22 December 2011

Russia's Darkest Days

Winter Solstice, defined by when the sun reaches its southernmost extreme on earth's horizon, is on December 22.  The further north one is, the shorter the length of the day.  For fans of starlight tanning, the lengthy nights are excellent times and Murmansk is the place to be.  Here is a sampling of sunrise and sunset schedules in three Russian cities:

Day Length
Night Length
9:58 am
4:58 pm
St. Petersburg
11:00 am
4:54 pm

High Noon at OK Corral 

By comparison, Miami, Florida has over 10:30 hours of sunlight on the same day.

Ah, Russia's darkest days, and I bet you thought that I was going to talk about other current affairs!

Next topics:  Blowing hot air and smoke.  Never mind; I already covered it here, here, and here.

21 December 2011

Winter Glory

Moscow's weather has been a puzzle as of late.  By "as of late," I mean for the past few years.

My wife was born and grown in Moscow.  Her years of local weather experience always translates to the following advice to tourists who are eager to experience the Russian winter:  "Come in December, January, or February.  Avoid November and March because those months are not cold enough, meaning that there will be lots of slush and mud on the roads."  My friends who were also born and grown in Moscow agree with my wife's advice.  Years of predictable winter experience by Muscovites has made this advice into a sort of a latent wisdom.

 Word from the Wise:  Avoid This

But that advice would not have worked for the past few years.  Until today, 21 December, which is just one day short of the Winter Solstice and hence the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere, Moscow was too warm to be covered in a snow blanket.  Pedestrians, like me, slogged through soggy and wet streets for some of October, all of November, and most of December.  Today we are treated with a wonderfully beautiful snowstorm.  White is everywhere, and the quality of openair sound has changed as it always does when abundant snow muffles the background hum.

A More Beautiful, Quieter Day

A note for American friends:  Despite the fantastic snowstorm, Moscow is humming along just fine.  Schools are open, work places are running, and traffic is flowing just as erratically as ever.  In similar conditions, any major US metropolitan area would have been crippled.  Indeed, Russians are a rugged and hearty bunch.

How Do You Say "Light Snow" in Russian?

At last, winter glory is in Moscow.  The only question is why it took so long to get here this year.  A good friend, and a Moscow native, said in passing two nights ago that "every winter seems to be getting warmer here."  I hope not.

19 December 2011

Off Topic: Dear Leader's Death

Kim Jong-il passed away.  Like any good dictator, such as the ones I spent part of my childhood under, "Dear Leader" did an excellent job of creating a paternalistic society build around a personality cult - his personality to be specific.

View the video clip below.  From an outsider's point of view, these organized grief-letting meetings may seem ridiculous and, perhaps, even funny.  However, and sadly, most of this grief is likely to be real.  After all, their Dear Leader, their father figure, passed away.  When all hope is invested in one figure, as a child invests so heavily in his mother, the passing of that figure is extremely terrifying and depressing.

Regardless, part of the adult in me says:  "Get a life people.  Make your own future."  But, when years of censorship and brainwashing have made an otherwise capable people into a hapless adolescent bunch, my opinion is about as valuable as the copious teardrops shed for a useless, dangerous, and dead despot.

In case you are doubtful of the cult that existed around this man, here is a sampling of his great feats per Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's official mouthpiece:
  • His 1941 birth in a humble cabin in the slopes of Mount Baekdu was foretold by an unseasonal swallow and heralded by a double rainbow. Simultaneously, a bright star lit up the sky.
  • He learned to walk at 3 weeks old.
  • He learned to talk at 8 weeks old.
  • He penned 1,500 books in his spare time during this 3 years at Kim Il-sung University.
  • He first picked up a golf club in 1994, at North Korea's only golf course, and shot a 38-under par round that included no fewer than 11 holes in one. Satisfied with his performance, he immediately declared his retirement from the sport.

27 November 2011

America's Religious Right's Wrong Track

In the American political spectrum, evangelical religiosity is closely linked to right-winged political views.  This is not to say that those in the middle or left are less spiritual or religious than those on the right; it is to say that those who are on the right and religious tend to be vocal about their beliefs in the political arena.

A thought vector in America's religious right that explains this behavior is along these lines: "The Christian God made America great.  To continue keeping America great, it is the duty of Christians to ensure that the core of the nation remains strongly Christian.  As such, evangelism, constant religious dialog, and conversion of nonbelievers is a duty and a path to salvation."

During the Soviet years, when we had a bipolar world of the two superpowers, US and USSR, the US was the most religious industrial nation in the world.  Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as "the Evil Empire." The fall of the Iron Curtain was a signal - at least to some folks on the religious right - that God was on America's side and the atheistic Soviet Union had erred on the wrong side by disavowing the supernatural.

It is now a bit more than two decades after the dissolution of USSR.  Americans on the religious right should take note that their country no longer has the "most religious" status amongst the industrialized nations.  As it turns out, that spot has been relinquished to Russia, the heart, mind, and muscle of the erstwhile "Evil Empire."

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is currently displaying a relic believed to be Virgin Mary's belt.  Russians from around the country are making a pilgrimage to this magnificent church to queue up in the cold weather for up to 24 hours to get a first-hand glimpse of this artifact, and to kiss the glass encasement in which it sits. 

