"Report on a three-week visit to St Petersburg, July 2022"
by Gilbert Doctorow
gilbertdoctorow.com (August 5, 2022)
Without meaning to offend fellow dachniki, I affirm that the farming life is not conducive to intellectual pursuits. During most of my time in Russia during July, I was busy from morning to night putting order in the chaos we found when we arrived at our country residence 80 km south of Petersburg. Waist high grasses and aggressive vines covered nearly all of the 1400 square meters of our property.
My electric ‘trimmer,’ supported by 200 meters of linked-up extension cords, was a great help in clearing the land. However, a lot of hand work was inescapable when freeing the vegetable patch, the flower beds and the many berry bushes. Suffice it to say that by evening my optimistic plans for writing about current international events succumbed to generalized exhaustion and I barely managed to set down a few lines about one or another issue of the day that captured my imagination.
In what follows below, I set out these longer and shorter diary entries which are systematic only in chronological order, not themes. If I have to identify a couple of overarching themes from international developments during this period, they would be the unstoppable advance of Russian forces through the Donbas and southern reaches of Ukraine, accompanied by the changing Russian war aims, which now suggest plans to annex the entire Black Sea littoral. The logic of this change in objectives has been clearly stated by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a couple of weeks ago: the ongoing deliveries of long range artillery-missile systems (HIMARS) by the United States and its allies represent a serious escalation in the war that imposes on Russia the need to push back the borders with Ukraine to the point where the new weapons no longer threaten the Donbas, not to mention civilian populations in adjacent territories of the Russian Federation. Continued Western military assistance to Ukraine, which now clearly includes dispatch of military technicians to man and direct the advanced materiel, will result in the full conquest of Ukraine by Russian forces and a dictated peace with whatever regime replaces the Zelensky junta.
Under these changed circumstances, my proposal of six weeks ago for a peace in which Russia would leave in place the independent and sovereign self-declared people’s republics of the Donbas in exchange for Western lifting of sanctions no longer is relevant.
Day by day, Russian actions on the ground in the ‘occupied territories’ as Kiev calls them, show the clear intent to incorporate all of them into the Russian Federation. I have in mind the issuance of Russian passports to all comers in these territories, the preparations for a new school year based on the standard Russian curriculum, the pay-out of pensions and state salaries from the Russian budget, the ongoing construction of new housing and schools to accommodate those who have lost their lodgings in Mariupol and elsewhere. These actions complement and underscore the words delivered by Sergei Lavrov. What we are witnessing will add perhaps 10 million citizens to the country’s population as well as vast new economic potential from what was since 1922 the industrial heartland of Ukraine.
At the level of daily life of Russians both in the city and in the countryside, little has changed since my visit ending a month earlier. Not only food stores, but those selling consumer goods of all kinds seem to be well stocked. Prices are higher than before the ‘special military operation,’ but not more so than in Western Europe. A couple of our city friends left for their annual vacation of several months duration on their tiny property in Crimea near Feodosia. The trains to the South function normally even if air traffic has been shut down for safety reasons. Other friends grouse about the now much more expensive package tours to Turkey due to higher airfares and they look further afield to places like Kazakhstan where beaches on the Caspian are in lesser demand. Still others who would normally vacation in Europe at one or another spa now instead are driving south to Krasnodar, making many stops in historic towns along the way. One friend just came back from Kostroma, where she was delighted to discover a local cheese producer whose wares rival what we see around us in Belgium; in short, a pre-Revolutionary tradition has been successfully revived.
In the countryside, our neighbors are busy tending their greenhouses and harvesting daily their wonderful Bio quality tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and the like. The mood is of greater solidarity and sociality than we have seen before in our ten years on the land. We were given buckets of vegetables by neighbors on both sides, which was a surprise and a pleasure.
Crossing the border into Russia from Finland, 14 July 2022
Departure of our bus from Vantaa airport, Helsinki was on time, and our arrival in St Petersburg was 45 minutes ahead of schedule, for a total travel time of 7 hours, of which 1.5 hours was spent crossing at customs and passport control on both sides of the frontier.
