My father’s infatuation with Vladimir Putin is absolute. Photo: Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images
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Vladimir Putin has torn my family apart

I grew up in a family of Soviet intelligentsia, but the relentless propaganda from Russia’s state-controlled media has convinced my father that I am not a patriot. I am a disappointment.

During the long Russian winter my mother watches a fair amount of TV. Earlier this month Russia’s main channel broadcast the highlights of Sochi Winter Olympics; now the channels are beefing up their schedule with old Soviet films, commemorating the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is referred to there. When I ask her if she watches any current affairs programmes discussing the war in the Ukraine or the dire economic consequences of the fall in the oil prices or the western sanctions which saw the rouble taking the plunge, she answers curtly: “We agreed not to talk about Putin.” My mother is sick of my attempts to open her eyes to the way the state-controlled media packages news into one-sided stories featuring Putin the Saviour, defending Russia against the ills of the west. I sigh and change the conversation. I don’t want to lose another parent. Not with my father not speaking to me at all.

In my father’s eyes, I have been brainwashed by the western media, dancing to the tune of the White House. It’s the US that is set on world domination, which gives arms to terrorists, as long as they are based on the right side of the oil fields. It’s Nato that is unhappy about Russia building up strength both in economic and military terms, and putting things in motion to destabilise Putin’s growing influence in world affairs. The fact that I am equally as wary of Washington as I am of Moscow does not matter at all. I am the daughter of Russia who abandoned her motherland, who received a British education and stayed in London rather than returning home. I have worked for American and European companies, enriching the rich, neglecting my duty to help Russia grow its economy. I am not a patriot. I am a disappointment, the latter conclusion deriving as much from my childlessness as from my feeble sense of civic duty.  

My father’s infatuation with Putin is absolute. Russian television has broadcast enough films, entertainment and educational programmes to ensure that the words “homosexual” and “paedophile” are used interchangeably, making it impossible to disagree that “it is essential to put in place measures which provide for the intellectual, moral and mental wellbeing of children, including a ban on any activities aimed at popularising homosexuality... including instilling distorted ideas that society places an equal value on traditional and non-traditional sexual relations.”

The power of the government and the church are so closely webbed that an act of protest inside a cathedral still provokes only anger and condemnation, without a single pause for thought. Ukraine’s President Poroshenko is so blatant in his desperation to make close ties with the US that it is easy to take sides and close your eyes to the Russian weapons and troops being transported over the border to aid the separatists. The image of the strong president, “an authoritarian project in the process of succeeding”, is a much more compelling picture than a caricature of democracy. This is a country with no real political opposition and no culture of parliamentary debates, where absolute power is not confined to history books.

It was not always like that. I grew up in a family of Soviet intelligentsia. My grandparents, my aunt, uncle and my father worked in academia. My mother’s side of the family were engineers, doctors, accountants and lawyers. Unlike my grandfather, my father did not join the Communist Party despite the obvious advantages in terms of career prospects. He was somewhat of a rebel, organising the first disco at the Ural State Technical University (then Ural Polytechnic Institute) in early 1970s Sverdlovsk. When Perestroika came, my father took advantage of the new political and economic climate and set up a joint venture with a European partner. Over the decades of his entrepreneurial journey, he experienced Russia’s dispiriting bureaucracy at first hand, as well as the institutional pressure on small enterprises, the tax police and the criminal elements that were eager to extort, corrupt, and take advantage of legal loopholes. Natural resources are rightly considered a curse for improving productivity and developing a grassroots culture of entrepreneurship. My father suffered many knockbacks as a businessman, and perhaps he’s had enough.

Putin is an eloquent speaker and a skilful politician. I do not dispute that. He is also credited with restoring Russia’s economic might, but the effect of the drop in world oil and gas prices has demonstrated that during his 15-year reign Putin had hardly developed Russia’s economy beyond the exploitation of its natural resources. After the rouble tanked, the story of Great Russia is being fed with past glories such as the Sochi Olympics and the Great Patriotic War. Last year, Russian drivers pimped their cars with ribbons and slogans “Thank you, grandfather, for the victory”; Russian Facebook users decorated their profiles with the same paraphernalia. The years 1941 to 1945 were the most significant in Russian history, impossible to forget or ignore, but the renewed narrative aimed at boosting national pride is masking economic hardship and social tensions. Sadly, the propaganda machine seems to be in mint condition. The split in my own family is a result of that.

What the state-controlled media cannot manipulate is human stories. My cousin is worried that his son, a 20-year-old student at one of Moscow’s universities, may be sent to the war zone if the government changes conscription rules. Military education classes are now weekly and mandatory for male students. My other cousin is thinking about folding his business, having been badly affected by the fall in the rouble. My former English teacher is struggling to make ends meet, with her pension now barely covering rent, food and medicine. She remembers eating vegetable peel fritters as a child during the war and wonders whether history will repeat itself: “We made soup from nettle in spring of 1945. Perhaps we’ll end up where we came from.” 

Jana Bakunina (@ladieswhoimpres) writes for Ladies Who Impress and Life Tonic.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear