1000 miles of Russian Reflections:Why the Russians don’t think Putin is an ogre

President Putin; Pic credit BBC

President Putin: Pic Credit: BBC


It is popular in Britain to think of Putin as a dangerous ogre. That is hardly surprising after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London and the assassination of opposition politician, Robert Nemstov. And the revelations kept from the Russian public about Putin and other prominent people’s secret offshore funds revealed in the Panama papers. Let alone Russia’s position on gay rights.

After travelling some 1000 miles along  waterways from St Petersburg to  Moscow on a very adventurous  and exhausting trip organised by Viking cruises it would strike me that it would be very short sighted to think that the West could simply bully and threaten Russia.

In 13 days the trip takes in two major cities and five centres in rural Russia. There are lectures on Russia’s bloody history from the Vikings through the Romanovs to Communism, a frank debate on present day Russia, lessons in Russian, vodka and Russian food tastings and a punishing schedule of included and optional excursions, morn,noon and night.

For all the misgivings about him, Putin appears to be popular. He gained some 64 per cent of the vote in a criticised election (down from 75 per cent before) in 2012.Outside Moscow the main contenders were not the liberal reformers but  the Communists who  got 17 per cent of the vote. Liberal reformers did better in the capital.

Ask our guides on the trip – and one of them voted for the Communist  presidential candidate- and they would say Putin has brought them stability (despite much higher inflation there than here) and also defended Russian interests.

The Crimea vote to rejoin Russia is popular and seen as righting a wrong created by Khrushchev in the 1950s when he handed it over to Ukraine. The Russians don’t forget the battle of Sevastopol.

The real villains for the Russians  are Western hero Gorbachev and Yeltsin.  Gorbachev is seen as a major destabilising factor over perestroika and Yeltsin for creating poverty and chaos through his shock capitalist therapy.

As one guide put it: ” Under Yeltsin we had money but no goods. Now we have lots of goods and not enough money.”

Another put it: ”  Gorbachev was rather like Thatcher. Both were seen as world statesmen  abroad but both were loathed by a lot of people in their own country.”

And one should not  underestimate Russian determination to defend their homeland. Our visit coincided with Russia’s equivalent of Armistice Day – Victory Day over the Nazis in their 1941-45 War. Some 27 million Russian died.

It is also used by Putin to show off the latest military equipment. But in St Petersburg ( and also in Moscow) – the most poignant moments were the thousands of people marching with placards and pictures  of relatives (often grandfathers) who had died in that conflict. They are called the ” immortal regiment” and it has grown from a grassroot gesture. to  one of the main ways to remember and honour the dead.

The one school we visited in  the small rural town of Kirillov (7000 people) also had large displays  commemorating former pupils who died in the 41-45 war.The town  also has had a statue of Lenin, a huge fortified monastery favoured by Ivan the Terrible and a rebuilding project for its local church used by the Communists as a drinks warehouse.

The other striking feature is the rise of Russian Orthodox Church. Not only have old ones that survived been restored but new ones built in the old style where they were blown up by Stalin. Church attendance  at seven per cent is probably little higher than in the UK, with more people attending at Christmas and Easter or for weddings and funerals. Nor is it confined to just the revival of Christianity – synagogues have been re-opened and other religions tolerated

.Moscow has a new  enterprising  high tech Jewish museum in an old art deco bus garage – the only place where I have experienced the Old Testament with surround sound in 3D . You get a bit wet during Noah’s flood and experience  what  a plague of locusts is like.

And yes there is much greater disparity of wealth. Moscow’s eight lane  highways are perpetually jammed by foreign cars bought by Russians. The River Neva outside St Petersburg is lined with huge new dachas – the  Toad Halls of the nouveaux riches. There are almost as many 4×4’s as in Berkhamsted.

And Yaroslavl – an old city some 160 miles from Moscow – where the aristocrats retreated from Napoleon after Moscow was captured in War and Peace – has a UNESCO World Heritage city centre. But nearly all its 600,000 inhabitants have jobs in industry. Uemployment is  1.4 per cent – though this is not typical for all Russia.

And the Russians appear to have stopped demolishing Communist statutes and buildings – the Moscow port where out ship docked has a huge Stalin designed building complete with a  spire topped with Red star and hammer and sickle. The 1937 hall is to  be restored and refurbished not demolished.

