Thursday, 18 August 2011

Russian revelation

The beautiful city of Novgorod, 190km south of St Petersburg, was the first centre of the Russian lands. In the ninth century, Slavic tribes vied for supremacy in the region, but just as they were on the brink of fratricidal war, they invited a Viking prince called Rurik of Rus to rule over them and impose order. “From him did the Russian land receive its name,” says the ancient Russian Chronicle.

My most recent visit to the city came via a journey on board the milk train from Moscow and so, while the town was sleeping, I took a cab to the far side of the Volkhov River. From here, across the water, the full moon floated above the walls of Novgorod’s kremlin (the Russian name for a fortified citadel) in one of Europe’s most perfect vistas – red medieval battlements planted on green river banks and, rising above them, the high golden domes of a soaring cathedral.

Walk through the gates of the kremlin and you’ll find manicured lawns and a statue of Rurik complete with Viking helmet and shield. There’s also a fascinating history museum with birch bark documents from the earliest days – merchants’ bills, love letters and even schoolboys’ crib sheets. The white-walled 11th-century Cathedral of Saint Sophia is Russia’s oldest church, with splendid frescos and a miracle-working icon.

The Golden Gate of Kiev

In 882 Rurik’s heirs shifted their headquarters south to Kiev, in what is now Ukraine. Take a bus to the top of the Berestov Hill on the edge of town and you’ll see why they chose it. The mighty Dnieper River bends its way through the gorge beneath you, at the heart of the trade route from the Viking north to the Greek Byzantine Empire in the south.

Kievan Rus developed a quasi-democratic form of governance that allowed people to elect and dismiss their rulers. But on the edge of Kiev, you’ll find evidence of the sticky end it came to.

The Golden Gate of Kiev was part of the city’s mighty walls, designed to keep out the tribes of the wild eastern steppes. But in 1240 a Mongol army smashed down Kiev’s defences and murdered its inhabitants. Rus was plunged into the 200-year darkness of the Mongol occupation.

Kulikovo Polye (Field of Snipes)

The Mongols stifled native culture and forced the Russian princes into humiliating shows of submission. Some resisted, but it wasn’t until 1380 that 29-year-old Dmitry Ivanovich from the previously minor city of Moscow persuaded his fellow princes to mount a concerted challenge to the occupiers.

At Kulikovo Polye, 260km south of Moscow, he assembled his forces on the banks of the River Don and squared up to the Mongol cavalry. You can still visit the battlefield with its 30m Orthodox cross, church and museum.

The site has been adopted by Russian nationalists and every September they re-enact the battle in period costume.

During one such mock battle I watched burly men in chainmail knock the stuffing out of silk-clad Mongols with swords before heading off to share a beer.

But in 1380 things were less amicable. “Christian bodies lay like haystacks”, the Chronicles tell us, “and the River Don flowed red with blood”.

Mongol rule would last for another century, but in Russian folk memory Kulikovo Polye is “the place to which Russians came divided and left as a nation”.

Moscow’s kremlin

As Mongol power waned, Moscow’s grew. Prince Ivan I, known as Kalita (“Moneybags”) because of his knack for accumulating territory and wealth, laid the foundations of the Moscow Kremlin in the 1320s.

Today its palaces and churches are Moscow’s leading tourist attraction. As long as there’s no big political set-piece going on, you can tour most of them.

While you’re there, pop in to see Lenin in his mausoleum on Red Square beneath the Kremlin walls. In communist times I used to queue all morning; today you can walk straight in.

Events from more recent days centre on the Russian White House, the imposing white marble building on the Moscow River, where Boris Yeltsin defied the hardline communist coup in 1991. But none of that would have been possible without Ivan Moneybags. His wheeling and dealing sealed Moscow’s pre-eminence, replacing Kiev as the seat of the Grand Prince (the future Tsar) and of the Orthodox Church.


Russia’s borders are long and vulnerable; the fear of invasion has been an enduring national terror myth since the Mongol Yoke. When the French began exporting revolution after 1789, the Russians were ill-prepared.

Napoleon’s armies advanced rapidly until they reached the village of Borodino, 120km west of Moscow. The ensuing battle, in September 1812, is the centrepiece of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and the subject of Tchaikovsky’s rousing 1812 Overture.

These days there are guided tours of the battlefield and in a small museum you’ll find the bloody uniforms of Russian and French troops. The museum explains that Borodino was a defeat for the Russians – their casualties were much higher than Napoleon’s – but the French were fatally weakened.

