30 December 2010

2010 Year in Review

The year started with a Moscow love affair and shall end as one.  And like any tale of love, there were some ups and downs.

The City

I started the year stating that Moscow is a great city; at the end of the year, I still think so.  Moscow is a cosmopolitan, international, thriving, fun city.  The city, like the country, has huge potential.  The arts, restaurant, and night scene is wonderful.  The city is a living museum, keeping 700-year-old artifacts in plain slight and creating new history every day.  And given its highest world population of 40-year-old billionaires in the world, it is not surprising that it sports spots as posh as Beverley Hills's Rodeo Drive.

The People

Russians are wonderful people.  As a group, they are generous, pleasant, and highly educated.  I have found my encounters pleasant and delightful for the most part.  To be fair, the same can be said of many peoples around the world.  So, when it comes down to it, Russian people are people:  They display the same wonderful qualities as most people do worldwide, and they have the same flaws.  Go figure.

There is one exception to the "people" rule:  Russian women are exceptionally beautiful.  And there is probably a good reason for it.

The Problems

Sure, there are many problems with living in Moscow, like bad but exorbitantly expensive roads, unreliable infrastructure, extreme hot and cold weather swings during the year, and a corrupt and seemingly inept government.  The problems are mainly the Russians' problem, meaning that 150 million people could do better and would be doing better if they addressed these issues.  But, there is a fatalistic "but what can I  do" attitude that permeates the Russian mentality.  If Russians were to overcome this attitude, they would reaffirm their world leadership role well into the future.

The Threats

Unlike what any populist Russian politician may say, such as Russians' number one threat being Georgia, the West, the United States, or NATO, Russia's biggest threats are internally generated.  Corruption, high heroin, tobacco, and alcohol usage, and ethnic strife tug at the integrity of the Russian fabric from many angles.  It is to the West's interest to see a strong Russia.  The risk of a weak Russia is balkanization.  And a balkanized Russia would play nicely into the hands of rouge states seeking nuclear armenent and China seeking resources worldwide. 

The Verdict

Clearly, there I have had personal challenges adopting to Moscow.  But, for various reasons, and for the richness that the city offers, the transition from California to Moscow has been well worthwhile.  To those who know me:  Consider this an open invitation.  You will enjoy your time here. 

Happy 2011.  Over and out from Moscow for 2010.

26 December 2010

Christ the Savior

Being Christmas time, there are a wide variety of children's Christmas-time plays around Moscow.  My daughters attended one yesterday in the Christ the Savior Church.

It was a nice and oft said story, albeit in various versions:  A father has to be out of the house, so he leaves the younger son in care of the elder.  The younger son is energetic and somewhat of a nuisance to the elder, more studios brother.  The elder brother, wanting to read books, tells the younger boy to leave the house and play outside.

Outside the house, the young boy is kidnapped by someone evil.  In this case, it was Santa Clause's evil brother.  In other variations, in can be a wolf or another identifiably bad character.  The older brother has scruples, a moral self-debate, and a sense of responsibility.  He tries to do something to save his brother.

Ded Moroz Waiting for Metro

In his quest to save his brother, bigger benevolent forces come to aid the older boy.  In these types of stories, it is normally Santa Clause (the Russian Дед Мороз or Ded Moroz) and his daughter, the Snow Maiden (Снегурочка or Snegúrochka) that come to the rescue.  However, being housed in the Christ the Savior Church, the savior was none other that Christ the Savior himself.

Santa Was Busy With Deliveries, So I Helped Out

In a cameo appearance, a giant statue of Christ, with his arms extended to resemble the cross, swept down onto the stage.  And thus, the younger boy was saved and the father was reunited with his sons, thanks to Father and His Son, Christ the Savior.

Merry Christmas.

20 December 2010

Blind Justice

Very sadly, there is some ethnic tension being stirred about in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.

Someone close to me, a slavic Russian, asked whether I was subject to police harassment because of my Caucasian (as in from the Caucasus region) complexion.

I answered that the police stop me only when they need a bribe.

This person laughed and said, "well, that's good to know.  It would only be racist if they didn't stop you, because they stop everyone else and ask for money."

As it happens, justice is blind.  In this case, she was robbed blind.

18 December 2010

Idiotic and Ignorant

Racism is an American problem, but it is not a uniquely American problem.  Far from it, racism is the humanity's problem.  It exists everywhere; America is unique in its awareness of the problem and its attempts to to address it.

Racism is rooted in ignorance and idiocy.  And if you are reading this and are subconsciously thinking that racism is limited to white people's mistreatment of colored people, you are either an ignoramus, an idiot, or both.  Because racism is humanity's problem, it is not confined to any particular race.  Having spent considerable time in Dallas's inner city where the population is undereducated (read ignorant), I have seen plenty of racist Black folks who think that the white man is the devil or something to that effect.

Idiocy and ignorance are at work here in Moscow as well.  About a week ago, one soccer fan was killed by another.  The killed man was a slavic Russian.  The killer (or killers) were from the Caucus region of Russia, which means that he (or they) had black hair, darker skin, and a muslim faith.  So, it seems, the supposed killers were caught, put into jail, and subsequently released because of alleged bribery.  That set off a protest, probably because people found police's conduct outrageous.

