Those Big Bad Russians

23/05/2021

Anyone who knows me will know that I am outspoken, not easily duped, can read most people both good and bad and have spent the last twenty-three years trawling through Russia’s underbelly, as well as their most opulent palaces, from many orphanage kitchens to the glittering dining halls of the Kremlin.  I have been there more than five hundred times, so I think I can make a personal assessment, based on my experiences, of those big scary Russians who are to blame for most dark dramas we read about daily.

I have met good people there and I have met bad people there.  I have dined with the richest and the poorest, so I believe I have a good base to talk from.  On one of my first trips to Russia in 1998, I knew so little about their reality and how they had suffered a banking crash with no wages paid for months, all pensions lost, etc., when we appeared like Bill Gates’s team arriving into provincial Russia.  With our flashy winter jackets and cool snow boots, we had all the gear for minus 30 degrees.  On one early occasion, I was hauled out of my bed at 2am and taken to a flat full of men, it was like a scene from Goodfellas.  John Mulligan, a fellow Irishman, humanitarian, dear friend and colleague to this day, accompanied me, as did our interpreter, Igor. 

They asked for a sum of money if we were planning on staying in Russia and demanded we rebuild half the local town it seemed.  It was a whole new world to me.  I thought the images of stuff like this were a TV joke.  I was not sure if we would get out alive or not.  We gave a horrified “No way” on the spot.  Like the odd mix of things that make up Russians that I now understand better, they were polite, non-aggressive and business-like.  Charity did not matter.  Business was business and we looked like we had money.  Little did they know we had nothing.  We had begun our journey there with promises and an empty bank account. 

We returned to our beds that night rattled and quite sure that this mad place, Russia, was not going to work out.  I could not take Irish money from trusting Irish people and risk this shit happening again and again.  I also had a family to consider.  I made a decision the next morning at 6am to storm the Governor’s office.  Governors are big bosses and everyone quakes near them.  The offices are huge, the corridor down to the Governor’s office is so long you could pee in your pants twice over.  I was like Dorothy going to Oz to meet the terrifying wizard. 

Stunning high-heeled females buzzed everywhere.  I am in awe of women in heels with full make up, stunning hair and red lips at 7am having just come in from deep snow and ice.  I looked like Benji Riordan’s wife, Maggie, wrapped for cold, hat hair and flat boots, so the women bothered me more than the huge men flanking the doors dressed in army uniforms.

I was not leaving until I met the man himself, so I waited outside the Wizard’s vast rooms until he was ready to see me.  My interpreters were shitting themselves, as they knew I wanted to tell him personally how I felt about the money ask the night before.  At this point, I felt we would not last a wet week in this place and I planned to rant about ethics and storm out.  My vision of building the most amazing home on earth for 250 children ended here and now. 

Well, a bit like when Dorothy finally met the Wizard, she discovered he was an ordinary little man, so me and Dorothy had that in common.  He was small, well dressed, polite in the extreme, welcoming, and as horrified as I was about the night before.  We talked at length and I explained the situation.  I explained that we were not rich and would not be coerced into anything other than directly helping children.  I said more than that to be honest, I also did my ethics rant.  We sat in silence when I was done and waited for him to speak.  We were at a giant mahogany table with maybe twenty-five armchairs around it.  There were four of us.  Intimidating is not the word.  Russian flags lined the walls, snow fell outside the windows.  It was very early, but John and I were determined it was only going to happen one way. 

Our Governor drew a breath and thanked us for our attention, explained that Russia was on its knees at that time and people had lost everything.  He apologised for the incident.  Not only did he apologise, but he gave me his personal guarantee that we would remain secure and had a green light to do as we wished.  We had his support and this was as good as we needed.  We left.  My knees were knocking as were Mulligan’s I am sure.  We thought we would never get back down that corridor to breathe again.  Tension, excitement, adrenaline, I am not sure what was flowing, but we got what we asked for and we felt safe.  I think we may have had a vodka in our Weetabix after that experience.