They rolled on to Moscow, only to find that the retreating Russians had set the city ablaze. Deprived of food and shelter, frozen by the Russian winter, the half-million French turned homeward. All but 200 000 of them died in two hellish months of headlong retreat.

Also at Borodino, look out for the memorial to the Soviet 82nd Rifle Division which perished trying to halt the Nazis’ advance in 1941.

Moika Canal, Saint Petersburg

When Peter the Great chose the site of his new capital in 1703, the Russian aristocracy were appalled; St Petersburg would be built in a swampy, desolate bog on the Gulf of Finland. But Peter’s choice was emblematic of boldness and renewal. He was shuffling off the old, backward-looking connotations of Moscow, taking Russia on “a leap from darkness into light”.

The city that became Peter’s “window on the West” is full of wide avenues and splendid vistas. It has fascinated me ever since I was a student there in the 1970s.

Don’t miss the tsars’ Winter Palace, home to the incomparable Hermitage Museum; Palace Square where the events of Bloody Sunday unfolded in 1905; and Battleship Aurora, still anchored at the quay where it fired the starting gun for the October Revolution of 1917.

Spare a moment, also, for the spot by the Moika Canal where Russia’s hopes for democracy were blown apart. Here in March 1881, the reforming Tsar Alexander II was torn to pieces by a revolutionary’s bomb.

He’d freed the serfs and was planning a new liberal constitution, but his reforms died with him. The Cathedral of Spilled Blood, with its marvellous mosaics, now marks the site. Forty years later, Russia was in the grip of an autocracy worse than anything the tsars had imposed.

Lake Razliv

The Bolsheviks were a small, fanatical clique of professional revolutionaries who set little store by democracy. In February 1917, Russia’s first revolution had brought liberal democrats to power, who released political prisoners, granted civil rights and planned free national elections.

Lenin’s forces were scattered, and he fled in disguise to a hiding place on Lake Razliv, 32km north of St Petersburg. You can get there on an elektrichka (commuter train) from St Petersburg’s Finland Station, followed by a short bus ride. In communist times it became a shrine, with caf├ęs, a museum and the remarkably preserved grass hut in which Lenin hid from the tsarist police.

The scenery is breathtaking; the walk through the birch forest alone is worth the trip. Lenin, of course, returned to St Petersburg in time to overthrow the embryonic democracy of the provisional government in the October Revolution.


The Siberian city of Yekaterinburg, on the eastern slopes of the Urals, has an attractive centre, set around an artificial lake.

Its place in history was cemented in the early hours of July 17, 1918. The Bolsheviks had imprisoned Tsar Nicholas II and his family in the commandeered house of a local merchant, but when anti-revolutionary forces threatened to capture the city and free the royals, Lenin sent orders that they should all be shot.

The spot where the last tsar met his fate is occupied by a new cathedral, the Shrine of Redemption through Blood, surrounded by billboards showing life-size images of the dead Romanovs and asking for prayers to “the holy martyrs”.

The bodies of Nicholas and his family were dumped in a mine shaft outside Yekaterinburg and weren’t discovered until 1991.

Lake Ladoga

Today Lake Ladoga, which lies to the north-east of St Petersburg, is a popular beauty spot, rich in fish and wildlife. It’s a pleasant day’s outing and you might even spot native Ladoga seals. But from 1941 to 1944 it was the scene of a desperate struggle for national survival.

Leningrad, as St Petersburg was known, was besieged for nearly two and a half years by Nazi troops.

Leningrad could be supplied only via an “ice road” across Lake Ladoga. Under enemy bombardment, lorries carried food and fuel to the city’s population. Nearly one in three of the 2.5 million inhabitants would eventually starve to death.

Certain of victory, Hitler printed invitations to a celebratory party in the city’s Hotel Astoria. But Leningrad held out and the siege was lifted in January 1944. You can see Hitler’s unused party invitations in the State Memorial Museum of the Siege of Leningrad, which also has personal testimonies from Soviet civilians and the diaries of German soldiers.

Star City

The Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev was plagued by economic problems, but excelled in certain areas. The Soviet space programme is inspiring and horrifying by turns. Moscow achieved a string of remarkable firsts, from the sputniks of the 1950s to the first dog in space, the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin in 1961) and the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova in 1963). You can trace their fascinating story at Star City (Zvezdny Gorodok) 80km north-east of Moscow.

Star City is still a military zone, but state-approved travel organisations now offer guided tours and they are well worth taking. The heroism of the Soviet cosmonauts helped the USSR beat the Americans at every turn. But Khrushchev and Brezhnev became so obsessed with propaganda victories that they demanded ever greater risks be taken.

