000 to $50,000. So, a small amount of damage could run to about $3,000 in repairs. It’s much cheaper to pay a few hundred dollars for training.

LEFKOVICK: No wonder the school is so popular. A full course costs you as little as $360 US—a bargain, especially when you consider that there is no car insurance as such in Russia. The latest statistics, provided to Common Ground by the office of Russian traffic police, show that over 10 percent of newly-qualified Russian drivers get into an accident in their first year on the road. The problem, according to Professor Tsygankov, is that Russian driving schools are teaching students how to get around in a world where everyone else is sticking to the rules of the road. But, he says, that’s not how the accidents happen and no “basic” driving school will teach you real-world survival tactics.

TSYGANKOV: [via a translator] What driving school prepares you for is to pass a basic test; a few simple exercises such as a U-turn, parking, a short ride with an examiner. In return, you receive nothing more then a right to operate a vehicle. Don’t kid yourself. You’re not getting any real skills there, you’ll get them on the street—sometimes on your way to an emergency room.

[The sound of cars at the driving school.]

LEFKOVICK: Back at the track, new recruits are eager to learn a few survival tips.

[The sound of students being taught over a radio.]

LEFKOVICK: They come in their own vehicles and receive instructions by radio. The small risk of scratching a fender here is apparently well worth the lessons learned about how to avoid something much worse on the unforgiving streets of Moscow. For Common Ground I’m Denis Lefkovick in Moscow.

MCHUGH: Russia’s favorite new beverage, next on Common Ground.

[Musical interlude]

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Russian Beer

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MCHUGH: Russians are widely known for their love for vodka, but this stereotype might soon become just a thing of the past. As Anya Ardayeva reported from Moscow last fall, a much softer drink—beer—is winning folks over in Russia.

[The sound of Russians singing a rock-style beer song.]

ANYA ARDAYEVA: This is a popular Russian song about beer—one of many in this country these days. But people haven’t always been singing praises for beer. In 1975, when the first song encouraging beer-drinking surfaced, many felt beer wasn’t Russian enough. Back then, consumption was limited mostly to men in their 50s and 60s who drank a bottle or two on hot summer evenings. And summers are very short in Russia.

[The sound of Russians singing a rock-style beer song.]

ARDAYEVA: But today, beer is slowly stealing the crown from the all-time Russian queen of drinks—vodka.

[The sounds from a large beer brewery.]

ARDAYEVA: The Russian beer market has doubled in the past four years and is now the fifth largest in the world and analysts say it shows no signs of slowing down. Sixty percent of the market is controlled by foreign brewers, such as Karlsberg, Sun Interbrew, South African Breweries, and Turkish Efes.

[The sound of a beer advertisement on Russian television.]

ARDAYEVA: The majority of beer drinkers in Russia are young, largely thanks to numerous beer commercials, which, unlike vodka ads, are allowed on TV and are mostly targeted at the younger generation. By law, beer is not considered as an alcoholic drink in Russia, so almost anyone can buy it. Repeated attempts by some Russian lawmakers to limit beer sales and advertising have been unsuccessful. And unlike his predecessor, Russian President Vladimir Putin also prefers beer over vodka. Teenagers, too, say that beer has already become an essential part of their lives.

russian teenager Olga: [via a translator] It’s impossible to hang out with friends without beer. It’s just impossible.

russian teenager Marina: [via a translator] Beer is not that bad. It’s better to drink beer than vodka. It’s better for you. Vodka relaxes you and you can’t do anything.

russian teenager Tatyana: [via a translator] Vodka with friends means no fun. Beer is much better. Vodka is considered as a traditional Russian drink. Now beer will be considered as a traditional youth drink.

ARDAYEVA: Those attitudes are causing concern among Russian health officials, who are discovering that say beer may result in alcoholism, just like any other alcohol drink.

ALEXANDER NEMTSOV: [via a translator] Both mine and international experience says that beer alcoholism is not different from any other alcoholism. Either beer or vodka causes it. I’ve seen alcoholics who got addicted on champagne.

ARDAYEVA: Alexander Nemtsov at the Moscow Psychiatry Institute has been studying alcohol and its effects on people since 1985. He says youth drinking is at an all-time high.

