The Unz Review - Mobile
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information



=>
Publications Filter?
AKarlin.com Da Russophile
Nothing found
 TeasersRussian Reaction Blog
/
Class

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New Reply
🔊 Listen RSS

The second part of my series comparing Russia, Britain, and the US focuses on the people themselves. What are their strengths and foibles? How do they vary by class, region, race, and religion? How do they view each other and other countries and peoples? What do they eat, drink, and watch? Where do they travel and against which groups do they they discriminate?

The National Character

As befits its climate, Californians are a sunny and gregarious people. It is not unusual to refer to someone as your friend after getting to know her after a few minutes, whereas this typically takes weeks in Europe. Other states are, from what I heard, different; e.g. New Yorkers are known for being curt and rude.

Friendly is distinct from polite. As a rule, Britons are very polite. However, this translates into a greater sense of distance and insistence on propriety that approaches dourness as one travels north into Scotland. Driving on UK roads is a stress-free experience (and a boring one), while Californian roads demand attention and Russian roads are for thrill seekers only.

Russians are cold and curt to strangers, which many foreigners attribute to rudeness. This isn’t exactly fair; most Russians are just warier of people they don’t know. This is not an irrational attitude in a society more permeated by scams and violence.

Friendships that do develop with Russians usually go deeper than in Britain or the US. If you slip down a social class or two, e.g. after a bankruptcy, you may find your previously big social circles beginning to melt away in the West. In particular, Americans have a special instinct for steering away from “losers”.

Russians ARE far less civil in big groups. For instance, it is common for someone to start talking on her cell phone in a cinema. While Britons will always let a pedestrian walk across a zebra crossing – as they are obliged to do by traffic regulations – there is a 25% chance that an American wouldn’t, and a 75%+ chance that a Russian wouldn’t. By and large, Russians only follow regulations out of fear of punishment – and as mentioned in the last part, these regulations are rarely policed.

Many things will make you go WTF?! in Russia.

Many things will make you go WTF?! in Russia.

On the other hand, the disregard for social conventions leads to a lot of quirky and unusual happenings in Russia. E.g., I’ve seen a man walking with a bear in central St.-Petersburg, walkways leading into blank walls and cars with their internal machinery exposed, etc. In general, weird things like this are rarer in the US, and almost non-existent in the monotone plod of British life.

Girls typically consider American men to be more humorous and talkative than British men, though the latter enjoy a more masculine reputation. Russians are considered to be more romantic or macho (it’s usually one or the other).

Though not quite as disciplined as the Germans, the British are expected to get to meetings strictly on time. Things are far laxer in Russia, where it is common to see people wandering in and out of meetings, and half or a quarter failing to turn up at all. The golden mean is in California, where things are fairly casual but still organized (e.g. “Berkeley time” equals the appointed time plus ten minutes). But it is not representative of the US as a whole; stricter punctuality is expected in the east of the country.

The US is dominated by imperial measurements – miles; pounds; Fahrenheit; etc. Britain is also largely imperial – miles; pounds; Celsius. Russia is completely metric since the Revolution – kilometers, kilograms, Celsius; with archaic units like the verst or the pud only present in poetry or referring to traditional objects (e.g. church bells).

Class System

Lower class whites are "white trash" in the US, "chavs" in Britain, and "gopniki" in Russia.

Lower class whites are “white trash” in the US, “chavs” in Britain, and “gopniki” in Russia.

Despite the UK having the lowest formal rate of economic inequality – its Gini index is 34, compared to Russia’s 40 and America’s 45 (for comparison, Sweden – 25; Brazil – 57) – it also has by far the most deeply embedded class system. There is a world of difference between the socio-economic expectations of the “chavs” (low-class; lumpenproletariat), the working class (emphasizes importance of hard, honest work); and the upper middle class (goes to Oxbridge; constitutes political and financial elite).

Even their accents are noticeably different: Britain may well be the only country on Earth where class overrides region and ethnicity in this respect. There are very clear demarcations between poor, middle-class, and affluent neighborhoods. Needless to say, the latter two also have the best schools. I would estimate that the UK has lower social mobility than either the US or Russia.