Tragedy ensued; cosmonauts died and the space programme went into meltdown. The Americans won the race to the moon and no Soviet would ever follow in their footsteps. It’s a fitting image for the whole communist century, which promised much but ended in failure. – The Independent

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Air Berlin to cut routes as German tax weigh on earnings as CEO plans to quit

BERLIN — Germany’s second-biggest airline, Air Berlin PLC, says it is cutting back unprofitable routes as high fuel prices, a new German aviation tax and sagging demand for travel to North Africa weighed on earnings.

The company also announced Thursday that CEO Joachim Hunold plans to offer his resignation effective Sept. 1.

It didn’t specify reasons for his decision, but said he has recommended that Hartmut Mehdorn, a former chief executive of German railway Deutsche Bahn AG, become his interim successor.

Air Berlin said it will concentrate increasingly on its hubs in Berlin, Duesseldorf, Palma de Mallorca and Vienna, and offer fewer connections from German regional airports.

It said it plans to cut flight frequencies and reduce capacity in the second half, reducing its fleet by eight aircraft. Air Berlin currently has 170 planes.

Germany started imposing a new tax on flights from its airports in January. Air Berlin argued that that makes it difficult to pass on higher fuel prices to its customers in full.

The airline says demand for flights to North African destinations, which are significant to the company, have not recovered in the aftermath of the unrest there earlier this year.

Routes that will be cut include Frankfurt-Hamburg domestic flights, Frankfurt-Naples, Stuttgart-St. Petersburg, Munich-Cairo, and Duesseldorf-Paris.

Air Berlin says its second-quarter loss widened compared with a year earlier.

Washington Post
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Qantas overhauls with $9 bln fleet order

Qantas planes are seen at Sydney's domestic airport June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

 - Australia's Qantas Airways (QAN.AX) is setting up two new airlines in Asia and ordering $9 billion of new Airbus (EAD.PA) aircraft as part of a do-or-die makeover to salvage its loss-making international business.

Qantas will also cut 1,000 jobs in Australia as it shifts its focus to the world's fastest-growing aviation market, triggering threats by unions to block the move and a government pledge to scrutinise the plans.

Qantas, which has been reviewing its offshore operations to cut costs and unprofitable routes, said it will launch a new, premium Asian airline and a Japanese budget carrier, the latter jointly with Japan Airlines and Mitsubishi Corp (8058.T).

The new airlines will fly Airbus A320 jets, cementing their reputation as the plane of choice on regional networks over archrival Boeing Co. (BA.N) Qantas, which also flies Boeing's best-selling 737 narrowbodies, plans to acquire up to 110 of the Airbus planes, worth more than $9.4 billion.

As Qantas rebases its loss-making international operations in Asia, it also plans to give up some of its long-haul routes and retire older planes as well as cut jobs.

"Right now 82 out of every 100 people flying out of Australia are choosing to fly with an airline other than Qantas, not including Jetstar," the airline's Irish-born chief executive, Alan Joyce, told a news conference.

Joyce has cut costs and jobs since taking the helm at Qantas in 2008, with growth increasingly focused on the budget offshoot Jetstar, which he ran before becoming chief executive.

"To do nothing, or tinker around the edges, would only guarantee the end of Qantas International in our home Australian market. That would be a tragedy," he said, adding that the international operation's cost base was around 20 percent higher than its major rivals.

Joyce said the new premium airline was expected to be launched next year with an initial fleet size of 11 A320s. It may based in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and would not be majority owned by Qantas, he said. China was also being considered, one source familiar with the airline earlier told Reuters.

Qantas has an existing relationship with Malaysia's AirAsia (AIRA.KL), which this week agreed to swap shares with Malaysian Airline system (MASM.KL) as part of a partnership deal.

Qantas shares closed down 0.33 percent at A$1.52.

"It's a prudent move," said Jason Teh, a portfolio manager at Investors Mutual, which does not own Qantas shares.

"That's a way to get your costs down. If you know your return on capital's going to be thin, share your capital base. The international business is more cyclical and poses more competitor threats than their domestic business."


The plan announced by Qantas drew immediate fire from several quarters. Australian Transport Minister Anthony Albanese said the government will examine the plan to ensure it does not breach the airline's privatisation rules.

"The Australian government very firmly believes in an Australian-based and majority Australian-owned Qantas," he said.

The Qantas Sale Act of 1992 requires the airline's operational base and headquarters to be in Australia, foreign ownership is capped at 49 percent and the name Qantas is preserved. At least two-thirds of the board and its chairman must be Australians.