Russians are definitely vastly different to us in many ways, but we also share quite a lot.  They are extremely hard to describe, but over the following twenty-three years, analysis was my hobby.  I had one further incident during my time there, not worth typing about, but I also cannot express how beautiful, hospitable, kind, loyal and educated so many of them are.  

Are there bribes in the system? Yes.  Are the Russian cops corrupt?  Some are.  Are there corrupt Irish cops?  We have some amazing men and women in the force, however, ask Maurice McCabe that question.  Look at USA cops.  Are they corrupt?  You could ask George Floyd that question if he hadn’t been murdered by one.  Do teachers take bribes in Russia?  Yes, some do.  According to the recent Netflix documentary, Varsity Blues, millions are paid in bribes or donations to get students into US Ivy League colleges, yet America points its finger as though they are above reproach.  They certainly are not above reproach, so they really cannot throw stones.

Do rich people get off crimes in Russia?  I would guess that yes, they do.  Does that happen here in the West or in the USA, “The greatest country on earth” as they call it?  Well, look at the paedophile, Epstein.  His money protected him for decades.  Prince Andrew – is his money protecting him now?  Do they have people in Russia who steal from charities?  I am sure they do.  Do we have the same in Ireland?  Look at Bothair only this month, €1.1 million missing, stolen by two trusted Irishmen.  Is Russian media corrupt?  It seems so at times, however, just look at Martin Bashir this week.  The BBC is rotten or was obviously rotten with corruption.  The good ole BBC, who wudda thunk?  They were caught with Bashir.  What else do we not know?  Look at Fox News, CNN, etc.  When do we see real truth?  They all have their own version of the truth.

The question is, where is there no corruption?  I want to go and live there please.  I think there is a place called Nirvana somewhere.  

Of course, it is all on a bigger scale when oil, gas, aluminium companies the size of cities etc., are involved, where billions in profits and greed come into play, huge, massive greed. 

I have met some obnoxious oligarchs in Russia, people so rich it is sinful, who became richer than Jeff Bezos, post Perestroika, people with no souls, money is their God, their manners are low and their arrogance knows no bounds.  We see some of them in blingy holiday resorts like Dubai with supermodels in tow.  They have the sort of money that we would never see here and with that comes bigger corruption, bigger yachts, bigger egos, bought women etc.  I am not in the world of these people, nor are any of my Russian friends.  Again, look at Ireland recently, look at the unethical behaviour of Davys, the banking crash and the pain and misery brought on by a few bastards who did so much damage to so many on our own little island.  I doubt too many of them are in Mountjoy now, having destroyed lives.  Russia is no different to the rest of us, except the money is bigger, so the corruption is bigger.

I have no idea if Wizard Spider are Russian or not, but from what we hear, they are.  I am not in the know in that area.  Their crime was and is utterly despicable.  Obviously, I expressed my horror to my Russian colleagues during the week, but it seems we have good relations between the two countries and the big boys sorted it out to some degree.  They have now given keys to solve it, hopefully, because of heat brought on them. These guys tap away at walls of security screens all day.  When a block falls inwards, they push in.  Our blocks didn’t hold up.  They do not consider the area that is weak, they simple attack where there is weakness it seems.  They do not see patients or humans, just big profits, again driven by greed.  My Russian friends in Ireland and Russia were as horrified as I was at the events this week.  Then again, I watched little Bernie Sanders object to $735 million in arms being sold to Israel this week from the USA, which made me feel equally sick.  It seems greed is the Achilles heel of the entire human race and what will eventually destroy us.

I have sat over dinner with ordinary Russian folk, with Russian cosmonauts, Russian politicians, Russian ambassadors, Russian army bosses, Russian chiefs of police, the Russian Pope, Prima Ballerinas from the Bolshoi, Russia’s biggest celebs, even Russia’s President.  I have dined in their palaces, their homes, their humble country cottages and they all have identical cultural traits, which I feel safe to generalize – incredibly hospitable, highly educated but in an old-fashioned way in many cases (no offence lads), interested, kind, welcoming, emotional speech givers, and always thankful for all we do.  Maybe because of what we do, we bring out their best sides.  That is a possibility.