Nemtsov: [via a translator] All this youth drinking started only three to four years ago and it’s difficult to predict what the results will be. What we know now is that young people drink more beer. It’s not only because more beer is produced, but also because strong alcohol is less affordable for them. Beer is easier to get, which is dangerous, because that means they will drink more of it.

ARDAYEVA: But beer producers argue it’s not the drink that is dangerous, it’s how you drink it.

VYACHESLAV MAMONTOV: [via a translator] We think that all these efforts to ban beer ads and speculation about whether beer is an alcoholic drink or not come from those who produce vodka and other strong spirits. Beer is good for you. It’s a historic fact—in the Tzar’s army, doctors prescribed beer to soldiers who were recovering in hospital.

ARDAYEVA: Vyacheslav Mamontov is the Executive Secretary of the Russian Beer Brewers Union. He says that even if some regulations on beer sales are imposed in Russia, it’s unlikely anything is going to change.

MAMONTOV: [via a translator] The state can establish some sort of age limit on selling alcohol. But nobody would follow these limitations. You can make 10 laws which prohibit the sales of alcohol, but there have to be mechanisms in place to enforce those prohibitions. Until there is some sort of drinking culture developed in Russia, these violations will take place.

ARDAYEVA: However, some experts and doctors say that beer might actually serve as a savior for Russia, where 42,000 people each year die from home-brewed and bootleg vodka. But Vladimir Savov at the Brunnsiwick Warburg Investment and Banking Corporation says that at the moment, Russians are simply drinking more alcohol than they used to.

Vladimir Savov: I wish I could say that consumption of vodka fell, but it didn’t. It is more or less stable over the last couple of years. And on top of, on top of the vodka and spirits Russians drink more and more beer.

[The sound of Russians singing a rock-style beer song.]

ARDAYEVA: A Russian proverb says, “Beer is liquid bread.” But although vodka producers have given up some of their massive revenues to beer brewers, it’s unlikely Russians will completely ditch their national drink for the time being. As another proverb says, “Beer without vodka is money wasted.” For Common Ground Radio, I’m Anya Ardayeva in Moscow.

[The sound of Russians singing a rock-style beer song.]

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Russian Electric Orchestra

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PORTER: Next, we pull one from a folder marked “Soviet Bizarre.” Vachaslav Mescherin and—ready for this?— his Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments were the closest thing the Soviet Union ever had to a house band. The group was a staple of the Soviet 1960’s, ’70s and ’80s, dominating television and radio airwaves, movie and cartoon soundtracks with a quirky pop sound performed on primitive electronic instruments. Mescherin died in 1995, but a CD series of his archival work is reintroducing the world to his band’s music. From Moscow, Charles Maynes has this profile.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

CHARLES MAYNES: Starting in the late 1950s, Vachaslav Mescherin and his Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments brought new sounds to Soviet music. A worker at State Radio, Mescherin was intrigued by the musical applications of advances in electrical science. So he and his cohorts slapped pickups and microphones on traditional accordions, violins, and Russian balalaikas, and pioneered new instruments such as the early Soviet synthesizer, the Ekvodin I.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: Borrowing from ethnic folk melodies, Communist propaganda, and orchestral kitsch, the group, says Russian pop music historian Arteom Troitsky, created the sound track for a generation of Soviet swingers. Music that was both quirky and inescapable.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

ARTEOM TROITSKY: Each person who was privileged to live in the Soviet Union in the ’60s and the ’70s, they got Mescherin’s music like soaked by their skin. Because it was everywhere. It was all the jingles on the radio. It was all the, kind of, the musical ambiance and music on TV. It was all the Muzak at convention halls, and so on. I mean it was everywhere.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: But not always. Mescherin’s orchestra began unknown and underground, practicing late at night or before work in the mornings. And things might have continued that way had it not been for something called the Soviet Sputnik.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: The year was 1959. The Kremlin wanted their satellite to broadcast into the cosmos a stirring rendition of the socialist hymn, The Internationale. So they approached Mescherin. And to make their point persuasive, Mescherin’s widow Lyuba says the authorities sent the KGB to convey the request and take her husband to headquarters.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

LYUBA MESCHERIN: [via a translator] One day they stopped by work and said, “You’re coming with us to Lubuyanka.” And he thought, “Why?” And he wasn’t too happy about it because there’s only one reason you go to Lubuyanka. But when he got there they just wanted him to play The Internationale to be broadcast from the Sputnik. So he did.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: The reward? Official permission to perform. The band was off and running.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: Initial reviews weren’t kind, however. One critic famously lampooned the group’s irregular instrumentation, writing “Mescherin turn on an iron and out comes Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony.”