Russia wants to become a major tourist destination. The West ought to adopt a more sophisticated approach to dealing with Putin who is no fool Carrots and sticks may be better than aggressive containment.. By being ultra aggressive all they will do is unite the Russian people against the West while at the moment I found them both curious and  welcoming to Western visitors.













Russian Reflections:How you can’t spend a rouble in a Russian loo



Russia under the Communists was well known for its queues. Food was scarce, shoes and clothes pretty unobtainable. All that has gone under Putin. But in a visit this month with my disabled wife,Margaret, we discovered a new Russian queuing phenomena – just to visit the loo.

The reason is that in Russia a public loo is a rare phenomenon even in the most popular venues in Moscow and St Petersburg. And a disabled loo is such a rare creature that it verges on extinction. What mostly passes for a disabled loo would also struggle to meet the British Trades Description Act.

Most Russian loos look like a builders’ portacabin. The row in the picture above are believe it or not the public conveniences off Red Square. In the Kremlin itself there are toilets for just six people – a place visited by millions every year.  And only one disabled person can pee at a time. Within little more than a stone’s throw of Putin’s apartment strict rules ban flushing toilet paper down loos, a babuska  rations the number of sheets, and comical notice in English warns the disabled not to stand on the toilet seat.In most cases the pleasure of such facilities sets you back 25 roubles or 30p.

But what happens when you don’t have the cash as in St Petersburg when both my wife and I had not yet visited a cash machine to get any roubles. My wife pleaded desperation and the babuska let her in only to find the double doors led to a series of steps to get on the throne of the loo. When there was a crash the babuska rushed to see over the door  to see if she was all right.Fortunately she was.

I had a little more difficulty. WIth no money it was Niet. So desperate was I to enter the portacabin that I even offered a crisp five pound note. That was refused . In final desperation I went round the back of the Portabin. It was only when I was poised to piss on the historic wall of  Peter the Great’s fortress that suddenly she started banging on her office window. I was literally relieved in every sense and allowed to enter for free.

But there were other extraodinary toilet events to come. Nothing really surpassed the public convenince  at the Nunnery where the Czars in the past sent their discarded wives rather than choosing the Henry VIII solution. To enter this loo you went into the bowels of the earth down a spiralling staircase. Hardly suitable for the disabled.When my wife eventually go down there it turned into a communal experience women able to see each other  over  stable doors.Still at least the experience was free. See the entrance below.

However  there is one disabled loo in Moscow that shames everyone  So high tech and brilliantlly equipped that it has no rival. It is in Moscow’s magnificent and brilliant Jewish Museum – more in another piece on Russia –  and boasts a bum warmer and a bidet . It is easily  accessible and i t is free for the price of an admission ticket. If only all loos were like this.

Russia needs to get its  act together if it wants to become a big tourist destination. It so needs another revolution, a proper disability agenda and a body to champion the disabled and fight for decent loos.

I took this up with the Russian Embassy when we returned from the trip . This is their unedited reply:

“Thank you for letting us know about your impressions and concerns. Indeed, there are fewer toilets for the disabled in Russia than there should be. Standards for accessible environment were legally set in 2001, and they are complied with in new buildings and structures, but, regretfully, less so in the already existing ones. This is really an issue we should deal with. Note that the safe option in larger towns is McDonalds – they always have good accessible toilets and are OK with non-customers using them.”

Leak of Dame Janet Smith report on Savile and the BBC nominated for national media award

My  set of stories for Exaro News earlier this year revealing the contents of Dame Janet Smith’s report on Jimmy Savile’s activities at the BBC  has been nominated for a national media award.

The series of stories have been short listed in the breaking news story of the year  for next month’s Drum On Line Media awards – pitching it against TV coverage of the Shoreham air crash , the Alton Towers disaster and the BBC’s coverage of the Paris terror attacks.

The report which was highly critical of the culture at the BBC that allowed  Jimmy Savile to flourish. By the day after Exaro published the report every national paper was carrying the story.

The leaked report revealed how Dame Janet Smith, the retired judge who led the review, condemned BBC culture over Savile’s paedophile activities at the Corporation. She criticised the BBC for a “very deferential culture”, its “untouchable” stars and “above the law” managers.

In a series of articles, Exaro revealed how BBC employees were too afraid to report Savile to managers, and how BBC people feared blowing the whistle even more now.

