Tuesday, April 25, 2017

French election offers some reason for hope

By Emily Couch
Associate Editor
LONDON, United Kingdom – After the first round of the French presidential election Sunday, France’s political world turned upside down.  At least, that is what the international media proclaims. 
Whether it’s a new ‘French Revolution’or a political ‘Big Bang,’ there is a consensus among left and right-leaning publications alike that the accession of centrist Emmanuel Macron and extreme-right Marine Le Pen to the presidential run-off represents a seminal moment in European, and indeed Western, politics.
Both are, or at least claim to be, ‘anti-system’ candidates, sweeping the grands partis (the Socialists and the center-right Republicans) who have governed France for the last 30 years, out of the arena.For a world that has seen the United Kingdom cut its ties with the European Union, and a right-wing populist enter the White House, the climate in France might seem all too familiar.   
The mainstream media is surprisingly optimistic, with many seeing Macron as a shoe-in for the presidency. But there are also those who see the second round as anything but a closed book, and warn against complacency faced with an ascendant Front National, the right-wing French nationalist party that Le Pen led until Tuesday.
After all, they warn, nobody thought that Brexit or a Donald Trump presidency were a possibility.  Both perspectives must be tempered.  I believe that Macron will be the next president of France, but it is still important to consider the greys on either side of the debate.  

Why the world should be optimistic

France is not America. On the surface, this is an obvious statement.  However, it is one that pessimists seem to be forgetting in their rush to see the race as a re-run of Hillary Clinton vs. Trump. While it is true that Le Pen espouses anti-immigrant and anti-globalization policies comparable to those of the outsider turned U.S. president, it is important to remember this:  On the 7th of May, the French will have a choice of not one ‘outsider,’ but two.
Macron with his charisma, sleek appearance, and perfectly turned phrases is light years away from the crass and abrasive Trump. But he has harnessed the same dissatisfaction with the established political order that brought the latter to power.  “In one year,” he told his ecstatic supporters, “We changed the face of French politics.”
Macron is no French Hillary.  By virtue of her surname and position as President Obama’s Secretary of State, she embodied the intransigent establishment towards which American voters felt such antipathy. They were left with only one candidate in which to invest their anger. 
The same is not true in France. Macron is confronting Le Pen on her own turf, using language that was once exclusively hers. Indeed, there were striking similarities in their victory speeches. Both stressed their separation from France’s main parties, both promised true alternance (genuine change, as opposed to flip-flopping between the same two parties), and both promised that they would welcome people to their cause, no matter where their political allegiances once lay.
In America, Trump profited from all of the anti-establishment sentiment. In France, Le Pen might not find this so easy.

Liberalism has found a champion.

Macron has imbued France’s presidential race with something that neither the U.S. elections, nor the UK’s EU referendum campaign were able to provide: A charismatic face for social and economic liberalism.
As much as one may have supported the Democrats or the need to remain in the EU, neither Clinton nor the leading ‘Remain’ campaign figures offered a particularly inspiring vision.  Clinton was devoid of charisma; Remainers let their arguments drown in tepid and apologetic rhetoric.
Macron’s magic is his ability to make the status quo exciting. While he rejects the old left/right divide, he wholeheartedly embraces the EU, and does not shy away from being seen as a defender of globalization. These two issues have become extremely divisive, but he has transformed them into compelling political choices, as evidenced by his approximately 2 percent lead over Le Pen. 

A warning from across the channel

French voters have something that UK referendum voters did not: An example of the chaos that can happen if a country chooses to leave the EU. With Britain mired in negotiations, political in-fighting, and a flailing economy, Le Pen’s promise of a referendum on France’s EU membership is unlikely to be as appealing as it once was.

Le Pacte Républicain (The Republican Pact)

Le Pacte Républicain is a somewhat elusive concept. Essentially, it refers to the principles on which the French Republic is founded: Liberty, fraternity, and equality.  In modern parlance, however, it has come to refer to the ‘pact’ between left and right to stop the extreme right from winning power.  An example of the ‘pact’ in action are the 2002 presidential elections in which centre-right Jacques Chirac fought extreme-right Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father).
The mainstream parties rallied around Chirac, leading to him winning a remarkable 82 percent of the vote.  When the results of this round became clear, Republican François Fillon and Socialist Benoit Hamon immediately – if resignedly – honored this unspoken rule, both calling on their voters to support Macron.
Macron, Hamon told his supporters, may be a ‘political adversary,’ but Le Pen is an ‘enemy of the Republic.’ Fillon emerged with almost 20 percent of the vote, Hamon with a little more than 6 percent. If most supporters obey their erstwhile candidates, this would give Macron around 50 percent of the vote, making a Le Pen victory – especially a glorious one – unlikely. 