That protest quickly became appropriated by (slavic) Russian nationalists who started chanting "Russia for Russians" and beating up anyone who looked non-slavic, including anyone of color.  Russia is a multi-ethnic society.  Moscow, because it is a cosmopolitan international center, is even more multi-ethnic than Russia at large.  So, the nationalist had little trouble finding folks of non-slavic decent for their misdeeds.  But because they are ignorant idiots, they had not counted on the large number of ignorant idiots on the other side.

The other side, mainly people with roots in the Caucuses and central Asian regions or Russia, organized a larger counter protest (ironically in the "European Square") and, true to their idiotic ignorant form, decided to beat up anyone who looked slavic.

To get to their meeting points, these multicolored idiots use the metro.  As such, the metro has become less safe as anyone is subject to a random beating if a sufficiently large group of ignoramuses from one side get on to the subway car and decide if they do not like someone of the others side.  This has put further pressure on Moscow's already congested roads and has created the fourth simultaneous road doozie in December (first, the roads are already congested; second, they are now frozen; third, it is holiday shopping season).  In any case, getting around Moscow has become a bit of a hassle.

I used the metro last night and found the passengers rather jittery.  A popped balloon caused a small overreaction in a crowded, central metro station.  A large and festive Jewish center near my house has gone dim and low-key lately.  And, because my complexion is dark and I could be pinned to the Caucuses region, I have observed a new phenomenon in the last three days:  People that look like me and who used to greet me in Russian are now greeting me in Arabic.

RIP:  Former Yugoslavia
A Harbinger for Future Russia?

The situation is ultimately absurd:  Idiotic "nationalist" are ultimately pursuing a self-defeating goal.  If they get their "Russia for Russians" goal, there will be no Russia left as we know it today.  The nationalists are actually anti-nationalists that, if successful, would force the breakup of Russia.  The former Yugoslavia and its subsequent breakup should be a good object lesson for them.

But, as a smart friend pointed out, these protests, while couched in ethnic terms, probably have a deeper social tension root.  In the US, debates about racism and immigration reform become more accentuated during harder economic times.  Questions like "who's going to pay for their healthcare and children's schooling" become central debate points during harder times.  Clearly, there are many tension points in Russia, the biggest one being an increasingly inefficacious and corrupt government.

17 December 2010

A Deal With The Devil

I am concerned about the internal strength and constitution of the Russian state. I am not alone.

Most Russians share the same concern. The consensus is that it is corruption that is undermining the state.  A few have explained to me that the recent riots in Moscow and Russia (to be written about shortly), seemingly about ethnic divisions on the surface, are rooted in far deeper frustrations with the state of the Russian State and corrosive corrupting forces therein.  Having said this, a brief discussion about governmental corruption is needed.

While this is counterintuitive, corruption can be a stabilizing force -  under certain conditions.

Let's Make a Deal:  I Will Stabilize Your Institution

These conditions typically surface when a new form of government comes into power.  Basically,  corruption serves as a stabilizing force when there are poorly established and badly functioning mechanisms for the private sphere to participate in public affairs. Under these circumstances, corruption serves as the mechanism for the private sphere to influence public sphere decisions and utilize the governmental machine in ways that benefit at least a few private individuals.

Left unchecked, that same mechanism becomes a disease that etches away at the very stability that it once created.  An enlightened government needs to quickly build the participatory mechanisms to replace the makeshift corruption path rather quickly - but this does require an enlightened government.  Because corruption is rather seductive, meaning that those in power can line their pockets in short term, there is - in actuality - little incentive for a newly formed government to replace it with something more constructive, sustainable, and permanent.

And as such, this deal with the devil, like nearly all others, becomes yet another mechanism to burn everyone.

12 December 2010

The Greying Dividing Line, The Dangerous Red Line

One of West's fears is the disappearance of Russia once again to make room for another Soviet Union-type of government. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to it as a Reemerged Soviet Union or RSU.

From An Old Western Nightmare

This fear is not principally founded in the economic or even the military power that this RSU might assert globally. The fear is founded in another important but more subtle lessons from the Cold War: Namely, RSU might once again become an ideological competitor and attempt to thwart Western values of democracy and capitalism.

Modern Russia is a good place. Russians today enjoy the highest standards of living that they have ever experienced. Consumer goods and food are plentiful; barring the strain that rampant corruption puts on the system, the current economic system is capitalistic. There is also more political freedom and civic society empowerment than ever before.

However true these observations may be, they are statements about "averages." For example, imagine three people who on average earn $100,000 per year. We can imagine this to be a happy group based on averages, but we can easily imagine one of those three earning $300,000 per year while the other two are abjectly poor and earn nothing. The point is that averages sometimes yield useful information but often deceive.

So, while - on average - Russians have better lives than ever before, the situation is not universally true for every Russian. Clearly, there are those who long for the days in Soviet Union where there was significantly more law and order, a clearer social hierarchy, more security, and a sense of being a global power. Not surprisingly, those with this longing happened to live in the Soviet Union and had their formative years there. The youngest of them is now in his middle age; his hairline is receding and his hair his graying. He was born in 1970. RSU is his secret wish, if not an openly declared desire.

Old Soldiers Never Die; They Just Fade Away

Younger Russians either do not know the Soviet Union or spent so little time there that its existence does not registry with them meaningfully. They are used to having open access to good, seeing Bentleys and BMWs cruise the streets, and their peers become wealthy international tennis stars by virtue of their talent and work. They are also used to a more chaotic society with less hierarchical order. They travel abroad and have a sense of Europe and the West. And although Moscow's streets in 2010 are not as safe for them as it was for their parents in 1980, they see much safer streets today than they did in 1995. For them, life is improving and there is no going to RSU.