This phenomenon has created some angst among the less-religious Russians.  There is a genuine surprise at the degree of latent religiosity that has become visible suddenly and many attempts to interpret what it really means.  A popular interpretation is that because Russia is on the wrong track and Russians have lost faith in their institutions, they are looking elsewhere for hope, inspiration, and perhaps a miracle.

It is curious that religiosity is seen as a sign of "losing faith" in national institutions in Russia while it is deemed as a necessary element of "keeping faith" in national institutions in America by the religious right.  Both views cannot be simultaneously right.  In any case, it can be concluded that America's religious right is on the wrong track either because it has lost it leadership or it has always been making the wrong assumptions about what made America strong.

12 November 2011

VOA's Jim Brooke on Caucasian Male Behavior in Moscow

The article is posted under Moscow News; for convenience, I have added the text below.  The text explains, at a very high-level the confluence of multiple factors that lead to bad behavior by multiple parties:
  • Repressive religious laws in the Muslim (Caucasian) portion of Russia;
  • Young men that "break free" of this repression and head to non-Muslim Russian locations, behaving badly with (at least) women in the new locations;
  • The bad behavior of the Caucasian men leading to understandable bad feelings of local Russians, but eventually leading to generalizations and hence bad behavior expressed in nationalistic, xenophobic, and racist tones.
I have witnessed similar dynamics around the world where suppressed - or simply different -  human behavior of some sort, due to religious, cultural, or legal codes, leads to apparently aberrant behavior amongst the diaspora in new lands, thereby, at a minimum, making the diaspora the butt of jokes or, in some instances, subject to violence.

This, is the unfortunate result of human psychology and social behavior patterns.  It is explainable and understandable but results are most often inexcusable.

Moscow is not a sexual Disneyland

by James Brooke at 10/11/2011 20:59

Nicole, a Moscow State Linguistics University journalism student, showed up for dinner Sunday night, a bundle of energy, ready to interview me for her thesis. I was more interested in what she had to say, so I asked if anyone had approached her on the 10 minute walk from Kievskaya metro station to the Georgian restaurant.
Although bundled up like a winter fur ball — coat, hat, scarf, mittens, boots — Nicole said she walked the usual gauntlet of leers and sexual invitations from young men from the Caucasus who hang around the metro exits. In fact, she said, it has become so common that she had not even thought about it, until I asked her specifically.
I had been pondering something very strange that I noticed Friday at the rally in Moscow of 7,000 Russian nationalists. There was a total absence of signs denouncing the United States or NATO.
Instead, the nationalists were entirely focused inward, largely on the Caucasus.
“Stop feeding the Caucasus,” seemed to be the most a popular slogan, objecting to the billions of dollars funneled south to pacify Russia’s heavily Muslim southern border region. Another was: “Stop stealing from Russian regions.” If you want to draw a nationalist crowd in Moscow this season, don’t waste your energy hyperventilating about Kosovo, missile defense, or even Georgia. Instead, appeal to the sexual politics of the city’s streets.
Margarita Simonyan, a Russian journalist of Armenian descent, is editor-in-chief of RT, the Kremlinsupported television channel formerly known as Russia Today. Shielded by these impeccable establishment credentials, she broke a mainstream media taboo last week, by writing an essay that was first aired on Dozhd TV. Under the headline, “Why We Hate Each Other,” she wrote: “Last weekend, I happened to be at the Kazansky Station where I witnessed a disgusting scene: Three young men from the Caucasus were taunting female train conductors standing on the platform. ‘Hey babes, are all women in Moscow as beautiful as you are?’ they jeered. Then they joined hands and began yelling, ‘We are from the Caucasus!’”
Russians love the phrase double standard – “dvoinoi standart.” For decades, it has been directed outward, to the West.
But now, more and more Russians are directing the double standard critique inward, to their heavily Muslim South.
They object to the fact that some young men come from the Caucasus to Moscow under the impression that they have just won a ticket to a sexual Disneyland. If you just proposition 10, 20 or 50 girls on the street, the thinking goes, eventually, you will get lucky.
Earlier this year, I was down in Chechnya and its sister republic Ingushetia on reporting trips. Chechnya now lives under virtual Sharia law. Last week, a Reuters friend reported from Chechnya that security men are invading beauty salons and tearing down pictures of women modeling hairstyles. Apparently hair dressers can no longer display photos of hair styles. It sounds like Monty Python, but that is Grozny today.
Ms. Simonyan is a well-traveled, multi-lingual, 31-year-old executive, whose family roots go back to the southern Caucasus. She blames the problem on parents sending the wrong signals to their sons: “Why do some from the Caucasus behave this way in Moscow? Do they behave in the same way in their native regions? Of course not. They respect their countrymen. But they have no respect for Muscovites — or Russians in general. If those young men at the Moscow train station had dared to taunt “their own” in such a crude manner in the Caucasus, somebody certainly would have broken their jaws.”
Next month, my three sons, all American university students, will visit Moscow for the holidays with two college buddies. I will explain to all five, very clearly, in plain English, that their health insurance policies do not, in any way, cover the consequences of harassing girls on the streets of Moscow.

14 October 2011

You Like Potato and I Like Potahto

For the longest time, I could not figure out why, in Russian, the word for "foul speech" was the same as the word "mother." I posed this question to several Russian friends and I got what seemed to be head nods of agreement. 

In fact, the words are orthographically different while being phonetically identical (at least to me). Mother is "мать" while cursing is "мат." In retrospect, those head nods may have been of sympathy, as in "poor guy just doesn't get it."