Every seat in the bus was taken. Of the 50 passengers, I was the only foreigner. This became clear when the driver asked foreigners to step forward to be presented to a Russian border official – for the purpose of checking on the mandatory PCR test result.
The time going through Finnish control, meaning presenting our passports inside their administrative building, was less than half an hour. The building itself is state of the art, much superior to the Estonian border facility we passed through on our last trip. But then at this Finnish border the Russian administration is also a modern and spacious building, However, on the Russian side the checking is redundant and aggressive. Once we are processed, including x-ray inspection of all our luggage, we were then checked again to see that the date stamp was properly entered in our passports, and this was repeated twice more before our bus was allowed to move on. Meanwhile while we were waiting, we watched the inspection of the bus itself, which included the requirement that the engine compartment be opened for checking. Were they looking for stowaways going into Russia? More likely they are trying to break narcotics smuggling. That would fit the other ‘show’ to which we passengers were treated: a couple of German shepherds were put through their attack paces just outside our waiting room. The bureaucracy is working overtime to put in controls. It begins to look like the Soviet Union all over again.
Otherwise, the bus trip here from Helsinki allowed me to see firsthand the enormous engineering and construction project now proceeding at full speed from the Finnish border down to the city of Vyborg, about an hour’s drive to the southeast. The scale of the project is stunning and includes putting in electricity lines and construction of side roads going off into the forest. Our bus driver told me it is an extension of the “Scandinavia” highway, the first fully modern, international standard throughway in northwest Russia, built 20 years ago from the outskirts of St Petersburg up to Vyborg. Completion is scheduled for 2024.
Considering the rupture in relations with Finland over the past several months, considering that there are today virtually no semi-trailers at the border on either side, you have to ask why the Russians are continuing the construction at this level of intensity and cost.
I see two possible answers. 1. They believe the rupture will be short-lived and normal commercial exchange will resume before the completion date of the highway or 2. They are preparing for war with Finland/NATO and this new highway will greatly simplify logistics for heavy Russian equipment going up to the 1,000 km shared border.
I mention in passing that the original Scandinavia highway has also been modernized in its full original length, meaning state of the art lighting and the addition of sound buffer screens where it passes through settlements. Moreover, it has been extended south into the city proper and connected with the arterial roads and bridges that the city built in preparation for the FIFA games three years ago. Thus you now pass over the southern tip of Vasilievsky Island and the roadway descends to ground level only when it overpasses the Port with its shipbuilding wharves and views of the broader harbor. The roadway is spectacular and fitting for the country’s second most populous municipality.
Friday, 15 July, St Petersburg
Local media report that more than 5,000 people crossed the border into Finland today, the first day that the Russians dropped the travel restrictions they imposed shortly after the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic in March 2020.
The balance of traffic was 60% from Russia to Finland and 40% going the other way. The border service noted that most Russians were traveling to Finland for tourism or shopping, some to check on their property in Finland. Finns were crossing into Russia to fill up with cheap gasoline.
Separately, the Finnish embassy in Moscow announced that from the moment when the Corona virus restrictions were lifted by the Russians they received around 59,000 visa applications. In all of 2021 they received a total of 46,000 applications.
A surprise awaited us as we entered our apartment house in the southern St Petersburg borough of Pushkin: a notice on the door informed us that the annual shutdown of the central hot water boiler serving our neighborhood has come and there will be no hot water from the 14th through 27th July. Here was proof positive that you don’t have to be German in this period to limit your showers to four strategic parts of the body. This annual timing may also explain why so many of our neighbors in the building have chosen to leave town for their dachas or for other vacation destinations right now.
Sunday, 17 July, Orlino
The online “Morning Briefing” of today’s New York Times carries the news of Zelensky’s firing his prosecutor general and intelligence chief, calling it the most important shake-up in the government since the start of the Russian invasion.
The newspaper repeats Zelensky’s allegation that he took the decision due to “a large number of treason investigations that were opened into employees of law enforcement agencies.” The changes are said to have the approval of American officials, who now expect the Ukrainian president to put more experienced personnel in charge of key security positions. As The Times article further explains, “the firing of Ivan Bakanov, the leader of Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency and a childhood friend of the president’s, was not because of any mishandling of intelligence or any major penetration of Ukraine’s intelligence services by Russia.”
