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    Deeper Than Oil: Alternative Reality Russia

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    Everyone occasionally needs to be jolted out of the everyday, to escape to a place where things are not quite so mind-numbingly routine. For some, drugs are the answer, for others meditation or Zen yoga. Yet others put their trust in extra-strength lager and a shoot ‘em up computer game to whisk them out of this reality. Alternatively, if none of those options appeal, there is always Russia.

    Everyone occasionally needs to be jolted out of the everyday, to escape to a place where things are not quite so mind-numbingly routine. For some, drugs are the answer, for others meditation or Zen yoga. Yet others put their trust in extra-strength lager and a shoot ‘em up computer game to whisk them out of this reality. Alternatively, if none of those options appeal, there is always Russia.

    “Why did you move here?” is a question that anyone who lives in Russia for any length of time is sure to have to answer. For many Russians, it is inconceivable that a Westerner would voluntarily relocate to a country plagued by inherent corruption, where instability is the order of the day, and brutal murders that would provoke weeks of national soul searching in the West are so common they often fail to make the evening news.

    But the question is usually posed by people who have never visited the West. For those who have, for those Russians who have experienced the dubious pleasures of life in the consumer paradises of the UK or the US, grown fat on fast food and had their senses bombarded by insidious lifestyle advertising, the decision is not quite so odd.

    They, at least, realize that a long-term move to Russia is a getaway, an Out from the water torture tedium of life as a salary slave in London or New York. Things are not always easy here, far from it – but that is just a small price to pay for the more than abundant fuel for the senses that Russia offers. That is, of course, if your senses need feeding.

    Upon my arrival in Moscow in the mid-1990s, I quickly came to the happy conclusion that after years of tedium and monotony in the UK, a four-hour plane ride was all it had taken to transport me into the alternative reality I had failed to locate by other - much less orthodox -means. A reality where superstition and magic are a part of everyday life, where swearing is a source of national pride, and there is no contradiction for some in belief in both Stalin and Christ.

    Of course, things have changed a lot since then. Russia has taken on some of the trappings of the West, disguised its uniqueness beneath multiple layers of consumerism. Outwardly, for all the cultural and social differences, Russia’s big cities would appear to be transforming into something remarkably similar to their Western counterparts. The same ads, the same cars on the streets, the same mobile phones.

    Are these the first signs that Russia will eventually surrender to the political and cultural homogeneity that has debased Europe and the US? Will Russia be slowly drawn into the consumer trap that long ago turned the West into, in the eternal words of Phillip K. Dick, “a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed?”

    Or will Moscow and other cities, despite the ads for Nokia, McDonald’s and the latest Hollywood films, remain as set apart from the normality of the West as ever?

    I’m hoping it can. And, even if Moscow and St. Petersburg go the way of London and Paris and slip into a dull, soul-sucking conformity, there’s always deepest Siberia and elsewhere. And, if Russia’s isolated outposts fall victim to tedium, why, North Korea seems likely to remain uniquely weird for a while yet. And after a visit there this year, I already know my way around Pyongyang…

    The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

    From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

    Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).


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