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Guangzhou, China (/r/Cyberpunk)

Some time ago a commenter asked me about the state of China Studies in Russia, an issue that is pretty germane as they increasingly align with each other.

TL;DR – Catastrophic. Simply put, Russia does not have the cognitive tools to understand the country that Kremlin talking points describe as Russia’s “strategic partner.”

Longer answer: Alexander Gabuev, who has a BA/MA in Chinese History from Moscow State University, wrote a couple of comprehensive articles on the state of Sinology in Russia when he was deputy foreign editor of Kommersant:

This post is heavily based on Gabuev’s material.

History of Russian Sinology 101

The first Russian mission to China was in 1714, with contacts for the next 150 years dominated by religious figures (Illarion Rassokhin, Alexey Leontyev, Osip Kovalevsky, Nikita Bichurin). There was a faculty of Eastern languages at Kazan University from 1807-1855 (Nikita Bichurin, Palladiy Kafarov, Vasily Vasiliev), which relocated to Saint-Petersburg State University (SPBU) around 1854. The Eastern Institute was set up in Vladivostok in 1899.

The Oriental faculty at SPBU was disbanded in 1919 and was spread out across other faculties, but Eastern Studies continued flourishing during the 1920s. However, the Soviet Oriental Studies community was devastated by the late 1930s purges, with several prominent Sinologists such as Nikolay Konrad and Julian Shutsky being sent to the Gulag or shot on charges of being Japanese spies.

In the next 50 years, Sinology would recover and develop further, but strongly tied to the perceived needs of the state and, like all social sciences, under tight Marxist-Leninist ideological strictures. The collapse of the USSR brought ideological freedom, but also a collapse of funding (salaries for top Sinologists plummeted from a comfortable level of 400-500 rubles during the 1980s to $30-$50 by the mid-1990s) and spiraling corruption that preempted any flowering of Russian Sinology to this day.

“Sinology is dead”

In June 2011, President Medvedev was presiding over a state prize awarding ceremony. The only Russian social scientists to be recognized were a group of Sinologists, including Artem Kobzev and Mikhail Titarenko, for their work on compiling and editing a six tome Encyclopedia of Chinese Spiritual Culture: “Their work helps us better understand the traditions and spiritual culture of China, they deepen and enrich modern Sinology. Their work is read all over the world…” proclaimed Medvedev. Kobzev followed it up with a short history of Russian Sinology: The first Chinese-Russian dictionary was compiled under a 140,000 ruble grant from Alexander I, and the USSR also financed a Big Chinese-Russian Dictionary. This was a pointed comment; as he soon clarified in a smaller discussion with the President, the Encyclopedia had actually been financed by the Chinese Development Bank at the personal direction of its CEO Chen Yuan, in honor of his late father, who had warm feelings towards the USSR. According to Kobzev’s account, Medvedev was rather distraught by what he had heard, and the Sinologist soon got a letter from the Kremlin telling him that his suggestions were considered important. Soon after, the Russian Fund for the Humanitarian Sciences allocated a total of 6 million rubles [$200,000] in the form of five grants for the study of China. It’s unclear if anything useful was done with them; one of the five grants went to the Philosophy faculty of Saratov State University, which didn’t have a single Sinologist.

This anecdote appears to be pretty representative of the sorry state of China Studies and social science in general in Russia.

There are fewer than 200 academic Sinologists, of whom only about 50 can be considered active (he compares this with 15,000 in the United States, but apparently, this was a big overestimate; Gabuev says: “this figure appears to be wrong, my mistake. picked it up from an American colleague back in 2012 without critically assessing it”). The average age of these researchers is rising inexorably; the director of the Institute of the Far East RAS is 78 year old Mikhail Titarenko [he died in 2016]. Whereas there were 500 experts at that institution in the 1980s, there are now just 147 of them, according to Sergey Luzyanin, the Institute’s deputy director. There isn’t a single academic expert in Russia on the finances, law, or military of China.

This is linked to low academic salaries, even at Russia’s top institutions for Sinology. Here are some of the figures when Gabuev wrote his article:

  • 16,000 rubles ($500 at 2012/13 exchange rates) for a Research Fellow, 27,000 rubles ($900) for a senior researcher at the Institute of the Far East RAS.
  • 30,000 rubles [$1,000] for an Assistant Professor, 45,000 rubles [$1,500] for a full Professor at Moscow State University’s (MSU) Institute of Asian and African Countries.
  • Salaries are 20% higher at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-affiliated Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) than at the MSU.
  • Literally the only institution where Russian Sinologists get an internationally respectable salary is at the Higher School of Economics – salaries of 150,000-200,000 rubles ($5,000-$6,500) are not atypical.

Things are even worse outside the capital. Saint-Petersburg State University, the second most prominent China Studies center in Russia outside Moscow, had to close down a program on the Chinese economy around 2011 due to lack of financing, and the third center of Russian Sinology, the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, closed down its Eastern Institute, an organziation that traced back its lineage to Tsarist times, at around the same time.

Only a few dozen scientific articles on China are produced per year, and their quality lags English language output, even though the latter produces orders of magnitude more material. Many of their articles aren’t even open access; a significant percentage are merely reference works for the country’s leaderships, prepared whenever there are big summits or other major state events in China. Furthermore, many articles aren’t indexed by international databases. “We do not subscribe to the Journal of Contemporary China, it’s too expensive. From 1991 the state doesn’t finance any international scientific partnerships. Not a ruble on literature, on travel, only just the occasional grant for a conference or a book…” says Vladimir Portnyakov, another deputy director of the Institute. New literature is acquired by renting out the Institute’s properties, which have emptied out as a result of so many people leaving after 1991.

Consequently, there is large-scale brain drain amongst young researchers to the private sector, or abroad (it is noted that Israel has seen large improvements in its Sinology in recent years, in no small part thanks to immigrants from Russia – even though, I would add, other business sectors have to the contrary seen a “backflow” from Israel back to Moscow in the past decade). Even those those specialists who stay on have to spread themselves out across multiple institutes to make a halfway decent living, leaving no time for research.

This has also resulted in a generational chasm within the Sinologist community; there are hardly any serious middle-aged researchers. Although there are several respectable Sinologists over the age of fifty who were produced in the USSR: Alexander Lomanov, Sergey Luzyanin, Andrey Ostrovsky, Vladimir Portyakov, Viktor Larin, Alexey Voskresensky, Vladimir Korsun, Andrey Karneev, Alexander Lukin, Mikhail Karpov, Nikolay Samoylov, Alexey Maslov – the author could name only one significantly younger figure, Vasily Kashin, at the CAST thinktank.

The state of affairs is no better at the state level

The main source of China talent in Russia is in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Gabuev’s sources mention several particularly competent people: Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, Thailand ambassador Kirill Barsky, China ambassador Andrey Denisov, and a few other members of the Russian diplomatic staff in China. (This makes sense; in one of my Twitter conversations with Chinese Russianist Xin Zhang, he pointed out that “one related problem is agenda for bilateral communication between specialists are still highly state-sactioned”). However, according to a business source, this doesn’t apply to people in the lower rungs: “The people at the top level can be okay. But the people on the ground are not the best, in the sense of helping out businesses or even as a source of expertise, they are quite useless.” This reflects the narrow focus of China experts in the Russian state structures, who focus on highly specific areas such as classic “high diplomacy,” nuclear non-proliferation, and the banalities of arranging Putin’s meetings with Chinese leaders. And this is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In contrast, there is almost a singular lack of Sinologists within Russia’s economics-related Ministries.

The situation in the “silovik” agencies is, if anything, even worse. In Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, there is precisely one (!) analyst working on the Chinese military (before Serdyukov’s reforms, there were two). During the Russian-Chinese military exercises “Maritime Cooperation 2012,” the Chinese had nearly 200 young officers with a solid knowledge of Russian at hand to provide linguistic support; the Russians could only muster three translators. Evidently, the Chinese military has made efforts to build up a large base of Russia expertise, unlike Russia with respect to China. So do bear this in mind whenever you read the next Andrei Martyanov article about Russia’s supposed military dominance over China. Even if that is an accurate assessment – and I have my doubts – do note that there would be almost no-one to translate intercepted Chinese communications within the Russian Army (hopefully the Americans don’t block access to Google Translate).

I would note that many of these observations are backed up by the aforementioned Xin Zhang, who in 2014 corrected me on my prior belief that the state of Sinology and Russianology in Russia and China were similarly dismal: “… likely more Russian experts in China than the other way… In Shanghai, we held conferences & seminars in Russian, although translation is needed for some participants.”

No China expertise in the media

Both RIA and ITER-TASS only had around half a dozen journalists each in their Beijing bureaus as of when Gabuev wrote his articles. None of Russia’s major broadsheets, even the “serious” ones like Kommersant and Vedomosti, have a presence on the ground in China. For comparison, major Western news agencies have bureaus of 15-20 people in Beijing, as well as employees in the provincial centers. It also far less than the attention China devotes to Russia: There are 70 people in the Xinhua bureau in Moscow. Consequently, there is far less news about China in the Russian press relative to the other major countries. I would also add as an observer of both the Western and Russian media that much of it basically consists of reprints of Western coverage of China, as opposed to original journalism.

The business sector isn’t interested either

Despite China being Russia’s largest trading partner – and its main bulwark against more serious Western sanctions – Russia’s state corporations aren’t rushing to avail themselves of China expertise, with predictable consequences – Gabuev cites a $3.5 billion loss in Rosneft from an unsuccessful pipeline to China, and Gazprom’s repeated failed attempts to enter the Chinese gas markets. Neither is the situation in the private sector much better. There only partial exceptions to this dismal picture are nuclear power monopoly Rosatom and development bank Vnesheconombank in the state sector, and Deripaska’s En+ Group in the private sector.

Certainly there is nothing on the scale of Chinese business analysis of Russia, such as that of the Chinese state-owned oil company CNPC. Not only does it maintain a large in-house staff of Russia specialists composed of Chinese Russia experts, Russian China Studies majors, and catches from the Chinese bureaucracy and security services, but it even orders reports from thinktanks on topics such as the “prospects of Russia’s political system to 2024 and its influence on Russia’s oil sector.”

Can one imagine anything like this under Rosneft’s Igor Sechin? To ask the question is to answer it.