Despite their higher inequality, relative to Britain, there are fewer class differences in the US and far fewer in Russia (though they’re increasing in both countries).

Russia’s case is unsurprising. It had no billionaires before about 1995; even millionaires only began reappearing in the late 1980′s. They might vacation in the French Riviera and send their children to private schools, but it is not uncommon for that same Russian millionaire to live in a Moscow flat with other professionals and pensioners, and retreat to his dacha on the weekends (however, more and more of them are moving to gated communities as is common in the US).

Regional Stereotypes

In the UK: London / the South is viewed as rich, effete, unconcerned with the rest of the country; Wales as a quaint land of castles and sheep-shaggers; northerners as hard-drinking coal miners. The biggest national rivalry is between England and Scotland, which the latter are always fated to lose. I was unimpressed by my (short) visit to Northern Ireland; it seems that its economy is about two decades behind the rest of the country, e.g. things look run-down; bad roads; petrol stations don’t accept credit cards. (This was in stark contrast to the Republic of Eire in the south, which struck me as being very modern, shiny clean, and efficient; though granted, I visited it at the height of its boom, which has since turned into a huge bust).

You can't get much more stereotypically Ukrainian than this.

You can’t get much more stereotypically Ukrainian than this.

In Russia: Moscow is viewed as rich, privileged, uncaring to the rest of the country; St.-Petersburg is regarded as more intellectual and cultured; the peoples of the Urals and Siberia are viewed as being wilder and tougher, and more criminal; and the North Caucasus – because of its society being vastly different from that of ethnic Russians (very religious, based on clan loyalties, hyper-patriarchal, different language, culture and religion) – is viewed as another country. Further afield, Georgians are the butt of jokes on account of their accents, rural nature, oversexed men and goat-shagging; Central Asia is viewed as a land of oriental exoticism; Ukraine is regarded as the poor cousin that speaks mangled Russian. To Russian jokers, Ukrainians are khokhly, which refers to a stereotypical Cossack hairstyle, while to Ukrainian jokers Russians are moskali, which refers to Muscovites, with their reputation for conceited arrogance.

In the US: New York is the big city of money and arrogance; Los Angeles is the big city of money and air-brushed decadence; the Bay Area are full is full of liberals and stoners and open-source IT geeks (not mutually exclusive); the “South” is full of religious nuts and inbreds (Q: What’s an Okie girl who can run faster than her brothers? A: A virgin); the peoples of the Rockies are men of asperity and libertarian independence and paranoid anti-government survivalism; Texas has oilmen and cowboys; the Plains have wholesome American homesteaders who fear God; the Mid-West has decrepit deserted towns full of rusting factories and criminals (it’s called the “Rustbelt”); the East Coast is full of elitists, bankers, and mocha-sipping liberals.

Religion

The Creation Museum in Kentucky features exhibits of humans coexisting with dinosaurs.

The Creation Museum in Kentucky features exhibits of humans coexisting with dinosaurs.

About half of Americans deny evolution and believe in the literal truth of the Bible, a figure that elicits smirks among Europeans; including Britons and Russians, amongst whom such people constitute no more than 20% of the population. Interestingly, many Christian fundamentalists in the US are polite, generous, middle-class, frequently young professionals; but then your ears wilt as they move onto topics like gay marriage or the moral decline of society. In some of the conservative states, there have been attempts to teach “intelligent design” (a lightly disguised form of creationism) on an equal footing with the theory of evolution.

In recent years, Britain has experienced an inflow of the kind of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity so popular in the US, and in contrast to the patterns of previous decades, it is now young people and denizens of London – traditionally the most secular groups – that are becoming the most fundamentalist. That said, most Britons and Russians remain mostly agnostic, atheistic, or mystical-pagan in a way that sidesteps traditional dogma. Go into a typical Orthodox Church in Russia, and practically all the congregation will consist of elderly women in skirts and shawls.