Quite separately, NYT also reports today on a Russian missile attack on Vinnitsa, where it says 23 people died including a 4 year old child with Down’s syndrome. Meanwhile, http://www.yandex.ru tells me that the Russian military command on Sunday reported that their missile strike in Vinnitsa was directed at the Officers’ Club, where it killed senior military officers of the Ukrainian air command together with high level NATO personnel who had come to a meeting to discuss Western shipments of aircraft to Ukraine.
I juxtapose these accounts to highlight the propagandistic editorial manipulation of news by The New York Times. Yes, separate facts are reported, but their causal relationship is utterly ignored for running counter to the official Washington narrative. Linking the stories leads without fail to the conclusion that the shake-up of the intelligence services in Kiev was directed from Washington, which was licking its wounds over the death of high ranking personnel due to intelligence leaks which Kiev could not thwart.
By the way, here at the dacha our no-fee satellite tv receiver still provides the Bloomberg and BBC News channels in English. However, contrary to common sense logic, the Russian state television channels which the pan-European satellite operator Eutelsat dropped on 15 June no longer are accessible here on my receiver. This is very disappointing. So here in the Russian countryside I do as in Brussels and watch Russian news on www.smotrim.ru. However, I am assured that Russia’s largest satellite television operator, Trikolor TV, which has more than 12 million subscribers across the country, continues to offer its paying clientele all Russian channels, though foreign broadcasters like National Geographic, Discovery Channel, the Disney Channel as well as the BBC and other international stations are no longer available.
Wednesday, 20 July, Orlino
The Financial Times and other Western media discuss Sergei Lavrov’s interview with RT and indications that Russia is preparing the territory it occupies for annexation. Plans to hold referendums make this very clear. So was I wrong to propose a month ago that Russia would not annex the newly liberated territories if in exchange the West lifted sanctions? The latter question was answered by Scholz in the past few days when he said that a peace with Ukraine on Russian terms would not lead to lifting of sanctions. Moreover, Russian objectives have been changing in keeping with the changing level of US and Western equipment being supplied to Ukraine. The delivery of the HIMARS multiple rocket launchers with 80 km range has been a game changer, but not in the sense meant in Washington.
Monday, 25 July, St Petersburg
Last night’s “Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov” was enlightening. The mood was optimistic that Russian military superiority will prove itself on the Ukrainian battlefield. Let the Americans send in their F16s (they dare not send in more recent fighter jets) and we will just shoot them down, given the edge of our latest generation fighters. What we need now is to concentrate on those NATO members which are supplying the preponderant majority of arms to Ukraine: the USA and the UK. See the need to destroy satellites in Musk’s system, which are relaying real time positioning of Russian forces to the Ukrainians. The United States will begin to worry only when we threaten their territory, and their weakest link is Alaska.
The Russian war aims are ratcheted up with each escalation of the heavy equipment the US is dispatching to Ukraine. HIMARS was a turning point. The Russian logic is: as the Ukrainians are given increasingly long range missile systems, we have to push the borders back to the West so they cannot threaten our civilians as they are doing now.
The Russians are now issuing passports in Kharkiv! The city, the second largest in Ukraine, will surely fall to Russian forces. They are moving on Odessa. Transdnistria is appealing to Russia for annexation. It is a foregone conclusion that in several months the Russians will reach end game and take the entire Black Sea coast, making Ukraine a landlocked and mainly agricultural country. They will also dictate terms on completion of demilitarization and denazification. The demilitarization is already proceeding at a fast place. The missile attacks on local command cetnters across Ukraine is liquidating the officer class and most experienced soldiers. What is left will be rabble.
The Solovyov show made a big issue of the visit to Moscow this past week by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, who came begging for increased deliveries of Russian gas to Hungary, saying that realism shows there is no alternative today to Russian energy resources. His arrival speech and his speech at the closing press conference were shown on the screen. Pleading, begging. Lavrov responded by saying we will consider this request with the utmost speed.
