What the joint military drills of Russia and China mean for the West?

Russia and PRC held several joint military drills. In geographical terms, the closest to home for NATO was the participation of Chinese guided-missile destroyer Heifei in Russian naval exercises in the Baltic sea in July 2017, as a continuation of 2015 joint naval drills in the Mediterranean and South China Sea.

  1. The Baltic Sea is in many ways NATO’s internal sea, with member states plus tacitly associated (but formally non-aligned) Sweden and Finland controlling almost all of its coast, and NATO’s Denmark and Norway locking the only passage into the ocean.
  2. The Baltic naval drills follow up the past Sino-Russian drills in the Mediterranian in 2015, which is also, for all practical purposes NATO’s internal sea.
  3. The Chinese are telling the US: “You mess up in the South China sea, be prepared for us to mess up in your neighborhood”. The Chinese won’t of course pick the fight so far from home, but they signal that they can strengthen the Russian hand.
  4. The Russians are telling the US: “We may not be able to deploy 200+ ocean-going naval ships like we did in the 1970s on our own, but together with the Chinese we can try to come close”.
  5. Supporting each other militarily, if the need arises, will require a totally different level of compatibility between the naval weapon, equipment and communication systems of China and Russia. Which language to use for what purpose? How to interpret intercepted commands from friendly forces? How to tell friend from foe from neutrals etc. That’s what naval exercises are for.

Why St. Petersburg was chosen over “Petrograd” as the new name for Leningrad?

Petrograd was the name given to the city of St. Petersburg in the frenzy of anti-German sentiment of WWI. It means the same in Russian, “the city of Peter”.

Even though the name change happened on Tzar Nicholas II watch in 1914, in popular mind it is imprinted in association with the Revolutionary age (“Petrograd, the cradle of the Revolution of 1917″). Here is an old Bolshevik poster, seared into every Soviet school kid’s retina: “We shield Petrograd with our breast!

Say “Petrograd” to those born in the USSR, and it echoes in our skulls with “war”, “shooting”, “revolutionary soldiers”, “people’s tribunals” and suchlike. Not the stuff we fondly remember.

Say “St. Petersburg”, and it resounds with European sophistication, Imperial glory, spacious ballrooms and high society gossip in French, English and Italian.

As a Soviet-era joke put it:

“Where were you born?”

“St Petersburg”

“Where did you go to school?”


“Where did you work?”


“Where do you want to be buried?”

“St Petersburg.”

Why did Varangians disappear from Russia without a trace?

Vikings were in Russia known as Varangians. Their business was coastal sting operations, and they excelled at it.

Being itinerant tribal warriors from the far fringe of Europe, they didn’t have the ambition to build up a distinctive civilization, like the Arabs or the Romans. First when they settled in Northern France, in Kievan Rus and Sicily and blended with local elites, they started to think and act like regular kings and dukes and counts. At this, they were hugely successful, with at least three mighty kingdoms as their lasting legacy.

And yet, it didn’t take many generations for them to disappear completely. What happened?

Love happened.

The fierce Nordic warriors had strong preference for indigenous ladies. They had kids with them and found the entire bunch so irresistibly sweet that they didn’t mind them talking to each other in their MOTHER tongue.

Like mother, like son, as the Jews certainly know. In a couple of generations, assimilation left few traces of the Nordic legacy, wherever they had settled.

Love conquers all, folks!

Are many of modern Russians of truly Russian origin?

Honestly, no Russian is completely of Russian origin.

“Russian” stems from “Rus”, the name of an ancient gang of Viking warriors living off slave trade to the old Byzantine Empire. They were few, and got assimilated by Eastern Slav tribes without leaving a trace.

Then the Slavs, wise from business lessons taught by the Vikings, started to go deep in the thick of Eurasian forests hunting high and low for Ugro-Finnish people to be sold as slaves to Greeks and Arabs and Persians. Many of us got distracted in the process, and got settled as mere peaceful farmers with our blond Finnish wives.

Then the Mongols came, and showed us how to build empires and kill and maim anyone who resisted like there is no tomorrow.

Then the Turks gave us their delicious fatty foods and colorful clothes, and we fought together against the hoity-toity Poles and the bloody-minded Crimean Chingizides. They gave us the large slanted eyes and protruding cheekbones of our fashion models because they knew that future model headhunters would die for these.

Then the Europeans came, and taught us how to use make-up and pick the right clothes and use the right words to become top picks on Tinder and poolside parties in Santa Monica, LA and the rooftop bars in London.

After that came Germans with their technical knowledge and the knack of spinning tales of national greatness. Then, Jews with their tasty kitchen and science brains and catchy pop tunes. … you get the picture, don’t you?

How do Russians feel about being the “bad guys” in many video games and films?

I remember time when we used to get our knickers in a knot every time we saw a Russian villain in Hollywood movies.

Then we started to enjoy being the bad guys. Much like teenagers finding the fun part of being the baddest gang on the block. Or the Trump fans all excited to be “a bunch of deplorables”.

Right now, I think a lot of us Russians are transiting to the “Let’s take it like the British” territory. We are making attempts at cool distanced amusement whenever we see Hollywood Russians and trying to generate self-deprecating jokes with a varying degree of hilarity.

Did pizza exist in the Soviet Union?

