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The Power of the Protecting Veil

Alastair Macleod

The Power of the Protecting Veil

To Mother Russia, beautiful, strong and enduring , "giver of life, she passes on more than life, she gives me hope"

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Friday 12th November Moscow 5pm

     Yelena Brusketsova glanced up from the report. “There is not much hope in this document.” She said dolefully.

“Birth rate down, alcohol dependency up, death rate up, inflation up, immigration up, where is the good news, there must be some!"

The muffled roar of the Moscow rush hour echoed upwards from the street to the third floor office.

“I want something positive to give people, something to take their minds off things and don’t say Vodka, the Russian people have for too long been hiding behind the vodka bottle. What is it with Russians, do we not give our men enough tit when they are babies is that it?"

She turned to see the startled face of the young Evgeny, unused to his boss using such language.

She strode to the other end of the large office. Its size befitted the status of the senior social planner for all Russia. She was less impressed by that aspect but more by the opportunity it gave her to get up from her desk and move around.

All the young people seemed to dream of was leaving and especially the women. They could scent that things were better elsewhere. That men treated women more civilly in the west. Russian men were killing themselves with vodka not only themselves but their families, their marriages.

Drink related violence was costing the state health service billions of roubles.

Evgeny, where had she got him? A rarity, a moderate drinker dedicated to his work. Not even gay which was what all his male counterparts had at first suspected. For to a Russian not to drink is suspect, a sign of weakness.

     “Macho crap”, thought Yelena.

The sooner more women are running this country the better, she thought under her breath. She was doing her bit. As posts became vacant she filled them with female applicants. Absenteeism had dropped, the work rate was steadier.

     “Evgeny, see if you can find some glimmer of hope to put in that report over the next two days. By the way, where are you off to this weekend?"

     “The country.”

Some people hit the clubs but Evgeny went off to the country. What he did there she did not inquire, but he always seemed refreshed when he reappeared on Monday mornings.

With Evgeny gone Yelena started to tidy her desk locking important documents into the safe, less important were locked in the desk. She had found over the years that basically you couldn’t trust anybody, so why take risks?

She watered her plants then sat down to pull on her boots, her one luxury this winter. Were they Italian? The girl in the shop had said so and there was a label that said Italia but you never knew what with all this counterfeiting. The main thing was they looked Italian and they looked great.

Time for home but first some shopping. Shopping helped her to relax and transit from the office atmosphere to the domestic. She found this even if she was only shopping for simple things like bread and vegetables. Perhaps it was because it was an age old activity and a shared one, her mother had shopped and her grandmother and before that...

She slipped on her coat, wound the scarf as elegantly as she could round her neck and carefully arranged her hat. Then the gloves. A look in the mirror then a little adjustment to her makeup and ……she was ready.

     She worked near the Sokol’niki Park, an up market district in an old part of Moscow. The area was known for smart expensive shops and there was even a new bakery. This part of the city could be almost anywhere in Europe.

But she did not linger here near the office - there was no point in paying exorbitant prices for bread. She headed down into the metro on Ulitsa Stromynka and took her line for the suburbs.

Friday 12 th November 7pm, at the dacha

     Evgeny’s dacha lay in the birch forest beyond the village of Orlovo, Moscow oblast.

He had lit the lamp and already had his laptop fired up. Now was his chance. When Yelena had asked him for a positive line in the policy document he sensed the moment, like a wolf senses the weakness of the beast.

Yes, there was a weakness. Russia was floundering for all its gas and oil. With no external enemy to fight and unite against, they had begun to look internally, and there was potential for conflict and disintegration.

     There were new pieces on the chessboard and the rules were changing.

Environmental changes threatened to ruin everything. The taiga would retreat as the wetter climate increased the bogs in the tundra, pushing them south, reducing the northern limit of the trees. The taiga forest was that great symbol of the vast impenetrable Russian mind and state where lived horrors, mysteries, succour and wealth. It was that mysterious spiritual land that inhabited the Russian heart like the season of winter.

 Could Russia, just savouring the taste of capitalism, modify that greedy philosophy before it gripped them irrevocably?

Ever since Peter the Great, Russian leaders had tried to emulate the west, first Europe then the USA but always they trailed some years behind. That used to not matter so much.

They consoled themselves that lag time allowed them to select the best.

But time was running out and crisis events require unusual and prompt action.

And these Russian emulators had missed something crucial - all great movements start at the bottom. They had innovated from the top.

 The top can never really make the necessary mental leaps nor free itself from the power corset that surrounds it.