This reminded me of a strange dialog that I once had while teaching mathematics in inner-city Dallas area. The school principal (P) introduced me (A) to Ms. Lohan (L) in a dialog similar to this:
P:  Mr. Sharif, this is Ms. Lohan, the liberian.
A:  Nice to meet you; I have always been curious about Liberia and have never met anyone from there.
L:  I am the liberian at this school.
A:  I should expect so; Liberia is not a large country and has a small diaspora.
L:  No, I run the libary at this school.
A:  Oh, I see.  It is nice to meet you in any case.
Lohan the Liberian

Gauging by the looks that I got from them, the principal and Ms. Lohan considered me a moron for my apparent inability to distinguish a liberian from a Liberian.  In standard English, there is no "liberian," but in some American dialects, liberians (librarians) run libaries (libraries).

Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let's call the whole thing off

02 October 2011

American Zoo vs. Russian Theater

Having written a bit on animalistic themes, it is now appropriate to dive a bit deeper into the domain and talk about politics.  In particular, it is worth comparing two types of productions:  The American zoological type versus the Russian theatrical one.

The next American presidential election will be held in a bit over a year from now, but the presidential campaign is in full swing.  The White House is now a cage of some sorts for a wounded animal.  Barrack Obama came into the White House roaring like a lion and memorizing with a lofty rhetoric, but he had little experience.  Now he has more experiences, but seems to be out of lofty words, uplifting speeches, or even kitty-cat meows.  His presidency, sans a few exceptions, has been disappointing.  If we add economic stewardship and his ample wasted political opportunities to this consideration, we can qualify Mr. Obama's performance as nearly disastrous.

American Politics

This should give a wide opening to Republicans coming at him from the right, but this is where the zoo analogy really takes hold.  The Republican field appears to be replete with entertaining gorillas that are busily hurling feces at each other.  At the current pace, he who dishes out the most poop but gets served the least has a good chance for the party's nomination.  But, the stench that the current Republican primary is creating makes it improbable for this candidate to beat Mr. Obama in the general election.  Welcome to the American political zoo.

In contrast to the American zoo, Russian politics is a nearly perfect theatrical production worthy of no less than the Bolshoi Theater (situated just across the road from the Kremlin).  After keeping the country - and the world - in suspense for four years, the president and prime minister announced that they are to switch jobs in next year's "elections" per an agreement that was decided years ago.  The show was nearly perfect.  The slight imperfection stain came when one competent and professional government official, Mr. Alexey Kudrin, went off script and began to heckle one of the lead actors, the president himself.

A World Best:  Russia's Bolshoi Theatre
Magnificent, and Only for Masterful Performances

The theater responded appropriately:  It ejected the heckler.  The focus was kept on center stage.  The show goes on.  And it will continue to do so while enough oil revenue is coming in.

27 September 2011

Cougar Alert

Cougars are fast, in this case fast enough to elude captured by a 1/500 of a second flicker of a camera aperture.

This was a city-dwelling cougar. She was in her middle ages, but revived by the high-revving, sleek, but purring animal she was driving: a Mercedes Benz coupe. And to ensure that the world did not misunderstand her place in the food chain, this predator had airbrushed actual cougars all over her car.

All Are Cougars, Some Are Wilder

Alas, this fast and cunning cougar gave me the slip; If only I had been a bit quicker with my camera ... I mean, that stylin' cougar's car paint job was worth a thousand words just by itself.

Something Like This, but on a Benz

15 September 2011

The Dog Was Spared

I took an illegal taxi last night, chauffeured by an Azerbaijani, and presumably a Muslim.  At some point, a bus driver dangerously cut off my taxi, sending my driver into a rage.  The taxi driver accelerated, made eye contact with the bus driver, and unloaded a creative but crass tirade involving his genitals and a dizzying combination of the bus driver's mother, wife, daughter, and their orifices.

To His Credit, He Spared the Family Dog

Somewhat shocked, I looked at the driver and said "это не по-мусульмански," roughly translating to "this is not Islamic behavior."  The driver paused to think for a moment and then looked at me with shame and embarrassment and said, "you are right, I shouldn't say anything about putting it in their mouths."

The rest is okay, I guess.

14 September 2011

Animal Trap

Alexey Navalny, a Russian public activist, once compared certain Moscow street intersections to animal traps.  Mr. Navalny complained that the signage on these traps was designed to be deliberately confusing.  This confusion invariably leads most drivers to commit "errors," thereby giving hungry policemen waiting nearby a chance to trap the driver and shake him down.

Whether the animal trap analogy is appropriate is a separate question; the fact is that street signage in Russia is, indeed, rather confusing.