The panelists asked whether Orban will survive some US led attack on him for this betrayal. Maybe there will be a political attack, maybe physical liquidation. The panelists also note Hungary’s contempt for Kiev over its Ukrainization policies with respect to the Hungarian ethnic minority in their western borderlands. There we see exactly the same criminalization of the use of Hungarian language as is applied to Russian speakers. The Kiev nationalists are suicidal madmen. In this respect, indeed they are true to the Hitler cult.
Friday, 22 July, Orlino
Sergei Brillyov, host to the “News on Saturday” weekly program and member of the board of Russian state television news reporting, who has been on leave since shortly after the start of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, and is now doing spot reporting from South America, announced he is quitting the Russian news service and will take up special documentary film projects as an independent. Brillyov has a British passport; his family is long established in Britain. Here is one more leading case of a prominent personality finding it impossible to sit on two chairs any longer. To put it starkly, as George Bush said during the Iraq war,’you are either with us or you are against us.’
Saturday, 23 July, Orlino
A Russian missile attack on Odessa is denounced by Western media as showing contempt for the just concluded Ukraine-Russia-Turkey agreement on resumption of grain exports brokered by the United Nations.
Sunday, 24 July, Orlino
One news item of the day catches my attention: Russia and Israel are in open dispute over the Kremlin’s recent announcement of plans to close down the Sokhnut agency which is charged with recruiting Russian Jews for ‘repatriation.’
The issue seems not to have been picked up by Western mainstream media. It is a landmine, and yet I feel compelled to take a position on it based on what I perceive are the underlying factors that have influenced the Kremlin’s decision.
The question is not Israel per se but Zionism and how it contradicts the Kremlin’s definition of what the Russian Federation is all about. Vladimir Putin has in recent months repeatedly stressed the multinational, multi-creed, multi-ethnic nature of Russia. This has been particularly underlined in the reports on heroism of RF soldiers in the field in Ukraine, many of them coming from minority peoples and coincidentally from Russia’s Muslim population.
The question of closing Sokhnut will be decided by the Basmanny Court in Moscow. Though the government has not divulged its reasons for seeking the closure, it is rumored that the case against the agency includes its comments on war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine and violation of Russian laws governing personal information about citizens.
Other news today concerns official Russian military denials that the missile strike in Odessa yesterday was directed against civilian infrastructure or against the grain loading facilities. They struck a Ukrainian naval vessel and a storehouse of U.S. Harpoon missiles. Such attacks do not violate the terms of the signed agreement over grain shipping from Ukraine, say the Russians.
Monday, 25 July, Orlino
The warming in relations with neighbors on both sides of our property continues. Yesterday I had a lengthy chat with one over taming nature on our farms, the lives of trees and so forth. Later they invited Larisa to join them for some watermelon. Then today as I walked by the fence on the other side, I was summoned by the wife of the second in command to the owner, her mother in law. “Hey, neighbor. Come here. Take this bucket of cucumbers! This morning we went through our vegetable garden and found that we have four buckets of them. We can’t possibly eat them all. My mother in law said – take them to the market to sell. But that is not for us. So please accept this.” I did and she waited for me to return with the empty bucket.
Thursday, 28 July St Petersburg
We go into Petersburg for a number of tasks and find ourselves stuck in traffic as the Full Repetition for the Naval Parade on the Neva takes place and shuts access to Nevsky Prospekt for several hours till 2 pm. On the brighter side, this gives us more time to chat with our regular driver, Andrei, who has just returned from his 10 day unpaid summer vacation which he spent at his mother’s country house to the south of Petersburg, past our own village. In that time, he went fishing daily and caught a total of 150 fish which he immediately cleaned and salted, and is now hanging out to dry in the back yard of his house. The result will be what the Russians call vobly, an essential accompaniment to a stein of beer.
Andrei explains to us that a lot of VIPs from Moscow will come for the naval parade. Of course, Putin will be there, but it is also very likely Medvedev will make the trip. After all, he very discretely keeps a house in the St Petersburg area. Moreover, there may well be a visit of the Patriarch to our borough of Pushkin, where from time to time he appears at the Federovsky Sobor, a church constructed in 1909-12 at the orders of Emperor Nicholas II in honor of his cavalry regiment. It bears mention that the nearby Federovsky Gorodok is being restored as a patriarchal residence. The Gorodok was initially built to house those serving the Sobor. What liturgical obligations the Patriarch may perform in Petersburg on Navy Day have not yet been announced.