I Can Make Even Paris Hilton Blush

Time and therefore demographics are on the side preserving the modern Russian state. As the 1970 babies (and older ones) age, the probability of RSU becomes less. However, there is another sinister threat to Russia’s existence – one that will undermine the state and give rise to another backward-looking and repressive regime. That sinister threat comes not from outside; rather it is an internal cancer. It is corruption. Corruption may push Russia over the dangerous red line.

As long as corruption exists on the scale that it does in Russia today, there is the real and present danger of weakening the Russian state with many dangerous potential outcomes. Those outcomes range losing control of Russia’s resource rich eastern region to having Russia’s nuclear arsenal fall in the hands of unsavory, rogue regimes. In other words, while the threat of reverting to Soviet Union is diminishing with the greying dividing line, there is a real possibility of losing Russia to something far more pernicious because of internal Russian weakness. This is crossing the dangerous red line.

I hope that that day, the day that Russia crosses the dangerous red line, will never come. It is to the developed world’s interest to see a strong Russian state – and a strong Russian state has a chance of coming onto the world stage if the right internal reforms, namely those to eradicate corruption while increasing transparency, take place.

10 December 2010

Tepid, Nasty Street Stew

Yesterday, I was greeted by a wonderful Thursday morning.  The streets were covered in white and abundant snow was gently drawing a winter coat over everything and anything in sight.  The temperature was a nice -5 C (23 F).

Tepid, Nasty Street Stew

The temperature rose to a tepid 3 C (37 F) by nightfall.  Snow became rain.  The erstwhile beautiful wintercoat turned into a nasty grey street stew making a mess everywhere.

Muscovites frequently complain about March and November precisely because of this phenomenon, namely the tepid, nasty street stew.  And they proudly and longingly talk about winter's beauty.

Moscow Winter Glory

I agree with them; colder weather would be very nice right now.

02 December 2010

Lifting The Diplomatic Veil

True to its mission, Wikileaks recently posted over 250,000 secret US diplomatic cables for worldwide consumption.  Several newspapers, including The New York Times and The Guardian, simultaneously published some of these leaks earlier this week and continue to do so as they digest the massive set of documents.

These action drove the US government crazy as their diplomatic veil was lifted and much of US's publicly unstated opinion about other countries and leaders was exposed.  Mr. Putin is also upset by this, but probably for different reasons.

Russia was, of course, a subject of the cables.  The New York Times has excellent coverage of these Russian-related cables in an article titled "Below Surface, U.S. Has Dim View of Putin and Russia." Basically, the wires describe what appears to be a fairly accurate view of the current state of the Russian government, namely a quasi-mafia state with rampant corruption and an out-of-control bureaucracy that benefits those in power while undermining them at the same time.

In this blog, I have written about or hinted at much of what the diplomatic cables back to Washington covered.  Per my estimation, most Russians would accept what is conveyed by these wires as well-known facts that are best not discussed or debated publicly.

Mr. Putin voiced his diplomatic disapproval about the leaked reports on CNN's Larry King Live, albeit a New York Times article (see "Blunt and Blustery, Putin Responds to State Department Cables on Russia") implies a much sharper rebuke by Mr. Putin than what appeared on TV.

One of the more interesting quotes from Mr. Putin during the interview was "I would also like to advise you not to interfere with the sovereign choice of the Russian people." I read the leaked diplomatic cables as descriptive documents rather than designs of interference by the US government into Russian internal affairs. However, were I to be placed in Mr. Putin's position, I would chose exactly the same words.

29 November 2010

Commode Culture Clash

Having been a near daily user of men's bathrooms in US and Russia, I have noticed a distinct difference.

American men freely engage in conversations with their co-urinating pals in the bathroom.  The conversation can be about last night's ball game, the latest dream sports car, that hot girl they dream about having inside that sports car, or whatever.  Most of the time, it is just useless chatter that hovers slightly louder than the sound of the running stream.

Taking Care of Business in America

In Russia, all conversation ceases once drainage begins.  It is as if touching that appendage down under somehow interferes with speech.  This makes me wonder if I am witnessing a cultural difference or a different vocal cord placement on Russian men.

28 November 2010

Presidential Pardons and Turkeys

Many Russian readers did not understand the turkey reference and the related presidential pardon.

The US president, like many heads of state, has the legal authority to forgive someone who is either accused or convicted of a crime.  In 1989, President George H. W. Bush officially pardoned the White House turkey, setting a precedent that has since become an annual American tradition.

The word "turkey" as multiple meanings, one being a large and rather tasty domesticated bird, another being a person who does something thoughtless or annoying. In the latter sense of the word, the first presidential turkey pardon dates back to 1974 when President Gerald Fold pardoned President Richard Nixon for any crimes that may have been committed against the United States in the Watergate scandal.

Other presidential turkey pardons have included George H. W. Walker's pardoning of Kasper Weinberger and Bill Clinton's pardoning of Marc Rich.

And so, this Thanksgiving, President Obama conducted his second presidential pardon which, like the first, was to save yet another turkey.  President Obama, being an intellectual sort, and as reported by The Onion, apparantly deliberated long and hard before picking the right turkey from the lot of them out there.

26 November 2010

Really Missing the US Today

Happy Thanksgiving, a wonderful American holiday.  It is my favorite.