And why it shouldn’t

As compelling as the arguments above may seem, the world must not allow itself to be swept away by unbridled optimism.  Here’s why:

Mélenchon’s silence

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the firebrand leader of the Communist Party, has not yet committed to the Pacte Républicain.  In his terse concession speech, he refused to endorse either Macron or Le Pen – although whether he will do so in the days to come remains to be seen.  Having won more than 19 percent of the vote, his recommendation is not to be ignored.  While on the opposite end of the political spectrum to Le Pen, he too has courted voters angry with rampant globalization and the EU.  There is a very real possibility that these voters could turn to Le Pen.

Legislative elections
As in the U.S., France elects its president separately from its representatives.  In June, the legislative elections – in which France will elect deputies to the Assemblée Nationale – will take place. While Macron’s En Marche! movement has seen a meteoric rise since its creation last year, it currently has no representatives.  Macron is confident that his candidates will win enough seats to give him a majority, but this is doubtful given the youth of his party and the gritted teeth with which many French voters will support his presidency.
Left and right voters may rally around him now because the only alternative is Le Pen.In the legislative elections, however, they will once again have a full spectrum from which to choose. Those who did not originally support Macron are, therefore, unlikely vote for his candidates.  Le Pen’s electorate, angry at her defeat and the collusion of mainstream parties in the Pacte Républicain, will also turn out in force, likely increasing the number of Front National deputies in the Assemblée. All this shows that Macron may well end up a minority President, having to cobble together coalitions for each piece of legislation he wants to pass.  Coalitions inevitably mean compromise. Today he might be a zealous liberal, tomorrow he may well be a pragmatist, hardly different from the grands partis he once rejected.  As he is absorbed into the Establishment, this can only leave more disaffected voters turning to Le Pen. 

Le Pen’s resignation

On Tuesday, Le Pen made the overtly tactical decision to resign as leader of the Front National in order, in her words, to ‘unite the French people’ around her candidacy.  However, her willingness to cut her ties – albeit superficially – with the party demonstrates her ruthless pragmatism when it comes to the Presidency.
Recently she has launched a major push to detoxify the FN for mainstream voters, even expelling her own father from the party after his controversial statement that Hitler’s gas chambers were a mere “detail of history.”
She has softened the party’s stance on abortion, the role of women, and even become an unlikely champion of animal rights. As her success on Sunday has shown, her gambit is paying off. Her resignation is purely symbolic, but it might be the gentle push that Fillon and Mélenchon voters – loath to back Macron – need.
Her ability to adapt makes her a formidable rival. Will she reverse her resignation if elected president?  It hardly matters. With her father the founder and her niece – Marion – a leading figure, the Le Pen name is inseparable from the FN. If she wins, her façade may change, but the most toxic of her policies – supported by the party – will not.

Macron is a bandage, not a cure

The international press has not hesitated to present a Macron/Le Pen run off as a Manichean battle of opposing world views.  Archetypal of this narrative was The Guardian’s reference to the elections as a ‘Face off for the soul of France.’  Dubbed the ‘French Trudeau,’ Macron is seen by many as the antidote to the wave of right-wing populism sweeping Western nations.  But this is to confuse perception and reality. Macron may make a globalized world look more attractive, but he will not change the fact that globalization entails heavy costs and the alienation of large sectors of society. Liberalism will still be the sick man of Europe – Macron will simply have given him a crutch. So while his world view may win for now, the problems it brings with it will become increasingly acute, leaving the Front National far from the dustbin of history.

Voters will decide soon

With less than two weeks until the second round of voting, most will wait with baited breath to see whether France will fall into the clutches of xenophobic populism.  A Macron presidency is probable and, without a doubt, in the interest of a tolerant and open world. It is, however, imperative that his supporters – French and foreign alike – do not prematurely rest on their laurels.  Whichever of the arguments above one subscribes to, there is no doubt that this race for the Elysée will be the most ideologically charged France has seen, and indeed will see, for many years.
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Monday, April 24, 2017

Netflix won't give one reason why it is airing "13 Reasons Why," a show on suicide

Graphic illustration by Jack Ward / youthjournalism.org
A reporter's inquiry to Netflix about its series 13 Reasons Why got this response.

