By Tom Peter
It is not easy to find Circassians in historical Circassia, a densely vegetated land of rolling hills and mountain slopes soaring to snowy heights along the northeastern coast of the Black Sea. The region of Greater Sochi used to be the homeland of the Circassian people before their expulsion by the Russian army in the 19th century. Modern Sochi has an ethnic make-up of staggering diversity; besides Russians, there are people from numerous other Caucasus nations, as well as Armenians, Georgians, Cossacks, Jews and Ukrainians.
But the people who resisted Russia’s expansion into the land of their fathers for some forty years are largely gone. The last Circassian forces surrendered to the Russian army in 1864 on a glade in the mountains above Sochi, later named Krasnaya Polyana. In a matter of weeks it will be the site where athletes compete for Olympic gold in the skiing events.
By Tom Peter
“We meant to do better, but it came out as always.”
Everyone in Russia knows this phrase, unintentionally coined by the late prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and applicable to an abundance of situations in this country, where official pronouncements of intent are often so far removed from reality that you could cry. Though instead of crying, Russians ruefully utter this aphorism and smile.
In Sochi you hear it often these days. With less than 100 days left before the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the city has entered the finishing straight to complete the venues for an extravaganza that is to showcase a new Russia. A Russia that has shed its shabby post-Soviet coat to welcome the world to Sochi, where the “sea meets the mountains”, where everything that is adorable about Russia will flourish in a sparkling new summer and winter holidaying resort, as official publicity has it.
Kostrzyn-upon-Odra River, Poland
By Tom Peter
It was a sweltering hot day and already late in the afternoon when I reached the small Polish border town of Kostrzyn-nad-Odra, home to the Woodstock Station rock festival. As I made my way along a forest road towards a military base on its outskirts, I passed scores of bare-chested men who lay dotted around in the shade, having clearly succumbed to a mixture of heat and hard liqueur. I approached the throbbing roar of guitars beyond the forest with some apprehension, believing I was in for a night of testosterone-induced aggression. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When I stepped out into the clearing I found myself at the edge of a mud mosh pit the size of a tennis court, with a few dozen boys and girls in swim suits going absolutely bonkers to the sound of a Polish punk band. Beyond it there was the main stage towering over a billowing cloud of dust thrown up by thousands of dancing metal-heads who were going equally off the rails.
By Thomas Peter
It was a sunny and calm Monday afternoon when I flew in a German army transport helicopter above a flooded region north of Magdeburg, the capital of the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt. The Elbe river had swollen to over seven meters (yards) above its normal levels and broken its banks and a dyke near the village of Fischbeck. Farmlands, forests and whole villages were inundated by its waters. Hundreds of people had to flee their homes.
Strapped to a bucket seat I sat beside the helicopter’s open sliding door and surveyed the water landscape below me: sunken buildings, tree tops and the tops of abandoned cars dotted the glistening, caramel-colored surface of the deluge. Here and there a street or a pristinely groomed hedge rose above the water as a reminder of the human order that had been submerged by the force of nature.
By Thomas Peter
“It feels good to walk in nature after so many months of boredom in the Immigration Holding Centre,” said Sallisou as we walked along a poplar-lined alley in the sleepy hinterland of Potsdam-Mittelmark, a rural county just outside the German capital of Berlin. Two weeks earlier, the smiling man from Niger had joined a 600 km (372 miles) foot march of refugees. With every county border they crossed, they were breaking a state order that restricts their movement to a territory around their camp. At present, Sallisou was eagerly filming the procession of refugees with a small video camera.
“Since I have been on this march, my days have a purpose again. There is so much to organize and we do it ourselves. We work as a team. Being on the move feels like I have a home again,” Salissou said.
By Thomas Peter
The Bundestag in Berlin, session 188. The plenum below the grand glass dome of the Reichstag building is buzzing with the voices of lawmakers who are to vote today on the ratification of Europe’s permanent bailout mechanism.
News photographers pluck the occasional picture from among the crowd with a timid click of their cameras. But everyone is waiting for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Over the last decade Berlin has been changing more rapidly than most of its inhabitants can stomach. Because of its history, the brunt of gentrification that changes everything (from social fabric to architecture) has hit the German capital more than other cities around the world.
Before the Wall came down, Berlin used to be a mecca for bohemians, artists, left-wing idealists and military service dodgers, mostly from West Germany. The collapse of East Germany resulted in an abundance of neglected buildings available in East Berlin. Punks and artists flocked in and the city became Europe’s capital of squats. A maelstrom of unfettered subculture productivity ensued, bestowing the city with an aura of the urban cool that feeds into its reputation to the present day.
<img src="http://blogs.reuters.com/photo/files/2010/07/loveparade9.jpg" alt="A rucksack is seen at the site where a stampede killed some 21 people during a festival in Duisburg July 24, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Peter " title="A rucksack is seen at the site where a stampede killed some 21 people during a festival in Duisburg July 24, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Peter " width="600" height="400" class="alignnone size-full wp-image-16769"
When I arrived at the scene there was no crowd, no screams, just this dark tunnel. A grimy concrete tube about the length of two soccer pitches and the width of a two-lane country road. It felt cramped and haunting even when it stood empty.