Thanksgiving is a celebration of the fall bounty, of generosity, and of friendship.  Its origins go back some 400 years to when Virginia was settled by colonists and the generous help of Native Americans who helped the colonist survive through the tough winter.  It has been an annual holiday since 1863, when, during the American Civil War, President Lincoln proclaimed it as a national day of giving thanks.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because of its universality.  Americans of all religions, creeds, colors, and social status (except Angelina Jolie) partake of this day of feasting around a large dinner table with friends, family, and sometimes strangers.

The trouble is, being quite a distance away from home, I am far away from this very nice day in the US.  This really makes me miss home and my family in the US.  The good thing is, Moscow is really fun for the rest of the year (except when the smokes gets thick, or only hot water comes out of the pipes, or when I am stuck in traffic jams, or when it gets really cold, or when it gets really hot or ...)

In any case, Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

The Other Turkey Will Be Pardoned by A Future President

20 November 2010

Just Put Your Lips Together and ...

My Moscow apartment is located in a building that was built in 1918. The apartment was refurbished (ремонт - in Russian vernacular) in the early 1990s, shortly after the end of Soviet Union. The current apartment construction offers a snapshot of the goods that suddenly became available int he Russian market at that time, like halogen lamp fixtures and a hot tub.

Time Machine:  1980s Hot Tub

Just for the record, I hate hot tubs. They are one of those useless 1980 in-vogue items like parachute pants and Chia Pets.

I hate hot tubs but I am stuck with one.  So, when it is broken, I feel obliged to fix it.  Over the short past short while, my wife and I have replaced pipes, tubes, screws, and fixed leaks.  We had a specific leak that needed a specialist.  As we were going to have the honor of hosting a hot tub specialist in our apartment, it seemed appropriate to ask him to fix everything else that was wrong with this 1980s relic, like the pneumatic switch that turns on the water jets.

The pneumatic switch is a safety feature.  Because the hot tub is full of water, all electronics should be isolated; but, water jets and bubblers run on electricity and they should be controlled from inside the hot tub.  As such, the answer is to create an air pump (the pneumatic switch) that activates an electric switch somewhere else where it is safer.

Well, the distinguished hot tub specialists showed up (three of them, all of them smelly), and not a single one had the parts to replace the pneumatic switch.  To appease us, the cleverest of them all disconnected the air tube from the switch and said:
But this is not a problem.  To turn on the jets, just put your lips together here and blow.

The smelly and unattractive lad somehow managed to invoke the very sexy line from Lauren Bacall in the 1944 film, To Have and Have Not.  Admittedly, Lauren Bacall's performance was somehow more inviting.

Unfortunately for Russians, this type of behavior - namely shoddy workmanship, painful workarounds, incomplete products, bad services, and broken promises by vendors - is the norm (but things are progressing and getting better).  Russians are a very patient bunch.  I surmise that there is nothing out of the ordinary to them with putting their lips together and ... blowing.

19 November 2010

Reaping Sown Seeds

Many Russian friends were surprised that the rate of heroin usage was so high in Russia. As a matter of fact, it should be expected.

When large powers invade other nations, they often do so with a specific set of goals. However, those goals often do not include "anticipate the unintended consequences a long time from now."

During the Vietnam War, the US military became unwitting couriers of narcotics manufactured in Southeast Asia and sold in the US. Enterprising American soliders used military craft to smuggle the goods into the US, sometimes in the cadavers of their dead brethren. Once the drugs were recovered in the US, they went through underground distribution channels and were sold widely around the country.

Later, when the US funded and supported the Islamic Afghani insurgency against the Soviet Union, it unwittingly sowed the seeds of the absolutist Taliban.  In turn, the Taliban harbored Al Qaida.  And Al Qaida committed the single largest act of terrorism ever on US soil.

Oops!  That Was NOT The Plan.

I can assure you that it never occurred to policy makers and military planners that, through military action in Vietnam, they were setting up the US military as drug couriers.  Likewise, in the 1980s, no American official ever thought that there would be an 11 September 2001.  But - very sadly - both are now history.

Prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, heroin usage was muted in USSR.  Most customers of this trash were in Afghanistan's neighboring countries:  China (the problem was opium, a cousin of heroin, and the problem was ruthlessly eradicated), Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and all the way through the Western edges of Europe.  After the Soviet invasion and the subsequent Soviet collapse, free-market-minded soldiers and ex-soldiers sensed a fresh new market in Russia, had the connections and familiarity with the supplying country, and helped develop Russia as the world's largest heroin market.

And so, the seeds were sown.  In this case, they were poppy seeds.

Coming to the US Sometimes Soon - Bulk

12 November 2010

Live Fast and Die Young: Alcohol, Tobacco, Heroin

I have not found a good explanation for the short life expectancy of men in Russia, but at least alcohol, tobacco, and heroin are contributing factors.

A bit of background:  A few The mortality rate amongst boys is much higher than girls.  At birth, there are slightly more Russian boys than girls (1.05:1) and, by the age of 15, there many fewer boys than girls (0.92:1) (this gender imbalance has major implications for both men and women).

According to The World Bank, Russians' life expectancy is less than the world average.  This graphic provides a good overview of life spans in Russia versus the rest of the world, the US, and Sweden over time.  Notice the up and down nature of the Russian line, versus the other lines on the graph.

The average life expectancy of Russians is 68.7 years.  For Russian women, the expectancy is 74.7 years.  Russian men, on average, live a whopping 12 years less than their fair ladies with an expected life span of 62.8 years.