The series of articles also exposed a BBC culture where celebrities were treated with “kid gloves” while managers drank heavily, and how the Smith review warned that “a predatory child abuser could be lurking undiscovered in the BBC even today.

The series of 22 stories published on the same day revealed how more than 100 BBC employees told Smith that they heard about Savile’s predatory sexual conduct, and how the review raised evidence of sexual abuse at Top of the Pops that went far wider than Savile.

Exaro also published more than 37,500 words of extracts from Smith’s entire report.

I have no idea whether  we will win the award but the short listing of the  Exaro articles show that investigative journalism is still alive at a time when Exaro has taken criticism from other national media for its coverage of other controversial issues like the child sex abuse scandal.

I would also like to pay tribute to my brave source and my colleagues at Exaro particularly Alex Varley Winter. Without the leak of the story people would not have been so well informed on the day when the report was published and Dame Janet Smith had to account for her report and the BBC director general, Tony Hall, had to explain what he was going to do about it.


A tainted and improper appointment by Nicky Morgan


On the day  of the Hillsborough  disaster verdict Nicky Morgan,  education secretary  with a sideshow job as women and equalities minister, slipped out that she had appointed a new chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

On the scale of wrong decision making this probably trumps her plan to force all schools to become academies,describe budget cuts as a consultation exercise and avoiding live TV coverage of her remarks on child sex abuse  at a conference in her Loughborough constituency last year. I will explain why.

The appointment of David Isaac, a millionaire lawyer and equity partner at the global law firm, Pinsent Masons, has been highly controversial.

The two chairs of the Joint Committee of Human Rights and the Women and Equalities Committee –  Labour’s Harriet Harman and the Conservative’s Maria Miller – were unable to confirm the appointment because of perceived conflict of interest. Both are highly experienced ex  ministers and both took top legal advice before they objected.

The most damning evidence  against this appointment comes from another highly distinguished lawyer, Michael Carpenter, the Speakers Counsel. He was asked by both chairs as to whether the appointment met the strict criteria of what are known as the Nolan  Principles ( named after Lord Nolan, the first chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life). These lay down strict guidelines of selflessness,integrity, objectivity,accountability,openness, honesty and leadership. They were brought in after the aftermath of the corrupt ” cash for questions ” scandal and apply to every public appointment.

Mr Isaac’s appointment fails to meet two of these standards – selflessness and integrity.

As Mr Carpenter highlights Mr Isaac  failed to meet the selflessness standard – because holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. (His emphasis added) . He failed to meet the  integrity standard  because holders of public office must declare and resolve any interests and relationships. (His emphasis added).

Mr Carpenter concluded that because Mr Isaac both remained as an equity partner with responsibility for the development of the law firm which had many government contracts and because he was also a practising lawyer with a duty of confidentiality to his clients – some of which could be investigated by the Commission- that he would not fulfil the Nolan principles. Mr Isaac will be earning ten times his salary as an equity partner with Pinsent Masons  than his salary as commission chair.

He also concluded that a promise of keeping Chinese walls in his legal work by Mr Isaac would not work in this case.

He concluded: “It is difficult to predict where the overlap between these two bodies may result in an actual, potential or perceived conflict of interest. With the best will in the world, Mr Isaac may well not be aware of a problem until it is published elsewhere – at that point, a “Chinese Wall” will be ineffective and too late.”

Now in her rush to  appoint Isaac  Nicky Morgan  decided to ignore this advice. Her reasoning is perverse. She actually argues in a letter that having a conflict of interest in public life is a good thing.

She wrote: “What is important is that there is transparency around these interests and that appropriate action is taken to deal with any potential conflicts. Mr Isaac’s CV refers clearly to these interests and, given his openness and assurances to deal with any actual or perceived conflicts of interest, I feel that is to be welcomed rather than a cause for concern. “

How wrong can you get.. You can’t trade off one Nolan Principle against another. It’s illogical and plainly improper.

Frankly her decision could well be the start of slippery slope where people ( not Mr Isaac in this case) with dodgy private connections get access to public jobs.

Mr Isaac has delayed accepting the job until he has further talks with Commission. Very wise.

If  he accepts both he and the Commission will be tainted. And among his  legal peers he will be regarded as the first public appointment that compromised the Nolan Principles.

And if there is ever any breach of any equality or gender law in Pinsent Masons he will find himself at the centre of  a  storm.