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: Undaunted, the group scored an early hit with an Estonian folk tune given the Marxist treatment. 1961’s irresistible On the Collective Poultry Farm.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: The orchestra cultivated friends in high places and soon even top composers like Dmitri Shostokovich began offering material. But the band’s reputation was for playing a kind of interstellar music and the orchestra was a favorite among Soviet cosmonauts like Yuri Gagarin and Alexei Leoniv. According to Lyuba Mescherin these early space explorers returned from missions endorsing her husband’s music—the nearest thing to the real thing.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

LYUBA MESCHERIN: [via a translator] The cosmonauts were all close to the band. I think because space produced in them a new set of emotions, a new set of colors, that they felt there, up in the sky.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

LYUBA MESCHERIN: [via a translator] After that, maybe simple Earth-bound music just wasn’t enough for them.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: The launch site Baikunur(?) at Kazakhstan had become a long-running gig in the ensuing decades. But the Mescherin Orchestra brought a stakhonovite(?)like work ethic to touring in general, as they hit small towns and factories, farms and military outposts throughout the Soviet empire. They were the consummate professionals, with all 13 members forever dressed in trademark formal wear. But, says, Lyuba Mescherin, unlike traditional big orchestras her husband’s group carried the banner of culture beyond the cities to the farthest flung reaches of the proletariat.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

LYUBA MESCHERIN: [via a translator] He tried to make instruments that were light, easy to carry, and that could work under any conditions. He always said, “We should be as strong as our instruments.”

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: And for some 30-plus years they were. Mescherin and his portable orchestra played the theater halls of Eastern Europe, nuclear submarines off of Vladivostok, even remote outposts in the arctic. They also entertained troops—Soviet troops that is—in the deserts of Afghanistan. With a seemingly endless repertoire this little state-sponsored orchestra had a tune for every occasion—with one exception—the end of the state.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: When the Soviet Union opened up to the world in the late 1980s Mescherin’s brand of kitschy pop suddenly sounded anachronistic, too Soviet for ears perched now westward. Worse still, says Lyuba Mescherin, the band’s own musicians wanted a change.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

LYUBA MESCHERIN: [via a translator] They started saying “Vachaslav, why don’t we play rock? Everyone’s playing rock.” And he’d say, “Well, I like rock too, but you need to know how to play it well and play it in your own style. And if we play just like all the other rock groups nobody’s going to need this orchestra.”

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: In 1990 Vachaslav Mescherin disbanded his orchestra. He died just five years later, a footnote of Soviet cultural history largely forgotten until now. For this CD called Easy USSR and released on the Russian Lite label the producers culled the stacks of the old Soviet Sound Recording Museum in Moscow, unearthing an archive of more than 1,000 tracks. With some 60 hours of material expected in forthcoming releases, Russian pop music historian Arteom Troitsky says Mescherin’s music should dispel any lingering stereotypes of the Soviet Union as that cold, gray industrial country you maybe thought you knew.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

ARTEOM TROITSKY: It probably was like this in the ’30s and the ’40s. But since the fall of Stalin’s regime the Soviet Union was a swinging country. And we did have a lot of fun. And we did dance the Twist in the beginning of the ’60s. And I think that the music of the Mescherin ensemble would make a perfect, perfect sound track for this long gone swinging USSR.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MAYNES: For Common Ground, I’m Charles Maynes in Moscow.

[The sound of Mescherin’s Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments.]

MCHUGH: This is Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.

[Musical interlude]

MCHUGH: I’m Kristin McHugh.

KEITH PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Coming up this half hour on Common Ground, the fateful story of a lost Russian submarine.

ROBERT MOORE: They had this terrible choice. They could try and make an ascent to the surface on their own, but in the process they would face potentially crippling decompression sickness. Or on the other hand they could stay where they were and put their faith in their own fleet.