A resounding “NO”.

We are a country of Slav and Turkic peasants on the edge of human habitation. We like portable food. Pizza’s not portable and needs to be eaten sizzling fresh and hot.

For the same reason, we had no tradition of making sandwiches. Sandwiches require shrink wrapping for it. With no wrapping, when you take these things with you to the fields, or to the woods, or to the battle with Tartar nomads, everything slips off and makes a mess of the lunch pack your mother lovingly made for you.

That’s why we are so strong on “PIROGI” (in combination with cooked eggs, dried fish and pickled cucumbers on the side). The pirogi dough wraps it all up, and absorbs any surplus gravy and fat in the filling.

When foreigners started pestering us with skeptical questions about the mystery meat inside, we came to make small inspection openings in the pirogi. But no more concessions! This is the closest you come to pizza in traditional Russian cooking:

Where did Soviet citizens buy food?

In the cities, we used to buy food for rubles in grocery stores, most of which were called Produkty or Gastronom. We had them everywhere, all owned by the government.

There was no room for private shop owners, and shops had no branding. That made it real simple to find food in the Soviet. You had to go down a couple of blocks looking for big friendly letters saying “Producty” (groceries), or “Gastronom” (food), or if you are in a bigger city “Kolbasa” (processed meat), or “Ryba”/”Okean” (“fish”/”seafood”).

No guarantee that you would find anything beyond the basic butter, milk or birch sap (a staple item, always in 3-liter glass containers). But if you saw a line forming inside or outside, it was a good sign: they had a fresh delivery of some rarer stuff.

In the picture below, a Gastronom shop, the way they looked like when I was little. I learned to read when I walked down the street with my parents and matched letters in shop signs to the sounds that grown-ups made of them.

Why was Poland so important that Russia repeatedly invaded it in the past?

  • Poland was Russia’s prime strategic rival to the West long before Germany and the US
  • Ever since we in Russia decided that “Moscow is the third Rome, with no room for the fourth”, Poland had effectively been the only Slav country with the capacity and ambition to challenge us for the role of unifying power for all Slavic peoples of Europe
  • Poland was the prime conduit of Western cultural imports to Russia up to Peter the Great and his opening of Russian trade routes in the Baltic Sea. Russian has as many loan words from Polish (and German/Jewish through Polish) as from Turkic languages
  • In terms of geography, if you plan a land invasion to Russia, your way is through Poland. If you are Russian and want to conquer Europe, you must take Poland first. The Carpathian mountains to the south and Baltic Sea to the north leave you no room for maneuver,
  • The favorite Polish ideas of constitutions, noisy parliaments, aristocratic liberties and powerless monarchs have always deeply offended our Russian sense of popular justice, spiritual destiny and Großrussisches Reich (“Великая Русская держава”)
  • They are Catholics, we are Orthodox, and we find repulsive their habit of clothing face-shaved priests in sissy white and letting people sit during the services

How would Russian history differ if the Mongol invasion had not taken place?

When Mongold came along on their way to Eastern and Central Europe, they sacked several Rus’ cities: Ryazan, Vladimir, Suzdal, Chernigov, Kiev in the mid-13th century. These were situated within a day’s ride from the prairies. Likely much the same.

This is what we know from chronicles. However, there is no archaeological evidence of Mongol presence in heartland Russia. Which makes it reasonable to assume that the influence of the Mongol invasion is greatly overblown has been greatly overblown. Especially the “Mongol yoke” is a murky historical construct promoted by Karl Marx and his later adherents, seemingly in order to represent Imperial Russia a retrograde counter-revolutionary force, hostile to the cause of Communist revolution.

For example, during the era of Muscovy, serfdom became a dominant factor in the nation’s economy. Mongols had nothing to do with the transition to serfdom. However, no one talks about the “Muscovian yoke”, or “the Kremlin’s oppression”.

Among other factors that prove that the arrival of the Mongols was much less relevant than we are used to think:

  • There are next to none genetic traces of Mongol presence in heartland Russia.
  • Very few Mongol words in Russian language.
  • No Mongol names or ethnonyms.
  • No rational explanation for how a massive Mongol horseback expedition could move thousands of miles through Russian woods in the dead of Russian winter.

What is called Mongol yoke was most likely a gradual subjugation of Russian fiefdoms by Turkic monarchs after the Black Sea trade collapsed as a result of Byzantine sacking by Crusaders. The “Mongol” Empire of Jochi soon became a distinctly Turkic monarchy. And unlike the “Mongol yoke”, the Turkic presence and Turkic influence in our culture was long and profound.

Why didn’t Mongols invade Northern Russia?

  1. There is no answer to that in Russian or foreign chronicles.
  2. We have no national legends or epics that tried to explain this episode.
  3. Climate around Novgorod is not considerably colder from what we have in Suzdal or Vladimir. The Little Ice Age did not settle in before later.
  4. No archeological evidence has been found so far of Mongol invasion to Russia in the middle of 1200 century.
  5. There are many accounts in Russian and foreign chronicles about devastations to cities i Eastern and Central Europe around the time of the Mongol invasion from a big invasive force from the East. But they don’t give a clear account of its military objective. Much simply does not make sense, like cavalry-based military campaign through Russian woods in the middle of the winter.