The whole LGBT issue bothers me there of course.  As Ireland was thirty years ago, quite a lot of Russia still is.  It seems more extreme to us now, as we have evolved from our toxic Catholic days and are now more tolerant and inclusive in general.  I sat at an international conference two years ago beside the CEO of an Indian Bank.  I had to move seats as I was so horrified at what she said to me about gay men.  Some countries have a distance to go before they are as tolerant, inclusive and diverse as we are.  The whole sexualisation of women thing bothers me in Russia.  There is a rough, raw edge in most provincial towns and no one seems to notice or be bothered by it, but it is changing slowly as more and more no longer tolerate it.  The whole idea of male bosses barking at pretty girls in high heels to get tea bothers me, but I am quite sure many did the same here before we went fully PC. 

Money is a huge factor there, as they had none for so long during Communism.  Many are like hungry men eating steak, many cannot get enough of it now.  Material goods are especially important as a status symbol.  Women have to have the obligatory fur coat, in many cases, it truly is a fur coat and no knickers.  They may not have a pot to piss in, but they do have a fur coat, a status symbol, a bit like the Gucci bag so sought after in the West.   

In the big cities we see beautiful Russian women targeting rich men and expats.  They attend functions on the arms of ugly rich lads and the dopey men love it. It does their waning egos good.  The stunning leggy Russian girl loves it, as it guarantees her rent is paid.  Love is not part of the deal.  Some marry Westerners for love, although not too many – in my experience it is more of a business deal.  When you crave wealth, love does not need to be in the contract.  Do not get me wrong, there are those who do fall in love, but rare.

Do they kill, murder, spy, bomb?  According to the news in the West, absolutely.  Whether we have the evidence or not, rightfully, or wrongly, it seems we blame them.  I personally have no idea how much blame is justified, nor do I care, for one main reason, it would draw me away from our job.  I stay away from all of this and I rarely let my head go there.  We work with children who need us, we babysit when the grownups are fighting, warring, blaming, sanctioning, imprisoning, etc.  We do not look left or right but stay focused on minding the children.  If I had worked in children’s homes in Ireland and witnessed the abuse of the nuns and the corruption of the Church, would I have run a mile because I didn’t like the Government’s stance on something?  I doubt it.  I would have dug my heels in and stayed.  It is not our job to judge or to solve, it is not part of what we do to look at politics, religion, wars or cyber-crimes.  It is our job to mind sad and broken children and to make their lives better.  That is all we ever said we would do.    

I think both sides may have thought we are all spies at times, in fact, I know they both thought this.  We are not, as is clear from twenty-three years of nothing but hard work and solving endless children’s issues.  Neither are we groomed by anyone or puppets for anyone.  We help orphaned children left over from an old broken system that is fading out.  Hopefully in the next decade we will see the last orphanage gates close.  That is all we do and is all we ever did.  I just wish we had the funds to do it in more countries, as we do it so well.

No offence to Russians, but they are very hard to figure at times.  They do say that you need to understand Russia with your heart and not your head, I do agree with this line of poetry.  They can be blunt, raw, unsophisticated, so old fashioned it is beyond belief at times and they are so unsmiling, it makes me laugh at times.  I actually think they only smile on the inside unless they really know and trust you.  They are academic snobs for sure!  Never make the mistake of discussing poetry with them.  When Putin asked me about my favourite Irish poets, I am sure he could see my panic at my own lack of knowledge.  I gurgled something lame about W.B. Yates and Seamus Heaney.  

The men take saunas like we go to the pub and they are the best saunas in the world.  They have all read Ulysses in Russian!  (We all have to cover up the fact that most of us have never opened it).  The men are the best flower buyers on earth.  You should see the bouquets, we pale in comparison.  It is very traditional to give flowers very regularly to their ladies.  In my experience, Russians really only have empathy for their own families and trust very few.  They donate hugely to those fast and furious fundraisers that say “This child will die by Friday without your help”, as they do not see any waste on admin, but otherwise donations are like pulling teeth due to lack of trust.  They adore poetry, good health, forests, bees, nature, they grow the nicest vegetable and herbs I have ever tasted and are big meat eaters.  That whole Western nutrition thing has not really hit there yet.  Vegans and vegetarians are seen as a bit simple.  They look at you pityingly if you mention we have a vegetarian in the group. 