There is no separation of Church and state in Russia and the UK, unlike in the US; their governments finance the churches, mosques, etc. In Russia, the state considers four religions to be traditional to Russia, and supports them financially; they are Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. Other faiths are ignored (e.g. Roman Catholics, pagans), or harassed (e.g. evangelical proselytizers, Wahhabi preachers), or in the case of Scientology banned as a cult. In the past two years there was a big scandal when the Education Ministry decided to begin teaching classes on “The Foundations of Orthodoxy” and on other religions, with critics arguing that it represents undue religious influence in secular school institutions; as someone who had mandatory classes in religion (mostly Christianity) at a British state school, and aware of the Sunday Bible classes common in the US, I find their concern hard to understand.

There are two major groups that are exceptions to secularity in Russia and the UK. First, Britain’s Muslim community isn’t only very religious by British Christian, but also by European Muslim standards. In fact, a high percentage of them are outright fundamentalists, e.g. more than a third support the death penalty for apostasy. Second, the Muslims of Russia’s Caucasus, such as the Chechens, Ingushetians, and Daghestanis. Few of them are fundamentalist, however their religiosity is well above those of ethnic Russians (as well as of Muslim ethnicities in the center of Russia, like the Tatars or Bashkirs) and comparable to that of the conservative US states. They largely follow Sufi Islam, which is moderate; however, since the mid-1990′s, there have appeared more extremist Islamists.

How do they view each other?

Americans view the British as transatlantic cousins, with some odd quirks and a Queen, and reliable allies. The British like Americans, but feelings towards the US state are very mixed – whereas conservative elements admire it as the (perceived) defender of Western civilization, bastion of morality and religion, etc., the liberal elements detest it for its (perceived) hypocrisy, imperialism, bloodthirstiness, Guantanamo, etc. Many British also think – justifiably, IMO – that they got the short end of the stick in the Special Relationship between their two countries (i.e. whereas the UK bends over backwards to support US foreign policy objectives, the Americans treat it like any other West European country).

Russian attitudes towards Britain, and especially the US, vary greatly by political persuasion. Its liberals adore the US (and dislike or hate many aspects of their own country); the Communists and patriots / nationalists dislike or hate it. On average, they are mildly positive or neutral, which is a retreat from the very positive feelings they have for the US in the 1990′s. Since then, the general sentiment has been one of repeated let-downs (e.g. bombing Serbia; the Iraq invasion; the moral support for Georgia in the 2008 South Ossetia War; etc). This has distinctly cooled Russia’s love for the West in general, and the US in particular. Many Russians do acknowledge that the West does many things objectively better than Russia, and is worthy of emulation; however, Westerners are now recognized to be driven by self-interest, not altruism, and thus all dealings with them should be made with caution*.

The ekranoplan is fast, capacious, and hard to detect.

* This is in stark contrast to the naive optimism of the late 1980′s – early 1990′s. Back then, the Soviets and their successors thought that the West would be willing to cooperate with Russia on equal terms, which led to many idiotic mistakes. One minor, but telling, example: Russia had a unique technology called the ekranoplan, a plane that could fly meters above the water at jumbo jet speeds, with obvious military and logistical applications. Hoping to cooperate on their further development with the US, the Soviets invited American journalists to come look over the machines, allowing them to photograph all the details, etc. Needless to say, the Americans never came back for a second visit. They began working on their own ekranoplan using the photos and videos that would have required billions of dollars to buy, or steal. (And this is just one example, there were dozens of similar cases). And who can blame them? They were only being rational and capitalistic, and to their loss, the Russians hadn’t yet gotten used to thinking in those terms.

One cover says as much as 1,000 words.

One cover says as much as 1,000 words.