I took this picture at the intersection of two major streets in downtown Moscow. When turning right from the feeder road of the Garden Ring to Tsvetnoy Bul'var, one is confronted with this extremely cluttered signage scene.  It is as if it was designed to deliberately confuse drivers.
  • The street name sign is quite small; it must be that Russians have better eyesight than other mere mortals on the planet.
  • Signs overlap each other; good luck trying to get a clear picture with a simple glance.
  • And if it is not bad enough, some random pole blocks the traffic signal. 
  • The traffic light is small, posted low, and as poor visibility unless you get very close to it; then it is blocked by a random pole (see above)
  • You have to pay very specific attention to the shape of the traffic light (I versus L) to know whether right-hand turns are allowed with a general green sign (I) or whether they require a special green light (L). There is no other way to know other than looking at the shape of the traffic light. And the special green light on the L-shaped signal is not complemented by special red light informing the driver not to turn left. In other words, you either get a green light or nothing.
  • There is a slight degree of additional confusion with the blue direction sign; that sign says that “one can go straight or right;” however, the traffic light says “unless I explicitly allow it – and you have to pay close attention to my shape."
  • And what is it with the advertisement posted right next to official, information signs? This should be a crime – or at least a misdemeanor.
With all this confusion, no wonder hungry policemen are waiting right around the corner to flag driver who will, invariably, make mistakes with this signage arrangement.  Bad information presentation, it seems, is a blessing for bribe collectors

08 September 2011

Marvels of Moscow Metro, Part V

Post rush hour, some Moscow metro trains are taken out of service as the extra capacity is not needed.  Obviously, these retiring trains need to be evacuated of passengers; and sometimes passengers do not evacuate willingly.  

A case in point was a drunkard on my train who refused to (or could not) wake up and leave the train.  He was removed by a very lightly-armed the metro police - probably as gently as possible.  

In my experience of witnessing American police, had this passenger been riding the BART in the San Francisco Bay Area or the New York Metro, he would have likely been handcuffed and arrested for a similar infraction.  In the case of this drunkard, the indignity of being dragged of the metro car and onto the metro station floor is probably punishment enough.  

As a final note, the drunkard blew a kiss to the lady who first attempted to wake him up.  Call it a happy ending.

19 August 2011

And 20 Years After

The Soviet Union officially ended 20 years ago today.  There are two good articles in New York Times and Financial Times providing a retrospective of the past two decades.  Both are worth reading.  The Economist has provided a personal essay on this day.

An addendum to the Financial Times article is particularly interesting.  Having spent some of my youth in the Middle East, I am fully aware of the Oil Curse and its consequences.  It appears that current-day, oil-rich Russia is having to live with the same issue.

Role of resources: How the balance tilted when energy-abundant Russia ‘became too rich’ 
Among the biggest factors holding back the development of democracy in the former Soviet Union have been two three-letter words: oil and gas. 
Of the six post-Soviet republics deemed authoritarian by the Economist Intelligence Unit, three – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan – have big hydrocarbon reserves. Russia, with the largest reserves, is a “hybrid” state, showing authoritarian features. 
All have to some extent suffered classic symptoms of the “oil curse”. Oil and gas revenues have enabled cronyist leaderships to establish or maintain firm rule, while buying off opposition by raising wages and pensions. Apart from Kazakhstan, which has carried out some market-friendly reforms, energy wealth has also stunted the growth of other sectors. 
Russia is perhaps the starkest example. Throughout the 1990s, when oil prices were low, Russia was a democracy, albeit a highly imperfect one. For the first three years of the last decade, under president Vladimir Putin, liberal reforms continued. “But finally oil prices rose and Russia became too rich,” says Nikolay Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center, a think-tank, “and the leadership decided there was no longer a need to undertake new reforms, as they enjoyed huge revenues coming from nowhere.” 
Oil and gas have played an important role not just in countries that possess them, but also as leverage Russia has used to maintain influence over neighbours that lack them. 
Ukraine, the biggest ex-Soviet republic by population after Russia, relies on cheap Russian natural gas to fuel its heavy industry. Twice since 2006, Russia has cut supplies in winter amid pricing disputes. In Belarus, smallest of the three Slavic republics, energy subsidies from Russia have sustained the autocratic Alexander Lukashenko in power. They have compelled him, too, despite a poor personal relationship with Mr Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, his successor as Russian president, to remain essentially a vassal of Moscow. 
Belarusian industry, like Ukraine’s, benefits from cheap Russian gas. Belarus also receives cheap Russian oil, refines it in two Soviet-built refineries and sells the products to western Europe for a fat profit. “Who knows how Ukraine or Belarus might have developed if Russia had not exerted such an influence using oil and gas,” says Mr Petrov. 
By the same token, however, the lack of energy revenues has prevented Ukraine’s leaders from establishing as heavy-handed rule as Moscow. Local analysts cite this as a key limiting factor on Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich’s attempts to create a Putin-style system. 
In Russia, meanwhile, parts of the political and business elite have realised that without modernisation to nurture other sectors, it risks the kind of economic stagnation it suffered in Soviet times. Mr Medvedev portrays himself as a reformer who will try to help Russia escape the oil curse if granted a second term as president next year. But oil revenues may yet help propel Mr Putin, currently prime minister, back to the Kremlin.

14 August 2011

Economics is not Accounting

In the economics sphere, a common misconception is “my loss is someone else’s gain” and vice versa.  While this conception is true in competitive situations involving pecuniary exchange, it does not hold when it comes to the wealth of nations.  As such, populist remarks like “rich people are getting richer on poor people’s back” is basic rubbish. 

Unlike accounting, economics is not a zero-sum game; that is, someone else’s loss does not necessarily translate to your gain.  Generally, when wealth is generated, it lifts all boats (the question of equitable distribution is a legitimate one – but that is a whole other topic).  Likewise, when wealth is destroyed, it generally hits everyone across the board (and it does hurt the less wealthy proportionally harder).

The same is true for international wealth of nations.  In today’s highly interconnected financial markets, a single nation’s economic faltering (unless it is North Korea or a similarly disintegrated locale) is indicative of a larger contagion that has the potential of affecting other nations.  And, if the contagion is in a large center like US, EU, or China, it has a high probability of making everyone sick. 