PORTER: Plus, Vladimir Putin’s cult of personality. And Russian music with a country twang.

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Fall of Kursk

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MCHUGH: Nearly three years have passed since 118 Russian sailors died in the disaster that befell their giant nuclear submarine the Kursk. The vessel was ripped open following two explosions and plunged to the bottom of the Barenz Sea during naval exercises in August of 2000.

PORTER: Russia’s once mighty Northern Fleet mounted rescue efforts but in the end the authorities had to swallow their pride and ask for Western help. That assistance came too late for nearly two-dozen Russian submariners who had managed to survive the initial blasts. What caused the accident and what happened to those men is the subject of a book, written by British television journalist Robert Moore. Aside from the powerful human drama and the tragedy of the lives lost, the author told Malcolm Brown earlier this year the accident also reveals much about modern Russia.

MALCOLM BROWN: We now know that an explosive chemical reaction inside a corroded practice torpedo triggered the catastrophic chain of events that sank the Kursk, one of the most advanced submarines in the Russian Navy. Two minutes and 15 seconds later came another, far larger blast, as the remaining torpedoes went up, tearing open the bow section of the vessel’s twin hulls.

ROBERT MOORE: The second explosion that occurred was something like 3.5 on the Richter scale. It was the equivalent of a minor earthquake.

BROWN: In his book A Time To Die – The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy, Robert Moore describes how 23 men survived those blasts in rear compartments, shielded from immediate death by the nuclear reactors. He paints a vivid picture of the dilemma facing the remaining sailors, who found themselves trapped in the ninth compartment of their stricken submarine, around 350 feet below the surface. The account relies in part on a series of notes penned by the officer who took charge of the survivors, Dmitiri Kolesnikov.

MOORE: They had this terrible choice that they faced. In fact their notes talk about this. They could try and make an ascent to the surface on their own, but in the process they would face potentially crippling decompression sickness—what we call “the bends”—or on the other hand they could stay where they were and put their faith in their own fleet. It was a desperate predicament if you like, because, of course, as they were breathing they’re exhaling carbon dioxide, they’re inhaling a finite amount of oxygen, so their atmospheric condition inside the ninth compartment is deteriorating by the minute. So, it’s a desperate environment. It’s one which must have been deeply traumatic for those involved. And I think one of the most compelling parts of the story I tell is the fact that even in that desperate situation the men appear to be very calm. They were still writing coherent, cogent notes.

BROWN: In the end, the men decided to stay put and await the arrival of the fleet’s specialist search-and-rescue forces, described in the book as “grossly deficient.” On land, news was filtering through to the families of the Kursk‘s crew that something was terribly wrong.

MOORE: We’ve talked about the harrowing conditions in the aft of the submarine. Just imagine how harrowing the conditions were for the families of those submariners.

LUDMILA NALETOVA: [via a translator] He had just turned 19 and wrote only good things about life on the submarine. He has a six-month-old child, too.

BROWN: The heart-wrenching concern of relatives like Ludmila Naletova, the mother of a Kursk sailor, was beamed around the world as the families refused to play by the old rules.

MOORE: The home port of the Kursk was a little Arctic base called Vidayevo, which is a forlorn, decaying, isolated outpost of the Russian military. And in past Soviet days, no question, if it was a military accident, it would simply be maintained as a secret. Nobody would ever know. Russian public opinion would never come into play. No one would ever even think about asking the West for help. But the young families of these submariners recognized that things had changed and they were so despairing with the efforts of their own military to rescue the men, they recognized that the only way that their men were going to be saved was really with Western help. So they did what was unprecedented in Russian military terms. They started campaigning against their own admiralty. They started ringing up local newspapers, ringing up Moscow television stations and saying, “Look, our admirals are making a mess of this rescue effort. They’re not using the right resources. Ask the West to bring in their high-technology rescue resources.” They really essentially mobilized Russian public opinion. So, really it is a story not just about a submarine accident but a nation in transition, of young widows, if you like, feeling betrayed and wanting to try and act in a last desperate attempt to save their husbands.