By Jack Ward
Youth Journalism International
ARARAT, Victoria, Australia – In the last few weeks, Australian schoolyards have been home to conversations surrounding the increasingly popular new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.
The show, which was released in Australia late last month, is based on the book by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why.
The story followers a teenager whose crush committed suicide just weeks before he received a box at his front door. The box contains the 13 reasons why she committed suicide, and he could be one of them.

I have not watched the series or even an episode, but from what I have been hearing, a large majority of my school has. I have researched the show, warnings on the show and statements from Netflix.
I want you to make your own opinion, because no doubt people have many different views on this heated topic.
The show explores the challenges of teenage years, with bullying and suicide the key topics. It is done in a way that may seem confronting to some viewers, with graphic footage of suicide methods shown in the series.
According to a parent advisory on IMDB for the show, Hannah, the main character, is seen in episode 13 cutting her wrists with a razor blade. A large amount of blood is seen, according to the advisory, which warns parents that the scene is very emotional and hard to watch.
I believe, in the writers’ minds, that the show is aimed at preventing suicide. However, a large number of teenagers are watching this series and this extreme content is pretty much demonstrating how to kill yourself, which in my mind is going to do the opposite.
What I found even more unsettling was when I asked my classmates if they had watched it, some replied with, “No I haven’t, but it sounds good.” This sent shivers down my spine. Who is telling these people that it’s a good series when it’s based around suicide, depression and rape?
Columnist Melissa Weinberg of The New Daily, an Australian news site, wrote about her changing thoughts on the show.
“I began watching and I was hooked,” wrote Weinberg, who describes herself as a psychologist with a PhD on her Twitter profile. In the column, she wrote that she works primarily with adolescent mental health concerns.
In her Weinberg even recommended the show to others “as a bold and intriguing series that dared to broach the topic of suicide. Until I watched the final episode.”
Weinberg watched the final episode despite the graphic content warnings as she didn’t expect to actually watch someone commit suicide, but that is what she was confronted with.
“I knew you weren’t supposed to show that stuff on TV, so I kept waiting for it to stop,” Weinberg wrote. It didn’t.”
In the column, published April 21, Weinberg warned, “This is what your kids are watching now. And you should be concerned.”
Headspace, the national youth mental health foundation in Australia, released a warning on the 18th of April for 13 Reasons Why which outlined the risks of the show.
In a prepared statement, Kristian Douglas, national manager of headspace school support said the show “exposes viewers to risky suicide content and may lead to a distressing reaction by the viewer, particularly if the audience is children and young people.”
Headspace and its online counseling service eheadspace also brought attention to the increase of calls and emails they have been receiving in relation to the series.
When contacted for comment, Netflix customer service replied, “Here we’re Customer Service for billing and streaming issues only, so we’re unable to comment on the matter. I do assure you, though, that it’s definitely not our intention to glamourise or romanticise something as serious as suicide.”
Requests for comment from the media representative for 13 Reasons Why  remained unanswered after several days.
13 Reasons Why is the number one subject of discussion in schools at present with this program causing a lot of unwanted publicity for the show.
I can’t believe this program is being aired with the target audience apparently teenagers. In my eyes, this series has the potential to encourage teenagers and young adults to commit suicide.
That’s a horrible thing to think or say, but it’s something I fear could happen.
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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Nigerians remember the missing schoolgirls

  By Gideon Arinze Chijioke
AGYARAGU, Nasarawa, Nigeria – Today marks three years since Boko Haram terrorists kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls from Chibok.
Many people clearly remember hearing the news.
Masu Jubril had gone out on the streets for her daily routine of hawking Kunu, a locally made drink from Guinea corn, when the media became awash with reports of the kidnapping.
She could not believe her ears. When she returned home, she said, she could not hold back her tears. With her heart palpitating, she feared for her future and that of other girls in the northern part of the country.
Gideon Arinze Chijioke /

Masu Jubril
“I felt for the girls. It got me thinking,” she said, as though they were her sisters.
She said she hopes President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration will make more efforts to rescue the remaining girls and reunite them with their families.
The news of the kidnapping shocked Anastasia Obeta, a teacher at St Johns Nursery and Primary School in Agyaragu.
“I felt bad when I heard it. I never expected such a thing to happen in this country. These girls were kidnapped and taken to a place we don’t know. Now, they have been exposed to sexual assaults. Only God knows what their parents are passing through,” Obeta said.
She advised girls in this part of the country to be careful even as they strive to acquire education.  Although Boko Haram means Western education is a sin, Nigerian girls must continue to go school, she said.
Gideon Arinze Chijioke / 