There are very few instances of state bureacracies or corporations ordering expert analyses from Russian academia, as is typical in both China and the West. “The state has simply left Sinology. And this is a huge mistake. In China, the opposite is happening – the state is developing Russia Studies,” says Alexey Maslov, dean of Oriental Studies faculty at the Higher School of Economics (and a shaolin master). On the other hand, business and bureaucrats aren’t too satisfied with the academic Sinologist community either. “There is no practical benefit from communicating with them. You ask them a simple question, and they start their answer from the time of the Yellow Emperor, and don’t end up clarifying anything. Typical professors,” says one federal bureaucrat.

The future of Russian Sinology

Alexander Gabuev wrote these articles four years ago. In the meantime, the author himself – who can be considered somewhat of a China expert himself – left Kommersant to work for the US-financed Moscow Carnegie Center thinktank, which also happens to be the most highly rated thinktank in Russia. One can consider this as just one more depressing anecdote in the context of all the dismal things he wrote about Russian Sinology and social science in general.

The following is based largely on my own impressions.

In the years since 2012-13, the situation of Russian academia has improved, especially in the elite universities that are part of Project 5/100 – the state program to get five universities into the world’s top 100 (currently, only Moscow State University qualifies, and that by a hairsbreadth). Salaries there are now quite respectable, and are at least minimally comparable to those at the Higher School of Economics. However, I suspect financing at the Russian Academy of Science, at least if my impressions of the Institute of Psychology are anything to go by, remains catastrophically low.

There has also been a massive increase in the numbers of Russians studying Chinese in the past two decades. Whereas there were just 5,000 Russians studying Chinese in 1997, by 2007 it was 17,000, and by 2017 there were close to 56,000 of them (this is not entirely bad by comparison with the 200,000 Chinese learners in the United States, many of whom I suspect are Chinese-Americans).

On the other hand, the average quality of Chinese instruction in Russia leaves much to be desired, so optimism is premature. As Alexander Gabuev also pointed out in 2013, quoting Alexey Maslov: “Today we have more than 160 universities that offer Chinese… But many of these people are almost impossible to use in real life. This creates the impression that we have a lot of Sinologists. But in reality, they are not Sinologists, their level of Chinese language knowledge is very low.”

Nonetheless, the overall situation does seem to be improving, even if at a slow rate and from a very low base. And there’s no obvious reason for things to get worse.

However, so long as Putin remains more interested in financing the Rotenbergs than RAN – for instance, the planned bridge to Sakhalin might consume about as much money per year as the entire federal budget for science – there can be no serious talk of Russia starting to produce a lot of world-beating research in Sinology or any other brance of science.

• Category: Economics • Tags: Academia, China, Russia 
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While I was writing an article about Russian IQ for Sputnik and Pogrom the past few days, I noticed this amazing statistic from the 2010 Census.

Percentage of the population with a postgrad degree:

1. Ingushetia: 1.59%
2. Moscow: 1.12%

90. Chechnya: 0.32%

Ingushetia is Chechnya’s quieter, lower T, slyer brother. They are part of the same Ichkerian nation. But instead of going head on against a nation that outnumbered them a hundredfold in the 1990s, they manipulated the situation to extract very generous monetary concessions from the federal center while their kinfolk withered under Russian bombs.

Today, they are the region with Russia’s highest rate of unemployment, the lowest Internet penetration, the lowest patents per capita. They are 85% subsidized by other Russian regions, more so than any other region. Back during the Soviet period, there were only 90 scientists for every 100,000 Ingush, versus 573 for the Russians.

Even so, this region somehow manages to have the the highest rate of people with postgrad degrees in Russia.

Say what you will about ol’ Ramzan, but at least he keeps his peeps in check. Based Chechen men need no diploma mill degrees.

• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Academia, Chechnya, Corruption, Russia 
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us-campus-disinvitations-by-ideology-2000-2016Data Source: FIRE.

Before 2008, campus disinvitations were slightly tilted towards the Right. But after I came to the US, it became overwhelmingly dominated by the Left.

Campus disinvitations also became much more frequent in absolute terms.

SJWism only really got going around 2012-2013, so the rise of the campus Pink Guards seems to have predated it by 2-3 years.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Academia, SJWs, United States 
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One thing you start noticing when you read commentary on Russia long enough is how the same discredited tropes arise again and again. Zombie-like, they refuse to die.

russia-migration-history In 2011, for example, there was supposed to have been a “sixth wave of Russian emigration,” in which disillusioned Russians were said to have finally had enough with Putin and were bolting for the exits en masse. Perhaps this was so in the fervid imaginations of the RFERL staff, but in the real world, as proxied by things like numbers and records and statistics, Russian emigration had long collapsed to almost insignificant levels. All the Russians – actually, Jews and Volga Germans, for the most part – who were ever likely to leave Russia had already done so in the 1990s. As such, they picked an exceedingly bad time to come up with this “Sixth Wave of Russian Emigration” fable.

Incidentally, Nikolay Starikov’s deconstruction of how this myth came to be, translated by yours truly, remains a highly relevant case study in how the Western propaganda machine against Russia works: Russian liberals misrepresent or outright invent figures which are quoted by ever more “authoritative” sources and are eventually picked up by and broadcast by a MSM which doesn’t care for elementary fact-checking whenever Russia is concerned.

In 2014-2015, this particular myth is getting resurrected – articles on this have appeared in the RFERL (again), the Guardian, The Diplomat, the BBC, Business Insider, and most recently – in the Washington Post, in an article by Vladislav Inozemtsev on the “self-destructing” Russian economy.

Net emigration from Russia rose from 35,000 people a year from 2008 to 2010 to more than 400,000, by preliminary estimates, in 2015.

Finally! Some actual, concrete numbers are brought forth, which is a positive change from the typical pattern of quoting anecdotal individual cases (e.g. what a tragedy for Russia to have lost those intellectual giants Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Masha Gessen).

And at first glance they do not look good and actually appear to support the anti-Putin narrative.


But then we notice a strange thing: Immigration has grown in tandem with emigration. (Figures for 2015 here and below are based on the first 10 months of 2015 relative to the same period last year).


Well, surely it must then be the case that all the bright young Yuropean Russians fleeing Putin’s regime and getting replaced by Uzbek street cleaners, right? Right??



The increase in immigration to the (much poorer!) countries neighboring Russia has if anything been bigger than the increase in emigration to developed Western countries.

If you honestly believe that Russians are escaping Mordor to earn their keep in the cottonfields of the Fergana Valley then you will believe anything.

Even Russian emigration to Ukraine has soared. Apart from Masha Gaidar and a few hundred Neo-Nazis who to their horror are now realizing that they have outlived their usefulness to the Maidan regime, there are probably fewer real Russian emigrants to Ukraine than the number of times Poroshenko promised to sell his chocolate factory in Russia. It is self-evident that the increase in emigrants to Ukraine – from 19,000 in 2013 to a projected 44,000 in 2015 – was a function of the much greater intensity of border flows in general i.e. an approximate fourfold increase in recorded Ukrainian entries into Russia.

In contrast, the number of Russian “exits” to the countries of the so-called Far Abroad – especially the three that have traditionally accepted the most Russian immigrants, Germany, the US, and Israel – show much more modest increases between 2011 (the absolute nadir of Russian emigration according to official Russian statistics) and 2014. Germany: From 3,815 to 4,780; USA: from 1,422 to 1,937; Israel: From 977 to 1,139. Moreover, based on available statistics for the first ten months of 2015, the number of “exits” to all three of these countries fell by around 10% relative to 2014, and are now merely at the level they were at around 2008 (i.e. the very peak of Russia’s 2000s economic boom!).

Moreover, there is a very obvious reason for the “spike” in Russian emigration that did occur: A banal change in bureaucratic definitions. Here’s a summary from one of my commentators:

Briefly – in 2011, Rosstat has changed the way it counted migration – only those registered at an abode (a specific address) started to be counted for the “official” number. “Unofficial” number became very large because in addition to the above, those registered for 9 month+ stay in a particular place (city or town) started to be included. Before 2010, the number of incoming migrants was counted as those registered at an address plus registered at a place for 12+ months.

In 2012, a brief experiment with counting only those registered at a particular address was discontinued. The only reported definition in 2012 is the same as the “unofficial” definition in 2011, but year-to-year comparisons are done, as far as I could see, with the “official” 2011 results. This explains huge discrepancy.

The case for an Nth Wave of Russian Emigration (n=7) is now looking really weak, but one rejoinder that was made even during the n=6 period was that the countries receiving immigrants tend to keep better statistics than the country sending them. And besides, Tsar Putin wouldn’t exactly want the world to know that everyone is trying to flee his tinpot kingdom.

So let’s look at statistics from countries that receive Russian immigrants.

Canada is a a rich country with democracy, rule of law, and a climate that would be familiar to Russians. Not the worst place an exile could go to. It has never given out many permanent resident permits to Russians, and that number dropped to a record low in 2014, the year when Russia-West relations went south (the Israelis actually got marginally more permanent resident permits in 2014).



The US gave out 7,502 Permanent Resident permits to Russians in 2010; 8,548 in 2011; 10,114 in 2012; and 10,154 in 2013. (The average during the 1990s was around 45,000 a year).

Steve Sailer can write what he wants, but current Russian emigration to the US is ultimately very small scale. It’s worth pointing out that in per capita terms, Germany is getting as many Permanent Resident Permits as Russians, and Poles are getting them thrice as frequently. Russia accounts for less than 15% of the European total, and Europe as a whole gets 10% of the global total. Although DHS statistics only run to 2013, I see no evidence things changed cardinally in 2014 or 2015. As for illegal Russian immigration to the US, it has always been negligible.

Finally, here are some figures from the OECD’s International Migration Database in relation to inflows of foreign population by Russian nationality.


We do see a substantial uptick in Russian emigration into OECD countries in the early 2010s. This was primarily a matter of more Russians coming to Germany, which reached 31,000 in 2013. Even allowing for a further rise in 2014, however, it would only take it back to the levels of the early 2000s, and would remain quite modest in comparison with emigration from Germany’s Eastern European neighbors. The equivalent figures in 2013 were 190,000 for Poland and 60,000 for Hungary, countries with respectively less than a third and one fifteenth of Russia’s population. In other words, these are not the sort of emigration levels that mark a “brain drain” let alone create any noticeable detrimental demographic effect.