The British, and I imagine the Americans, viewed Russians with mistrust and hostility in the 1990′s and most of the 2000′s. Interestingly, the more educated and middle class a Brit is, the more likely he is to view Russians as un-European, aggressive, and barbaric subhumans; partly, I think it is because media outlets aimed at the bourgeoisie, such as The Economist or the Wall Street Journal, tend to have the most Russophobic slant of the Western media which is no mean feat*. (In contrast, the views of ordinary people tend to be apolitical, associating Russia with bears, vodka, Matryoshka dolls, etc). That said, things seem to have began to change in the past 5 years. This just proves that the remedy for Western contempt isn’t becoming (the Western definition of) liberal democracy, or even having pro-Western policies, but getting richer, stronger, and more independent of them. I noticed that by around 2008, most acerbic comments by bourgeois Brits about East Europeans were addressed in the direction of Poles and Ukrainians.

* I think both US and British media coverage of Russia is atrocious, a subject I will cover in far greater detail later in the series.

The British tend to be a bit more skeptical of their media than the Americans, which is perhaps why Americans have an even lower opinion of Russia. On the other hand, Russians as people are far more readily accepted into US society; the Americans are far less nativist and ethnocentric than the British.

How do they view other countries?

The American view of the world aside is centered around: Mexico (poor, illegal immigrants, burritos, drug wars otherwise good holiday destination); Canada (cold, lumberjacks, boring); China (stealing our jobs, outproducing us); Japan (robots, anime); the UK (the Queen, quaint traditions); Europe (old, decadent, wine, lots of history, aging); Israel (our good friends / will bring on the Second Coming / extremist Zionists); Middle East (Arabs, oil, sand dunes, hate women); South America (cocaine, coffee, jungles, ten minute dictators).

Americans view most West European nations, and Japan, positively (though this depends on the political mood; for instance, during 2003, the French were hated by conservatives); they are neutral or mildly negative towards China and Russia (view them as authoritarian strategic competitors); very negative towards most of the Muslim world and the countries their political elites have defined as being “rogue nations” (e.g. Cuba, North Korea).

The US under Obama is positively regarded in Western Europe, very positively in Poland and Korea (viewed as a liberator and protector) and Africa, mildly positively or neutral in Russia and China (imperialistic strategic competitor), negatively in Latin America (they’re not fans of the Monroe Doctrine, and view Americans as rich and arrogant gringos), and very negatively in the Muslim world (who are accused of supporting kleptocratic elites who funnel profits from the people’s oil into their Swiss bank accounts and disrespect Islam).

The British view of the world revolves around Europe (i.e. the EU) and the Commonwealth (the countries that used to make up its Empire). France and Spain are regarded as nice places to visit; Germany is viewed as a center of industry and trading partner. Poland is good, but the immigrants aren’t appreciated. The EU is nice and convenient, but should NOT be allowed to infringe on British sovereignty in any meaningful capacity. (In fact, what the UN is to American conservatives, the EU is to British conservatives; frightening bureaucratic constructs dead-set on crushing their hallowed liberties).

Canada, Australia and New Zealand are comfortable, brotherly English-speaking places (Australia in particular is a favored emigration destination). Russia is a foreboding presence to the east that spies on us. India is viewed favorably. One of the big debates in the British Indian community is about whether the Empire had a positive or negative historical role for their old country. China is strange, distant and exotic.

Britain is viewed positively in most places outside the Muslim world, where it is regarded as a stooge of the US. One exception is Argentina, with which there are still tensions over the Falklands / Malvinas dispute.

The Russians divide the world into the “Near Abroad” (the territories of the former USSR) and the “Far Abroad” (everywhere else). In the Near Abroad, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan are regarded as brotherly nations and there is popular support – more so in those countries than even in Russia – for a closer union, perhaps along the lines of the EU. However, it should be noted that in Ukraine, attitudes towards Russia vary: whereas they are very positive in the east and south, the central and western areas to a far greater extent stress the Ukrainian national identity.

Bulgarians and Serbians are very pro-Russian. Almost all of them I’ve met adore it, if anything, more than Russians themselves (to the extent that I was at times forced into the uncomfortable position of arguing that Russia’s really isn’t all that awesome). In a sharp reversal from Soviet times, when Armenian terrorists seeking independence bombed the Moscow Metro, today Armenians really like Russia; presumably, because it is its main protector against Azerbaijan, with which it has territorial disputes that resulted in a war in the 1990′s. (The Azeris are backed by Turkey and the US, while Iran – geopolitics trumping religion – backs Christian Armenia over Muslim Azerbaijan). The Azeris, unsurprisingly, aren’t positive towards Russia.