Anastasia Obeta 
Kelechi Odoh, a salesman of building materials, has followed the story. He said he blamed the kidnapping on poor security.
“I was really appalled when I learnt about the kidnap because it is not a good thing for children to be in school and then they are kidnapped,” Odoh said.
He thinks the Buhari administration is doing its best to rescue the girls, however. He said the government is in talks with Boko Haram to secure their release.
The horrifying crime of April 14, 2014 put Nigeria into the global spotlight. On that night, Boko Haram insurgents shifted slightly away from their routine bombings of worship centers, motor parks and the gun battles with the Nigerian military. 
They captured more than 250 girls who were preparing for their final exams in a secondary school nestled somewhere in the remote town of Chibok, a community in Borno state, in northern Nigeria.
Gideon Arinze Chijioke / 

Kelechi Odoh
About 50 girls managed to escape, and media reports later said some got away by jumping from the truck that was used to capture them. The insurgents had come in the guise of security operatives sent to protect the girls from attacks in the area.
Many around the world considered the appalling kidnapping a crime against the girl child – and against girls’ rights to education – that transcended regional and national boundaries.
Celebrities and world leaders joined in the #bringbackourgirls social media effort to pressure the government to act, and Nigerians protested in cities across the nation.
Former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration failed to rescue the missing girls or stop other vicious attacks by Boko Haram. Nigerians elected Buhari, who talked tough on security and pledged to find the girls.
Though he’s made some progress against the terrorists, Buhari has mostly fallen short on rescuing the girls.
About 200 of the girls remain missing, unable to be with their families, to go to school or to contribute to the growth and development of their country.
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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Queensland cyclone damage still unknown

By Jack Ward
ARARAT, Australia – Tropical Cyclone Debbie ploughed through the east coast of Queensland last week, bringing havoc to communities that not long ago had rebuilt from Cyclone Yasi, which devastated the east coast in 2011.
According to the Courier Mail, a Queensland newspaper, the storm and its flooding killed at least four people.
By March 27, Cyclone Debbie was a category four system and honing in on the east coast of Australia. She was expected to land early the next morning, but overnight she slowed down, delaying her arrival until midday. In the earlier hours of Tuesday morning, residents were feeling the winds picking up – the destruction was just beginning.
For the next 12 hours, Cyclone Debbie slowly crossed the coast causing massive devastation to Bowen, surrounding towns and islands. By late afternoon Debbie had crossed the coast and was downgraded to a category three. Debbie was no longer a cyclone on Wednesday, but instead a tropical low storm.
Many Queenslanders were well prepared for the arrival destructive system, with modern day technology warning residents of the storm. As a result of this technology they spent the days leading up to Debbie’s arrival battening down the hatches, making sure things wouldn’t blow away and create danger for others.
After the storm, residents and emergency service personnel began searching for missing people and assessing the damage.
Debbie had turned town after town into a complete mess. The storm pulled trees out of the ground and blew roofs off homes. The Queensland agricultural industry is expected to be severely affected.
Reached through a company representative, John Pratt, executive general manager of Wilmar Sugar Australia, said that the damaged caused by Cyclone Debbie cannot be fully accessed yet.
“Preliminary inspections of our sugar mills at Proserpine and Plane Creek indicate there has been no significant damage from Cyclone Debbie,” said Pratt in the March 30 statement. “Some infrastructure at the sites has sustained minor damaged, but we are confident this will not impact our ability to have the factories ready for the start of crushing in June.”
With the cyclone in the past, another major issue has arisen for Queensland and New South Wales. Due to the massive rainfall from the storm, flooding has occurred in areas that weren’t prepared.
Parts of South Queensland and North New South Wales received more than 400 mm of rain in a 24-hour period – almost 16 inches – according to the Bureau of Meteorology. This massive amount of rainfall caused rivers and creeks to burst their banks, inundating communities.
In a prepared release issued March 30, Queensland Regional Hydrology Manager Victoria Dodds said heavy rain has subsided but flooding is expected to continue for several days.
Communities now have to wait for the flooding to recede before the recovery operation can begin. 
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Monday, April 3, 2017

To Russia, from London with love

Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
The Catherine Palace - Tsarskoe Selo, in St. Petersburg, Russia