Alcohol is the visible stain on the Russian soul, but this stain has been around for so long that it is considered a permanent fixture.  Russians like drinking, know that they like drinking, and like the fact that they like drinking.  Apparently - and I am vague on the facts - some Russian tzar had to make a choice of converting his nation either into Islam or Christianity.  At that time, muslims were at the apex of culture, wealth, and politics.  Accordingly, the tzar was favoring joining forces with the muslims but ultimately decided against it because it meant saying goodbye to the bottle.

I have not found any hard statistic quantifying the degree to which alcohol drags down Russian life expectancy, but the World Health Organization says that Russian alcohol consumption is twice the level that it has set as a tolerable standard.

An Unfortunate and Common Site

Smoking surely is a Russian life clipper; and, per my observation, more Russian men than women take up this nasty habit addiction.  There are many more smokers in Russia in the US but, in general, there are many more smokers in the rest of the world than in the US.  I found it interesting when visitors from Europe made the same observation.  Russia's Health and Social Development Ministry also agrees as it just described Russia as "the most smoking nation in the world."  Apparently, up to 400,000 Russians die a year due to smoking-related illnesses.

Russian Roulette

Heroin is also a (not so) hidden addiction that is killing Russians before due time.  According to recent statistics published in the BBC, there are 2,500,000 Russians hooked on this disease.  In the US, there are around 800,000 heroin addicts.  The respective 2010 populations of these countries are 139,000,000 and 310,000,000.  In other words, 18 Russians out of every 1,000 is addicted to heroin compared to less than 3 Americans out of every 1,000.  Sadly, Russia is world's larget heroin market; the single country of Russia consumes almost as much heroin as the rest of Europe.

Afghani Army Invades Russia

I see evidence of this affliction on occasion when I am taking a walk about even the most respectable parts of Moscow:  I disgustingly kick syringes and needles carelessly dropped on the walkways out of sight.  If visuals do not bother you, here is some more ugly evidence.

11 November 2010

Weird, Sometimes Interesting

I have witnessed many more outlandish T-shirt inscriptions in Russia than I did in the US.  Lack of fluency with English leads to some weird, at times interesting T-shirt statements, many of which must be inadvertent.

Of course, there was the infamous f--- you T-shirt that I wrote about in April, stating:

F--- you
You f---ing f---.

Regrettably, no English letters were omitted.  Fortunately, the sheer vulgarity of the message was lost on nearly most Russian bystandars.

About a year ago, when the H1N1 flu was creating a global scare, I saw the following T-shirt message:

Pigs Flew?
Oh, Pigs' Flu!

This, of course, is a reference to H1N1's original name, the swine flu.  Swine flu was renamed to H1N1 at the behest of the fat pig executives in the pork industry to prevent a collapse in the bacon market.  Notice that in English it is the "swine flu" and not "swine's flu."  I imagine that when swine flu was first translated to Russian, it came across as something like "the flu that belongs to pigs" and was retranslated to English as "pigs' flu" for the purpose of making what someone construed as a clever T-shirt.
Yet Another Variation

The most melancholic award goes to the man sporting this inscription on his T-shirt:

I Will Never
Fall In Love Again

This unloving message stands in direct contrast to highly amorous one that I witnessed today:

Are You
Interested In

A the risk of racial profiling, the fellow that wore the T-shirt looked like he was from a part of the world where men's answer is universally "yes," but I did not have the heart to ask him about his origins or his T-shirt.  

In most of the world, polygamy (having more than one spouse at a time) is taboo and illegal.  Practically, it is a headache. Financially, it is a disaster. So, I am not sure what interest anyone would reasonably have ... then again, even polite company chuckles desirously at whispered ménage à trois jokes.

10 November 2010

We Have Another Record

Late July and early August were miserably hot times in Moscow.  Moscow set a high temperature in record with 38C (100 F).  It is November; while I cannot say it is miserably hot, I can say that it has been unusually warm.  So warm, in fact, that more record high temperatures are being set.

Worried?  Don't Bother; You Will Be Extinct Soon.

Here is a bit of relavent news from BCM.  The accenting is mine.
The Hydro Meteo Bureau (Weather Service) for the Moscow city and the region reports that another temperature record for this time of year was set in Moscow on Tuesday evening. After the sunset, the staff of the base weather station at the All-Russia Exhibition Center scored the air temperature of 11.9 degrees Celsius (53.42 F°), which is 0.2 degrees higher than the previous temperature record set in 1952.
This Wednesday may also bring another temperature record. The weather service employees predict that the air in the capital will warm up to 11-13 degrees C°, while the highest level for November 10 has been so far 12.6 degrees C° (54.68 F°). This temperature was marked in 1927.
As previously reported, 22 temperature records were beaten during the past summer in Moscow, including the record temperature of July 29, when the air got heated to 38.2 degrees C° (100.76 F°).
To be ahead of the times, I have started on my business plan for tropical tourism in Moscow.  The planned launch date is 2020.

04 November 2010

Russia's November Holiday

I am enjoying a four-day weekend in Moscow, thanks to the "National Unity Day" holiday in Russia.  This post-Soviet holiday replaces a Soviet 7 November holiday.  That 7 November holiday marked the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when the "destruction of capitalism" and all those bad things were joyously celebrated.

