[This blog was written in May 2015]
I slept badly. It wasn't for the lack of practice but rather the jet lag. Last time I was so far East, it was easier because the journey had been broken up: a couple of unexpected nights in Singapore and two more in Australia before hitting the well sites in deepest outback of Moomba.
This time though I was in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk ahead of another adventure - at least that's how I like to think about work when this far from home. It's an nine-hour time difference and I travelled here in twenty five hours. My body is out of sync. The day-long safety induction (all in Russian) was nearly the death of me. I'm not smart - I understood that tea, coffee and sandwiches would be on offer for the half-hour break for lunch. The important stuff. The rest went over my head: or would have if the slides had not been mostly straight interpretations from many in English I had already seen. The guys who needed to see me the following day however, took mercy and decided a day of adjustment was in order. Further meetings have been put back until the weekend.
So what does one do in a strange city on a day off? The answer is obvious to any Brit: go for a walk. On the way to the rather nice resort hotel on the edge of town where the safety meeting was held, I noticed a church, or rather a cathedral, under construction. This is not an everyday event in the UK: after replacing and repairing several from bomb-damage in the 20th Century, our own church-building programme has hit a rather fallow patch. So remembering the rough directions, I set off.
The first thing that struck me about Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is how Russian it is. This may be a counterintuitive thing to state but think on it. It is 6600km (4100 miles) from St. Petersburg but still in the same country. If that is not amazing enough for you, the distance between New York and Los Angeles is a mere 3900km. This is not even the end of Russia here: it goes further through another four time zones to the Bering Straits, where even Americans like Sarah Palin has heard of it.
For me to state therefore how Russian the place is is, to my mind is remarkable. The faces on the street are a mix of Caucasian, Asiatic and Turkic, but the majority are white Russians. Only a few times did I see faces that could hint at Japanese or Korean heritage.
The city itself feels like it is on the up. In Spring, all Russian (and former Soviet Union) cities I have been to are dusty and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is no exception. Plumes where sent up into my face when a large four-by-four pulled in to park. As one would expect, most of the vehicles are Japanese brands. It stuck me one evening that in most of the cars approaching, the drivers were close to me as I walked along. Then it struck me: not only are the cars made in Japan, most of them are actually with the steering wheel on the right, and made for the Japanese market! I can only imagine that it works out cheaper to buy a second-hand Japanese import than one made for the majority of the world's markets for driving on the right.
On the whole, the main street are clean, the pavements reasonable and the apartment blocks well maintained, even the Soviet-era buildings. Poor roads and frost-damaged pavements seemed reserved for the residential zones.
This city is not so far from major geological subduction zones and earthquakes as strong as an eight on the Richter scale have been know. Unlike Yerevan, which still showed the scars of major quakes when I visited in the late 1990s, I didn't see any such signs here. Instead there are new blocks and still more going up. All good, so I was keen to see the new cathedral.
At first it was as I remembered from yesterday. It is not every day one sees the typical Russian onion dome cupolas sitting on the ground waiting to be lifted into place.
Then next door I noticed the field guns. What? Artillery? This was not going to be as straightforward as I though.
As it transpired, the cathedral is only part of the story. The whole complex is forming a brand new religious / memorial centre dedicated, as far as I can tell, to the seventieth anniversary to the end of what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War. World War Two to the rest of us.
The suffering and sacrifice of the Soviet people are constantly glossed over in the West. As far as British and American public are mainly concerned, the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany started on the Sixth on June, 1944. No so. By that time the Russians had undergo three years of invasion and constant warfare on their own soil, had won the battle of Stalingrad and in the previous summer to D-Day had held the last great German offensive at Kursk. After that the Germans had been thrown into retreat, ceding ground as in push after push and, in a story untold in the West, the Germans were steadily ground back towards their starting positions in Poland, Hungary and Romania.
Given this, I don't blame the Russian peoples for continuing to mark the anniversary of defeating the Nazis. What I do find disturbing however, is the juxtaposition of war and church in such an obvious manner. The cathedral is just the centrepiece of a complex where the state's victory is firmly anchored to Orthodox religion. The irony of course is that although the church was briefly resurrected during the Great Patriotic War, it was on the whole subjected to the most horrible persecution under Communist rule. Not any more.
Here is how the complex is expected to look:
The cathedral is to be the centre, with the war memorial on its right hand (left as we look at the picture) to have its own onion dome as a echo. Now, I do not claim expertise but I have never seen this particular architectural feature on any Soviet war memorial. It seems to express that while the victory was that of the people, it occurred under the sanction of God. I wonder what the Soviet war veterans would have to say about that?
So, the question is, what does all this mean? I have blogged previously on the rise of the Orthodox Church in Putin's Russia and it seems that the process is continuing. Putin is determined to recreate the rule of the Tsars. Not in hereditary terms (at least as far as I am aware) but perhaps more on the model of the ruling elite, united with the full trapping of a state religion. The model of state is not so far from that of the ancient Persians: one where regional governors (satraps) are appointed and can be replaced upon whim of the centre. Or maybe it is not so fancy: just the nationalism of the Soviet Union, stripped of its affection of socialism, and sanctioned by God.
To me though, the thought of God glorifying any warfare, no matter how just the cause, is truly obscene. This complex represents nothing less than Christ in the service of Caesar.
That is a part of the New Testament that I must have missed.