I do not intend to paint this as any sort of “achievement” on Russia’s part. To the contrary, low Russian emigration rates to the First World are explained at least as much by its lack of access to the Schengen free travel zone and poor foreign language skills as any success it has had creating opportunities and decent living conditions at home.

But facts are facts, and Vladislav Inozemtsev’s figure of 400,000 Russian net emigrants in 2015 are in the realm of pure fantasy. Russia’s total migration balance remains positive (whether that in itself is a good or bad thing is a debate for another day), so its number of net emigrants is actually negative. Even assuming this was a simple definitional mistake, I do not even see how he could have arrived at a total emigration figure of 400,000 even going by official statistics – the great bulk of which, lest we not forget, now essentially consist of tallying back-and-forth movements between Russia and its neighbors in Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.


What Inozemtsev means by “country of hope.”

Now to be sure, there are a lot of other tendentious arguments in Inozemtsev’s WaPo article. Contrary to what he implies, few people in Russia care much about the dollar value of their apartments since it has no relation to everyday economic life. His claims that the business climate has deteriorated are negated by Russia’s rapid rise in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings since 2012. His description of Russia in the 1990s as a “country of hope” that was attractive to investors is so utterly facetious that it is unworthy of further commentary. Suffice to say that by the end of Yeltsin’s reign even the Western media at large was begging to differ.

I would recommend Mercouris’ recent analysis of the Russian economy in 2015 for Russia Insider as an antidote, filled as it is with actual economic statistics as opposed to lazy ideological rhetoric and innuendo.

But the thing about his emigration claims is that they are just wrong on a direct factual level. One might think it remarkable that someone affiliated with Davosian-sounding institutions like the “Center for Strategic and International Studies” in Washington and “Center for Post-Industrial Studies” in Moscow would make such mistakes. Even more remarkable is that the Washington Post does not bother doing basic fact-checking.

But ultimately none of this is all that surprising.

Professional charlatans like Inozemtsev are a dime a dozen in Russia. They tend to participate or direct opaquely financed and “thinktanks” with these strange names in Moscow while being affiliated with other obscure thinktanks in the US and Europe. Publications like the WSJ and the Washington Post – the Guardian caters to the more “creative” types – solicit an article or two from them once a year, while in their day jobs they pump in neoliberal and pro-Western propaganda into Russia. Second rate bottom of the barrel Chicago School stuff that might have been fashionable in the 1980s but no longer gets any intellectual truck in economic debates in the US itself. But they continue to be wheeled out when it comes to debates on Russia because what they say, no matter how factually hazy or intellectually negligible, serves the purpose of giving an ideological backbone, and a conveniently pro-oligarch one at that, to the revolutionary Westernist opposition. Their aim is not to inform but to obfuscate.

What is perhaps the most terrifying fact of them all is that these people had a lot of influence in important Russian institutions all the way up until the start of Putin’s third term, from high level academia (the School of Higher Economics is a notable cluster) to the RIA state news agency. Inozemtsev himself taught at MGIMO in the 200s, a prestigious university specializing to churning out Russia’s diplomatic corps. That was when an effort was finally made to clean out the Augean stables of these agents of influence. Russia is not the dictatorship they universally proclaim it to be, so they remain free to propagandize all they want from Centers for Post-Industrial Studies or thinktank positions in the US or their media pulpits in WaPo or the WSJ or even Westernist Russian media portals like Vedomosti.

But at least fewer of them are now doing it on the Russian taxpayers’ dime. And consequently, more of them are doing it from overseas. But a few disgruntled aspiring revolutionaries does not an nth wave of emigration make.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Academia, Demographics, Emigration, Russia 
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One notices a remarkable correlation between this, and the perceived attitudes of local women and their obesity rates.

(The map above was made by RVF commentator “durangotang” based on the geographic data here).

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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In my nearly 20 years experience as a Russian living in the West, I have found that almost all my fellows can be reduced to five basic types: 1) The White Russian; 2) The Sovok Jew; 3) The Egghead Emigre; 4) Natasha Gold-Digger; 5) Putin’s Expat.

My background and qualifications to write on this topic? My dad is an academic who moved to the UK with his family in 1994, i.e. an Egghead Emigre. Later on, I moved to California. Much of the Russian community in the Bay Area (though not Sacramento!) are in fact Russian Jews, who are culturally distinct from Russians, albeit the boundaries are blurred and there’s lots of intermingling though Russian cultural events. Topping off the cake, I have some White Russian ancestors, and am familiar with many of them as well as more recent expats via my hobby of Russia punditry.

I hope this guide will entertain American and Russian (and Jewish) readers interested in what happens when their cultures interact and fuse, as well as those very Russian Americans who will doubtless see traces of themselves in at least one of the five main archetypes.


Arrived in: 1917-1920′s, 1945
Social origins: Clerks, Tsarist officials, aristocrats, White Army officers, philosophers.
Culturally related to: Earlier Orthodox Slavic migrants from the Russian Empire who came from 1880-1914, though White Russians proper are more sophisticated than them as they tended to be high class whereas former were peasants.
Political sympathies (US): Moderate conservatism
Political sympathies (Russia): Putin, Prokhorov

No, I’m not talking about Jeff Lebowski’s favorite cocktail. The White Russians (or “White emigres”) are the officers, officials, and intellectuals who fled their country after the Russian Revolution. Prominent examples included Zworykin (TV), Sikorsky (helicopters), and Nabokov (writer). They did not necessarily come to the US straight away: Many came via the great European cities, like Berlin, or Paris, where in the 1920′s, old White Army officers sat around dinghy bars, drowning their sorrows in drink and spending what remained of their money on cockroach racing. Some took more roundabout ways. One girl I know originated from Russian exiles in Harbin, Manchuria (mother’s side) and Brazil (father’s side) who met up and stayed in the US.

White Russians tend to be well-assimilated into US society, and many of the younger generations no longer speak Russian. However, many of them retain a positive affinity with traditional Russian culture – even if it tends to the gauzy and superficial, an attitude that transitions into “kvas patriotism” when taken to an extreme (kind of like Plastic Paddies). The quintessential White Russian comes from an upper-middle class family, holds moderately conservative views, and goes to the occasional Orthodox service and Russian cultural event featuring zakuski, vodka, and traditional singing and dancing.

To the extent they have detailed opinions on Russian politics, they tend to respect Putin, seeing him as a conservative restorer. Needless to say, they never support the Communists – though the antipathy does not extent to Red Army victories or space race triumphs, of which they are proud. Solzhenitsyn is their spiritual figurehead. Many however are partial to liberal forces such as Yabloko and Prokhorov; especially those who are no longer Russophones, and have to rely on Western coverage of Russia. A few kvas patriots go well beyond the call of duty to their Motherland, “telling it like it is on Trans-Dniester” and exposing “court appointed Russia friendlys.”


Arrived in: 1970′s-early 1990′s
Culturally related to: The early wave of Jewish emigration from Tsarist Russia, which included Ayn Rand.
Social origins: Normal Jewish families, with smattering of colorful dissidents and black marketeers/organized crime; also many pretend Jews.
Political sympathies (US): Republicans, neocons, libertarianism
Political sympathies (Russia): Prokhorov, Russian liberals

The Sovok Jew is a very complex figure. At home with American capitalism, he nonetheless continues to strongly identify with Soviet mannerisms (but don’t tell that to his face).

The modern Russian diaspora began in the 1970′s, when many Soviet Jews began to leave for Israel and the US. It accelerated in the late 1980′s, when the Soviet government eased emigration controls (prior to that the US had sanctioned the USSR for limiting Jewish emigration with the Jackson-Vanik amendment; bizarrely, it remains in effect to this day).

Leveraging their intelligence and entrepreneurial talent, many became very rich in the IT (California) and finance (East Coast) sectors. The ultimate example is, of course, Google founder Sergey Brin, who once opined that Russia is “Nigeria with snow.” He is the rule, not the exception. Most Sovok Jews have very poor impressions of Russia, and like to tell funny anecdotes about ethnic Russians’ stupidity and incompetence:

Ivan: What if we have to fight China? They have more than a billion people!
Pyotr: We’ll win with quality over quantity, just like the Jews with the Arabs.
Ivan: But do we have enough Jews?

The above joke courtesy of a Silicon Valley bigwig. He must have assumed I’m Jewish, given my surname. (Reality: I’m not a Jew culturally, though I’ve calculated I’m about 10% Ashkenazi Jewish at the genetic level).

Two further important points must be made. First, while they’re very successful on average, far from all Soviet Jews made the American dream: While many are millionaires, the vast majority still consists of shop assistants, office plankton, and the driving instructor I hired for a refresher lesson prior to my California driving exam. The less successful they are in America, the fonder their recollections of Soviet life. Their biggest enclave, Brighton Beach (“Little Odessa”), used to be a dump; and was the original spawning ground of the so-called “Russian Mafia” abroad, as popularized by Yuri Orlov, the gunrunner antihero from Lord of War.

Second, despite that many famous Soviet dissidents were Jewish (e.g. Brodsky, Dovlatov, – and satirized by the fictional e-persona Lev Sharansky), not to mention their appreciation for capitalism, most Russian Jews regard the USSR in a far more positive light than Russia itself. (Of course, there are exceptions, e.g. Lozansky, and I believe the DR commentator Lazy Glossophiliac). This might sound surprising at first, but one needs to bear in mind that Jews did very well in the early USSR: As Jewish Russian-American author Yuri Slezkine argues in The Jewish Century, the three major homelands of the Jews in the 20th century were the US, Israel, and the USSR, while the traditional Russia of icons and cockroaches was not a homeland, but a pogrom-land.

Furthermore, the USSR’s early philo-Semitism reversed from later Stalinism on, with rhetoric about “rootless cosmopolitanism” and “anti-Zionism” even as the US became highly pro-Israel. In a neat ideological reversal, Soviet Jews in America whose parents had sung Communism’s praises turned to libertarianism and neoconservatism, and in the 2000′s, most became hardcore anti-Putinists.

A controversial assertion, perhaps… But one need only drop a few names: Anne Applebaum (Putin stole my wallet), Miriam Elder (Putin stole my drycleaning ticket), Julia Ioffe (I hate objectivity), Masha Gessen (Putin has no face), Anna Nemtsova (Russian dudes suck)*… Or recall the blood-curdling and frankly threatening responses I got from one Irina Worthey (“Ira Birman”) when trolling a pro-Khodorkovsky Facebook group with inconvenient questions about his actual democratic credentials. Or consider that Prokhorov got 90% of the votes at Palo Alto.

