Not even a week in Moscow, and I get contacted by a Zvezda TV journalist requesting an interview about life in America and why I returned to Russia. In a deserted billiards room, I began talking about my theory that there is a civility-friendliness spectrum, with Britain on one end of it, Russia on the other, and America in between. However, I rather embarassingly botched it. I kept saying that while Britons are more civil and polite, Russians tended to be more open and genial, at least once you broke the ice with them. The problem is that my brain hadn’t fully adjusted from English to Russian, and so one of the key words I kept using, “genial,” didn’t actually mean what I thought it meant in Russian – in effect, I have been arguing that Russians were more ingenious than the Anglo-Saxons (they are not). But it was only at the end of the interview that I suddenly recalled that genialnost’ is not genialness. The quizzical looks my interviewer and the cameraman had given me at the start of the interview also suddenly made sense.
I explained what had happened to them, and suggested they cut that part since it made no sense. Relieved that I was in fact sane, they agreed. Unfortunately, my little joke about the only polite Russians being the Polite People would also have to go into the trashbin. But no matter – that episode only accounted for 10% of the entire interview, with almost everything else being about the burning political topic of the day in Moscow right now: Donald Trump. Is the Establishment trying to organize a Maidan against Trump? (Sort of. But in such a lame-assed way that more electors abandoned HRC than Trump himself). Would Trump be a friend to Russia? (Consult Palmerstone and Alexander III. So, most likely, not. But as a successful businessman and a non-ideological “America First” nationalist, it would be easier to make deals with him). What do you make of his apparent hostility towards China? (Let the Eagle and the Dragon claw at each other. Why we worry?).
My friend Artem Zagorodnov, whom I met in London, presented a talk in Juneau, Alaska deconstructing some of the major Western myths about Russia – that is, the sort of material I have written a lot about.
You can watch it here: Putin and Russia’s Evolving Image in the United States.
In contrast to just a decade yore, it is now quite safe to use zebra crossings. (Two decades ago, you couldn’t even say that of a pedestrian crossing at a green traffic light). You should still look round, but then the same applies to London, and New York might even be marginally worse. Even as civility in Russia has risen, it has been falling in both Britain and America, so that we are steadily seeing a sort of ironic convergence between the two.
Shopping is a mixed experience. Many security guards. Low efficiency – took me three times longer to order a piece of furniture than it would have in the US or Britain. But I don’t suppose it matters that much right now – the shopping centers were surprisingly empty, especially for this time of year. Russia might be climbing out of the recession according to the latest indicators, but it’s clear that it is not yet being reflected in consumer confidence on the ground.
That said, the quality of service is now very good. At my local El Dorado, the staff were very helpful in explaining the different products on sale and speeding up access to out of stock items. Thanks to the devaluation, Russian made products in most categories of electronic goods are competitive. Online ordering also works smoothly, at least in Moscow. There is no central super-vendor like Amazon in the US, but shipping is fast and and you have the option of paying in cash on delivery.
Hauling large pieces of furnitures up the stairs can be relatiely expensive. But you can hire a couple of Tajiks to do it for much cheaper. No formal agreements, just pluck them off the streets, where the municipality pays them by the hour, and they are grateful for the couple hundred extra rubles while on the taxpayer’s dime. Still probably not a good reason to allow hundreds of thousands of them in, but since they’re here anyway, why not make mutually beneficial deals?
The first such items are books. The time when you could get high quality hardbacks for a few dollars appear to be long gone. This is especially surprising since Russian book publishing takes place in Russia, and as such should have benefited from the devaluation. But apparently not. For instance, I was planning on acquiring a hardback copy of “Twenty Years to the Great War,” a recent published magisterial 1,000 page study of late Tsarist industrialization by the historian Mikhail Davydov, but at $50 it will have to wait.
Incidentally, local bookshops are a favorite haunt of mine, since they – especially their politics and history sections – reflect the ideas of the intelligentsia, or at least the sorts of ideas the elites want their intelligentsia to have. For instance, in a Waterstones in London, Richard Shirreff’s “War with Russia” was very prominently featured. In this poorly written Red Storm Rising remake, the “self-obssessed nutter” and “ruthless predatory bastard” Putler launches a brutal war of aggression against the West. The undertone is crystal clear – Four legs good, two legs bad, and we must never falter in our faith (and funding for) NATO!
The history section of my local bookshop is a decidedly more lowkey affair. The books most prominently featured in that section were Ian Morris’ “Why the West Rules – For Now,” Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization”, and the first two volumes of Boris Akunin’s ongoing project “The History of the Russian State.” Respectively, these books represent: An ideologically neutral study of big history and social evolution from a quantitative perspective; populist dreck based on a lame catchphrase transparently designed to appeal to the Intellectual Yet Idiot crowd; ahistorical dreck from a popular detective fiction writer with a severe animus against the state he is chronicling.
The second item that was more expensive than you might expect in Russia was vodka. This was not surprising to me personally, since over the years I have written a lot about Russia’s mortality crisis, how it is primarily vodka bingeing that is to blame for it, and how Putin has been successfully tackling the problem by raising excise taxes on alcohol, amongst other measures. Still, it was good to see the effects of those policies in person – the cheapest 0.5 liter bottle was 219 rubles, while the average bottle cost 350 rubles. These prices are not far from American ones in absolute terms and far higher relative to Russian salaries.
The flip side is that this encourages “left” production – the fatal poisoning of 74 people in Irkutsk due to a bad batch of alcohol extracted from bath oil has been at the top of the news this past week. And everytime something like this happens, populists inevitably demand the government lower vodka prices, even though every ruble decrease in vodka prices would result in far more aggregate deaths than the odd Boyaryshnik poisoning now and then.
Thanks to g2k for the Amtsa recommendation – it is indeed the best adjika I have tried to date. Still can’t say I’m a fan, I would prefer any standard Mexican salsa, but I can imagine buying it again.
As I said previously, Russia isn’t the best country for spicy food. As far as I can gather the hottest pepper widely available here is something called “Ogonek,” which I think is similar to jalapeno on the Scoville scale. Most Russians regard it as excruciatingly hot.
I did manage to finally find a cheap, drinkable dry red wine – the Agora bastardo from Crimea. Very far from the best, rather too sour for my taste, but at least I won’t have to become a teetotaller in Russia for lack of options.
That said, I don’t want to give off the impression that Russia, or at least Moscow, is a consumer hellscape. Far from it. While the wine and spice departments are subpar relative to what an American or Briton might be used to, the local teashop has about thirty sorts of Chinese teas on sale, some of them remarkably rare, but all of them at rather reasonable prices. In London, you’d probably have to go to something like the venerable Algerian Coffee Store to find a similar Chinese tea collection.