BROWN: Unaccustomed to the public spotlight, the Russian authorities struggled to cope. Robert Moore writes that Moscow reverted to the time-honored tradition of obscuring military accidents in layers of lies—lies which were exposed by emerging facts. Soviet-style tactics also seemed to be at play when the furious mother of a Kursk crewman was openly sedated and taken away during a meeting between relatives and senior officials. By then Russian authorities had accepted offers of assistance from Norway and Britain, which had been rebuffed initially.

[The sound of conversations between surface ships and rescue divers at the Kursk.]

RESCUE CONTROLLER: [speaking to rescue divers] Before we do anything to it I’d like to get both of you off the hatch, you know, approach it from the outside in.

BROWN: Everyone’s worst fears were confirmed more than a week after the accident when Western divers reached the escape hatch above the ninth compartment, only to find the interior flooded. The bad news was broken by Russian Vice Admiral Vladimir Motsak.

RUSSIAN VICE ADMIRAL VLADIMIR MOTSAK: [via a translator] The ninth compartment of the submarine is flooded and there’s no doubt that the crew there is dead. My personal opinion is that the same applies to all other compartments.

BROWN: President Vladimir Putin, just three months into the job, came in for harsh criticism for his handling of the disaster. The tragedy also exposed the dismal state of the Northern Fleet.

MOORE: The most obvious insight one can provide, having done a lot of research up on the Kola peninsula, is that the desperate predicament of the Northern Fleet—its infrastructure, its decaying resources—is still there two and a half years after the Kursk disaster happened. It is quite possible it could happen again. The reason for that simply is that morale is low in the Northern Fleet. The resources are desperately inadequate. Let’s remember that the salary of a nuclear submarine commander in the Northern Fleet is about the same as a bus driver in Moscow.

BROWN: [now interviewing Moore] And what does this story tell you about Russian military thinking and their attitudes, particularly towards the West?

MOORE: Well, it shows that there are many admirals—perhaps as there are in their counterparts in the US Navy and indeed in the Royal Navy—who are still somewhat stuck in the Cold War mentality and what you saw on the Kola peninsula was a whole range of admirals and senior naval officers who couldn’t understand that the Cold War was over and that inviting the West in was a perfectly respectable response. Instead, they were looking at this through the prism of the Cold War. They still saw the Northern Fleet in terms of its secrets and in terms of its military pride. And that is true today. It’s true I think for the coming years, because President Putin is still having an enormously difficult time in reforming the Russian military.

BROWN: Robert Moore detects signs of that struggle in the Russian Navy’s initial response to the Kursk disaster. The eventual purge of senior officers targeted those who’d argued that the accident was the result of a collision with a foreign submarine. That discredited interpretation is seen in the book as a coded attack on President Putin’s pro-Western outlook.

[The sound of an Orthodox memorial service for the Kursk sailors.]

BROWN: The Kursk itself was raised from the seabed in October of 2001. As for the crew, nearly 100 bodies were eventually recovered and identified. The last funerals took place in January 2002. For Common Ground, I’m Malcolm Brown.

[The sound of an Orthodox memorial service for the Kursk sailors.]

[Musical interlude]

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Be Like Putin Remix

Listen to This Segment: MP3

PORTER: It’s been more than three years since Vladimir Putin was elected as Russia’s president. Sharply contrasting with his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Putin is young, athletic, and presents an image of a pragmatic leader. Midway through his term, Vladimir Putin’s popularity remains high—so high that songs featuring the Russian leader’s name made it to the top of the country’s pop-music charts last year.

[The sound of the song, “Someone Like Putin,” sung in Russian by the group, Singing Together.]

MCHUGH: A book, a cake, a café—and now a song—all dedicated to the Russian president, who is becoming more than just a politician in Russia.

[The sound of the song, “Someone Like Putin,” sung in Russian by the group, Singing Together.]

MCHUGH: This tune, called “Someone Like Putin,” released in 2002, is performed by a girl band called “Singing Together.” It tells the story of a young woman who got fed up with her boyfriend who treated her badly. She dumps him and decides she needs a man just like her country’s president.

[The sound of the song, “Someone Like Putin,” sung in Russian by Lara Lychagina and Irina Kozlova.]