Yet while they harbor little love for Russia, Jewish Russian-Americans continue to speak Russian among themselves, play durak and eat borscht, and recite Radio Yerevan jokes. They remain stuck in the Soviet attitudes and tastes that they brought with them to American shores; arguably, far more so than ethnic Russians (who have co-evolved with post-Soviet Russia). But as the USSR is dead, this Soviet identity has no future; the children of Sovok Jews tend to undergo complete Americanization.


Arrived in: 1990′s
Social origins: Academia.
Political sympathies (US): No real pattern.
Political sympathies (Russia): Communists, liberals; but increasingly, some have learned to stop worrying and love Putin.

The third major group are the Egghead Emigres – those Russians, who left during the 1990′s “brain drain”, when the Russian state lost its ability to even pay salaries regularly. There are Jews among them (e.g. Andre Geim, recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics), as well as other nationalities, but most of them are ethnic Russians. They cluster around university towns; if there’s a campus, chances are there are a few Russians around. As an in-joke among them goes: “What’s an American university?”, “It’s a place where Russian physicists lecture to Chinese students.”

Though one would think that these Russian academics are entrepreneurial go-getters – after all, they were willing to gamble on a new life abroad, right? – most are actually risk-averse and ultimately limited in their horizons. They are highly intelligent, but their ineptness at office politics limits their chances for promotion – as in companies, so within universities – where far less accomplished but socially savvier native bosses leech off their work. While they are now almost uniformly well-off, the Egghead Emigre lacks the Sovok Jew’s entrepreneurial drive, and as such there are very few truly rich among them. But on second thought this ain’t that surprising. Academia is a very safe environment (in terms of employment) and guarantees a reliable cash flow and career progression but it won’t make you a millionaire. The truly entrepreneurial Soviet academics have long since abandoned academia and made big bucks in the business world.

Many Egghead Emigres seem to be stuck in the 1990′s when it comes to their perceptions of Russia, with which they have very bad associations; after all, they ended up leaving the country back then. They feel genuinely betrayed by the Russian state – which for a time didn’t even pay them their salaries – and at the same time, many also became big fans of their adopted countries. I suspect this is in large part born of their need to justify their own emigration to themselves. After all, many of them still have Sovok mindsets, in which emigration and betrayal are near synonyms; but is it still betrayal to betray a country that betrayed you?

Consequently, some even view any “defense” of Russia, no matter how justified, as a personal attack on themselves and respond ferociously. Furthermore, and logically, the more successful they are in the West, the more anti-Russian they tend to be; whereas many of the least successful Egghead Emigres have already gone back to Russia.

Their views on the Soviet Union are mixed: While most admire it for its educational system, they also criticize it for its politicized idiocies and censorship. Nonetheless, their overall impression of the USSR is far higher than that of Russia; at least in the former, they were paid salaries and socially respected.

There’s also a generational aspect. Whereas the migrant “fathers” tended to indulge in Russia-bashing (out of a genuine sense of betrayal; overcompensating need to justify their emigration; etc), and embraced all aspects of Westernization with the fanaticism of the new convert, the effect of emigration was sometimes quite different on their “sons”. A few followed in the footsteps of the “fathers”; some (perhaps most) are largely indifferent to Russia, and have blended into the socio-cultural mainstream of Anglo-Saxon society; and others appreciate Russia to an extent that the “fathers” find puzzling, annoying, or even intolerable.

As you may have deduced, the Egghead Emigre shares many similarities with the Sovok Jew. Nonetheless, many of them still retain a few patriotic vestiges; and politically, they are considerably to the left, with social democratic, socialist, and even Communist leanings being common (whereas Sovok Jews are right-leaning, ironically, unlike purely American Jews who tend to be more leftist). Though not many are still much interested in Russian politics, those who are typically vote for Prokhorov/Yabloko or the Communist Party. That said, it should be noted that in recent years, opinion about the old homeland has improved, especially as Russia recovered under Putin, and once again started paying researchers decent salaries and courting the Egghead Emigres with generous packages on condition they return. But thus far very few of them have taken up those offers.


Arrived in: From early 1990′s
Social origins: Ordinary families
Political sympathies (US): Year 0: Adventurous, naive, wants marriage to nice American guy; Year 2: Wants American betaboy’s nice money
Political sympathies (Russia): ?

Natasha Gold-Digger is the most (in)famous type of Russian American, her image having thoroughly permeated pop culture (e.g. films such as The Russian Bride, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukraine). In practice however, Natasha isn’t only the rarest of the five major types of Russian American; frequently, she is not actually Russian, but Ukrainian or Moldovan.

A common delusion that feeds the “mail order brides” industry is that Russian women are less feminist than their over-entitled Western counterparts, eternally thankful for the opportunity to escape poor, barbaric Russia with its alcoholic Beastmen, and hotter to boot. Sounds like a good deal, no?

But while traditional gender roles are indeed far more prevalent in Russia than in the US or Britain, this does not extend into family relations – Russia’s divorce rate is over 50%, which is only slightly lower than in the US. Furthermore, the type of American man who actually orders a bride online is typically someone who does not have the social skills to compete for America’s admittedly much narrower pool of non-obese women. These Russian brides – strong and adventurous almost by definition, as per their choice to emigrate – don’t respect, let alone supplicate, to these Yankee betaboys.

The customer doesn’t get what he thought he signed up for, as his Russian wife gets her residency papers, empties his bank account, wins alimony for any children they had together, and dumps him to ride the alpha cock carousel. The embittered husbands then go on to vent their resentments to anyone who would listen and many who would not. But they have only their own loser selves to blame.


Arrived in: 2000′s
Social origins: Students, businesspeople, rich elites, yuppies
Culturally related to: The expats of all political persuasions who whirled about Europe in the time of Tsarism
Political sympathies (US): Democrat, anti-war, Ron Paul
Political sympathies (Russia): All over – Putin, Prokhorov, Communists

They might not support Putin – though many do. Take the student at Stanford University, son of a senior manager at a Russian tech company; or the Russian financier working working in New York – more likely than not, both would vote for Prokhorov, and maybe even participate in a picket of the Russian Embassy as part of a protest for free elections or the freeing of Pussy Riot. But in a sense they are all Putin’s children, as is the Russian middle class from whence it comes; a middle class that only began to develop beyond a narrow circle of oligarchs during the 2000′s.

In this sense, Russia has become a “normal country”, as this class of global expats – typically consisting of young, upwardly mobile and ambitious people – is common to all developed countries; and just as in Russia, they too tend to have specific political preferences (the US – Democrats; France – Sarkozy/UMP). And unlike previous waves of emigration, which encompassed all the four types of Russian American that I already covered, most of “Putin’s expats” will eventually go back once they finish their course of study or gain work experience in a Western country.

Paradoxically, spending a lot of time in the West does not make these expats significantly more liberal or anti-Putin; even the reverse, if anything. On closer analysis this is not surprising. Even when in Russia, they already have access to what Western “free journalists” write about their country – if not in the English-language original, then translation websites like Inosmi. When spending time in the West, many realize their own country isn’t that bad in comparison; and that typical American perceptions of Russia tend to be irredeemably skewed (“Is it always cold in Russia?”, “Do you drink vodka everyday?”, “What do you think about your dictator Putin?”). Consequently, even someone who may be relatively liberal in Russia not infrequently ends up defending many aspects of Russian politics and society that he otherwise hates when in the West.

In the future, Sovok Jews will almost all Americanize, as will a majority of Egghead Emigres and their progeny. Those Russian-Americans who survive as distinct social communities will be primarily the White Russians (largely through the Orthodox Church), as well as increasing numbers of Putin’s Expats who will continue traipsing across America and the globe even after their namesake retreats into history. And if Russia becomes a developed country, it is easy to imagine that more Russian Americans will become Putin’s Expats… or even, just Russians.




* One thing that really stands out is that it is female Jews who dislike Russia more than anything, at least among Western journalists. As this post has already pushed well beyond all respectable limits of political correctness, I might as well go the full nine yards and outline my theory of why that is the case. In my view, the reasons are ultimately psycho-sexual. Male Jews nowadays have it good in Russia, with many Slavic girls attracted to their wealth, intelligence and impeccable charm (if not their looks). But the position of Jewesses is the inverse. They find it hard to compete with those same Slavic chicks who tend to be both hotter and much more feminine than them; nor, like Jewish guys, can they compensate with intelligence, since it is considered far less important for women. This state of affairs leads to sexual frustration and permanent singledom (pump and dump affairs don’t count of course), which in turn gives rise to the angry radical feminism and lesbianism that oozes out of this piece by Anna Nemtsova bemoaning Russia’s “useless bachelors”. Such attitudes further increase male aversion to them, thus reinforcing their vicious cycle of singledom. And the resulting frustration indelibly seeps into their work…

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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In this third part of my series on national comparisons between Britain, Russia, and the US, I look at the social institutions and infrastructure that play such a big role in our everyday lives. Why is Russia’s life expectancy ten years lower than in the US? What are the most popular university subjects? Where do they live and shop, and how do they get to work? RAFO.


The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) – free at the point of service – is, IMO, the best healthcare system of the three countries. Though waiting lines were a big problem a decade ago, New Labour has thrown a lot of money at them and nowadays lines are much shorter (though the system may well suffer now that the current government wants to “reform” it by cutting staff). Those who can afford it are free to use private healthcare providers or private insurance. The UK spends 8% of GDP on healthcare, and provides objectively better healthcare outcomes than the US system which occupies 16% of its GDP.

That said, the American system is better at some things: its medical technologies are the most advanced in the world and its hospitals are better equipped, and if you can pay for it – or if your insurance covers it – then you chances of surviving many forms of degenerative diseases are substantially higher than if you’re treated by the NHS. Also, emergency service is free; even if you’re an undocumented immigrant and have a heart attack, you will be treated at the EM ward and get that triple bypass. However, if you’re suffering from a wasting disease and aren’t insured, you are screwed. Also very problematic are minor, but painful and very inconvenient problems, such as a chipped tooth. What you can fix in Russia for a $50 fee, or get for free after several weeks of waiting from the NHS, may set you back by a cool $500 in the US.

