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.