9/11 monument, "The Tear of Grief", by Zurab Tsereteli, an ethnic Georgian who is Russia's most prominent architect. Gifted to the US.

9/11 monument, “The Tear of Grief”, by Zurab Tsereteli, an ethnic Georgian who is Russia’s most prominent architect. Gifted to the US.

Georgia was mostly pro-Soviet, in large part thanks to national boundaries being drawn in their favor under Stalin, who was an ethnic Georgian. (This was the root cause of the 2008 South Ossetia War: Georgia attempting to reincorporate the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which split off after the Soviet collapse and don’t want to go back to Georgia; and Russia intervening in support of the Ossetians).

Current relations are heavily colored by the adverse politics between the two countries. Russians dislike President Saakashvili, but are OK towards Georgians; at least, they like Georgian cuisine, if not their architects. While many Georgians dislike Russia, others obviously disagree, at the very least the 20% of their 5 million population that now lives in Russia.

Poles are split fifty-fifty on Russia. One elderly Pole in the UK was extremely pro-Russian, having been freed by the Red Army from a Nazi concentration camp in 1945; he died a few years ago. Another one was a Russophobe extremist, and impossible to communicate with on that account (his parents had migrated from Poland in the 1980′s). Yet another was 100% apolitical and easy to get on with. Etc.

Though Central Asians like and appreciate Russian culture – it was Soviet power that created their nation-states in their modern form – the reverse is largely untrue.

March of SS veterans in Riga, Latvia in 2009. Balts consider them freedom fighters; Russians say they were war criminals. As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in between.

March of SS veterans in Riga, Latvia in 2009. Balts consider them freedom fighters; Russians say they were war criminals. As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in between.

The Balts are viewed negatively and the feeling is very mutual. Once the Baltic nations got independence from the USSR, they made citizenship for ethnic Russians subject upon the passage of a (politicized) history test and language test (Estonian or Latvian are hard to learn for anyone, let alone people in their 50′s or 60′s). This has resulted in a large population of Russian aliens in the Baltic states, who are subjected to extensive discrimination, as documented by HR organizations like Amnesty.

These disputes are centered around different interpretations of history. The Baltic peoples view the USSR as an occupier, and hence the ethnic Russians as illegal immigrants (even though they came not of their own volition but by the decree of Soviet central planners). Latvia has even built a monument to their national Waffen SS, and holds annual marches for its veterans. It sees them as freedom fighters against Soviet occupation, whereas Russians (and Jews) see them as war criminals. Both have a point. The majority of Balts – though far from all of them – did not want to be incorporated into the USSR in 1939, and their “forest brother” anti-Soviet partisans had popular support. However, the narrative that it was a heroic struggle against oppression is rendered implausible by the fact that 90%+ of all Jews in the Baltics were wiped out under Nazi rule, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the local population.

One unpleasant experience I had was at a friend’s birthday party in a Dublin restaurant; the two waiters never came up to take our orders, but continued serving newcomers. After more than half an hour, we decided to investigate what the matter was, after one of the waiters smirked at us and turned back to some couple who had come in 10 minutes ago. The (Irish) restaurant owner reprimanded the waiter, after which he cursed at us, and was fired on the spot. It turned out that they were both Latvians, and though there’s no way to prove it, I’m pretty sure it was our Russian-language conversation that provoked their hostility. (The affair ended by the restaurant owner apologizing and offering free service, but by then we had no desire to remain there and went elsewhere).

Balts sometimes argue that Russians exaggerate or invent the presence of Russophobia in Latvia and Estonia, but if the above incident is anything to go by – very hostile reactions to Russian spoken not even in their own countries but on the other side of Europe – it might if anything be underestimated.

