Man With Medals In The Hermitage In Saint Petersburg

In the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg I saw this man. I asked him whether I could photograph him.

I speak about ten words of Russian – mostly taught to me by Tamara, who had the patience to listen the CD before we went to Russia.

But my Russian didn't stretch to asking the man whether I could take his photo.So when I say 'I asked' I mean I raised my camera a few inches and moved my eyes between the man and the camera and gave a 'may I' look.

He was very pleased and amenable and I took the photo. Of course, we were in one of the very big rooms of the Hermitage – big enough for a grand ball – and the windows were off in the distance, so the lighting was poor.

That said, a photo is better than no photo, so I pressed the shutter.

Now the question was, who had I photographed? Was he a hero of the Soviet Union? I mean that absolutely straight up. I was madly calculating whether it was possible that he had fought his way to Berlin.

It's a bit of a stretch. If he was 20 in 1945 he would be 92 now.

Did he look 92? Well, I didn't have time to make the calculation.

When Tamara and I got back to England I asked people on Metafilter (a great place to ask questions, by the way) if anyone knew what medals he was wearing. Here are the replies.

On his right (our left) lapel, that is the "Order of the Patriotic War" (WWII or the Soviet-German war.) Some were issued as early as 1942 but they were given in 1985 to all living WWII veterans in the USSR.

He's wearing the anniversary edition of that medal, given to veterans in 2015 (emblem is on round backing, has pendant loop, with ribbon).

His peaked cap has the Russian naval ensign and the Russian Federation flag on it, though it's not an official uniform cap as far as I can tell.

The black and orange ribbon is presumably a St. George ribbon.

I think the pin on our left (his right) that says "Ударник" is a Shock Worker of Communist Labor pin from the 9th 5-year plan (1971-1975)

Assuming he was wearing his own medals, that would indeed make him a veteran of WWII.

I have to say I felt something when I saw him. Tamara and I had been to the Museum of the Siege of Leningrad (what Saint Petersburg was then called), and I have read a bit about what things were like in Russia at that time.

So it was like stretching a hand through history to be near this man.

I don't mean I admired him or idolised him or in some way elevated him, but he was there at a cruel time so far removed from the room in which we were standing, and he made that time seem a bit nearer.

Gibbon Call In The Early Morning


I wanted to share a recording I made of a gibbon calling in the early morning. I happened to be talking to one of the zoo keepers at Edinburgh Zoo when I heard the sound, and I thought it was a bird calling. The keeper explained that it was a gibbon and said that they like to call in the early morning. He told me where they were located and I made my way uphill and recorded the sound with my iPhone.

I thought I might be able to upload the clip here but for that I would need one of the paid WordPress plans – you can find the details here

So I went searching for where I could upload the MP4 file and I found which allows me to do that.

So, with that intro – here is a : GIBBON CALL in the early morning.

Dadaab: The World’s Biggest Refugee Camp


You may have read or heard the news that the Kenyan Government’s attempt to shut down the Dadaab refugee camp was declared unconstitutional by the High Court in Kenya.

You may have read the Government’s argument that it was a matter of security and that there are Al Shabab terrorists operating in the camp and carrying out attacks from there.

And you may have read that

A directive to shut the Dadaab camp and forcibly repatriate about 260,000 Somali refugees living there was issued last year.

There is more to it behind the news.

For a start, the number is wrong. There are more than half a million Somali refugees in Dadaab, with a smattering of refugees from Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Rwanda.

It’s the world’s largest refugee camp.

Of course the number in Dadaab isn’t static. The original camp has been there since 1991, so children are being born and new refugees are arriving all the time.

A few people find new homes in the UK, or Canada, or Norway, or wherever – but the newly born and the newly arrived mean that the camp is just getting bigger and bigger.

The UN built an extension, and then another and another. And it keeps on growing.

There are even an estimated 40,000 Kenyans there who choose life in the camp to a life free but struggling in the rest of Kenya.

Eight thousand tonnes of food is shipped in by the U.N. each month.

The illegal economy that keeps the camp functioning has an annual turnover of more than $25 million.

There are fixers in the camp who negotiate the price of commodities such as sugar arrriving on the ships that dock in Mogadishu in Somalia, and who pay the bribes along the way until the commodities arrive at Dadaab.

And what may surprise you is that there’s a good argument for saying that the camp isn’t in Kenya at all. Part of the problem is that the borders of Kenya and Somalia were fixed by Britain, the then colonial power, ignoring tribal boundaries.

And Al Shabab terrorists do get into the camp and they do murder people: They murder the Somalis who work for the UN trying keep the camp running.

I learned this when I went with my wife Tamara to hear Ben Rawlence talk about Dadaab. This is another example of my wife’s fine instinct for finding what is worth going to that is rewarding and educational.

Rawlence is not an  armchair visitor. He has been to the camp several times and he writes well about the reality.

Read his book, City of Thorns – Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp and you will soon catch on that he has little time for Governments, visiting celebrities, the civilian security services, the politicians.

He tells a different story – of nine people who live in Dadaab and what life means for them.