MCHUGH: According to the song, the girl wants “Someone like Putin who wouldn’t drink, someone like Putin who would love me, someone like Putin who wouldn’t insult me, someone like Putin who wouldn’t run away.” Vladimir Putin’s popularity started to climb in 1999 following the aggressive statements he made before launching a new war in the breakaway region of Chechnya. And as Singing Together’s producer Alexander Elin explains, the brutal image that the Russian leader has created of himself is reaping its benefits.

ALEXANDER ELIN: [via a translator] The song is not about Putin himself, but about the image of him we see on TV, and about the fact that for the girls, this image is very attractive. Not as a sex-symbol, but as a reliable man you would want to be with, who it’s good to be with. Putin is an extremely positive man. He is always cool, always calm. He is a man with whom you don’t expect anything unexpected to happen.

MCHUGH: Singer Irina Kozlova says that for her, someone like Vladimir Putin would be a perfect partner.

KOZLOVA: [via a translator] He is an ideal man. He always looks nice, he plays sports, he knows several languages, he has lots of advantages. He speaks well.

MCHUGH: Since many of Russia’s nation-wide television networks are fully or partly owned by the government, there’s no doubt the president is getting the best coverage he can possibly get these days. But observers in Moscow say Mr. Putin’s positive image comes from more than just spin doctors. After years of turmoil, the country is enjoying political and economic stability and the public makes little effort to question anything its government is doing. This public apathy and lack of criticism, observers warn, may result in a cult of personality of the Russian leader—something Russians went through more than 70 years ago, when the Soviet dictator Stalin was adored by millions of Russians despite the bloodthirsty style of his rule. But Alexander Elin says that won’t happen again.

ELIN: [via a translator] You know, they say history repeats itself twice—once as a tragedy and the next time as a farce. Of course, there are no signs of a personality cult, which we had when Stalin was there, because it’s a democratic country. Elections take place everywhere, different forces are struggling. I think that today, the return of this horrible cult which we had in 1930s is impossible.

ARDAYEVA: Producers of “Someone Like Putin” say they were simply the first in the line of show biz stars who want to dedicate their songs to Vladimir Putin. And as the country becomes more and more capitalistic every year, it’s no longer the ideology, but the money, which inspires the people of Russia. And as the demand for Putin-related art remains high, the supply of it is unlikely to fall in the near future.

[The sound of the song, “Someone Like Putin,” sung in Russian by the group, Singing Together.]

MCHUGH: Coming up next, Russia meets Nashville.

PORTER: You’re listening to Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.

[Musical interlude]

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Bering Strait

Listen to This Segment: MP3

MCHUGH: Every year, hordes of would-be country stars come to Nashville, Tennessee, hoping to catch someone’s eye and be catapulted into the spotlight. And not one of them would argue that it’s easy to make it in the music business. But the hurdles have been even higher for one country group, Bering Strait. It came all the way from Russia to try to make it in the country music world. And as Judith Smelser first reported in March, they may be well on their way.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music.]

JUDITH SMELSER: They’re a hot new country act out of Nashville. They’re hoping to be the next big thing. Their sound is best described as a blend of pop rock and classic American country. But despite being part of a music scene that’s known for it’s All-American patriotism, this group’s red white and blue comes from a different flag. The seven members of Bering Strait are from Russia.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music.]

SMELSER: Since the late 1990s, they’ve gone from providing entertainment at a Mexican restaurant in Moscow to playing at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. And this year this song from their self-titled debut CD was nominated for a Grammy.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music.]

SMELSER: The story of Bering Strait begins in a music conservatory in a small Russian village about 65 miles from Moscow. One of the school’s teachers decided to put together a bluegrass group, believing that the intricate techniques involved would help his students with their classical studies. One of those early members was Ilya Toshinsky, Bering Strait’s guitar and banjo player.

ILYA TOSHINSKY: [via a translator] I still don’t know why I reacted this way, but when I heard the sound of the banjo for the very first time it was a shock and a discovery for me. I fell in love with the instrument and begged my teacher to give it to me.

SMELSER: Ilya was just 11 years old when he joined the group in 1988. Over the next several years, three other young students were recruited, and three of those original four are still in the band. Over the years, the act grew to seven. They toured in Europe for awhile and even traveled to the US several times on cultural exchanges. And eventually they were introduced to music manager Mike Kinnamon.