By Emily Couch
Associate Editor
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia   Cold War. Crimea. Pussy Riot. These are just some of the unsavory tags attached to Russia by the Western media. 
Increasingly, the provocative question posed by Prime Minister Medvedev last year at the Munich Security Conference, “Is this 2016 or 1962?” gains relevance. 
Even if the current stand off between Russia and the West differs in many ways from the Cold War, discourse in the media and the attitudes of the general public have certainly regained their ‘Us and Them’ framework. 
Today’s horrific attack on the Metro in St. Petersburg – coming on the heels of the recent terrorist strike on London’s Westminster Bridge – reminds us that as people, even if politics seems to divide us, we share common sorrows and joys. 
My thoughts are with the families of today's victims as much as they are with those injured and killed in Westminster on the 22nd of March.
Less than a year ago, I had the chance of a lifetime to visit two of Russia’s great cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
When I mentioned my interest in Russia to an acquaintance, she wrinkled her nose and asked ‘Russia?  But why? Aren’t they the bad guys?’ 
This was in 2015.  Not 1962. 
My American mother grew up when the Cold War was at its zenith. 
For her, ‘Russia’ conjures images of tanks rolling across Red Square, grim-faced Communist officials, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
“In my mind,” she told me, “Russia is still half Soviet Union.”
My attitude is rather different. 
I have long been passionately interested in Russian history and culture, and I started learning the language two years ago.
 If you ever lose me in a book store, you’ll probably find me in the Russian history section.  
While I am greatly unsettled by many of the Kremlin’s current policies, this interest has helped me take a more empathetic (if not sympathetic) and nuanced view towards the country so demonized in the West.  
My fascination managed to overcome my mother’s fears and, last spring, we boarded our flight to Moscow.

Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
The view of Ismailovsky Market from Ismailovsky Park.


Our first evening in Moscow was disorientating to say the least. 
We arrived at our hotel in Izmailovo, a region in the north-east of the city, late in the afternoon. 
Our car ride to the hotel was perilous, and we encountered the infamous Moscow traffic.
 It is not often as a tourist that one sees the quotidian, residential, parts of the city before the picturesque historical center, but slow traffic gave us ample opportunity to do so.
Next to our hotel was the immense Izmailovsky Market – a huge complex with brightly coloured turrets. 
The kitsch but striking building made us feel that we were looking at a romanticized representation of Russia that one might see in the West. 
We began to ‘find our feet’ when we took advantage of the sunshine and walked around Izmailovsky Park. 
The park is home to buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries such as a cathedral, a bridge tower, and alms houses. 
We were, as far as I could tell, the only non-Russian people there. 
At first, we felt a little self-conscious. 
Was everyone else thinking, what are these tourists doing in our park? But this self-consciousness soon disappeared as we realized that no one was paying the slightest attention to us. 
We were just two more people taking advantage of this peaceful location to enjoy the sunshine. 
Although we had strolled amongst Russian people in Izmailovsky Park, when we returned to our hotel room that evening, we still found ourselves asking, ‘Are we really in Moscow?’ 
Then, I looked out of the window and saw two of Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters.’ In the distance, we could see the dramatic silhouettes of these skyscrapers – built between 1947-53 in the Russian baroque and gothic style – thrown into relief by the amber sunlight. 
We were, I realized, definitely in Moscow.

Red Square
I have visited the historical centers of many European cities but Red Square surpasses them all. 
In London, people go to Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, or Piccadilly and immerse themselves slowly in the atmosphere of the British capital. 
There are relatively famous things to see: the Covent Garden piazza, the start of Pall Mall leading up to Buckingham Palace, Nelson’s Column.  But London is a city of multiple centers, and tourists can be forgiven for wondering where the ‘middle’ is. 
Red Square allows for no such ambiguity.  
Trafalgar Square impresses – Red Square awes. 
Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
Moscow's Red Square
The impression made on me by the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum, GUM, and St. Basil’s Cathedral – places that I had been reading about and seeing on TV for years – was powerful, even visceral. 
I had to blink a few times to convince myself I was really standing in the middle of all those iconic buildings.   
Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.
Less than a week earlier, we had seen footage of the Victory Day parade taking place here. 
The heady combination of power and history – Tsarist, Soviet, and modern – make for a surreal but exhilarating experience. 

The Metro
While some of the newer London tube stations are aesthetically acceptable, standing in the claustrophobic tunnels surrounded by peeling paint, it’s hard to imagine that a city’s underground transport system can be anything more than grim. 
Not so the Moscow metro. 
I have been told that less elaborate stations exist at the outskirts of the city, but the central ones were stunning.   
Kievskaya station, covered with intricate mosaics of Ukrainian people and traditions surrounded with florid gold-painted frames was my personal favorite. 
Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
A mural in the Kievskaya metro station.

Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
Inside the Kievskaya metro station.
On a more practical note, the metro was far cheaper than the London tube.
I was surprised to find that distance traveled made no difference to the price, and that I didn’t have to get out my ticket again to leave the underground.
 In London, a journey in zones 1 and 2 can cost up to £6.50, while a ride on the Moscow metro to any location costs just fifty roubles – approximately £0.50. 
I was warned by a Russian acquaintance never to get the metro between 6 and 9 p.m. unless I wanted to be consumed by the rush hour crowd.
Still, we ended up using the metro at this time every day we were in Moscow, and I was relieved to find that the reality did not live up to the horror stories. 
It was certainly busy, but did not compare with the London tube where rush hour means squeezing into an overfilled carriage and ending up with your nose pressed against the armpit of a total stranger.

On foot
Moscow is not a city that we in the West associate with strolling and people watching. 
These leisured activities, we assume, are the preserve of Paris, Rome, Prague, and the like. 
But, in the three and a half days I spent in Russia’s capital, I learned that this assumption was far from true. 
On our first day, we walked from the Tretyakov Gallery to Café Pushkin and were surprised to find how pleasant, even relaxing, it was to walk around the city center. 
On our second day, we walked around Red Square and the Alexander Gardens by night. Surrounded by these illuminated buildings, beautiful and imposing, the atmosphere was truly magical.   
I had expected that this area to be full of tourists and that we would hardly hear a Russian voice.
I was wrong. 
There were remarkably few Anglophone tourists, and only a smattering of those from other countries. 
When I visited Venice, it was like being in a sardine can of every conceivable nationality apart from the Italians themselves. 
Even in London, there are often times in the central locations where it is hard to find a ‘true Londoner.’ 
Moscow was nothing like these cities. 
I was pleased to note that, wherever we went, there were always Russian people – some domestic tourists, some locals – using and enjoying their capital city.

The Kremlin
Few buildings fascinate and intimidate the Western public like the Kremlin: It stands for power, grandeur, and cold inapproachability. 
Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
The Kremlin bell tower.
As my mother and I walked around inside its famous red brick walls, we felt as if we had walked into the Russian equivalent of the Forbidden City. 
The medieval, the baroque, the Soviet, and the modern all inhabit this triangular fortress. 
The fortress affords a commanding view over Moscow and its grandeur was almost shocking in comparison to the modest town house of No. 10 Downing Street, and even the clean, neo-classical lines of the White House. 
Even though a surprising amount of the grounds were open, there was much that was tantalisingly out of bounds. 
Walking in the gardens, there were soldiers stationed on every path the make sure we didn’t take the wrong route. 
On a zebra crossing, a police man reprimanded anyone whose foot left the crossing.  Just 100 metres away was the official office of the Russian President. 
Winston Churchill once declared: ‘Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’  Moscow is the heart of Russia. 
The Kremlin is the heart of Moscow and yet, as Churchill’s quote suggests, the real heart seemed to be obscured by impenetrable shrouds of mystery.

Financial and logistical convenience persuaded my mother and I to choose a semi-guided tour for our time in Russia. (‘Semi’ meaning that we spent the morning with a guide and the afternoons and evenings alone). 
Our guides were sent by the Russian National Tourist Office and were all extremely knowledgeable, recounting to us Russia’s sweeping history from the early tsars to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  They remained silent on modern politics. 
In truth, it was easy to forget Russia’s current political realities. 
Even standing in the middle of the Kremlin complex, it was all too easy to relegate everything to history. 
There were however, some disconcerting reminders of these realities. 
Walking across Bolshoi Moskovretskiy Bridge, we passed flowers and photographs dedicated to the assassinated opposition politician, Boris Nemtsov. 
On our journey from the Tretyakov Gallery to Café Pushkin, we passed through Bolotnaya Square, the epicentre of the 2012 protests. 
On our final day, we visited the beautiful and immense Christ the Saviour Cathedral, the location of Pussy Riot’s infamous ‘punk prayer.’ 
During our stay, the British news was reporting on the conviction of political activist Pyotr Pavlovsky and the shake-up of the independent news group RBC. 
The Russia of news headlines, and the Russia we were experiencing as tourists felt almost like separate worlds. 
Only in locations like the ones I have mentioned did these worlds seem to coalesce.

