Tuesday, 20 October 2015

A New Catherdral in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

[This blog was written in May 2015]

I slept badly.  It wasn't for the lack of practice but rather the jet lag.  Last time I was so far East, it was easier because the journey had been broken up: a couple of unexpected nights in Singapore and two more in Australia before hitting the well sites in deepest outback of Moomba.

This time though I was in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk ahead of another adventure - at least that's how I like to think about work when this far from home.  It's an nine-hour time difference and I travelled here in twenty five hours.  My body is out of sync.  The day-long safety induction (all in Russian) was nearly the death of me.  I'm not smart - I understood that tea, coffee and sandwiches would be on offer for the half-hour break for lunch.  The important stuff.  The rest went over my head: or would have if the slides had not been mostly straight interpretations from many in English I had already seen.  The guys who needed to see me the following day however, took mercy and decided a day of adjustment was in order.  Further meetings have been put back until the weekend.

So what does one do in a strange city on a day off?  The answer is obvious to any Brit: go for a walk.  On the way to the rather nice resort hotel on the edge of town where the safety meeting was held, I noticed a church, or rather a cathedral, under construction.  This is not an everyday event in the UK: after replacing and repairing several from bomb-damage in the 20th Century, our own church-building programme has hit a rather fallow patch.  So remembering the rough directions, I set off.

The first thing that struck me about Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is how Russian it is.  This may be a counterintuitive thing to state but think on it.  It is 6600km (4100 miles) from St. Petersburg but still in the same country.  If that is not amazing enough for you, the distance between New York and Los Angeles is a mere 3900km.  This is not even the end of Russia here: it goes further through another four time zones to the Bering Straits, where even Americans like Sarah Palin has heard of it.

For me to state therefore how Russian the place is is, to my mind is remarkable.  The faces on the street are a mix of Caucasian, Asiatic and Turkic, but the majority are white Russians.  Only a few times did I see faces that could hint at Japanese or Korean heritage.

The city itself feels like it is on the up.  In Spring, all Russian (and former Soviet Union) cities I have been to are dusty and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is no exception.  Plumes where sent up into my face when a large four-by-four pulled in to park.  As one would expect, most of the vehicles are Japanese brands.  It stuck me one evening that in most of the cars approaching, the drivers were close to me as I walked along.  Then it struck me: not only are the cars made in Japan, most of them are actually with the steering wheel on the right, and made for the Japanese market!  I can only imagine that it works out cheaper to buy a second-hand Japanese import than one made for the majority of the world's markets for driving on the right.
On the whole, the main street are clean, the pavements reasonable and the apartment blocks well maintained, even the Soviet-era buildings.  Poor roads and frost-damaged pavements seemed reserved for the residential zones.

This city is not so far from major geological subduction zones and earthquakes as strong as an eight on the Richter scale have been know.  Unlike Yerevan, which still showed the scars of major quakes when I visited in the late 1990s, I didn't see any such signs here.  Instead there are new blocks and still more going up.  All good, so I was keen to see the new cathedral.

At first it was as I remembered from yesterday.  It is not every day one sees the typical Russian onion dome cupolas sitting on the ground waiting to be lifted into place.

Then next door I noticed the field guns.  What?  Artillery? This was not going to be as straightforward as I though.

 As it transpired, the cathedral is only part of the story.  The whole complex is forming a brand new religious / memorial centre dedicated, as far as I can tell, to the seventieth anniversary to the end of what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War.  World War Two to the rest of us.

The suffering and sacrifice of the Soviet people are constantly glossed over in the West.  As far as British and American public are mainly concerned, the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany started on the Sixth on June, 1944.  No so.  By that time the Russians had undergo three years of invasion and constant warfare on their own soil, had won the battle of Stalingrad and in the previous summer to D-Day had held the last great German offensive at Kursk.  After that the Germans had been thrown into retreat, ceding ground as in push after push and, in a story untold in the West, the Germans were steadily ground back towards their starting positions in Poland, Hungary and Romania.

Given this, I don't blame the Russian peoples for continuing to mark the anniversary of defeating the Nazis.  What I do find disturbing however, is the juxtaposition of war and church in such an obvious manner.  The cathedral is just the centrepiece of a complex where the state's victory is firmly anchored to Orthodox religion.  The irony of course is that although the church was briefly resurrected during the Great Patriotic War, it was on the whole subjected to the most horrible persecution under Communist rule.  Not any more.

Here is how the complex is expected to look:

The cathedral is to be the centre, with the war memorial on its right hand (left as we look at the picture) to have its own onion dome as a echo.  Now, I do not claim expertise but I have never seen this particular architectural feature on any Soviet war memorial.  It seems to express that while the victory was that of the people, it occurred under the sanction of God.  I wonder what the Soviet war veterans would have to say about that?