PS. Speaking of dentistry… the Brits have a reputation for very bad teeth. But this is an outdated stereotype.

In Russia, compulsory medical insurance is paid out by companies, while treatment for indigents is provided by the state. However, with spending on healthcare a meager 4% of GDP, and many facilities in lack of repair and staffed by poorly trained specialists, treatment of chronic diseases in Russia remains fairly primitive in comparison with the US or the UK. It is wise to pay a “gift” to the nurses to ensure that you or someone you care about gets good treatment during your hospital stay; though it’s their job, their salaries are still very low, and such things are appreciated. This also applies to doctors. Call it corruption, call it a legacy of communism, or call it social support for healthcare workers, but it’s expected – especially from richer people – and refraining from it can make your stay a more unpleasant and dangerous one.

Life expectancy, at 69 years, is far lower than the 78 years in the US or the 80 years in the UK, but it is primarily not because of poor healthcare – Ingushetia, one of Russia’s poorest regions, but a “dry” Muslim republic, has a life expectancy of 78 years – but because of the alcohol and smoking epidemic (see below). The lowest life expectancies are in particularly run-down regions, especially those with big non-Russian (and non-Muslim!) minorities, as well as Siberia and the Far East; the highest life expectancies are in the Muslim Caucasus, the southern regions, and Moscow. In the UK, life expectancy is highest in the south, especially around London; and lowest in Glasgow at 73 years (not surprisingly, Glaswegians are also the most alcohol prone in the UK). In the US, the highest life expectancies are on the east coast and the west coast (including California), at around 81 years; the lowest, at 75 years, are in the South, the epicenter of America’s obesity crisis.

After a great deal of investment in recent years, the infant mortality rate has fallen to 7 / 1000 live births in Russia, which is the same as in the US, but higher than the UK’s 5 / 1000. To deal with the post-Soviet fertility crisis – the number of expected births per Russian woman dropped from a replacement level rate of 1.9-2.1 during the 1980′s to a nadir of 1.12 in 2000 – the government implemented pro-natality measures in 2007 that gave each woman a $10,000 payment for a second child. Since then, the fertility rate rose from 1.3 children per woman in the mid-2000′s, to 1.6 by 2010.

The UK’s fertility rate was 1.9 and the US fertility rate was 2.1 in 2008. Generally speaking, families of two children are the norm in both countries, while families with three or four children are also fairly common; in contrast, while the vast majority of Russian woman do have children, the typical family size is one or two children, with more being rare outside the Muslim Caucasus (where the fertility rate is about 2 children per woman). There are significant regional differences in all these countries. In the US, fertility rates are lowest in the highly urban North East, followed by the West Coast and industrial Mid-West; they are highest in the South and central states; Utah, with its Mormon population, is a very high outlier. In Russia, fertility rates are higher in rural areas, and to the east of the country, and amongst some traditionally Buddhist peoples of Siberia and in the Muslim south; the biggest single outlier is Chechnya.

Similar scenes are common throughout Russia.

Similar scenes are common throughout Russia.

Russia’s alcohol epidemic has no parallels outside the former Soviet Union (Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states suffer from similar problems), and is the main reason why its life expectancy lags nearly a decade behind the US and the UK. According to research, something like 25% of Russian deaths, both directly and indirectly, are caused by alcohol consumption. It is not unusual for the heavy drinkers to retreat to a multi-day vodka binge with like-minded friends, called a zapoi, and then go back to work and stay dry for a few weeks or months on end; and this occurs amongst men of all ages.

This excess mortality is especially concentrated amongst middle-aged men. Among young people, beer is displacing vodka, lessing the disparity relative to the US and Britain in recent years; while among old people, death rates begin to converge with Western ones, largely because any old Russians are typically those who rarely or never binged on hard spirits in the first place.

While Britain also has something of a binge drinking problem, it does not cause major health impacts on the population as a whole because most of it happens just one night a week, amongst people in their late teens and twenties with robust constitutions.

Many rural Russians even brew their own moonshine (samogon) – a relic of Gorbachev’s failed attempts at prohibition – which can be surprisingly good and sometimes even better than the bottled stuff. It’s certainly much better than DIY booze. Once upon a time when the vodka ended, our host didn’t want to end the party / binge, and mixed up a brew of medical spirit with water and slices of lemon. By that point we were probably too drunk to notice and certainly too drunk to care. The morning after consequences were unpleasant to say the least.

Alcohol prices are very low in Russia*. Last time I checked, you could buy a bottle of vodka for $3, and a two liter plastic bottle of beer for less than $2. In contrast, a bottle of vodka costs $15-20 in the US and a six-pack of beer is perhaps $8. However, wine can be pretty cheap. While good stuff costs $15+, the cheapest bottles can be had for $3, while a five liter Franzia pack costs $12.

* However, those days are coming to an end. Taxes on hard spirits are to be quadrupled through to 2015.

Smoking is far more popular in Russia than in the UK or the US. Only 20-25% of people smoke in the US and the UK; in fact, smokers are widely considered to be losers. In contrast, upwards of 60% of Russian men and about 30% of Russian women smoke. The share of the smoking population peaked from the early 1990′s (when the Russian tobacco market was liberalized) to the mid-2000′s. They have now started falling under the pressure of a state propaganda campaign against smoking (anti-smoking initiatives were began in the West almost three decades ago) and rising tobacco taxes. Nonetheless, cigarettes remain very cheap. Whereas a pack costs $5-8 in the US and the UK, you could buy one for just $1 in Russia as late as 2008. But as with vodka, the days of cheap cigarettes are now numbered.


The uniforms at Lancaster Royal Grammar School.

The uniforms at Lancaster Royal Grammar School.

Mandatory schooling in the UK consists of primary school for 6 years and secondary school for another 5. After that, many students go on to do three to five “A-Levels” in their chosen subjects for another 2 years and apply to university through UCAS. In total, about 40% of the population goes into higher education. It used to be highly subsidized by the government, but tuition fees were raised to £3,000 per year in the mid-2000′s and will be raised further to £6,000-9,000 from 2012 (in practice, all self-respecting universities will charge the highest rates, since failing to do so would signal lack of confidence in their own quality). These fees may be covered with a direct loan from the Student Loans Company, but will effectively act as a burdensome tax until they are paid off. IMO, it would behove the average British student to study at European universities, most of which are free or charge only symbolic rates. Typical UK programs offer a single program of study (e.g. Math; Fine Arts) for three years and are geared towards corporate applications.

Cambridge is the top ranked UK university, closely followed by Oxford. The two are called Oxbridge.

Cambridge is the top ranked UK university, closely followed by Oxford. The two are called Oxbridge.

There are 12 grades of US mandatory schooling, divided into: elementary, secondary, and senior high. In the latter, students work on the SAT’s and ACT’s that are required for university admission. The SAT’s are pretty basic, and mandatory; but other qualifications such as A-Levels or International Baccalaureates are accepted in lieu of ACT’s. About 70% of the US populations ends up with some kind of college education and there are far more mature or returning students than in the UK. In private universities, fees are high, but subsidies for poor families and scholarships are very generous. Ironically, public universities are actually less affordable for lower middle class families (though poor families get state aid). Any remaining lack of money can be made up with state subsidized loans. Finally, fees are very low in America’s excellent system of community colleges. The claims that most Americans can’t afford university are untrue; in fact, the US rate of tertiary enrollment is higher than in most European countries, which rations by limiting the numbers of available places.

Apart from the occasional truant, secondary schooling is universal in all three countries. All British pupils wear school uniforms, but it is infrequent in Russia, and very rare in the US.

Corporal punishment is still practiced in schools in the conservative states in the US, which is shocking to many Europeans. Russia abolished corporal punishment in schools in 1917. The UK abolished the practice in 1987, and extended it to private schools by the early 2000′s (under EU pressure); before that, the headmaster’s cane was a common cultural element amongst the boarding school graduates that formed the British upper middle class. E.g. see Roald Dahl on the matter.

Home schooling is legal in all three countries, but is by far the most widespread in the US. If I had to guess, it’s because of its large population of fundamentalists who don’t want their children to be exposed to the theory of evolution or sex education.

All three countries are fairly conservative (by mainland European standards) on sex education. In the US, the focus is on propagandizing abstinence only, which doesn’t seem to work if teenage pregnancy rates are anything to go by. Sex education remains highly controversial in modern Russia, but is no longer the taboo it was in the USSR. In the UK, most sex education focuses on the reproductive system, with coverage of contraceptive methods typically limited to a single class. Most mainland European states seem more progressive; a German acquaintance told me one of the sex ed assignments was to buy a condom and bring it to class.

U.C. Berkeley is the top ranked public university in the US. It has a lively protest culture. I took this photo at a demonstration against funding cuts.

U.C. Berkeley is the top ranked public university in the US. It has a lively protest culture. I took this photo at a demonstration against funding cuts.

The curriculum in US universities is far broader than in Britain. In contrast to the latter’s hyper-specialization, Americans place a particular stress on the value of a well-rounded “liberal arts” education; in addition to a chosen major, students are encouraged and frequently required to take classes in history, math, literature, etc. So despite the typical US undergrad degree lasting four years as opposed to the British three, the average American student only spends perhaps 2-3 years on her major; on the upside, she emerges more knowledgeable on the world in general. The US doesn’t have rigidly structured programs for particular subjects, as with Britain; as long as the requisite units have been taken by the end of the four years, the student gets his degree. To take U.C. Berkeley as an example, you need 120+ units to graduate; each class is worth three to five units; and you typically take about four classes per Fall and Spring semester (and perhaps one or two classes during Summer).

Mandatory schooling in Russia lasts for 10 years, and consists of 11 grades (the 4th grade is bizarrely missing). Traditionally, universities admissions were based on school grades, and in the case of elite universities, written and oral exams in the proposed field of study. Recently, this system has been replaced by the Unified State Exam, which is to be taken by every school leaver and used in all university admission applications. The idea is to make the process fairer and more transparent. About 70% of Russians go into a Higher Education Institute (VUZ), which can be a university, academy, or specialized school. The typical undergrad program at a university lasts four years, follows by a two year Masters. Students take classes from different departments in the first period, and spend an increasing proportion of time on their chosen subject later on. University fees are AFAIK much lower than in the US or the UK, but state stipends for students are miserly; there is intense competition for the limited fully subsidized places.