St. Petersburg

“St. Petersburg, the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe (cities can be intentional or unintentional)”
Such is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous assessment of Russia’s former imperial capital from his best-known novel, Crime and Punishment.  
The moment I stepped out, slightly bleary eyed, from Moskovsky Railway station (we had taken the night train from Moscow) I was struck by the aptness of Dostoyevsky’s description.
From reading about the city, I’d learned that St. Petersburg embodied Peter the Great’s turn towards Europe and the West and yet, somehow, I had never imagined how un-Russian it would feel. 
Having woken up at six in the morning, I squinted a little: Was I still in Russia? 
I felt like I’d suddenly landed in Paris or Vienna. 
As our driver took us to the hotel, I felt we were travelling through a place that combined all European cities without letting any one national style take over. 
Hints of Holland, England, Italy, France, and Austria hung in the air like faint perfumes. 
Only the occasional onion dome reminded us that we were really in Russia.
Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
A canal in St. Petersburg.

History & Literature
While the buildings were distinctively European, the city practically reverberated with echoes of Russian history. 
Standing in the middle of Palace Square gazing up the Winter Palace, I imagined Tsar Nicholas II addressing the masses from the balcony on the eve of World War I. 
Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.
Walking up Nevsky Prospekt, my mother and I discussed what it would have been like to see it filled with protestors demanding an end to the war and to the monarchy. 
During the car journey between St. Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo, we passed an immense, poignant, monument to the siege of Leningrad on Moskovsky Prospekt. 
Our guide told us about the horrors that the city’s inhabitants had suffered during the Germans’ 900 day siege. 
These stories were shocking and incredibly moving. 
Every British primary school student learns about World War II but we learn almost nothing about the Russian contribution to victory. 
As far as I learned at primary school, Britain won the war almost single-handedly with, perhaps, a little help from the Americans. 
Wrongly, in my opinion, we learn little about the immense losses sustained by the Russians, especially those in the sieges of Stalingrad and Leningrad. 
Visiting Russia in the wake of Victory Day and seeing the numerous monuments to World War II really brought home how much Russia had suffered. 
Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
The Marlinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.
In the Hermitage, a bullet hole in a mirror in the ‘Loggia’ gallery from German artillery fire has been preserved.  It was the most moving thing I saw that day.
For a lover of Russian literature, walking through St. Petersburg is like walking through a Russian novel. 
As we explored the city, my mother imagined she was in the world of Raskolnikov in Crime & Punishment, while I imagined the lives of the noble families Tolstoy describes in War & Peace and Anna Karenina
On the second day, we were lucky enough to have tickets to see Madam Butterfly at the Mariinsky Theatre. 
With its gilt interiors, plush blue velvet seats, and impressive Imperial Box, it was easy to imagine ourselves surrounded by the cream of nineteenth-century Russian society.

On foot
We used the metro much less in St. Petersburg than we did in Moscow, and so managed to get more of a feel of the city on foot.  
What struck me most was the jarring contrast between opulence and seediness.  
One moment, we would be passing a former noble palace, the next we would find ourselves surrounded by run-down looking shops and suspicious looking clubs. 
On our first night, we walked from the Winter Palace to our hotel, which was near Chernishevskaya metro station, and found ourselves constantly moving between these two extremes.
Often we would pass huge former palaces with white stucco ornamentation and baroque facades and see that the bottom floor had become a betting shop, a McDonald’s, or even a Dunkin’ Donuts. 
We did wonder whether the Counts and Princes of old would ever have expected this to be the ultimate fate of their homes!

St. Petersburg Syndrome
On the morning of our second day, we visited the immense cultural treasure troves that are the Winter Palace and Hermitage. 
We spent four hours inside but could well imagine spending a year there without managing to see everything.  
Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
The Grand Staircase in the Winter Palace.
Each room was grander than the next.
While the Hermitage’s collection is arguably the best in the world, the art had to compete with the sheer beauty of the interiors.
In the UK, we have no buildings that approach the grandeur of the Winter Palace. 
Buckingham Palace is, of course, extremely impressive but lacks the ‘awe’ factor of its Russian counterpart. 
When I visited Florence two years ago, I read about ‘Florence Syndrome:’ a supposed ‘disease’ that a person suffers if they encounter places or things of overwhelming beauty. 
My mother and I were, I think, acute sufferers of ‘St. Petersburg Syndrome.’  
As first-time tourists, we saw the grandest palaces the city had to offer including Peterhoff and the Catherine Palace.
Nothing quite prepares you for the amount of gilt, velvet, marble, and renowned works of art. 
All were fascinating, but seeing room upon room of beautiful things was a bit like gorging on sweets.  Each one is rich and delicious but, after a while, you just want to eat a piece of bread. 
The only negative aspect to the Winter Palace and Hermitage was the huge number of visitors, nearly all of whom seemed to think it their duty to photograph every single painting, sconce, and floor board. 
The rooms containing Da Vincis and Rembrandts were particularly crowded. 
A word of advice to future visitors: if you want to see the paintings in these rooms, prepare to be extremely patient – or to use your elbows.

Preconceptions shattered
As first-time Western visitors to Russia, my mother and I inevitably arrived with some preconceptions about the country and its people. 
Here are some examples of our assumptions that turned out to be unfounded:
Russian people are cold and distant:  ‘Don’t smile,’ a Russian acquaintance of mine warned me, ‘Or people will think you’re weird.’  This made me a little apprehensive, but my fears were completely unfounded.  Of course, people in Moscow and St. Petersburg didn’t walk around with huge grins on their faces but then, Londoners don’t, either. Everyone we encountered, not just those in the tourist industry, was friendly and polite – especially when we attempted to speak some Russian.
Emily Couch / youthjournalism.org
Moscow University
Moscow is a grim city consisting only of concrete high rises: This was more my mother’s assumption than mine, but she and I were both surprised by how green the city was. From the top of Sparrow Hill (where the main building of MGU, another of the Seven Sisters, is located) we could see trees and parks everywhere.
Russia is expensive: As in any city, we did, of course, come across expensive shops but, in general, the food we had was remarkably cheap compared to London.  We could get a large bowl of dumplings (more than enough to fill up on) for around 300 roubles (just over £3) in most restaurants and cafes that we went to.  In London, it’s hard to find a small coffee for this price.  Even in the more ‘upmarket’ restaurants such as Café Pushkin (Moscow) and the Literary Café (St. Petersburg), the prices were far lower than in places of a similar standard in London.

Some surprises
Religiosity:  In the UK, many people are Christian but few display their piety openly.  The overt Orthodox faith of the Russian people we saw in churches and cathedrals surprised me. All crossed themselves several times, and often bowed, and kissed the icons. As someone who isn’t Christian, it sometimes felt a little awkward entering these sacred spaces.  I felt I might be insulting those with faith.  My mother and I soon learned to carry a scarf with us at all times so we could cover our heads before entering churches.
Very few Anglophone tourists:  In major European capitals, I have often found myself surrounded by English-speaking people.  Not so in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  There were far more Russian-speaking tourists than English-speaking ones in the locations we visited.
Security everywhere:  Living in London, I’ve noticed the increased police presence in the city following the recent terrorist attacks in Europe.  Bag searches are now relatively common for museums.  I encountered far more security in Moscow and St Petersburg: every metro station required passengers to pass through metal-detecting arches, and there were bag searches at many more locations than in London.

‘Viy gavaritye pa russkiy?’: A note on language
When I traveled to Russia, I had been learning Russian for two years, and so I managed to achieve basic speaking and comprehension ability. I can read Cyrillic without a problem. 
While I wouldn’t say that you need to know some Russian to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg, I found that my elementary skills (however basic) were extremely useful, especially when using the metro and ordering food. 
In some European cities I have been to, many native people have simply spoken to me in English. 
This was not the case in Russia where almost everyone spoke their native language to us. 
This gave me some good opportunities to practice my speaking skills. 
For any future visitors, I would suggest trying to learn a few words of Russian as everyone with whom I (tried) to talk seemed to genuinely appreciate my efforts.

Already planning to return
Everyone I know who has visited both Moscow and St. Petersburg inevitably has a favorite.
Most of them come down on the side of St. Petersburg thanks to its stunning canals and palaces.
Before I experienced them both I assumed that I would be the same but, in the end, Moscow won the day. 
Even my mother, in whom the capital used to inspire Cold War era apprehensions, was won over.  St. Petersburg is indeed beautiful, but I found Moscow to have more character and a greater sense of dynamism.
Perhaps this is because St. Petersburg (or at least its center) feels like a place where time stood still after 1918 whereas Moscow feels much more ‘present’. 
I have been told, however, that St. Petersburg often wins people over in the end.
Perhaps my opinion will change when I visit the cities again. While our whirlwind eight days was the holiday of a lifetime, I can’t wait to return to the cities and experience them beyond their touristic centers.
I am also keen to explore beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg since they are, after all, only the tip of the iceberg when it comes the immensity of the country as a whole. So, while it’s da svidanya for now, Russia, I will definitely be coming back.
The great upheavals of the 20th century have shown that the Russian people are nothing if not resilient. We must hope that this national characteristic helps them overcome today's terrible attack.
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