  Look at Obama. He seemed to be a shining light but he was restrained by his backers. He could not be that radical; big business had such a grip on US politics. The Americans would be trapped by climate change like the dinosaurs trapped in the Athabaska tar sands, and Russia too could be trapped but for the fact it hadn’t quite caught up yet - that might save it. People still knew how to cope with less, had in their minds still a vision of the simple life in the woods as desirable. The Americans tied as they were to their fast food outlets were becoming Michelin men in this generation. For them the transition to the new economy would be harder than for Russians.

For Evgeny’s vision of hope for Russia was a return to village life, self-sufficiency, localness, small scale living, He had read Schumacher’s book "Small Is Beautiful" and seen how, in other parts of Europe, people had started alternative communities. But these people were also using new smart technologies, recycling materials, building their own houses, growing their own food, generating power from windmills, solar power, and heat pumps and biomass, eating whole foods, not smoking not drinking to excess.

 Russia was still firmly into energy excess, awash with oil and gas, grasping the consumer society with a vengeance after years of having to hold back - people wanted what had been sold as the good life; cars, flat screen TV’s, play stations, bread makers, fridges, washing machines and the demand for energy went up and up and the forests came down, and nature slowly died.

But elsewhere people were waking up to a realisation something had to be done, for the melting Greenland ice cap was going to drown many lands, the rain was going to flood others and drought would cause famines. It was time to act. For Evgeny this was the big idea that he was going to sell to his boss – that hope lay in the environment and a new way to think about it, a more harmonious way that made life sustainable.

     We would use trees, but we would plant more trees in replacement. We would recycle plastics and metals, we would cut pollution, we would recycle our household waste, we would use less energy, we would not build everything big but go for smaller cities and villages. Our agriculture would care for the environment, use less pesticides, less intensive stocking methods.

We would go for intangible goods; security, community, health, low stress, and nature in our daily lives.

Evgeny had been working on this plan for months if not years; before it had been for the bottom drawer. A samizdat copy. Now when it was required he needed only to put the finishing touches   

     And while he realised he seemed to be contradicting himself by putting it forward at government level hoping the government would back it, he was going to suggest that the government set the policy frame and allow people a lot of manoeuvre to bring initiatives forward under that policy frame work

So that way eco-innovation could indeed come from the grassroots - that way he felt it would progress more quickly and people would have ownership of the movement.

     Natalya scraped her boots by the door and pushed in. She placed the shopping bags on the table.

Evgeny, she knew he was in, she had seen the light in the bedroom as she walked up the path.

She sat down and took of her boots then crossed to the stove now well alight. It was Evgeny’s first task on coming in to light the stove and warm the dacha. She lifted the kettle and made the tea then tiptoed towards the bedroom door, pushing it open with her free hand.

“Evgeny, give it up, I’m home.”

 Evgeny stopped keying in the data as Natalya’s hand slid round his shoulder. He looked up at her into her eyes. She studied him.

      “You work too hard,” she said. “That ministry is killing you.”

      “This is my chance, Talya, she wants my ideas. At last I will be able to influence things.”

Always the same, Evgeny the idealist, planning for the future but what about their future. He spent so much time on these big plans that he overlooked them. Natalya wanted some simple things, a baby, a house and a garden, a life together.

She sat on his knee, stroking his face.

“I’m going to make some soup; go and wash and by then it will be ready.”

As she bent over the stove she reflected that at times she had to lead him to do ordinary things.

Yes he had a good brain, but he was often so preoccupied that he lost sight of everyday reality.

Friday 12th November Moscow, evening

     Yelena exited the metro at Universitet station. It was the easiest way to travel to and from her flat. She had moved out of her old 17 storey flat in Krylaskoe some years ago to her parent’s former flat in Ramenki a southwest district near the state university. Situated in a five storey block, it had been built in the 60’s and was surrounded by other similar Lego blocks. At least here there were some parks and ponds, trees, green space.


     But Moscow was changing round her. In nearby Dorogolimovo she could see the steel and glass towers rising skywards, built to capitalise on the demand for downtown business access and the high rents that could be obtained. She felt it was only a matter of time before she had to move as a developer snapped up her block and built on it.


     She pushed into the depressing lobby, the sound of her boots echoing off the concrete walls. The battered metal mailbox for flat six was unlocked, they all were. The mail lay unscathed. This wasn’t a bad district. Nor a bad block. Her neighbours were all reasonably well off professionals, academics, or like her, “armchairs”, a nickname for government employees.


     There was that unmistakeable smell of disinfectant from stair washing. The lift was out of order for now. She started to climb the stairs. At last, 3rd floor. She had had a new front door put on, teak, and it rather stood out in the stairwell.


Inside the television was on. Andrey or Valentina must be in.

Yelena took off her hat and scarf, then her coat and hung it up. She unzipped her boots, carefully putting them away with boot trees in them to preserve the shape. She looked at herself in the mirror.

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