In October 2008 while I was in the US, I received more than one call from Russia where my contact gleefully lamented the “American crisis,” the undertone of the conversation being “America had it coming” and “Russia is rising again.”  While the crisis was American-made, it became the world’s crisis; in turn, it affected Russia more severely than it did its American epicenter. 

The brief period of gleeful lament came about again this year when (the American) Standard and Poor’s rating agency downgraded America’s credit rating from AAA to AA+.  In the early periods of market gyration, a few Russian acquaintances indicated that they lamented the latest difficulty in America while hardly containing their giddiness.  It was not before long before the Russian ruble declined some 10% against the American dollar as the greenback was spiraling downwards against other major currencies.  Their moods changed quickly.

The fall of the Russian ruble against the dollar deserves a quick explanation:  Russia has an oil-driven economy.  Oil markets are priced in US dollars.  A slowing American economy signals less consumer demand, which implies less production and hence less energy usage.  Because America has the largest world economy and the world’s largest importer of foreign goods, a slowing American economy slows the world economy.  Oil is the source of a good portion of the world energy.  Hence, a slower world economy means less demand for oil, therefore falling oil prices denominated in dollars, and therefore more pressure on the Russian economy and currency as measured against the dollar.

Let’s get back to the difference between accounting and economics.  The emotional kick that comes from a competitive situation between two parties involving money exchange is understandable.  These are gaming situations where there could be a clear winner and loser.  The same emotional sensations are misplaced, if not stupid, in the broader economic sense.  In the short run – that is in a timespan that matters for the individual – the poor do not get richer when the rich get poorer; in fact the poor are likely to get poorer under these circumstances.  Likewise, and country X does not benefit when country Y declines.  Countries X and Y tend to rise and fall together.

Very unfortunately, populist political rhetoric – often purposefully – confuses the differences between economics and accounting.  Elections can become battles between the haves and the have-nots instead of about policies that benefit everyone.  And nationalistic feelings lead to a brief satisfying tinge once a former enemy declines; it is also those feelings that very often get in the way of effective national policy for economic diversification (away from oil in Russia’s case), better integration with world markets, and a more sustainable, predictable prosperity engine that lifts everyone’s boat.

21 July 2011

La Gente Está Muy Loca

Walking around Novosibirsk late one night, I stumbled across an outdoors dance floor.  The dance floor was filled with mostly Siberian young men having a blast tearing it up with their own unique dance moves.  By "unique," I do not mean "good" or "skillful."  I mean "unique:"  I had never seen anything like it before.

Resembling a pack of schoolboys collectively under the spell of an epileptic fit, these kids where absolutely having a blast making rather uncoordinated movements to some repetitive dance tune made from a scratched record, or perhaps by scratching a record.  I tried to make sense of what I was seeing and finally excused the situation by a dismissive remark to the tune of "these folks are just crazy."

Just then, the disco tune's riffs stopped and a female's voice rang over the repetitive beat by saying "Johnny, la gente está muy loca*"  [the people are (in a transitive state of being) very crazy].  No lyric could have fit the moment any better - or could have been funnier at the time.

Another "funny" aspect of Novosibirsk was how I was frequently received by strangers on the road.  As I was hiking around the city, I noticed that as I approach people on isolated sidewalks, I found them startled to the degree that they switched the side of the road in order to avoid crossing paths with me.  That was a somewhat empowering experience, knowing that I could frighten strangers by merely walking down their streets' sidewalks.  But, when I was barred entry into two restaurants in the downtown area, I realized that something more sinister was afoot.

The explanation, as it turns out, is that my complexion resembles that of person coming from the Caucuses region of Russia, including folks from Chechnya (referred to in Russia as Caucasians).  Time and over again, I was told strange tales of massive criminal activity by every Caucasian (just "because that's who they are").  More reasonable explanations were along the lines that there is a massive emigration flow from the Caucuses (true) and emigration waves can have a disproportionally high representation of criminals among them.  As such, people's attitudes become tainted and stereotypes set in.

And, it follows that I am to be barred entry into some Novosibirsk eating establishments.  While this is amusing to me personally, I can see its pernicious effects at the social level if it is (and it appears to be) practiced at a wide scope.  One only needs to consider the self-destruction that racism in America has created as it has systematically locked out otherwise productive members of the society from the mainstream.

To put things in perspective, racism is not a Russian or American problem; it is a sad human condition.  Years ago, a Swedish friend was complaining to me about a sign on a Swiss restaurant that read "No dogs or Swedes allowed."  More recently, while I was discussing the merits of various Lithuanian cities with a young Lithuanian man, he stated that Kaunas (a smaller city) was a much better place than Vilnius (a larger city and Lithuania's capital).  When I asked why, he said "there are too many Polish people in Vilnius.  Kaunas is much nicer."

Let's go back to the aforementioned lyrics on the torturous dance floor:  La gente está muy loca. How unfortunately true ...

* Loca People - Sak Noel

13 July 2011

That Fine Line

Sometimes, there is a fine line that separates a sensible democracy from a screwball dictatorship, both figuratively and literally.  In this case, it is literal.

Which Side Would You Rather Be On?

There are two border postings separated by a gully in this photo.  The gully can be visually traced into the horizon.  Lithuania and the EU is on the right side; Belarus is on the other.  