Many poorer American students take part-time jobs to fund their university study; many others work to begin building their career (e.g. it is common for both US and UK students to intern at investment banks, IT companies, etc. during summer). Fewer young people work in Russia; university study is more typically expected to be a full-time job. However, its system of distance learning and evening classes is arguably far more developed – a legacy of the Soviet focus on expanding economic opportunities to ordinary workers, e.g. a Volga fisherman doing problems on math and engineering sent to him from an educational institute, in preparation for transferal into the oil industry.

Most universities in the US tend to be private, albeit there are some excellent public schools too. In Britain and Russia, almost all universities are public. I don’t really see the need for most UK universities to remain under state control; with the recent reforms, they will get very little funding from the state anyway, so why continue bothering with their red tape and regulations?

The marking systems differ. In British schools, everyday school grades are numerical, with a 1 being best and a 5 being worst; however, in national exams, an alphabetical scale is used (A* is best in GCSE’s, and recently in A-Levels too; a C is a pass, while anything lower is a fail). In Russia, the order is reversed, with a 5 being best (pupils who consistently get these are called otlichniki, lit. “outstanders”; proudly by their parents, and disparagingly by their classmates) and a 2 being worst (pupils who specialize in these are called dvoichniki, lit. “two-ers”). In the US, an A is the best grade, a C is a pass, and an F is a fail. The marks for different subjects are computed into a Grade Point Average (GPA), with an A counting as a 4.0; an A- as a 3.7; a B+ as a 3.3; a B as a 3.0; a C as a 2.0; etc. To get into a good British university, you’ll need mostly A’s, with a few B’s; to get into a good American university, you need a GPA higher than 3.5 and a good extra-curricular record.

In US universities, having a GPA of less than 2.0 is regarded as a fail, and grounds for expelling a student unless he improves. Having a GPA above 3.3 is very much recommended from a future employment perspective; to get into decent graduate schools, law schools and medical schools, a GPA of 3.7-4.0 is expected. In British universities, the undergraduate degree classification goes, from best to worst: 1st, 2:1, 2:2, 3rd, pass, fail. Those with a first-class or upper second degree enjoy the best job prospects. During the Soviet period, graduation certificates were either Red (theoretically better) or Blue (theoretically worse), but in practice few paid attention to them because it was possible and even typical for geniuses to get Blues because they did badly on their obligatory and ideologized (Marxist-Leninist) political economy exams. I don’t know how degrees are classified in today’s Russia.

There has been a lot of grade inflation in the US and the UK in recent years. This is especially visible at private, prestigious US universities like Yale: it is hard to get anything less than a B (equivalent to a C at public institutions). After all, why would parents pay over the roof for their children to end up with crap grades? The same processes can be observed in the British national exams, GCSE’s and A-Levels, to the extent that top-tier universities are now creating their own entrance exams because it is hard to separate the top flyers from the merely competent.

Economics and related disciplines (Business, Management, Marketing, etc.) have become the most popular subjects in Britain, Russia, and the US. With the exception of Applied Math* and Computer Science – useful for finance and IT, the two most dynamic, high-paid and prestigious sectors in all three countries – the hard sciences (e.g. Physics, Chemistry, Engineering) are withering away, though the extent of the degradation varies (most advanced in Britain, least advanced in Russia). Though there is concern about this process in all three countries, I view this as a natural consequence of post-industrial development. Other disciplines that have grown in popularity include History, Legal Studies, and Political Science. There has also appeared a plethora of degrees in Media Studies, Women’s Studies, etc., in all three countries; they are popularly dismissed as “fluff” or “doss” subjects, and certainly offer substandard employment prospects.

* For whatever reason, it is “math” in American English and “math s” in British English.

The process of becoming a doctor or lawyer varies by country. In the US, universities rarely offer classes in medicine. Instead, “pre-meds” are required to take a number of classes in fundamental sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Physics, Math) while doing any degree they wish (though in practice most pick something like biochemistry). The aspiring lawyer tends to take classes in subjects like Legal Studies, History, and Political Science. There is intensive competition for places at law and medical schools, so only those with the highest GPA’s, and the best MCAT’s (Medical College Admissions Test) and LSAT’s (Law School Admissions Test), get in. After several more years of study, and apprentice work at a hospital or law firm, a new doctor or lawyer appears in America.

In Britain, both Medicine and Law are studied as subjects at university for three years. As I understand it, the apprenticeship with a hospital or law firm follows immediately afterwards. On average, US doctors seem to be better trained than British ones; at least, whereas an American doctor would have no problem establishing himself in the UK, the reverse does not apply (not to even mention a Russian doctor).

Which country has the best education system? The results of international standardized tests show that there is little difference between the three countries. Russia does slightly worse on the PISA tests than the US, and the US does significantly worse than Britain; on the other hand, Russia tends to do slightly better on the TIMMS and PIRLS tests. So it’s hard to say. If I had to make a generalization, I’d say math and hard sciences are taught better in Russian schools, whereas the British and Americans are better at developing argumentative and essay writing skills.

In writing and literature, Russian schools are more into rote learning and learning by repetition, as opposed to analysis and evaluation. (Whereas Americans and Britons undoubtedly write better essays, Russians quote their national writers and poets nonstop; even I can still recall some of Aleksandr Pushkin’s poems that had been drilled into me at an early age, and my grandma seems to know the entire Russian literary canon by heart.)

Moscow State University is usually the top ranked Russian university.

Moscow State University is usually the top ranked Russian university.

The situation is clearer in higher education. According to the most famous ARWU global universities rankings, Russia has just 2 institutions in the Top 500, compared with 154 for the United States and 38 for the United Kingdom. However, it’s important to stress that these rankings aren’t primarily reflections of universities’ quality of education, but of their funding and international prestige. The scientific programs at Moscow State, MIPT (host to several Nobel Prize winners, but not even on ARWU’s lists), and the top 10 or so Chinese institutions for that matter are easily as rigorous as MIT or Cambridge. It is ridiculous to say, relying on ARWU, that education is better at the University of Lancaster or the University of Reading – decidedly middling UK institutions – than the University of St.-Petersburg, Russia (which produced the researcher who would make what is probably the biggest mathematical achievement of the past decade). The Times Higher Education ratings are even more overtly biased in favor of Anglo-Saxon institutions.

These rankings should all be more properly considered as global university reputation rankings. In many parts of the world, the simple ownership of a university degree from the US or the UK – no matter the subject, no matter even the performance – confers a great deal of respect and lucrative job offers. That is why Gadaffi’s son paid a $1.5 million “donation” for his London School of Economics degree and some Chinese pay as much as $20,000 for degrees from fake Californian universities. It is common for oil rich countries like Oman or the UAE to pay for their well-connected citizens to get papers from some middling British university and present them with a secure administrative job on their return. Dependent on this money, lower-ranking UK universities practically never fail these students, no matter how little they study. Russia’s attitude to Western degrees isn’t quite as absurd as that of the Arabs; nonetheless, when choosing between a Moscow State graduate and an equivalent LSE graduate, the Russian employer will typically give the job to the British-educated applicant.

While judging these things is hard, I would say that the level of theoretical knowledge gained by students at Russian universities is no worse than at equivalent British or American universities; possibly, even better (note that the standard Russian undergraduate degree lasts six years, as opposed to four in the US and three in the UK). However, Russian universities fail big-time when it comes to applying their research capabilities to corporate applications. This is in stark contrast to the US, where venture capitalists scour universities for the next big start-up, big corporations sponsor and head-hunt for talented students, and professors and departments strike up partnerships to develop innovative new products and services. The same process goes on at British universities, if at a more subdued pace.

Russian universities are the successors to the Soviet system of higher education, whose biggest strengths were in math and theoretical physics, while the main applications were in military R&D. This made research hard to monetize in civilian markets in the context of the new market economy. But far more critical than these Soviet distortions was the state’s neglect of the academic sector throughout the 1990′s-early 2000′s. Scientific equipment has not been modernized, with the result that only a few top universities are still capable of conducting world-class research in spheres such as applied physics or microelectronics. Still more damagingly, many of the most brilliant, younger, and entrepreneurial people left Russian academia for the much bigger salaries of business or foreign academia. The result is that even in distinguished institutions, it is not uncommon to see professors in their 70′s continuing to teach subjects like math – not so much for the salary as love of their work – which is inspiring, but also very ineffective.

Now while it is true that some universities have begun to prosper and strike up corporate partnerships, e.g. Moscow State University with Yandex (Russia’s Google), this remains the exception rather than the rule. Academic salaries have risen massively in the past few years and continue increasing, but are still not competitive enough to draw back the academics lost to the 1990′s “brain drain” (see The Russian Diaspora in the second part of this series) or, more importantly, to retain the best current graduates. Until Russian academia is modernized and acquires a more commercial focus, it will not be able to play a major role in the development of Russia’s market economy.

Cheating is most prevalent at Russian universities, followed by American ones, and then British ones. In the former, it is not unheard of (though far from typical) to pay instructors for a passing grade. In the US, direct payments to instructors don’t pass muster (as in the UK) – nobody is going to risk their $60,000-$150,000 salary, secure job, and professional reputation by taking bribes. Cheating there is done more discretely, e.g. by paying professional essay writing companies for college essays (read here for a interesting account from one “shadow scholar”). These companies, BTW, are completely legal by dint of the First Amendment; though they all take care to stress that their essays are for purely educational persons, and shouldn’t be used for cheating, everybody understands that this is just the fine print.

More frequently, students simply plagiarize from the Internet. My impression is that it is endemic in all countries, and is only discouraged by a high rate of discovery and severe punishments. To this end, special programs have been developed to compare student essays and exams with comparable content on the Internet. I don’t know about the situation in Russia, but punishments tend to be severe for students caught plagiarizing in British and American universities.

Overall, university admissions are probably the most meritocratic in the UK. In Russia, though the system is supposed to be meritocratic, it is skewed by corruption, for it is not unknown for applicants to bribe admissions staff at the more prestigious universities, and certainly the children of oligarchs or powerful politicians – no matter their intellectual aptitude – experience few problems in getting into schools like Moscow State University or MGIMO. However, direct bribes have become more difficult in recent years, due to the national standardization of the exam system. The US is in between. Though direct corruption is as unheard of as in the UK, the system itself is rigged in favor of the rich and influential. The most egregious example of this is the open discrimination in favor of legacies, the children of former alumni of the university. The more your parents “donate” to the alma mater, the better their children’s chances of getting in. This reminds me of a Simpsons episode where the nuclear power tycoon Mr. Burns takes out his checkbook to negotiate a place in Harvard for his ne’er-do-well son Larry.