If there’s one generalization I can make about all of these views, it is that throughout the post-Soviet space, Russia (and Russians) is viewed more positively by ordinary people, less positively by the elites. I suspect it is not because of their higher perspicacity, but because more educated people tend to be better at constructing narratives. The most widespread elite narrative there is that Russia is the successor of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union oppressed their culture and stymied their development potential.

In the Far Abroad, the Americans and most Europeans view Russia very negatively, as does Japan because of the Kurils dispute; otherwise, most Arab and African countries, China and India view it positively and Latin Americans are neutral. This is largely reflected by (and/or caused by) the media coverage of Russia; whereas European and America news outlets rant on about Russian authoritarianism, imperialism, etc., I’ve noticed that the non-Western media hold a more balanced stance.

Russia has more or less normal relations with countries shunned by the US, e.g. Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, Syria, etc. This has to do with commercial interests, plus the fact that the Russian political elites believe US denunciations of these countries based on human rights are nothing more than a cover for advancing its geopolitical interests, or else: why do they remain silent on, say, Saudi Arabia, which is certainly no better than any “rogue nation”? As noted in the previous part, though the UK and US passports are far better for travel in general, visiting places like Iran is much easier (and safer) with a Russian passport.

Foreign Languages

Unlike the more urbane central Europeans, all three countries perform pretty miserably on foreign language knowledge. Perhaps 20% of Americans (excluding Hispaniacs) can speak Spanish fluently, though this is probably a California bias and lower in the eastern states. Knowledge of other languages is rare, excluding immigrant communities. A similar proportion of Britons can speak French fluently; the vast majority can only dredge up a few phrases that they learned back in secondary school.

The situation in Russia is a bit more complicated. The older generations, that is until 1970, mostly studied German at school. Needless to say, the vast majority did not reach proficiency. After 1970, the emphasis switched to English, but again, for the vast majority of Soviet citizens – those who did not intend to become trade delegates, diplomats, spies, academics, etc. – fluency was not required, so amongst the middle-aged, perhaps 20% or fewer can competently communicate in it. From the 1990′s, it became clear that English is indispensable to success in the modern global marketplace. I would say that amongst young Russians, an adequate level of English knowledge is approaching 50% (though this is still far below the near universal English knowledge amongst young Germans or Swedes). Knowledge of languages other than English is minimal.

Intelligence

While there exist stereotypes of the ignorant American, the cultured Englishman, the uncultured Russian savage, etc., they are fairly useless. Differences between personalities far exceed any national differences. For what they’re worth, international IQ tests peg the US, the UK and Russia at around 95-100; lower than East Asian countries like Japan or Korea (105), but average for industrialized countries.

All three countries have an anti-intellectual climate. In British schools, especially amongst males, not giving a fuck about schoolwork confers coolness. In the US, “nerds” and “geeks” are ostracized, since associating with them threatens one’s social status. From what I heard, things are largely similar in Russian schools.

Travel & Tourism

Many middle-class Americans travel to places like Mexico, Australia, Canada, the UK, France, Italy, or other places of the US on holidays. In winter, ski resorts in the Rockies are popular; in summer, the US has a rich variety of stunning national parks to choose from (e.g. Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Everglades, etc).

Among Californians, favorite getaway destinations include Yosemite National Park (it of the giant sequoia trees), the ski resorts of Lake Tahoe, the casinos of Reno and Las Vegas, and the beaches south of Santa Barbara (which offer great surfing). Americans can freely visit the border Mexican city of Tijuana, either individually or, as recommended, in tour groups. (In the guardhouse on the border, there are photos of the hundreds of Americans who went into Mexico and never came back). Needless to say, Mexicans aren’t accorded similar privileges.

One Turkish resort even built a replica Red Square for Russian tourists.

One Turkish resort even built a replica Red Square for Russian tourists.

If going abroad for the sun, Russians tend to visit Turkey, Egypt, the Crimean peninsula or Odessa in Ukraine, or their own resorts at Sochi and Krasnodar. The latter also include ski resorts; they were once primitive, but are now being rapidly developed in time for the upcoming Sochi Olympics. Many residents of the Far East hop across the Chinese border to do shopping.