Trade unions and a key independent senator have said they could also seek legislative or regulatory steps to ensure Qantas remains an Australian-owned company.

Qantas faces a likely escalation of industrial action at home over the plan's estimated 1,000 job cuts, with trade unions opposed to any move by Qantas to shift its international operations offshore. About 200 pilot jobs were expected to be included in the cuts.

"Until we get an assurance from Alan Joyce that future Qantas flights will be operated by Qantas pilots, instead of outsourced and offshored alternatives, we will be doing everything we can to stop this destructive strategy for Qantas's future," Barry Jackson, president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, said in a statement.


Qantas' plan refocuses its offshore business squarely on Asia, a region that should account for more than half of global airline profits this year, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Qantas plans to acquire between 106 and 110 Airbus A320 aircraft, including planes for Jetstar Japan and the new premium Asia-based airline. Between 28 and 32 planes of these would be current-generation A320s and the rest the fuel-efficient, next-generation A320neo aircraft.

Airbus has scored resounding victories over Boeing with its narrow-body A320neo aircraft, taking a commanding lead in the single-aisle market once dominated by Boeing's 737 family.

Just last month AirAsia announced a deal worth $18.2 billion at list prices for 200 A320neo planes while AMR Corp's (AMR.N) American Airlines, previously an all-Boeing customer, ordered 260 narrow-body A320 planes.

Qantas and its regional brand QantasLink have mixed fleets with notable Boeing narrowbody and widebody presences. Jetstar has only Airbus narrowbodies, but it has orders for Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

"I would count this as a loss for Boeing," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at The Teal Group, noting Airbus has "core strength" in narrowbody markets with Asian low-cost carriers.

Qantas also delayed the delivery of its final six A380s for up to six years in a move aimed at conserving capital and bolstering its balance sheet.

It said it would retire four Boeing 747s and would make no change to its existing order of Boeing 787s.

Qantas reaffirmed its earnings guidance, though it said the restructuring would cost more than A$350 million. (Additional reporting by Rob Taylor in Canberra, Sonali Paul and Victoria Thierberger in Melbourne and Kyle Peterson in Chicago; Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Ed Davies, Matt Driskill and Matthew Lewis)

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Eddington backs Qantas Asia expansion

Infrastructure Australia boss Sir Rod Eddington has backed Qantas's decision to expand its operations in Asia and questioned the need for high-speed rail linking Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

Qantas has outraged unions with its plan to retrench 1000 airline staff in Australia and set up a low-cost carrier in Japan, along with a possible premium Asian service.

But Sir Rod, a former chief executive of British Airways, said other Australian companies should emulate what Qantas was doing, stressing the loss of local jobs was a separate issue.

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"I would hope that more Australian companies will look to take advantage of Asian markets in particular - after all, Asia's on our doorstep - and get much more inventive about taking advantage of those markets," he told an Australian Business Economists lunch in Sydney.

"Japan is absolutely the right place to start ... that's a real opportunity, and Qantas has decided to grasp it."

Sir Rod, who has also previously run Cathay Pacific and Ansett Airlines, said the global airline business was not economically rational.

"Qantas clearly faces challenges internationally," he said.

When it came to high-speed rail, Sir Rod suggested that building train networks within Australia's congested capital cities may be a better investment than a 350km/h line linking Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

"Is building a high-speed rail network more or less important than building urban rail networks in our cities?," he said.

"Is it more important than building conventional rail networks up the east coast for freight, to take a lot of the freight off the roads?'"

Sir Rod said Australia's biggest cities were crying out for more investment in urban rail.

"Cities get to a point, and I think Melbourne and Sydney are there, where unless you build a further rail network, typically an underground rail network, city functionality just doesn't operate," he said.

"Unless your cities function properly, you get dysfunctional economic and community behaviour."

Sir Rod accused state governments of lacking the courage to privatise parts of their existing infrastructure, which he argued was the best way to attract private investment.

"Politicians are often afraid of allowing the private sector to take those risks and, having taken them successfully, if they then enjoy what's seen as a disproportionate economic return, they get pilloried publicly," he said.

He also urged politicians to push for road congestion charges and explain how extra revenue could build better roads and railways.

"The challenge is not the economics of road pricing, it's the politics of getting people to understand why it's a step forward," he said.

Sir Rod, a non-executive director of News Corporation, declined to answer questions about the phone-hacking scandal involving the publisher of the now-defunct News of the World newspaper in the UK.

"It's a story for another day," he said

Sydney Morning Herald
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