7 November in USSR:  Celebrating Years of Stunned Growth

As it turns out, the destruction of capitalism in Russia was not such a good thing as it severely slowed progress in this very intellectually and resource rich country and created many destructive behavior patterns (more on this later).  But, at least, the holiday was a good thing, and that much of the Soviet legacy had to be preserved.  In search of an early November event that could be celebrated with fervor, Russians reached back to 1612 when they liberated Moscow from Polish rule (as part of a longer series of wars from 1605-1618 during the Times of Trouble).

Foreign Invasion of Moscow in 1605
False Dmitriy enters Moscow on 20 June 1605. Painting by Klavdiy Lebedev.

Having visited Warsaw in October of this year, I learned that living Polish memory defines Russia the Soviet Union as the invaders and the Poles as the invaded.  Although I did not ask this question directly, I would believe that nearly all Poles would be bemused - or perhaps offended - by the virtue of a Russian celebration of freedom from their Polish oppressors.  To signify their bitterness about years of effective Soviet rule over their country, many Warsaw residents point out the elephantine Pałac Kultury i Nauki [Palace of Culture and Science] in a dialog similar to the following:
Varsovian:  Did you see that building in center of Warsaw?  
Amir: You mean the Palace of Culture and Science, the gift from the Soviet Union?
Varsovian:  Yes, that gift; the gift that we paid for for fifty years.
To Poland, From Joseph Stalin, with Love

Regrettably, the National Unity Day has become a Russian ultra-nationalist focal day of sorts.  This is yet another ironic twist for Russia's early November holiday.  Unfortunately, the ironic twist is of a sad and a sick sort, given what Russia suffered at the hands of Nazis who had a similar foul and far-right ideology as their modern-day Russian skinhead brethren.

I Shaved My Head and Sold My Soul

31 October 2010

Trick or Treat

Halloween, a mainly American (and British, Canadian, and Irish) holiday celebrated on 31 October, is a fun affair.  As such, its celebration has been steadily spreading and becoming internationalized.

Many Americans mistakenly believe that Halloween is rooted in the Mexican Día de los Muertos.  In fact, Halloween's roots are in the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Christian All Saints' Day holiday.

Lovely Mexican Maidens from Día de los Muertos

In the US, Halloween is a festive affair mainly intended for the youth.  Visiting neighbors to trick or treat while wearing disguises in order to receive lots of cheap, disgustingly-sweet candies that lead to a many insulin shocks is a hallowed American tradition reserved for the last day of October.  In the rest of the world, Halloween has become raison de fête for young (and not so young) adults.  It is an excuse to party and engorge on libations on yet another day that would otherwise be spent unproductively.  

In 1989 the Berlin Wall, the symbolic division between East and West, fell.  Thanks to this historic event, Americans can now purchase Stolichnaya Vodka every day of the year where, in exchange, Russians can celebrate Halloween in disguise once a year.  It seems like a fair trade.

Lovely Moscovite Maidens from Хэллоуин

27 October 2010

Corrosive Corruption

I have written a few posts recently regarding corruption in Russia.  As evidenced by an article in today's Washington Post, the sad truth about Russian corruption is that it silently and slowly subverts the nation by eroding citizens' confidence in the government and increases international distrust of Russia and Russians.  It is an acrid acid that is corroding the nation from the inside.  Here are a few telling quotes from the article:
There is, [Yelena Panfilova, director of the Moscow office of Transparency International] said, a "catastrophic gap" between civil society and "state sabotage." Corruption is everywhere - in hospitals and in schools, in utilities and courts, and especially in the ranks of the traffic police - but she said Russia is falling ever more deeply down the international list because of a sense of immunity in the higher levels of government ...
According to the report, Russia was the most corrupt among the G-20 nations. The United States, because of financial scandals, dropped out of the top 20 least-corrupt nations for the first time since Transparency International began issuing its annual list 15 years ago. The United States fell from 19th place to 22nd, behind Chile* ...

Nearly 80 percent of Russians say that corruption is a major problem and that it is much worse than it was 10 years ago, said Denis Volkov, who analyzes polling data for the Levada Center in Moscow. A majority say Medvedev is right about the problem of corruption and think he is sincere about it. But 71 percent in the most recent poll say any government efforts to fight corruption will amount in the end to window dressing ...
But now corruption has been monetized. Satarov [head of the Indem Foundation in Moscow] calculated in 2005 that corruption amounted to $316 billion that year, or more than Russia's federal budget. He thinks it has grown since then ... Corruption has become a nearly insurmountable obstacle to Russia's economic development, he said.
Because the way corruption appears to be structured here, which appears to be a pyramid scheme in which many participate while a few powerful elite get obscenely wealthy, there is little incentive to change the system.  Basically, because it tends to be those that are in control that benefit the most from corruption, there is no real incentive to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Transparency International's World Corruption Map

There are three potential end-states from the current situation:
  1. A structural, anti-corruption reform cleans up Russia and makes the country a better place by making it more equitable and competitive on the world stage;
  2. There is stasis, and the elite few keep the situation under control while trying to reap the profits of corruption;
  3. Corruption becomes bad enough that it leads to radical structural changes in hopes of a better system, analogous to the 1917 revolution.
Scenario 1 is the only sane option forward.  This is because, while scenario 1 is the only positive path, scenarios 2 and 3 are not real options.  Scenario 2 requires discipline and strong centralized control.  But, maintaining discipline is hard when greed, a fundamental character of the human nature, will drive individuals towards extracting more profits from the system.  As such, scenario 2 will eventually lead to scenario 3.  Having lived through a revolution myself, I can attest that it hardly serves anyone's interest except those who have the inclination to be the most brutal for the longest period of time**.

