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22 April 2012

Useful sayings #1: “an argument is never about what it’s about”

Some people do their yoga sitting in the lotus position; I do mine on my bicycle on sunny summer mornings like today. It is the best way to meditate because, apart from keeping a weather eye open for potholes, half-blind Shestyorka drivers and broken glass on the road, you can empty your mind of everyday concerns and consider the wider issues of life, death and the beauty of truth. Your legs do the thinking, allowing the brain to relax.
     I have a few regular circuits I take for my two-wheeled meditation sessions (I once wrote about this in Passport). The shortest is 24 kms round Khimki, and since this was the first of the season, I took that one this morning. It runs in two places through Khimki forest where the controversial road is being built. Over the last couple of years, I have observed progress. As it is five months since I last meditated, I was not surprised to see changes. The main one is that construction of the bridge over the Moscow-Volga Canal is now well under way (see picture).
     I have been aware of the protests about construction of the road, and once went to see one that the police had warned that they would break up. It was a pretty tame affair, and most of the violence seems to be unofficial. But it set me thinking about why people are protesting about this road.
     The publicly-stated reason is the oak forest. I am not sure I see this. I haven’t walked through it, but from the bicycle, it appears that 90% of it is birch. It is naturally a shame when any wood is felled for construction of any sort, but the Russian habit of dealing in absolutes (see 15 April: Putin’s speech to the Duma) is an administrative handicap in a crowded world since it makes practical, low-temperature compromise hard to achieve. Clearly the country needs better roads, and clearly it has plenty of trees. The sacrifice of a few of them, even oaks, seems a small price to pay for an important piece of infrastructure.
     On the other hand, I support the protests because I think civil action is a muscle which, in Russia, needs to be built up after being forced to atrophy for seventy years under Communism. I think the Russian police need some practice in dealing with civil protest on a sub-absolute basis, and the authorities need to get into the habit of taking account of public opinion before it “goes absolute” and revolution or violence threatens.
     But I am still left with this thought: why protest so much about this particular wood? I know several Russians who think the whole dispute is about property values. Others talk mystically about karma and God’s creation. Both points illustrate the good old English saying that an argument is never about what it’s about. When people make a really big noise about something, there is usually a different point at the back of it than the one that is being shouted from the rooftops. More commonly there are two different unspoken points, one for each side of the argument.
     Russia is ahead of the game in this respect, because I suspect that there are three unspoken issues behind the Khimki forest dispute: sordid money-grubbing, mystical tree-hugging and the untranslatable but omnipresent Russian “soul”, which prefers any form of argument to a boring but workable compromise.
     At least that is what was going through my mind this morning as, in the cool spring sunshine, I swept past the walls of birch on either side of the existing road, looking for oak trees at every moment I judged it safe to do so, given the risk of potholes.