If you are an entrepreneur or an ordinary citizen that wants a better life and a possibility to improve himself, which side would you rather be on?  What if you are part of a select few who manages to use the state's resources as a means of empowering and enriching himself, which side would you chose then?  

Just to be clear, these are not trick questions:  The mere and simple matter of ethics make one answer right and the other wrong.

11 July 2011

Siberian Experience

I had the opportunity to spend a week in Siberia.   Specifically, I was in Russia's third largest city, Novosibirsk.

NE:  The American Siberia

The American image of Siberia is this frozen, wolf-packed tundra where people are sent to die.  The mental image may look like the picture above, except what you see above is actually in Nebraska, USA.

My experience of (admittedly, the southern portion of) Siberia indicates that it resembles the American Midwestern landscape quite a bit, except that the winters are somewhat longer (but not necessarily colder).  The country side is vast, the sky is big, there are few natural structures that provide any relief, and there are plenty of bloodsucking critters flying around during the summer night.  In other words, one could be in Kansas -  or Siberia -  if the visual clues where just taken from the nature.

NY Bronx in 1975, Like Some Parts of Novosibirsk

Novosibirsk is like a Rust Belt city.  Once a thriving manufacturing city that armed the Soviet Army with tanks, the city is in middle of an economic restructuring and attempting to reuse its aged manufacturing capability for other means.  The downtown area is revived and rather nice.  Walk away from there, as I did in fairly significant hikes across the city, and you will find yourself in what seems to be in New York's public housing areas of the 1970s and 1980s.  Incidentally, those same housing structures seem to exist in any major Russian city, Moscow included.  The massive apartment blocks where once a wonder to behold as they provided private housing for families that used to live in shared apartments after WW II.

I followed a friend's tip and visited the Novosibirsk zoo.  Generally, I do not like zoos; in this regard, the Novosibirsk zoo did not disappoint.  It was yet another place where magnificently large beasts are kept in relatively tiny cages.  But, some of the animals on display there, specifically the Siberian eagle, were rather impressive.  These massive birds of prey were some three-feet tall and had a wingspan of at least twice as much.

Novosibirsk's Ob River:  A River Runs Through It

Following the same friend's tip, I took a river boat tour of the very large Ob River.  Ob River cuts Novosibirsk in half and, contrary to expectation, flows northward.  After studying Siberia's topography, this drainage pattern becomes obvious.  Blocked by the majestic Altai Mountains to the south, Siberia's abundant snowfall has to drain somewhere; and the path of least resistance is northward to the Kara Sea and eventually into the Arctic Ocean.

What I saw was just a tiny spec on the vast Siberian front and, from a nature perspective, I liked it.  There is more of Siberia to see, including Altai Mountains, Lake Baikal, and Kamchatka.  

02 July 2011

The Millenium-Long Cold War

The Cold War, it seems, is a construct of the Twentieth Century.  The end of the World War II marked the birth of two superpowers locked in ideological, political, and proxy military conflicts.  The dissolution of one of those superpowers, the Soviet Union, in 1991, marked the end of an era.  With it, one supposed, would come a world where Russia, a prominent world power with an immense potential, would be more tightly integrated into the Western fabric of democratic institutions.

That world may come; indeed there is recognition in some quarters of Russia that the current de facto one-party-rule and highly concentrated power structure should be reformed if Russia is to maintain her prominence.  However, there have been aspects of the Russian psyche that have puzzled me since I took residence in Moscow.  For instance, I have been puzzled about why Russia insists on defining itself is "not Western," as evidenced by its asynchronous Christmas holiday season, among other facts.

Take modern Turkey, for instance.  Turkey, a Muslim country and the remnant of the powerful and enduring Ottoman Empire, is a radically transformed nation.  Formerly using the Arabic alphabet, Turkey adopted the Latin alphabet under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.   The country also swapped its weekends from the Muslim Friday to the Christian Saturday and Sunday, in line with Western Christian powers.  Turkey is now seeking EU membership in its quest to become more tightly integrated with Europe.  Basically, there is precedence of massive realignment by a former power in order to march in a more lockstep formation with prevailing world trends.

So, what is happening in Russia?  For one, it is clear that neither Mr. Yeltsin nor Mr. Putin, Russia's most influential leaders post Soviet Union, have been the types of transformative leaders that Mr. Atatürk was. Second, Turkey's transformations came after a very long and relative rapid periods of decline that left Turkey in a very weakened state (as compared to its Ottoman days) badly in need of transformation. In other words, there have been both the lack of a sufficient reason and a lack of a right type of leader to make the transformation.  But, there is another reason:  The third reason, I believe, has to do with the strength of religion, and the culture that it brings with itself, in Russia.

And So Began The Cold War

The history of the East-West Schism of 1054 is rather long and involved to be discussed in a respectable form here.  The key elements are that Christianity's center shifted to Constantinople with the Roman's sacking of Jerusalem. As Christianity became legalized and increasingly influential in the Roman Empire, a rift started between churches in Rome and Constantinople.  Roman's adoption of Christianity were followed by a series of changes to Christian practices.  Those changes were looked upon suspiciously as potentially heretical acts by the eastern practitioners of the faith.  This multi-century rift between the East and the West became increasingly exacerbated as the Roman Empire lost control over its territory and was increasingly incapable of uniting its Latin and Greek centers through a common structure.  All this culminated with the mutual excommunications of what are now the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054. The sacking of Constantinople in 1204 and the looting of The Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) by the Fourth Crusade was also a key event that further pushed the Eastern and Western churches apart.