As I have said repeatedly, Russia has tremendous potential and can credibly become a member of G5*** (versus G20).  Whether this becomes a reality heavily depends on the Russian will, capacity, and capability to implement scenario 1.

* Indeed, US is moving in the wrong direction.  On 24 October I wrote: "Not long ago, similar [corruption] situations existed in the US (and unfortunately they seem to be making a comeback)."  The article's rankings prove the point.

**  The American Revolution is the only revolution in history that has not been followed by a prolonged period of bloodshed.  All other revolutions have been followed by a period of cataclysm.  This pattern is unlikely to be disrupted by future revolutions.

*** The G5 are five of the world's leading economies in mid-1970s — France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

26 October 2010

China Decries Democratic Decline In Russia

I am not making this up, seriously!

Here are some of the more interesting quotes:
Russia puts itself on the same level as China in not electing the mayor of its capital, unlike all the big Western powers against which Russia likes to measure itself.
I do not believe that quote as intended to be a compliment.  There are a few more jewels in the article to add insult to injury, like this one:
With the liberal opposition not represented in the Moscow parliament, ironically it was left to the Communists — the remnant of the party that once ruled the entire Soviet Union — to gripe about the methods used.
You see, even the communists are not happy!

25 October 2010

Moscow's Millionaire Fair

Shucks, I missed it!  Here is a New York Daily News article on the topic.

Sauce is Saucier in a $209,000 Diamond-Studded Saucepan

And fresh, from the comments section:

Yes Little Girl, it's kinda all about being attractive to little girls ... wait, why do I feel nauseated?

24 October 2010

Why Are Russian Roads So Expensive?

Hint:  This article has it partially correct, but the account is likely incomplete.

The comparative costs per mile (in millions of dollars) that the article cites are:
  • China:         $ 1.3
  • US:            $ 3.6
  • EU:            $ 4.2
  • Russia:        $10.5
  • Moscow region: $31.0
A Bargain at $10,500,000 per Magnificent Mile 

The article goes to to explain the reasons for these dramatically high costs and correctly identifies Russia's massive and sprawling bureaucracy as one of the key issues.  The Itar-Tass article also suggests that a Soviet legacy, namely complicated contractual schemes, is part of the problem.  In other words, the suggestion is that there is a legal structure and code, the respect for which is driving up costs.

Even A Better Buy at $31,000,000 per Monstrous Mile

Indeed, there are laws in Russia, but there are no rules.  For example, demanding bribes is against the law.  However, "public servants" behavior - like the police or elected officials - suggests that this is no rule against demanding bribes.  Therefore, everyone does it, and the doing appears to be systematic.

In a recent trip to St. Petersburg, I befriended a local man who told a story of a police captain overseeing some 500 policemen.  This police captain claimed to gross €10,000 a month by collecting a portion of the bribes collected by the 500 foot soldiers.  His net intake was lower because he had to kick up a portion of his earnings upstairs.  A Moscow friend talks of a very close relative who, despite being a decent man, is a bribe-taking police officer.  When my Moscow friend asked his relative about this corrupt behavior, the relative responded by effectively saying that taking bribes was a job requirement and code of conduct.  The relative went on to say that if he were to behave honestly and ethically, he risked losing his job or even his life.

Anecdotal indications are that much of the income being made in Russia by the elite are on the backs of ordinary people who pay a heavy tax for merely being a citizen of their country.  This tax, paid in the form of bribes and kickbacks, is not part of the official 13% income flat tax or other official, on-the-book taxes.  Here are a couple of other commonly used Russian mechanisms for funneling fees from the public into a few pockets:
  • A government official grants a contract to an uncompetitive bidder with the clear expectation that the bidder will pay dues to that official after winning the contract.  For example, if a job costs $20 to complete, the official may accept a bid for $50, allowing the bidder to give a $20 kickback to the official.  As such, we have a win-win-lose scenario.  The bidder wins a sweet deal, the official collects a sweet kickback, and the tax payer loses by having to finance a bigger tab.
  • When it comes to commercial real estate in Moscow, book values are typically 10% of their actual market value.  This allows real estate investors and developers - most of whom have strong government ties - to pay much less in taxes.  To make the arrangement succeed, the bulk of the transaction is conducted in cash, in offshore banks, and in an invisible and corrupt form.
Regrettably, in today's Russia, there is a pervasive and endemic culture of corruption nearly at every level*.  This culture demands hidden transactions that ultimately favor the elite few and produces a corrosive leak that eat away at Russia's productivity by artificially increasing costs across the board, including the very dear Russian roads.

In the very best case, the Itar-Tass article is an incomplete work by an incompetent journalist and his sloppy editor that failed to capture the obvious hidden cost in Russia's $10.5 million and Moscow's $31 million per mile roads. More likely, Itar-Tass has maintained its position as a propaganda arm, formerly Soviet, now Russian.

There is a silver lining:  Not long ago, similar situations existed in the US (and unfortunately they seem to be making a comeback).  New York's Democratic Party, Chicago's (primarily Democratic Party) political machine, and Los Angeles' police force were hallmarks of government corruption.  US did manage to turn a page and become more competitive and prosperous in the process.  Russia and Moscow may be (hopefully) following the same path.