So, the question is, what does all this mean?  I have blogged previously on the rise of the Orthodox Church in Putin's Russia and it seems that the process is continuing. Putin is determined to recreate the rule of the Tsars.  Not in hereditary terms (at least as far as I am aware) but perhaps more on the model of the ruling elite, united with the full trapping of a state religion.  The model of state is not so far from that of the ancient Persians: one where regional governors (satraps) are appointed and can be replaced upon whim of the centre.  Or maybe it is not so fancy: just the nationalism of the Soviet Union, stripped of its affection of socialism, and sanctioned by God.

To me though, the thought of God glorifying any warfare, no matter how just the cause, is truly obscene.  This complex represents nothing less than Christ in the service of Caesar.

That is a part of the New Testament that I must have missed.



Saturday, 10 October 2015


In the past fifteen months, I have twice been made redundant.

The first one was actually easier to bear because I knew that my direct line manager had it in for me.  I was effectively working alone, not in an office so it was relatively easy for him to direct the flow of information.  Unlike others, I was not asked to reapply for my post but instead transferred across to a new cost centre within the company.  What I did not know is that was one due to be cut once the contract I was working on came to an end.  After what was to become my final job, I was called into the Stavanger office and by conference call my employment ended there and then.  No discussion or chance of appeal.

Working as I was, officially out of Italy, posted in Israel but for the last two years on secondment to Norway, I did not challenge the legality of the decision.  Which national court would I apply to for starters?   It was unpleasant but in a way okay because it was personal animosity on his part.  It was not my job performance: I knew what I did and did it well. I was the first out the door but soon many of my former colleagues were also unemployed and the industry started its decline.

Within seven weeks, I had joined a new company and I really enjoyed my time with them.  It was also convenient: usually one has to live within a major oil town to live close to such a job.  In was remarkable that I found one in Edinburgh less than a couple of  kilometres from the house.

Losing this last job is a lot harder to bear because I actually liked the people I worked with and I liked the work.  So to be judged as lacking compared to others who joined about the same time is a pretty bitter pill.  I guess at my age I am a slower learner on what are very difficult-to-use computer systems (we are not talking Apple or MS Windows here!).   I was partially hired for my previous industry experience but that does not seem to have mattered much when it came down to the crunch.

The worst thing about this time is that the whole industry is down.  As a noted in a previous blog, there are huge redundancies ongoing across oil and gas on a global basis - 65,000 around the North Sea alone.  The problems have been compounded here by the Conservative government's slashing of support for renewable energy.  An area that may have been natural for people in my position to transfer sideways into is also undergoing major jobs losses.

Unless something unexpected turns up, it looks like my time in the energy industry has come to an end.

Having undergone both the US-style same-day chop, and the British one-month staff consultation and selection process, which one is easier to bear?  Actually I think it is the American system.  It may be more brutal but the fact it is unexpected means the shock does not last as long.  Soon over and done.  The UK system of announcing upcoming redundancies, going through consultations and publishing the selection criteria may be fairer but it is unbelievably stressful for all those who even suspect they are in line to be axed.  The worst thing about it is the hope, the selfish hope that it won't be yourself but some other poor bastard.  I tried so hard to kill any hope but just could not.  As a society, we are expected to be positive and negativity is frowned upon.  It is almost impossible to stay positive under such circumstances.  Anybody who manages it simply does not care about the job they hold.

I was told yesterday afternoon that I was one of those who had been selected.  I wish I could have been more decent about it but that was beyond me.  Last night was pretty horrible.  It's the anger that is unable to express itself in some destructive outlet with is difficult to cope with.  Of course, it is this same anger when mixed with guns that leads to the explosive and tragic violence that is seen in the United States.  But it is the impersonal system that is at the root of the matter.  The people who sacked me are lovely - it would be better for my own sanity  if I could resent and hate them.  I have little doubt that their methodology was fair but the outcome is only for the company's benefit:  it does not feel at all fair to the people who have lost their jobs.  The whole process is easier on those who make the decisions and of course feels better for those who stay on.

It is  perhaps word-association that led me to think of James Cameron's movie The Terminator.  I had never thought of it as an allegory before but really it is.  Human beings develop a system that turns against them with an implacable and relentless logic.    Humanity is no longer necessary to the system and thus they are subjected to termination.  It is our creation of systems that have their own logic, without regard for the human impact, that necessitates the need for such a concept as "fairness".  Within the terms of the industry, my former employers are being very fair and above board.  It is the system as a whole that is not easy on people.

One thing that is definitely not fair is the government extending the period where new workers have no employment rights to two years.  I have invested over a year in this job and effectively have no rights whatsoever.  Six months is probably enough to see whether an individual is on the right track for a given job; a year is ample time.

I have to admit I did freak out a Texan friend when on Facebook last night I put up the status: "I finally understand The Terminator".  Her reply was "Wow.  Stay gold Ponyboy.  Stay gold."

I'm trying Shannon.

Oh, and if anybody would like to offer me employment, please get it contact.