Man: Well, frankly, test scores like Larry’s would call for a very generous contribution. For example, a score of 400 would require a donation of new football uniforms, 300, a new dormitory, and in Larry’s case, we would need an international airport.

Woman: Yale could use an international airport, Mr. Burns.

Burns: Are you mad? I’m not made of airports!

This would be considered pretty repellent by Europeans (and most Americans too), but is only counted as corruption by the former. There are two other major examples of discrimination in university admissions to US colleges. First, good athletes – primarily American football players, rowers, and lacrosse players – are much more likely to get in with poor grades, as they bring their university money and recognition (this is also common in Oxbridge, UK, for rowers). Second, there is positive discrimination* based on race: due to their poorer academic performance in schools, African-Americans** and Hispanics have an easier time getting in on poor grades than whites or Asians. (Jews have a great time of it. Though they have the highest grades of any ethnicity, they are counted as whites for the purpose of university admissions.)

* This is not necessarily a bad idea. First, a higher education is absolutely necessary for all but the lowest-skilled careers in the US, and to enter the ranks of the elites (this is also the case in the UK and Russia). It’s in the interests of the American state – if not of ethnic Asians, who are disadvantaged by the system – that all races are adequately represented in higher education. Second, positive discrimination – in theory – is supposed to make up for the supposed discrimination that African-Americans and Hispanics suffer in schools (otherwise, why would their SATS scores be so much lower than the national average?). Abandoning it may be viewed as a politically incorrect admission that the reason their scores are lower isn’t because of systemic racial discrimination, but because of something else. The uber-controversial issue of race and IQ rears its head. So, curiously, despite its more right-wing stance on most social and economic matters, at least in this respect cultural Marxism goes deeper in the US than in Europe (including Russia and the UK).

** This translates to being black. Amusing anecdote: several years ago, a bunch of white South African students who are now American citizens applied for an academic prize for “African-Americans”. The awarding committee was not amused.

The most prestigious US universities belong to the Ivy League: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth College, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Yale. In particular, Yale University is known as a fostering ground for future Presidents. Other excellent universities, with lower social profiles, include Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, Chicago, and Carnegie Mellon. Academically, the foremost US universities include Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and Yale. The British elites go to Oxford (if they’re bright) or St.-Andrews (if they’re not as bright, e.g. heir to the throne Prince William). Cambridge is probably the most academically rigorous – certainly for the sciences, anyway – followed by Oxford, Imperial College, University College London (UCL), the London School of Economics (LSE). The most prestigious Russian institutes are Moscow State University; the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), which trains Russia’s diplomats; St.-Petersburg State University; and the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow.

Fake colleges and degrees are common in both Russia and the US. In the latter, they are mostly in fun sunny places like California and Hawaii.


Most Americans, Britons, and Russians don’t do sport regularly. None of these countries has the kind of mass fitness culture or “body culture” seen in Germanic and Scandinavian countries.

The kettlebell swing.

The kettlebell swing.

In Russia, the main divisions are seasonal: ice hockey in winter; football in summer. In Russia, kettlebells (girya) are a common site in gyms, whereas they are virtually unknown in Britain and the US. This is a shame since they are extremely effective at developing overall body strength.

In Britain, the lower classes play football and the upper classes play rugby and cricket (contender for most boring sport in the world).

In the US, basketball, American football, and lacrosse are the big sports; California is special in that skiing and surfing (IMO two of the world’s coolest sports, along with shooting) are both possible and very popular. The US is remarkable in the breadth and diversity of its sporting culture – you can find amateurs in practically anything.

The Russians are world leaders at chess, with plenty of very strong players. The British are also pretty good at it. Far fewer Americans know how to play it, and even state tournaments in the US are about as competitive as county tournaments in the UK or oblast tournaments in Russia (which have far fewer people). Of the world’s top 100 players, fully a quarter are Russian; three are English; and three are Americans – but of those, two have Russian names, and one has a Japanese name.

In the US, even dogs play poker.

In the US, even dogs play poker.

Just as many Russians will play chess or checkers, or the card game of durak (lit., “fool”), to pass away the time, Americans like to gather in groups of three or more to gamble in poker. Of course, gambling isn’t really the right term for poker, since the player with more skills will always win in the long-term. The popularity of poker has grown tremendously in recent years, with mathematicians getting involved in figuring out optimum play.

Thanks to its Asian population, the fascinating game of go, or weiqi, is also far better known in the US than in Russia or the UK. It is far more complex than chess; whereas in the latter the pieces can only move in certain ways around an 8×8 board, in go you can place stones on any unoccupied territory on a 19×19 board in an effort to encircle and capture your enemy’s stones. Whereas there are computer programs that can play chess at grandmaster level, none have yet been developed for go.

If checkers correspond to the linear warfare of (early) WW1, and chess to the mechanized combined-arms warfare of WW2, then go is the face of future war.


The ideal middle-class settlement for both British and Americans is suburbia. In theory, it combines city amenities with rural idyll; the critics aver that it is better at combining city pollution (noise, gas fumes, etc) with rural isolation. There are some excellent Amerian cities (e.g. San Francisco; Seattle; Austin), but many others are uncontrolled suburban sprawls (e.g. Los Angeles) or post-industrial shells beset by so-called inner city blight featuring ethnic ghettos and high crime rates (e.g. Detroit; Baltimore).

A typical Russian cityscape.

A typical Russian cityscape.

Most Russians live in apartments, in flats of varied age and construction quality. The Russians have a stricter division between high-density cities and low-density countryside, with a c. 100km band separating the two with a lot of intensive agriculture and dacha settlements (houses with plots of land) where Russians go during the weekends or holidays to tend to their vegetable gardens, pick mushrooms, etc. About half of Muscovites have a dacha, and they range from simple huts to luxurious mansions not very aptly called “cottages” (kotedzhi).

In all three countries – in contrast to central Europe, where renting is prevalent – most people own their own houses or apartments. Both the US and the UK place ideological stress on the virtues of private home ownership (extending mortgages to people of questionable creditworthiness was one of the key reasons of the 2008 financial crisis), while most Russians simply privatized their homes off the state during the 1990′s.

Housing prices have soared in Russia over the past decade to a far greater extent than in the US and Britain, but have fallen after the 2008 crisis; nonetheless, on average prices remain far below British and American levels. A typical, two-bedroom apartment in one of Moscow’s suburbs, not far from a Metro station, may cost $250,000; this will only buy you a semi-detached house in a middling British town, whereas an equivalent apartment in a London suburb will probably be closer to $1,000,000. In Moscow oblast, more than 100km from the city, a detached house with a big plot of land costs no more than $150,000; in the Russian regions, two-bedroom apartments are typically well below $100,000. In the US, as with Russia and the UK, there are great geographic disparities. Where space availability isn’t an issue, e.g. Texas, it is fully possible to buy fully detached houses with big plots of land for not more than $200,000; whereas in the Bay Area, excluding the ghetto areas, even a modest studio could set you back by up to $500,000.

PS. One more note on relative prices. In recent years, the media has made a lot of Moscow becoming the world’s “most expensive” city. It probably is… if you’re an expat addicted to five star hotels, top-class escorts, and champagne lounges. For ordinary people, who don’t live in Moscow’s center or its airports, living costs are still far cheaper.

America is the quintessential land of skyscapers; any city that is anywhere will have a few, to make up its financial district, while those in major cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco are world famous. They used to be practically non-existent in the USSR, except for the “seven sisters” Stalinist-era showpieces in Moscow. During the 2000′s, however, skyscraper construction has taken off, and most of the largest Russia cities now boast a few skyscrapers. During the euphoria of 2007-08, construction began on Russia Tower, which was to be at 600m the tallest skyscraper in Europe; however, financing for it collapsed after the 2008 economic crisis, and it remains in limbo to this day. In Britain, there are few skyscrapers. Most are of modest height and concentrated in The City (London’s financial district), including the infamous Gherkin.


A typical Russian city road.

A typical Russian city road.

British roads are good (though not as good as German ones), US roads are mediocre, and Russian roads are crap. Beyond Moscow’s ring road, many roads become potholed; further afield, e.g. the single road tying the Far East of the country to the center, it is little more than a dirt track that turns into impenetrable mud during the rasputitsa, or rainy season.

Part of the reason is that the country is vast, and that central planning with its penchant for railways didn’t care much for good roads or automobile ownership; another reason is that the road construction industry is, quite possibly, the most corrupt sector of the Russian economy (which is no mean achievement). The dismissed Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, is suspected of organizing kickbacks totaling billions of dollars to well-connected road construction companies in the Moscow region alone. Now there’s quite a bit of corruption in road construction in the US too – for instance, Massachusetts somehow managed to spend $15 billion on basically a couple of substandard tunnels in the Big Dig – but in Russia it seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

The vast majority of cars in the US are stick-shift, while a similarly vast majority of cars in Europe, including Russia and Britain, are manual-transmission. Petrol costs the same in both Russia and the US, and is about three times as expensive in Britain. Some cars in Russia run on natural gas.

Russian railways, on the other hand, are far better than their roads. They don’t offer amenities like free Wi-Fi, as British trains now do, but they make up for it in vastly lower costs. The price of a ticket from Manchester to London can approach £80. When I traveled from Moscow to St.-Petersburg in 2003, it was 500 rubles, or about $15 (granted it was on the lowest-class, because I was a cheapskate, but even getting a good class cabin for the overnight journey would have been well under British rates). As for US passenger railways, the less said the better. IIRC, it costs about $20 to go from San Francisco to San Jose, there’s no Internet, and after that the line ends.

Komsomolskaya Station, not the type of Metro station one would expect.

Komsomolskaya Station, not the type of Metro station one would expect.

The Moscow Metro carries up to 9 million passengers a day, and despite price rises, remains cheap. In contrast to the drab, utilitarian nature of most metro stations elsewhere, its central stations are truly “palaces of the people”, featuring murals, mosaics, statues and monuments, etc. A single journey costs a bit less than $1, while buying multiple journeys decreases the average price. Students and pensioners get to ride free. In the Soviet Union and early 1990′s, men would typically give up their seats to women, but this ended sometime by 1996. A victory for feminism? Or a collapse of moral standards? You decide.