The Church of Holy Wisdom, Unwisely Sacked by Crusaders

While there were a few reunion attempts, such as the Second Council of Lyon and the Council of Florence, they all ultimately failed.  A subtext of these failures was an Eastern suspicion of the West; the motive, it was perceived, was less of a reunion and more of an expansion of Western Church's influence of its eastern counterpart.  That eastern sentiment was fully reinforced when Ottomans sacked Constantinople while the West failed to send any meaningful military reinforcement to defend the city against Muslim invaders.  In this context, the Eastern Church viewed the sacking of Constantinople as the West's attempt to destroy the Eastern Church once and for all.

Isolated from the West for centuries, the Eastern Orthodox Church operated independently but found new hope and influence with the rising powers of Moscow.  And with Tsar Peter I's abolishment of patriarchate in 1721, the now-Russian Orthodox Church effectively became a governmental department. With that, came the infusion of suspicious opinions of Western powers and their expansive ambitions into the Russian psyche.  It should be noted that Russia's most memorable conflicts, wars against the Poles (Catholic), Swedes (Lutheran), French (Catholic), Germans (Catholic and Lutheran), and ultimately the Cold War with Americans (Protestant and Catholic), was waged against Christians whose faith was rooted in the Rome Catholic Church and derived from there.  Conversely, there have never been lasting or memorable conflicts with a nation of Eastern Orthodox faith, like Ukraine or Bulgaria (two former empires that waged many wars).

Clearly, the above text is rife with generalizations and inaccuracies in the details, but the arc of the story holds.  Within this context, it is easier to understand why Russians are Russians first and generally suspicious of the West.  There are centuries of legacy in this point of view, and the Cold War was a modern manifestation of this backdrop heavily influenced by new factors of the evolving world.

The Sputnik Moment:  Still Keeping a Suspicious Eye On the West After All Those Years

Because the Cold War is a relatively new, powerful construct in world's history, it is natural to evaluate many current-day affairs in its context.  However, a longer perspective on the East-West rift may shed better light on why the world is today as it is.

23 June 2011

The Alphabet of Religion

Serbia and Poland are Slavic Eastern European countries. On opposite ends of Eastern Europe, Serbia is relatively close to Italy while Poland is nearby Russia. Yet, despite their geographical position, Polish and Serbian alphabets are juxtaposed in that Polish writing is more Italian-like while Serbian writing is more Russian like.  The Polish language uses Latin letters (like these) while the Serbian alphabet uses Cyrillic letters (Кириллица). One wonders why that is.

Latin and Cyrillic alphabets are both Greek alphabet derivatives.  Latin alphabet was borrowed and modified from yet another Greek alphabet derivative, called Euboean alphabet, by Etruscans, rulers of the early Rome.   From there, it took its hold and became the most widely-used alphabet in the world today, in great part thanks to Rome's expansive multi-century dominance.

Cyrillic alphabet, whose origin is attributed to two 9th Century Byzantine Greek brothers, Saints Cyril and Methodius, was first developed in Bulgaria in 10th century AD.  From there, it traveled, mostly eastwards, with those who were motivated to educate, namely Christian monks.

Serbia was Christianized by the Byzantine Papacy, which adhered to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  Over the years, Serbian Orthodoxy survived the Muslim Ottoman Empire, Croatian domination, World War II, and a suspicious socialist regime led by Tito.  Throughout this time, Serbia maintained its character and culture, propagating the Cyrillic alphabet to today.

Poland was Christianized by Mieszko I, Poland's first ruler.  Perhaps opportunistically, Mieszko chose to be baptized in Rome to strengthen his hold on the relatively new state of Poland.  With that Roman Catholic Christendom, Mieszko also brought Latin letters, propagated by church's teachings, to Poland.

Take a look at the maps below.  The first shows the distribution of Cyrillic alphabet in the world.  The second shows how Latin alphabet is distributed.  Areas in lighter shade of green show countries where multiple alphabet systems are used.

The World of Cyrillic Alphabet

The World of Latin Alphabet

Now, exclude the non-Western portions* from the Latin alphabet map.  You basically have North America, Western Europe, and Australia.  Compare that with the Cyrillic alphabet map.  You have the Soviet Union and a good chunk of the "Iron Curtain."  In other words, you have a nice proxy for the 20th century East-West conflict.

My hypothesis is that the 20th Century Cold war ("East-West Conflict") was part of a longer historical arc that started with the East-West Schism of 1054.  This topic shall be discussed in more detail in the next blog.


*  The alphabet map just shows how each church, the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church, spread throughout the world.  Latin America, by virtue of Catholic Spanish and Portuguese conquests, adopted the Latin alphabet.  North America got its alphabet from England, France, and Spain, all of which were under the influence of the Roman Catholic church at some point in their history.  Australia, thanks to British prisoners, became Christianized and Anglicized.  India, Africa, and Southeaster Asia all have the Latin alphabet system thanks to aggressive colonization efforts by Western European powers.

21 June 2011

Church in Russia

Moscow is sometimes referred to as 40x40, in reference to the 1,600 or so churches located in the city.  While Russia's official religion -  Russian Orthodox Christianity - plays a prominent role in Moscow and St. Petersburg, its influence in the city is minuscule compare to its reach and influence outside of major cities.  Russia mirrors the US, in that the larger cities play a more secular role while smaller, more provincial cities reflect deeper religious beliefs and faiths of the people.

