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Moscow Diary: Leaving for good

The BBC's James Rodgers considers some questions from readers in a final diary entry as he prepares to finish his stint as Moscow correspondent.

Thanks for the questions which you sent in response to my request. I'm sorry that space hasn't permitted me to answer them all. I have tried to choose those which seemed most interesting, and which touched on popular themes.

I would like to know if you will miss living in Russia and what you have learnt about yourself from your experiences there. It would also be interesting to know how Russian people differ from British people.
David John, Milford Haven, UK

Bolshoi ballerina
Russia has made a huge contribution to global culture
I will miss living in Russia. Reporting from here has been an unforgettable, valuable experience. I first came to work as a journalist in Russia in 1991. A lot of my early experiences of this country were during a very difficult period. While for some the end of communism was liberation, for many ordinary people here it was the beginning of a period of great uncertainty and hardship. So the answer to the second part of your question is that I have learnt that I was very fortunate to grow up in Western Europe during a stable period of its history.

As for how Russian people differ from British people, I don't think there are any generalisations which are true enough to be reliable.

But I would say this: in initial encounters Russians can, to a British person at least, seem unfriendly, or unhelpful. This is especially true in official situations. But once you cross the line between official and informal, I think Russians become more welcoming more quickly than British people do.

I always feel that the Western media completely fails to portray just how popular Putin and (to a lesser extent) Medvedev are with the Russian people and that in general Russians don't appear to mind living under a system that we would consider undemocratic. After all, they have been used to autocratic regimes of one sort or another for many hundreds of years.
Eric Witton, Aberdeen, UK

I think Mr Witton makes a very fair point about Messrs Putin and Medvedev's popularity. I don't agree that BBC coverage of recent Russian elections has failed to portray this. While we have reported criticisms of the Russian electoral system, we have also stressed that the results of completely fair polls would probably have been similar.

From James' own personal perspective, I'd like to ask if he could imagine himself becoming a long-term resident of Moscow or any other place in Russia, as a Russian journalist perhaps. What would appeal, and what would it be hard to adapt to? But really I am most interested in hearing from James or his successor whether the ordinary Russian people see their country's eventual destiny as belonging inside the European Union as one of its major powers.
Christopher Chadwick, Poland

I have to admit that I can't imagine becoming a long-term resident of Moscow - and not just Moscow, but anywhere else. My job requires frequent travel and changing of location. The balance that we have to strike as foreign correspondents is acquiring knowledge, while never failing to look at a place with fresh eyes.

As for the question on the EU, I think that Russia sees itself as separate from the EU at present. Membership is certainly not something which is currently seriously discussed in policy circles - and I think most ordinary Russians are content with that.

James, about 10 years ago John Simpson did an anecdotal piece on BBC Radio about how Russia had changed since he was based in Moscow during the Soviet period. He mentioned, for example, people frolicking near the fountains in Alexandrovsky Sad and how that would have been unimaginable 15 years earlier. You probably do not have the same length of perspective, but something of a similar kind relating to the period you have been here would, I think, be very interesting.
Doran Doeh, Moscow, Russia

So many things have changed here since I first worked in Moscow in 1991 that to describe them all in detail would take a whole book: people's daily lives; the physical appearance of Russia's towns, cities, and villages; and, even, it now seems, the climate.

One thing I have noticed as a Western foreigner here is people's appearance. Even in the 1990s, Westerners were readily identifiable by their clothes. That is no longer the case. And despite concerns over democracy and press freedom, this country is more open than it used to be. When I first flew to the Soviet Union as a student in the late 1980s, I had to wait at customs while an official checked all the books and papers I had brought with me. Last year, tens of thousands of football fans were given visa-free entry for the Champions' League final: an exceptional event, yes, but a Russian solution which would once have been unthinkable.

I have just finished a fascinating book on Stalinist Russia. I have two questions: Do the Russian people still revere Stalin? Does the infamous Lubyanka building still have the ambience of terror it once had? Also, does Russia have that menacing yet romantic lure that seems prevalent in all movies and books set there? Sorry that was three - hard to contain oneself with such a fascinating subject.
Jean Hopkins, UK

If the Russian people do "revere" Stalin, it is in the sense that today he is remembered more for his role as victorious wartime leader, than as the creator of a system responsible for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths. That is something which naturally troubles those who campaign for the whole truth to be told about his time in power.

Lubyanka, Moscow
The Lubyanka is still there - but the atmosphere is different

I have never been inside the Lubyanka - but the square on which it stands is an example of how Moscow's physical appearance has changed. The statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet-era secret police, was torn down in 1991. The area where it stood is empty. I always see that as a sign that Russia has yet to decide on its post-Communist direction. The FSB - the main successor to the KGB - does have huge power and influence in modern Russia, especially in business and politics. But the days when people would disappear after telling an ill-advised joke are gone.

As for the country having a "menacing yet romantic lure", it certainly has something of both - just take a look at its history and literature. But it is important to remember that most Russians lead fairly ordinary lives of the kind that people live in many other parts of the world.

Is there anything positive in Russia? I often wonder whether I've visited the same country as BBC correspondents. BBC reports tend to concentrate on poverty, democracy problems, cold and gas wars, bomb explosions - the rule seems to be the "darker" the better. Even your Eurosong story paints Russia as some distant, strange, too-serious country not capable of separating entertainment from politics.
Jean C, Toulouse, France

There is plenty which is positive in Russia. Russians enjoy greater freedoms than at any time in their country's history. Russia is open to the outside world as never before. Many Russians are better off than ever they imagined they could be. Russia has made a unique and invaluable contribution to world culture.

But when you have even the president himself complaining about corruption and legal nihilism, then it is clearly our duty to cover it. The recent "gas wars" have also been an issue we could not ignore. The killings of the journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova had to be reported. Russia's population decline is not a sign of a healthy country. Unless that is halted, that may be Russia's real 21st Century tragedy. In my personal view, the most positive thing about Russia is its people. I have very much enjoyed living and working among them.

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James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow

MAY - OCT 2008

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