Interesting factoid #1: Packs of stray dogs have become intelligent enough to navigate Moscow’s subways. You can sometimes see them lying or sleeping on the train benches. Read more here.

Interesting factoid #2: Russia’s most famous post-apocalyptic novel of recent times, Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, is set in the Moscow Metro, where subterranean human civilization ekes our a miserable survival while nuclear radiation and mutants ravage the world above.

Most other big Russian cities also have metros, as do the biggest UK cities and most big cities in the eastern US. Mass transit is very poorly developed on the West Coast. Los Angeles is a giant car sink, with legendary traffic jams. San Francisco and the Bay Area have the BART system, but it’s not a pleasant riding experience and pretty expensive besides; plus, the train seats are full of germs and shit. Yes, shit, like for real: “Fecal and skin-borne bacteria resistant to antibiotics were found in a seat on a train headed from Daly City to Dublin/Pleasanton. Further testing on the skin-borne bacteria showed characteristics of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the drug-resistant bacterium that causes potentially lethal infections…” Makes one wish for the cold, hard comfort of the wooden benches of an elektrichka.

Tramways used to be a major part of the urban transportation landscape in Russia, but their significance has decreased since the 1990′s; however, they still remain a prominent feature of the transportation system in some cities, including St.-Petersburg. They are no longer an important transportation mode in either the US or Britain.

Los Angeles, the epitome of suburban sprawl and poor city planning.

Los Angeles, the epitome of suburban sprawl and poor city planning.

Cars aren’t only at the center of US transport, but its life in general; if you live in suburbia or rural areas, you can’t get by without them. Big strip malls like Target, Walmart, Costco, etc., dot suburbia and serve the customers within a ten mile radius or so, having largely displaced local shops. The same process is ongoing in Britain, with a ten year lag. In Russia, car ownership is much lower than in the UK or the US; partly because of lower incomes, but also because they just aren’t as necessary, seeing as its cities are higher density and have cheap and adequate public transportation options (rail, metros, trams, buses). That said, Moscow’s traffic jams have become infamous in recent years, and nowadays only idiots – of whom there are a lot – commute to work by car there.

The US only seems capable of producing gas-guzzling SUV’s well, with the result that its automative sector collapses during oil spikes. Increasing fuel economy standards is a political hot potato, with Republicans set against it even though the US lags behind pretty much every country in the world in this respect (including China). The UK’s domestic brands have all collapsed, so the only cars there are foreign imports or produced by foreign-owned factories on its soil. It is not uncommon for Britons to buy their cars in Europe because of the high prices of cars sold in the UK. In Russia, the huge Avtovaz factory that produces the sturdy Lada (based off a 1970′s Italian design) just about survives with help from government subsidies and high tariffs on imported cars. Nonetheless, it doesn’t have a bright future, since most Russians would prefer to buy a second hand Audi or Toyota than a new Lada, even if the former costs a bit more. Whereas a decade ago most cars on the road were of visibly boxy Russian make, today’s (much bigger) car fleet seems to be more than 50% foreign; of the foreign makes, about half are imported and another half are manufactured by foreign-owned factories in Russia. A high proportion, e.g. about 50%, of vehicles on US roads are SUV’s; this percentage is closer to 10% in the UK and Russia. In France and Germany, SUV’s are very rare.

Flying is extremely prevalent in the US; it is frequently more profitable (and certainly faster) to take a flight from San Francisco to, say, Las Vegas or Los Angeles, than to make the journey by car (the only other valid transportation option). A typical round-trip starts from around $150. In Britain, to go from Manchester to London costs less by train than by plane, but not by much; many opt for the plane. Flights to Europe are cheap and very competitive; not infrequently, budget airlines like Ryanair offer amazingly good deals at prices like $50 for a round-trip to Prague, Munich or Barcelona and back. As for Russia, the days when you got on rickety Soviet-era planes with a shot of vodka for courage are over; most airlines have modernized their fleets. Air fares are competitively priced – the farthest off cities will cost about $500 for a round trip (e.g. Vladivostok), but common routes like Moscow to St.-Petersburg are around $100, and go even lower on the cheapest no-frills airlines.


Most shopping in the US and Britain – and increasingly, Russia – occurs in retail stores of varying size specializing in food, electronics, alcohol, cell phones, clothes, etc. These differ from high-end venues specializing in quality and fashion (e.g. Topshop) to mass consumer venues (e.g. Safeway, Tesco, ASDA, Walmart, IKEA) to those catering for lower-income people (e.g. Costco, Aldi); they are standardized, and it is often hard to tell the different between these shops be they in the US, Britain, or Russia. There are also plenty of ethnic stores (e.g. Chinese shops in the US, or Armenian shops in Moscow); they tend to sell interesting foods and wares that are rare elsewhere, but also tend to be more congested and less hygienic.

Online shopping is most advanced in the US, which has generated giants like Amazon and eBay. It is also prevalent in Britain, but much less so in Russia (though it is growing very fast).

The Cherkizovsky Market, Moscow's largest bazaar, recently closed.

The Cherkizovsky Market, Moscow’s largest bazaar, recently closed.

The outdoor market, or bazaar, is a prominent feature of Russian life. Located near railway stations and protected by private security, all kinds of vegetables, fruit, pickles, meat, fish, clothes, pirated video games – and even less legal things in their darker corners – are sold here. Food products are typically cheaper than in normal shops, and despite criticism over sanitary conditions, they are often fresher too.

These markets are typically dominated by migrants, though ethnic Russians are also prevalent. They will pay to set up a stall and hawk their goods to passers by. Haggling over prices is usual and expected. They are highly congested and thrum with the beat of commercial life. There are no effective formal controls over cheating – e.g. weighting vegetables incorrectly on purpose so as to extract a higher price – but is rare due to the potential reputational risk of doing so. With rising incomes and a decreasingly tolerant outlook by the authorities, due to the markets’ association with crime and illegal immigration, the prominence of these huge bazaars has fallen in recent years; nonetheless, they remain a favorite shopping place for the poor, pensioners, and even lovers of fresh fruit and vegetables (though buying meat or fish from them is less advisable). Such markets are much rarer in Britain or the US; in fact, most of them are temporary, only springing up on a certain day of the week.

Electronics are cheaper by about 30-50% in the US than in both Russia and the UK. I presume that is because the latter have higher tariffs? Books are far cheaper in Russia; typically, modern novels cost $5. In the US, they are usually $10, and £10 in the UK.

The luxury shopping mecca in Britain is Harrods, owned by controversial billionaire Mohammed Al-Fayed. Its equivalent in Russia is the GUM.

The US undoubtedly has the best cafes. Free WiFi (after buying a drink) is usual, even expected. This is much rarer in Britain, while Russia doesn’t even have a cafe culture as such*.

* Of course, Russia’s changing rapidly, and this might no longer be the case. I was last there in 2008, and for a substantial period of time in 2005, so much of what I say about it is already outdated. This is a point I emphasize throughout this series.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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I’ve recently had a debate with… let’s call him Marcus Stein, about whether you have to be proficient in a relevant language to hold really deep and insightful views about a region, culture or civilization, or whether, to put it in Averkoese, “translation, acquired knowledge (of the subject matters), good contacts (to interact with) and a good intuition (on the involved topics) are factors which successfully refute the above claim”. What do you think?

AK Edit: All old polls are gone because of this.

For what my opinion is worth (which is probably very little – hey, this post is a rant), I think it’s ridiculous to label anyone not fluent in his or her region’s language an expert. Can a neocon blowhard in the WSJ, who never studied Arabic or even read the Koran, whose only area of real expertise are the catechisms of American political science, really be considered an expert on the Middle East? Or is he just a risible Orientalist whose only area of expertise is the WESTERN CHAUVINIST view of the Muslim Other?

But what if said neocon politruk respected scholar is really, really knowledgeable on the estimable Western scholarship on his region? OK, let’s inverse the situation. Can an Islamist, fluent in Arabic and Farsi – and BTW, that’s better than our neocon who only knows English! – who has diligently studied the writings of Sayyid Qutb, Khomeini or bin Laden on the nature of America, be considered an expert on it? After all, through Islamist eyes, the US is a depraved beast that occupies the Muslim lands, aids the Israeli crusader state and supports corrupt, anti-Muslim elites in return for their petro-dollars. (I think this comparison is apt, because both neocons and Islamists constitute the nuttier elements of their respective societies).

The same applies to Western “experts” on other regions, such as China and Russia. I’ve written lots and lots on Western views of Muscovy, and will not rehash them at length: suffice to say, 90% of Western “expert” commentary on it, most of it from folks who don’t know Russian, can be dispelled by a quick trawl through a broad range of Russian newspapers and opinion polls that are readily available just a few minutes and mouseclicks away (and Google Translate, if necessary, in our technocommunist times – h/t @catfitz!).

I strongly suspect a similar situation exists in relation to China. I’ve become fairly interested in it China in the past few months, and having trolled through blogs like China Smack and China Hush, I was struck by the contrast between the rich diversity of life (and virtual life) in 中国, and the monolithic / Manichean interpretations of the Chicoms in the US media. Especially China Smack, which only translates Chinese netizen reactions – and this is a fair cross-section of Chinese society, since 28% of them are now online – to topics such as How Guns Are Sold In American Wal-Marts and Strip Shows In Rural Villages… It shows just how varied, cynical, patriotastic, critical, moralistic, trollish, etc Chinese netizens are, despite the тьмы, и тьмы, и тьмы of cyber-censoring “armies” that they are (purported) to have.

Now if it’s possible to find out that much – and that is much more than any two-bit unilingual neocon blowhard on the WSJ editorials page can manage – then imagine the sheer chasm between them and those who go further beyond the catechism. For the very metaphysical coordinates of a civilization’s worldview are organically formed and defined by its language; as a Russian (self-loathing) Westerner, I can attest to that. For the unilingual cultural “expert” is the most delusional of all people: Marcus Stein actually thinks he understands, without understanding. He lives in a Matrix and thinks he’s free. At least those who study foreign cultures and care to learn their language realize that that there are multiple Matrices, and can choose which one they are a slave to…

That’s the end of the rant. If you enjoyed it, great. If you want to nitpick or bitch about you, I plead insanity now, so don’t bother.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.