* Post Script:  I took a tour of Lenin's mausoleum on a hot day in July.  Waiting in a long serpentine line, a local man, who was fluent in English and identified himself as a professor and a hobbyist tour guide, approached me to ask if I wanted to go to the head of the line by paying a fee.  As it was hot and I was with my elderly parents, I agreed.  Making our way to the mausoleum entrance, the professor tour guide complained about corruption in Russia and specifically singled out Russia's high road costs as an example.  Once the story was done, he gladly accepted my money and then bribed the mausoleum guard to let us slip through.  The irony of the situation was rather palpable.

19 October 2010

Inelastic Demand

I have discussed Moscow's very expensive restaurants, very fancy cars, very expensive housing, and very uneven resource distribution.  Put all of these "very" topcis together, and you have a picture like the one below.

Perfectly Inelastic Demand

Someone I highly respect recently said to me that "there are two types of people in Russia:  Those who know the difference between $1 and $1,000 and those who do not.  The problem is that only the people that do not know the difference have money to spend."  

15 October 2010

Actually, Russians are Black

Having grown up in America, I have a sense of America's Black and white societal view.  One of America's tendencies is to be introspective along racial lines.  While this provides a simple model for understanding how the American society works, it is oversimple and often stupid.

For instance, a simple and stupid conclusion that many Americans have come to is that African Americans have a  propensity to overspend on luxury vehicles.  The (wrongheaded) reasoning goes something like this:
  • Black people are poorer than white people (because that is what I have been told as it has been historically true)
  • I see a lot of Black people living in cheap housing (in some movies)
  • I see a lot of Black people driving nice cars (in some music videos)
  • Therefore, Black people spend too much money on flashy cars (because I deduce)

Image Perfect for Stereotyping

Extending the same loopy logic, I can "prove" that Russians are actually Black:
  • A lot of Russians live in cheap housing
  • A lot of Russians drive really expensive cars
  • Therefore, Russians spend too much money on flashy cars
  • Therefore, Russians are Black

Yo - Flavor Flav Got Nothing On This Russian Brother!

Back to the Black and white societal view in America:  It would be far more useful if Americans examined their society through income and education levels instead of race.  Although I have not done any quantitative studies, I have observed numerous cases of profligacy on automobiles by under-educated folks.  These under-educated folks, who can belong to any racial group in America, also tend to make less money.  However, by incorporating a flashy car into their image - because a flashy car is cheaper, easier to attain, and more visible than a decent house - the under-educated can project a sense of prosperity.

The flashy car dynamics in Russia are different than in the US, but the goals of projecting a sense of prosperity are the same.  It is not uncommon for a Russian to spend 2X his annual salary in purchasing a high-end car.  But, unlike the American under-educated and low-income fellow, this Russian tends to be well-educated and a professional.

It is 2010 and Russia is (still) in middle of a massive social and economic transformation.  The Russian society has gone from a command-and-control economy where resources were poorly allocated to a freewheeling economy rife with corruption and inequality.  Although today's resource allocation has significantly improved over what was in existence during the Soviet era, corruption and lack of sufficient regulatory control still lead to poorly-allocated resources.  This situation makes some Russians extremely wealthy.  And other hard-working Russians, wanting to project a sense of self-worth and success, do what they can to display the image of belonging to the high-net-worth class.

New Russian Bling

Regarding the misleading blog title: It should be clear by now that Russians are about as Black as African Americans are about spending high dollars on flashy cars.  Despite what some Americans may (incorrectly) think about their fellow colored citizen, there is no race factor driving a certain ethnic group to purchase flashy cars.  There is only the interplay of economic logic and a sense of needing to project personal dignity in some way, no matter how misdirected that method may be.

13 October 2010

Moscow's First Snow

The weather is hovering around the freezing point these days and it is actually rather pleasant.  However, prognostications are - probably based on some sketchy science - that this will be a particularly brutal winter in Moscow.  If prognostications are true, today's first sprinkling is a foreshadow of events to come.

зима = winter

Just for kicks, here is what the weather is supposed to look like for the next three days in Moscow, Russia, Palo Alto, California, and Austin, Texas respectively.


Palo Alto


11 October 2010

Schwarzenegger Is In Red Heat

The Governator, aka Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born American governor of California, starred as a Russian policeman in Red Heat in 1988.

To Russia, with Love

Twenty-two years later and actually in Russia, Arnold is once again in red heat (the non-capitalized kind).  Per a recent article in Bloomberg, Schwarzenegger said:
"I love places where there is an extraordinary potential,” Schwarzenegger, 63, said before he visited Skolkovo with Medvedev. “It’s almost like looking at a gold or diamond mine and saying: all you got to do is go in there and get it.”
Later, President Medvedev joked that if Arnold were a Russian citizen, he would have a shot at being Moscow's next mayor.  Of course, as Mr. Luzhkov demonstrated, being the mayor is a red-hot Russian recipe for a ride to riches.

09 October 2010

Actually, Russia Is In The Middle East

Fatalists repeat after me:  Этo Россия.

Whenever asked about absurdities, contradictions, inequalities, or huge inefficiencies about the Russian societ, Этo Россия [this is Russia] is a familiar refrain.  You see, while Russians are proud of their heritage, they are rather sharply aware of their societal quirks and are bothered by them.  Yet, the quirkiness is explained away and inaction is excused by Этo Россия.

Having roots in the Middle East, I am well familiar with the fatalist nature of some societies; however, I had not expected Middle East-style fatalism Russia.   And like in the Middle East, "fatalism" in the Russian context is a double entendre - with the second meaning being "attempting to change the system can be fatal."