However, most Russians stay at home, or go to their dachas (country houses), where they do some of the following: harvest their fruit and vegetable gardens; swim in Russia’s myriad lakes and rivers; mow the grass; make barbecues (shashlyk) and drink beer; etc. I would estimate around half of Muscovites have a dacha outside the city.

For the British, popular destinations include: the beaches of Spain, France, Majorca; cities with cheap booze like Prague or Budapest; or further afield, the US and Australia. The most popular emigration destinations are Australia, the US, Canada, Spain and New Zealand. Hundreds of thousands of Britons maintain holiday homes in Spain and Portugal.

All three countries’ tourists have very poor reputations. Americans are regarded as arrogant, ignorant, loud, demanding, and culturally insensitive. Britons are infamous for trashing places during alcohol-fueled parties; in particular, their football hooligans are the stuff of legend throughout civilized Europe. Russians are considered rude, penny-pinching gluttons and drunks (where Russian clienteles predominate, hoteliers and restaurateurs have learned to avoid open-ended “All you can eat” deals, because Russians exploit them for all they’re worth and they end up losing money on them).

Parties & Night Life

British and US parties involve a lot of beer, and hard spirits with mixers. The American parties tend to be wilder and have more drugs. Russian parties just have a lot of beer and vodka.

American night clubs tend to have older clienteles, because of the higher drinking age and strict checks. Especially compared between university towns, American nightlife is far more subdued.

Hip Russian nightclubs and American frats practice “face control”. You may not get in if you are (1) a male without 2+ girls or (2) a non-pretty girl.

Cuisine

Obesity in the US.

Obesity in the US.

Everything in America is much sweeter. And bigger, but mainly sweeter; sometimes uncomfortably so for the foreign palate. Though there is a rich selection of foods at both shops and restaurants, including healthy options, most Americans seem to prefer high-glycemic load foods such as burgers, fries, breaded chicken, etc. The unsurprising result is an obesity crisis, though the extent of it varies by state, race, and sex. In the health-conscious Bay Area, for instance, the majority of people are normal or slightly overweight; go to the numerous, small towns further inland – with their monoscape of strip malls, fast food joints and SUV’s – and practically everyone over the age of thirty is obese or approaching it. California is one of the slimmer states, along with the East Coast states; blacks and Hispaniacs are on average fatter than whites and Asians, and women more so than men.

The UK is slightly better off than the US in this regard, but not by much (furthermore if Scotland was an independent country it would be the most obese in the world). Obesity is much less prevalent in Russia, albeit with two major caveats. First, many Russian women begin to fill up after the age of thirty or so (obesity even in older men is rare). Second, in recent years, the obesity problem has increased, and if current trends continue it may “catch up” to the Anglo-Saxon countries in another decade.

Cioppino stew, the author's interpretation.

Cioppino stew, the author’s interpretation.

The US has a brilliant range of culinary cultures, as befits its “melting pot” society. Its ethnic dishes are sometimes even judged to be better than what’s done in their country of origin, since as they’re freed from the constraints of tradition, immigrant cooks can innovate or mix and match. I’m guilty of that myself, e.g. replacing the potatoes in Russian soups with tofu, and adding lemon and spices.

The Bay Area is especially good for Mexican, Thai, Japanese, and Vietnamese. The UK is very strong on Indian food, due to the size of its diaspora, but like the US its range is global. Ethnic cuisine is also present in Russia, though it’s mostly limited to food from Eurasian countries (an exception is Japanese – for the upper class circles, sushi has become something of a craze); the favorites are Georgian and Uzbek dishes.

The national cuisines of all three countries are plain – nothing fancy, as with French, or world-famous, as with Italian or Chinese – but filling. Though the US is, of course, best known for its fast McDonald’s food culture (burgers, fries, soft drinks, etc), it also has interesting regional cuisines.