Russians have the most extraordinary value on their grandparents who fought in World War II.  These are the people who stopped Hitler in his tracks and changed the future for us all.  We really do forget that historical fact and, in general, we praise the USA etc., for it.  The USA and Europe lost hundreds of thousands of men in World War II.  Russia lost millions to save us from the fate of Nazis.  I do think Russians look back too often and not forward enough but admire the respect they show for those people, their grandparents, who died in a horrendous war so that we could all have the luxurious lives we lead today.

Business is business to them.  Bear in mind, they came from eighty years of having absolutely nothing, no material goods, same clothing, same flats, same brown paint everywhere, same lack of imagination in most of Stalin’s architecture.  So many TVs still have stickers from the shop on them, light fittings are blingy now, homes are basic with bling added randomly, madly randomly at times.  We love the diversity of it all.  We are so amused by so much of it in a non-offensive way and genuinely moved by their care for us, for decades now.

The weirdest thing about Russia for me is that you could be having dinner with a man who runs a million dodgy businesses, and I mean really dodgy, but he could be the nicest person ever, really genuinely nice, presenting you with a rose, dinner in his home, traditional gifts, etc.  It is a wildly bizarre mix at times. You can really only understand it with your heart.

Our Irish team have been minded when we were sick, treated as part of their family, allowed access to orphanages that no Irish nun, priest or politician ever gave to any person in Ireland.  We can open any door, meet any politician we need to meet and problems get solved fast once you know the right people.  Let’s not mix ordinary Russian folk with the mega wealthy yacht owners, drug barons and cyber kings.  The ones who have looked after our whole team for twenty-three years have minded us like babies, welcomed us with open arms when we had money and even now when we have none.  We are not stupid people, or easily fooled.  There have been too many of us Irish over the years there, doctors, journalists, film makers, dentists, teachers, nurses, carers, prison governors, foster experts, psychologists, advisers of every type.  Every one of us has respected and trusted those we have met, dined with, had saunas with, swam with in winter ice swims, barbequed with in mosquito-ridden forests and none more than the humble folk who cooked for us when they had very little themselves and the children who shared their dinners with us when the next one was a long way away.

The Embassy in Orwell Road has had to put up with me for 23 years.  I have asked many favours for people that I hardly know to get fast visas for adoption, or business (absolutely no money ever changed hands, nor did we ever get involved with adoptions), but Irish people have called me in emergencies, many times, sometimes unfairly, and I have never been let down.  Once a year, an Embassy car comes to my home with a beautiful letter to our organisation thanking us for all we do and usually a lovely souvenir with it, thoughtful, always with beautiful meaningful words to our whole team. 

I have been through the tragedy of 350 deaths in Beslan sixteen years ago, taking camera crews to Russia to film this story.  Our own large team travels often, a million permission papers needed, visas, short lead-in times, yet the Embassy oblige every time.  I have seen five Ambassadors in Orwell during my time, each one as patient with me as the next one, each one a gentleman.  They let us down once in twenty-three years, I can live with that.

Our own Irish Embassy in Moscow has been involved with all we do from day one and I must say, it is another place where we find support, a cup of tea when we need it, and fantastic Ambassadors and staff over our twenty-three years.  It is so nice when the Paddy’s Day events happen.  Russians are invited, as are all types of people.  If only the world could be as successful at relations as those nights are. 

To Children With Love has travelled the length and breadth of Russia.  It is stunningly beautiful in parts, grim and communistic in others, but no matter where you go, how poor, how sad, they have a depth of soul that is incomparable to any people that I have ever met anywhere.  This is why we are still there.  I think I could safely say I am speaking on behalf of every person who has ever been lucky enough to be a part of our love story there. 

It has been nothing but an honour to know so many good Russians, to be allowed so much access into a closed world of children’s institutions and to be trusted and allowed to help so many magnificent, orphaned children.

if only our own country had allowed people past the orphanage gates.  We may have had a very different outcome for thousands.

 

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