MIKE KINNAMON: I called my wife and I said, “Honey, I found some kids that need help.” And she said, “I can hear it in your voice already, you want to bring them home, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Oh, it’s okay, bring ’em home.” I said, “Well, there’s, they’re a band.” And she said, “Okay, how many are there? Two, three, four?” And I said, “Seven.” She said, “We have a three-bedroom house. You and I sleep in one room. One room is an office. Where we gonna put ’em?”

SMELSER: The Kinnamon’s did find space for those kids in their Nashville home and Mike Kinnamon became not only the band’s manager, but a surrogate father for its members. He’s given them significant financial support because immigration restrictions make it impossible for them to earn extra cash. Keyboard player Lidya Salnikova explains.

LIDYA SALNIKOVA: [via a translator] How are we supposed to make a living? Our visa allows us to only do music. We can’t work as waiters. We can, of course, do it illegally. But it would be very problematic if they found out. We would be deported then. In the end, we came here to play music and not to work as waiters. But it’s very difficult to make money as a musician in Nashville.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, with Natasha Borzilova doing the lead vocals.]

SMELSER: But most band members agree, it’s been worth it. Natasha Borzilova is the group’s lead singer.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, with Natasha Borzilova doing the lead vocals.]

NATASHA BORZILOVA: [via a translator] To me country music is like a dream. I mean, it’s my American dream. I listened to this kind of music in Russia and now I’m here and I’m working with people I used to listen to, who I used to learn how to play this kind of music.

SMELSER: But she admits she’s a little worried about the fame that might come with success in her chosen field.

BORZILOVA: [via a translator] I like to spend time at home with a cup of coffee and a book and I am scared that I will be kicked out of my normal life into some kind of tornado. These interviews are very tiring. Much more tiring that standing on a stage and singing. It’s like you have to keep that face for the people all the time. You have to be pretty all the time. I don’t like putting on make-up. I like it when someone does it for me. Normally, I just get up in the morning and put on the very first outfit I find and go outside. And if I’m famous I won’t be able to do that anymore.

SMELSER: It may be awhile before the members of Bering Strait have to worry about superstardom. But it’s true that many things have happened at once for them in recent months. First, the release of the group’s debut album—also called Bering Strait—in January. Then their nomination for a Grammy. They didn’t win, but they figure it’s a great start. And finally, the release of a documentary film, The Ballad of Bering Strait which chronicles their unusual story. Indeed, it may be that story that puts them ahead of the field. Tim DuBois is a producer with their record label, Universal South.

TIM DUBOIS: In this case the media was a very big part of it, just because the story is so incredibly rich. It’s such a wonderful story. And the kids are so endearing when people learn their story and get to meet them, they, they love them and they want to hear their music.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, with Natasha Borzilova doing the lead vocals.]

SMELSER: Some critics say they wish Bering Strait had been a little more adventurous with their debut album—that the music had matched their story in its uniqueness. But they’ve also been struck by the fact that the band members are excellent musicians. Leading country music critic Robert Ormann says that may allow them to do what no foreign group has done before.

ROBERT ORMANN: What Bering Strait is trying to do is something that no one has been able to do. Not a German band, not a Japanese band, not a Finnish band, not a Swedish band. You know, no non-English speaking country music act has ever made it. So they are trying to make history, is what they are trying to do. And the reason they might succeed is simply by sheer level of musicianship. Their, they have raised the bar for a country band to a new height. They are really, really gifted.

SMELSER: Music industry analysts say it’s important for the group to be more than a novelty act. More than just “that country group from Russia.” And Bering Strait is taking that advice to heart. Members have worked to conquer their Russian accents and adapt to the American country music style. But they haven’t completely turned their backs on their roots.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, but cut with a Russian flair.]

SMELSER: One track on their CD is a traditional Russian folk song, Porushka-Paranya, with a bluegrass twist.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, but cut with a Russian flair.]

SMELSER: It’s been a hit with live audiences—and a reminder that these rising country stars came from the other side of the world to embrace a quintessentially American dream.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, but cut with a Russian flair.]

SMELSER: For Common Ground, I’m Judith Smelser.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, but cut with a Russian flair.]

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security

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