Per Wikipedia, the Golden Ring, or a group of smaller cities to the north and east of Moscow, are a group of ancient towns that "played a significant role in the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church."  Sergiyev Posad, the closest of the Golden Ring cities to Moscow, is only 75 km (45 miles) away.  Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius is "the most important Russian monastery and the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church."  This beautiful city has a palpable sense of holiness, especially around the main church complex, and its role in Russian history and modern-day politics cannot be understated.

Trinity of Lavra of St. Sergius, As It Was Then, Pretty Much As It Is Now

The Russian Orthodox Church, officially recognized by the state, played (except during the Soviet era) and plays a central role in governing Russians.  Its role is to preserve the memory of the most important and significant events in Russian history, legitimize governments (of tzars or presidents - if you can tell the difference), and provide a cultural foundation upon which most Russians build their lives and create their identities.  In this sense, its role is the same as roles of Anglican Church in England (mostly before WW II), Church of Sweden in Sweden, or the Catholic Church in Poland.

I have written previously that Russia "continues to define itself in opposition to the West, damn be the consequences."   Having a better sense of the Russian Orthodox Church, I may have a better insight into this "non-Western" Russian phenomenon.  In this context, the Cold War of the Twentieth Century was a continuation in the arc of history that began with set of events that culminated in the Eleventh Century with the East-West Schism of 1054, when the Eastern Orthodox Church, based in Constantinople, and the Catholic Church, based in Rome, formally and mutually excommunicated each other.

More on this later.

05 June 2011

What is Latvia?

National identities can be thorny issues.  In "new" countries like the US and Canada,  national boundaries are well defined, and ethnicity is typically not a question of defining nationality.  In post-colonial countries, like some of those in the Arab World, national boundaries exist, but they are generally meaningless.  This is because national borders were drawn by foreign powers in places where group allegiance is defined by tribal or religious bonds [the creation of these artificial countries partially explains this region's perennial instability].

Hint:  Straight Lines Point to Fake Borers

In Europe, national boundaries are mostly well-defined, suggesting years of precedent and history that have cemented frontiers for generations.  Europe also has an additional layer of identify that does not exist in any appreciable force in the US:  Ethnicity is also a "nationality" identifier.  As such, it is common to hear about ethnic Germans living in Poland; while these ethnic Germans are officially Polish citizens, they have the possibility of claiming German citizenship if they can prove that their ancestors, generally at most two generations back, were also German citizens.

Lots of National Precedent, Few Straight Boundary Lines

I had the occasion of spending a long weekend in and around Riga, Latvia.  Latvia, a nation of 2.4 million, is now a member of the European Union and NATO.  Latvia was introduced to Americans in the early 1990s as a liberated, sovereign Baltic state that was overrun by the Soviet Army in the 1940s in Stallin's efforts to expand the Iron Curtain into Eastern Europe.

Visiting Latvia and doing a quick study of this country's history made me wonder what, precisely, Latvia was.  Present-day Latvia seems to define itself as anti-Russia while heavily depending on Russian teat to feed it.  There are several interesting factors that jump out after this short visit to this Baltic nation:

Identifying Sign:  The Museum of Occupation of Latvia 1940 - 1991

  • Everyone speaks Russian.
  • The Latvian man on the street says that 50% of the population is Russian; official census numbers put the Russian population at 25-30% of the total Latvia population.  As Latvians put it, there are only 1.2 million of them; according to more official records, there are up to 1.8 million Latvians.
  • Latvia is a tourist destination for Russians; Russian dialects on the street have regional Russian flavors, like those of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
  • Despite having (and still going) through a massive financial crisis, Latvian real estate prices are Moscow-high.  One finds Moscow real estate prices in a relatively provincial part of the world.  This suggest that many buyers of Latvian real estates are from major Russian cities and pay prices with which they are familiar.
  • Latvia has a deal for you:  Buy real estate, and Latvia will extend EU residency to you.  If you are a Russian that needs to launder money while getting access to a Western-leaning safe haven in case things go south on you at home, there is no place better than Latvia.
  • According to the Latvian president, about 80% of Latvia's tourism and commerce is generated from Russian sources.  Despite this, Latvia does not make life easy for visiting Russians that bring precious liquid currency to the country:
    • No one accepts Russian rubles
    • There are no state-installed (traffic, tourism, etc.) signs that are in Russian 

So, what precisely is Latvia, a country that defines itself as fighting against years of Russian occupation while so heavily depending on Russia for its economy?  A quick look back at Latvian history shows a region that was occupied by Polish, German, and Russian forces successively with brief periods of independence only in the Twentieth Century, the longer of which started in 1991.  So, there is actually surprisingly little national precedence for Latvia, although there has been a long precedence of the Latvian ethnicity (that were once Polish, then German, then Soviet, and now seemingly Russian).

As it happens, if you are the United State and the arch enemy of the Soviet Union, it is to your interest to fan the flames of independence in a land that has very little history of it, but whose independence (and eventual accession into EU and NATO) serves to weaken your erstwhile mortal enemy, a former enemy that may once again find its old ways for various reasons.

So, what is Latvia, if it is not a crossroad for the confluence powerful foreign forces?  Perhaps, it is just a people who find independence nice in concept, but difficult in implementation because they are just too small.