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Posts from the ‘Russian Economy’ Category

Final Russian Thoughts

I am now sitting in the Departures Lounge of Vladivostok Airport (after a completely hair-raising trip through traffic that can only be described as Delhi-like) and have a few minutes to pen some thoughts on what has been a quite extraordinary trip. If truly rewarding travel is about anything, it is differentness: it is so easy to live in a first world bubble, even if you actually cover huge distances – the travel “product” is a global one, which is a shame in many ways, even if it plays to the vast majority of travellers for whom “chardonnay” needs to be understood wherever they go. Sitting among the exhausted tartars, the soldiers going on leave, the paralytic hostesses and the babuskas with more gold in their mouth than the Bank of England has in their vaults, it is possible to see another world.

And what a world it is. Earthy, uncompromising, honest, Russia is more at peace with itself than I had anticipated. In much the same way that Kruschev’s “Secret Speech” didn’t really bury the legacy of Stalin, the end of the Soviet era hasn’t changed things very much: it has struck me how similar things are since I studied in the Soviet Union 30 years ago, not how different. And whilst in the West we may despair of an economy too dependent on commodities, we can’t really talk when the only avenue open to wealth to seemingly educated Englishmen is to pile into property.

A word on the women: dangerous territory, I know. I could not quite put my finger on it for a while, but the reason why they look different to Western women in general is that they dress for men, not for each other: this is a world where male qualities are still relevant, and it is easy to see why. Violence is closer to the surface here, so sanctuary is important. Equally, business is done according to basic rules of power among networks of men, so they still represent important avenues for advancement. No “leaning in” here. Of course, there are so many things that whiff a bit as a result of this, but you cannot deny that one small consequence is that people are happier being their sex, as opposed to the timid androgyny of the Developed World.

Anyway, I must catch a plane. Tokyo here I come, where I will be reunited with my wife and son. I can’t wait!


Thoughts on the Russian Economy

As I board the train to Irkutsk (how exciting – at the shores of Lake Baikal!), a few rather superficial comments about what I have seen of the Russian economy. Of course (as my work colleagues will no doubt testify), I am not an economist but I have been wandering around Russia for the past week and a few things have struck me, not least those things that seem to jar with some of the Western commentary I have heard.

There is a school of thought that Russia has become a giant, hedonistic kleptocracy that will collapse under the weight of negative demographics (life expectancy here is a bit rubbish – cognac anyone?), corruption, falling oil prices and popular discontent. Indeed only today the Russian newspapers were carrying stories of a trillion rouble hole in the Government’s budget, rescued only by the Rainy Day Fund that was set up when oil prices were much higher, meant for investment, not social spending. I’ve spoken before about rejecting the notion that the bulk of society has lost its compass from my wanderings in Moscow, and my walks elsewhere have served to reinforce that view. The various guidebooks I’ve read exhort the need to watch your valuables etc, but I’ve actually felt safer than in London, and that feeling increases as one goes East. Yes, Novosibirsk is apparently an important nexus in the drug route from Asia, but any large city will have those sort of problems. It is certainly hedonistic in the sense of being bit brash: but that is because they don’t share our odd desire to hide any light we might possibly possess under the biggest of bushels. So, I’ll admit, there are a lot of smoked out Porsche 4X4s, men in silly jeans and women with extraordinary heels, all juttin’ out.

Corruption and kleptocracy? Yes, most probably. But when Westerners comment on this, they tend to imply how much this is a break from the past: however, they might just have been fooled by the Soviet propaganda, with its wonderful imagery of spartan egalitarianism, which was very far from the truth. From the NKVD (KGB) chief (Beria) with a taste for young ballerinas to the wholesale mendacity of the system when reporting on progress against five year plan targets (China, anyone?), the Soviet Union was less ascetic than its gorgeous posters would suggest. And anyway, the Communist system itself went through many different cycles, some of which have echoes of today: Lenin’s New Economic Policy introduced a whole class of economic operators much resented by society (spivskii?) before they were swept away in the Stalinist “reforms” that followed (I went to Kirov’s old shack in Novosibirsk today – how cool is that?). I’m certainly not suggesting that we are about to see equivalent bloodletting in Russia, but that we are at a particular point in its cycle, not on some path to decline.

What about the political situation? Western commentary has been full of the latest twists of the Khodordhovsky case, the “draconian” anti gay legislation and other episodes to paint a picture of a worsening regime from a human rights perspective. Clearly I am not particularly qualified nor inclined to wade in on this one, except to pass on what I hear and see. Which is that most people seem monumentally disinterested.


Moscow Impressions

I have just finished my one and only day in Moscow. My memories of it thirty years ago are predictably dominated by the Kremlin, Red Square etc. People have said that it has changed, well not to me. Yes, the ring roads (Moscow is a city of ring roads) were full of people who clearly were under the impression that the city was hosting a Grand Prix, and GUM, the department store on Red Square (pictured), was uber consumerist, but the City has not lost its massive dignity, the architectural homage to the big events of the twentieth century. Those commentators who claim that the end of communism has seen a rather unseemly rush to unbridled hedonism are wrong: the place still exudes a dignity that comes from suffering, and a humble expectation of further thunderclaps to come. There is great inequality, no doubt: however, one nomenklatura has simply given way to another whose currency of supremacy (money) is so much more recognisable in the West. Moscow seems huge and impressive, no doubt helped by the gorgeous weather. Its buildings feel almost Venetian in parts, shared with more Stalinist stuff that speaks of a struggle almost too desperate for this Western ponce to appreciate.

Which brings me to my thought of the day (you have a delicious amount of time with your own thoughts when on your own, even as you feel a gnawing loneliness). Everything is so extreme with Russia: the climate, the politics, the history. Looking at the (still) ubiquitous images of Lenin, he feels less a product of the international (and nuanced) religion of Marxism and more another Russian with a great idea and very little tolerance for other ideas – more like the Russian nihilists of the 1870s. Worth a Wiki.