Nicky Morgan has been extremely stupid . I hope it comes back to haunt her political career for the rest of her life.

I have also written about this in Tribune magazine.


” Darth Vader” mandarin’s unstellar performance on crime mustn’t pay

home affairs committee christmas-cards

Mark Sedwill as Darth Vader centre right next to Theresa May


Earlier this month I railed about the extraordinary findings of a report by the National Audit Office which showed Whitehall’s abject failure to confiscate the stolen assets of  criminals.

Theresa May’s claims that crime musn’t pay were torn into tatters by a report which showed  what a woeful record the present government has in confiscating them.

You would think that her top Home Office civil servant – permanent secretary Mark Sedwill – would do everything to make amends for this poor performance.

But think again. When he came to account for missing almost every target set by Parliament a few years before his complacent response so angered MPs on Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee that he was sent packing by the chair Labour Mp, Meg Hillier.

I have written about this in Tribune magazine.

Now Mark Sedwill has a stellar nickname – thanks to a jokey reference in a  recent Christmas card put out by the Commons Home affairs Committee, which monitors the home office.

He is proud to be depicted as” Darth Vader ” the evil figure in the Star Wars movie – to Theresa May’s Princess Leia as part of cast of characters on their Christmas card ( see picture above.)

As he told Civil Service World  ” It’s always better to be one of the stars, even if you’re the dark lord, than to be disregarded. I think he’s the coolest character in the pantheon – so I’m not that bothered.”.

His performance before the committee was anything but stellar. And the criminals would be delighted that the man representing the Dark Side was happy to pretend he had recovered their loot.

He obfuscated, denied reality and pretended that he had never agreed with the report’s findings in the first place. He even started quoting government propaganda that  ministers were delighted with his efforts – which left at least £203m worth of assets uncollected.

So angry was one Tory MP, Stephen Phillips, a QC and member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, that he accused him of turning the hearing into ” a farce”and said his performance was ” an exercise in Sir Humphreyism.”.

And the committee abruptly halted the hearing – an almost unprecedented event- when Meg Hillier told him:” I do not think we have any option but to adjourn this. This is something I never wanted to do in this Committee. As Mr Phillips said, we want to get answers. This is a hugely important area and I am really disappointed that we are going to have to take this form of action. I do not think we are going to get very much further today.”

He has a chance to redeem himself next Tuesday when he will have to come up with some real answers at a resumed hearing.  We have to hope  this time the  MPs will turn into Jedi knights to get some explanations.

You can watch the hearing here..



How the government is allowing the Japanese to profit from captive London and Brummie commuters



Earlier this month the Department of Transport extended its recommended list of bidders to run Britain’s railways to a privatised rail company in Japan.

It shortlisted East Japan Railway as a minority partner with the Dutch state rail company Abellio, in the consortium West Midlands Trains Ltd as one of three groups bidding to take over the West Midlands franchise next October. which provides commuter services into London and Birmingham including my home town of Berkhamsted.

But more significantly it decided that East Japan Railway would qualify as an approved bidder for any other franchise up for grabs until 2020.

The Telegraph presented  the bid as a move by a company at the cutting edge of technology as it provides some of  Japan’s bullet train services.

But anyone thinking those on the crowded commuter routes will be whisked in by a super bullet train service should think again.

The story is in fact the exact opposite once you study the company’s latest annual report.

What it shows is that the bedrock of the company’s regular income is its commuter services around Tokyo not its bullet trains. And the prospect for making any more money out of them is a tad bleak.

It reveals that the company is currently facing a downturn in its commuter services serving Tokyo partly caused by a declining population and is looking to expand abroad. It currently provides no services outside Asia – where it is helping develop a mass transit rail system for Bangkok and improve train services in Indonesia.

The annual report says: “Generally, Japan’s declining population is seen as unfavourable for the transportation industry. However, our performance in fiscal 2015 proved that, even in an era of population decline, we can grow revenues by steadily implementing various measures.”

These include developing stations and encouraging more retired people to use local trains as the number of commuters decline.

With lower fares in Japan than the UK, the move could give the operator access to the lucrative London commuter market and it could also offer its services to maintain and build new trains for the British market.

So in other words commuters using London Midland trains to get into Birmingham and London Euston will be contributing to  profits which can be repatriated to Tokyo to offset the declining  Japanese market.