Friday, 29 July, Pushkin
We made a trip into Petersburg for talks at the Palace of Grand Prince Vladimir Aleksandrovich, which for many years in the Soviet period served as the House of Scholars. We completed our reservation of their ground floor dining rooms facing the Neva at the level of the Peter and Paul Fortress for 19 September. The views are wonderful and the building itself is a remarkable architectural monument to the imperial age, which justifiably takes visitors on paid tours of the premises on several floors.
I had first visited this palace when I was courting my Russian bride and her father’s membership was our entry ticket. It is wonderful to return now as the venue for our banquet celebrating fifty years of matrimony. This will be the follow-on to a second taking of vows in the very same Wedding Palace on the English Embankment where in September 1972 we were married. The American consul had then been the witness signatory and we had our little party in his apartment. The forthcoming event hopefully will be witnessed by assorted friends from all walks of life, meaning a stage director and a soloist from the Mariinsky Theater, some childhood friends of my wife, our trusted guardian and repairman of our Orlino dacha, our publishers in Petersburg and others. The opportunity to rent these historic premises to host 15 guests at a price that is not ruinous is typical of what has been and remains so endearing to us about this city and country.
Sunday, 31 July, Orlino
We watch the television broadcast of the Navy Day parade on the Neva which Putin oversees. It does not rain on Russian parades! Beautiful clear skies are the order of the day. The display of ships is very interesting – many of the latest surface and submarine craft are on the Neva river and harbor; others are in the Kronstadt harbor. Nearly all are relatively small but packed with weaponry and electronic gear. Most of them have cruise missiles – vertical launch Kalibri. The corvette Admiral Gorshkov has the new hypersonic missile Zircon, which has 8 Mach speed and a range of 1,000 km. Stationing off the US coast would give it five minute flying time to Washington, D.C.
Putin makes a short speech from the reviewing stand. It focuses on the history of the fleet and the valor, bravery of the crews and their commanders. It is a dignified speech. There is no reference to international affairs, no threats to anyone. Simply the fleet is there to safeguard Russia’s sovereignty and interests. He speaks of Petersburg as “the naval capital of Russia.”
Note that among the places where Russia is staging naval parades today are Vladivostok, Sevastopol, a Caspian Sea port, and there is also Tartus in Syria!
Before the start of the naval parade, in the Peter and Paul fortress Putin signs a new Naval Doctrine which takes into consideration the challenges of the new sanctions against Russia and global geopolitics. It places priority on the Arctic. It emphasizes that Russia operates in all the world’s oceans. It states that Russia will be increasing its shipbuilding capabilities, in Vladivostok and elsewhere. And it mentions that Russia will build an aircraft carrier.
Otherwise, I took my final swim in Orlino lake this visit. Folk wisdom holds that autumn begins on 1 August and from that day you do not go swimming since the water temperature drops steadily. Already today I feel that the lake temperature has dropped a degree or two, down to the barely acceptable level of 19 degrees.
Monday, 1 August, Orlino – St Petersburg
The news continues to feature calls for an investigation into the bombing of a prisoner of war installation in Donbas where several hundred Ukrainian fighters who surrendered at the end of the Azovstal siege were being held for interrogation. A missile struck the facility in the middle of the night killing 53 detainees outright and injuring another 90 or so out of the 200 kept in the dormitory that was struck. Among the victims were Azov Battalion members.
Zelensky claims the Russians did this and calls for an international investigation into the war crime. This was picked up and rebroadcast by mainstream Western media. The complete illogic of such claims has gone past nearly all journalists. One need only consider who had an interest in preventing these POWs from talking about their crimes.
Also today Algeria announced its interest in joining BRICS. This joins numerous other announcements of candidacy for both BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Taken all together, it spells the end of US-European global domination. And to whom do we owe this very promising reordering of the global landscape? To Putin and the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022