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Postcard from Phuket – Russia Town

February 16, 2020

Not much to report on the coronavirus front in Thailand, except the apparent absence of it. We moved on from Bali to a rather nice hotel on Karon Beach, which is close to Patong, where the ladyboys and their gawpers assemble in pubs and bars.

The apparent absence of the virus might be related by the almost total absence of Chinese visitors, who normally come here in their droves. I expected to find the area relatively quiet for that reason. Not so. The place is packed with people, most of whom you could describe as westerners, out for dinner and mingling happily in the markets. Hardly a face mask in evidence.

What took me by surprise was that at least two out of every three groups of people we passed by were speaking Russian. My suspicions that we were in a Russian town were confirmed by the charming Maria, a Muscovite who works in customer services at the hotel. She told me that the largest nationality group at the hotel is Russian, followed by Kazakhs, and then by Australians. We Brits are a small minority, along with a smattering of French, Danes and Germans.

So no problem with towels on empty sun loungers, you might think. Not so. Either the Germans have been maligned for all these years, or the Russians have caught up with them. The hotel has a rule that staff are entitled to remove towels that have been left on unoccupied loungers for more than two hours. Fine in principle, but would you risk the wrath of a chap straight out of a Bond movie whose last job was probably annexing Crimea?

Speaking of Bond movies, and their portrayal of Russians – usually as hitmen, oligarchs, SMERSH operatives and thugs who get wiped out in large numbers by our James – reminds me of the extent to which Hollywood has demonized them over the years. How many movies or TV series have you seen that portray Russians in a sympathetic light? I can think of a few. Gorky Park, Enemy at the Gates, Dr Zhivago, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the Hunt for Red October and Chernobyl – even though the latter was set in Soviet Ukraine – come to mind.

But for every movie that humanises them, there must be at least two that portray them as ruthless spies, ideological automata, criminal masterminds and assassins. And when real Russians conform to the fictional stereotype by showing up in England with polonium and Novichok to wipe out exiled enemies of the state, it’s easy to understand why people in the west might get a little nervous when they come across large numbers of ordinary Russians minding their own business in a holiday resort town in Thailand.

That’s especially the case, when they bear a distinct resemblance to the GRU operatives who poisoned Sergei Skripal or when they stride down the street with impassive faces and barrel chests doing their best impressions of an oligarch’s bodyguard. Or when husbands who are not blessed in the looks department show up with their impossibly beautiful wives who sport perfect bodies and plumped-up lips that have clearly benefited from Thailand’s cosmetic surgery expertise.

We do them an injustice, just as decades of movie portrayals of Arabs as murderous terrorists likewise condition us to be afraid of dark-skinned men with long beards.

To see the streets thronged with Russians of all shapes and sizes also reminds me of how little I know of them and their country. If you believe western news reports describing Russia as a country in almost constant economic crisis, whose population is declining and where the average life expectancy is way below that of their European neighbours, you wonder how it is that so many have the means to holiday in Thailand.

Can they all be from the large cities where reasonable livings are to be had and something approximating a middle class has sprung up? Is so, why do we hear only of poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, poor healthcare and social decay in small towns across the hinterland that have missed out on the prosperity to be had in Moscow, St Petersburg and the like?

The problem, I suspect, is our age-old tendency to associate the character of a people with the image projected by its leader of the time. Unfortunately, as far as the West is concerned, Russian leaders haven’t cultivated the greatest PR over the years, though I did have a soft spot for Boris Yeltsin and his liking for a good time.

In this respect we are guilty of double standards. Would we write off every American as a demented Trumpite? Not until after the next election, possibly. As for Britain, my own country, there are still a few people who would react with horror at the thought that the world sees us as slaves of the mendacious chancer running our government.

Perhaps to see though the Russian stereotype we need to look beyond the stuff we’re fed in the West. I’m not saying that I’m planning to replace the BBC with Russia Today as my news medium of choice. But I really would prefer to find things to love about a country rather than aspects to hate.

So we need more music, art, literature, in fact a whole range of Russian culture to be more visible to the West without ideological filters. Perhaps we need some enterprising Russian film makers to come up with a few Russki Noir TV series that might beguile us in the same way as the Scandi stuff has.

As things stand, the more we ignore a people’s diversity and humanity, the easier it is to think of them as an enemy.

Back in coronaland, COVID-19, as we are now to call the virus, has yet to get a grip on the beautiful island of Phuket, so thus far our facemasks have remained unused. Lets hope that the Big Buddha, who sits on a hill not far from here, will keep everyone safe.

  1. Great post 😁

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