Which makes an investment in London Midland a one way bet for the Japanese since the current Tory government will ensure fares rise every year and the growing population in the UK will all help boost profits.

I would not be surprised to see government ministers in the transport department helping themselves to directorships and consultancies with the company a couple of years after they have stepped down from their posts. After all they have done them a great favour.

I have written about this in Tribune. The three consortia bidding are:a consortium run by London and West Midlands Railway Ltd, a subsidiary of Govia Ltd (a joint venture between Keolis and Go-Ahead Group)’ West Midlands Trains Ltd, currently a wholly owned subsidiary of Abellio Transport Group Ltd with East Japan Railway Company and Mitsui & Co Ltd as minority partners; and MTR Corporation (West Midlands) Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of MTR Corporation (UK) Ltd which runs the Hong Kong rail system.

The new London Midland operator will take over in October this year.

Seven Guys in a Boat: The Caen Hill challenge


The challenge: Caen Hill Locks


Some of my ultra fit lobby journalist colleagues and nephews run marathons. Some of my friends do mad things like cycling from London to Paris in 24 hours. But  for some of us at our time of life the challenge has to be a little more measured.

So seven of us  decided to  take on the challenge of Britain’s longest flight of locks on the Kennet and Avon canal as part of a four day trip from Bradford on Avon to Horton. Given our average age is 69 and some were novices on a narrowboat it was still a serious challenge.

Particularly when your hearing is not so good, your balance is not quite perfect and your muscles not as agile as a 20 year old and one of us, my wife Margaret, excused lock duty, is recovering from a stroke.

But in 24 hours -punctuated by an overnight stay next to a canal side pub at Horton- we negotiated no fewer than 58 locks to get up and back down again without a mishap.

The locks known as Caen Hill (pronounced Kane) rise 237 feet over two miles – with 16 of them virtually back to back.Each trip up and down takes five hours. They were restored in the 1970s and 1980s after they fallen into serious decay.

For a group of ” golden oldies ” – our cumulative age total is over 480  – this meant working each lock and involved opening a closing a double set of locks  as a relay team. Amazingly none of us fell in, only one of us fell over and this had nothing to do with a lock, and we found ( at least my surprise) that we still had the energy to do it. So much due to that free orange juice and cod liver oil we got growing up under the Attlee government.

On the way up we were able to double up with another boat – relying on the brawn and brains of youth to aid the elderly. On the way down we had the flight to ourselves – passing only one boat on the way up.

The Canal and River Trust – successor to the nationalised British Waterways- has  people around to help if you get into difficulty. But apart from several pleasant conversations they had no need to intervene.

Indeed the main obstacle was two pairs of nesting swans – right next to the locks . But once we had mastered the gentle art of throwing grass into the water to distract the male from following the boat into the lock where it would be crushed when the water drained out, it was literally plain sailing.

We also were lucky with the weather. we had a downpour when we arrived and a downpour when with left – with mainly brilliant sunshine – and warm enough for a few hours  for T shirt weather – in between.

My one complaint was the building work on the canal – which closed one road and diverted the towpath elsewhere. Foolishly relying on the workman and locals I was told I could still cross a bridge on foot to reach the pub and ended up crossing the canal a mile up tramping through three muddy fields and breaking and entering the building site – a pensioner vandal -in desperation to get to the bar.

The real thanks should be to my shipmates, my co-author Francis Beckett – skilled navigator and his (newly wed )wife, Linda Cohen, who organised and booked the trip.  Chris Kaufman, singer and accomplished crewman; Mike Brereton,.a great cook who kept us well fed from dawn to dusk, and his wife, Pearl, who mastered  nautical skills faster than me. Margaret, who had a bit of trepidation, about the trip, had great guts in mastering her river legs in a confined space.

I should recommend four pubs. Pride of place should go to the  refurbished Barge Inn, Bradford on Avon, which had an imaginative menu, and served London Pride, Ringwood brewery ale and surprisingly draft beer from New Zealand.

Also good on the trip were the Three Magpies at Seend which served a proper beef and ale pie as well as Wadsworth bitter; The Bridge at Horton, which served a  wider selection of Wadsworth ales and the Barge Inn, Seend.

maraget hencke on the canal

Margaret on the prow of the narrowboat enjoying the sun

I have added a Youtube video from my young work colleague Alex Varley Winter  of a trip they made down the Caen  Hill flight . Much younger, fitter and faster than us as you will see  here.