The most famous is Southern cuisine, which is sweet, spicy, filling, tasty and unhealthy: it features rice; barbecues; a panoply of sauces; fried chicken; crawfish; “gumbo” stew; and a drink called swamp water (far better than its name suggests). The dish most native to California – to the extent that a California cuisine even exists, given its overwhelming tendency to amalgamate global styles instead of generating original recipes – is heavily fish-based and includes the cioppino soup. If you ever get more seafood than you know what to do with, there’s a solution!

The Sunday roast.

The Sunday roast.

English cuisine is bland, boring, and filling. The more famous offerings include: The “English breakfast” (bacon, a sausage, fried eggs, a tomato, and black tea); the “Sunday roast” (roast beef, potatoes, vegetables, gravy, and a bread-like cup called Yorkshire Pudding); cottage pie; shepherd’s pie. The best known dish, fish and chips, is actually Scottish. So, of course, is haggis; though the ingredients better remain undisclosed, it is actually pretty delicious.

Pelmeni.

Pelmeni.

Russian cuisine is, IMO, one of the better ones in the non-global / plain category, featuring the famous borscht (beetroot soup), schi (cabbage soup), caviar served with buttered bread and vodka, etc. Over the centuries it has assimilated plenty of influences from the Mongols, who know how to cook much better. In this way they got golubtsy (rice and meat lattice wrapped in cabbage leaves); pelmeny (meat dumplings served with sour cream); shashlyk (marinated meat that is barbecued). Also of note are vareniki (fruit or cheese dumplings); olivje and vinegret salads; etc. One Ukrainian dish that is popular through Russia which I find disgusting but many others swear by is salo, or salted pork fat. More recognizable to Westerners is Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganoff. While vodka is its most famous alcoholic drink, the medovukha (mead) and kvass (a low-alcohol fermented drink) are also appreciated.

The English like to drink their tea with milk. Russians look upon this with revulsion; they prefer lemon. They like lemon with coffee too, which is bewildering to Americans.

Traditionally, vodka has accounted for the bulk of Russian alcohol consumption. There are many different types of vodka. Some of the best vodkas in Russia come from the Kristall factory in Belarus. There are some specifically themes ones, such as ones named after Kalashnikov and Putin (Putinka). One infamous variety is the hrenovuha, which is distilled from horseradish; it is literally the most disgusting stuff I’ve ever tasted. There is an entire body of etiquette on vodka drinking in Russia, as well as folk wisdom on how to drink prodigious quantities of vodka – up to a 750ml bottle over an evening, even for non-alcoholics – without as much as getting a headache in the morning after.

One such evening occasion is known as a pyanka, whereas multi-day binges are referred to as zapoi. Here are the main points from my article Zen and the Art of Vodka Drinking:

  • Fill up your belly with fatty, starchy, salty foods, e.g. fried potatoes and onions, salads with mayonnaise, etc.
  • Folk tradition when downing your shot involves blowing out through your noise, downing the shot and breathing in with your fist over your nose
  • Eat things like salted cucumbers or pickles, sausage, oily fish like sprats, salo, etc. immediately after the shot. These are called zakuski (lit. something you “bite over”).
  • When it’s your turn to make a toast, pour everyone their “fifty grams’, think up of some noble ideal to drink to (world peace, the generosity and other many good qualities of the host, victory!, etc – creativity is encouraged) and announce it in as theatrical a manner as you can manage without overdoing it.
  • Maintain a steady pace. If you’re getting buzzed way too fast, start covering your glass with your hand on subsequent rounds.
  • Drink water; don’t drink carbonated water; take a multi-vitamin before bed; drink a beer first thing on waking up.

Fun factoid: Vodka is nicknamed the “green serpent” in Russian. The name vodka itself is a diminutive of voda, which is water.

In recent years, beer has become much more popular; especially amongst the young, it is now the drink of choice. The most famous Russian beer brand is Baltika, though other domestic brands like Stary Melnik and Zhigulevskoye are popular. The most notable beers from the British Isles are the dark, bitter Irish brews of Guinness and Murphy’s (the former has a huge brewery in Dublin which is in operation for almost 250 years; a popular tourist attraction, it has an exhibition on the history of the drink). Some stereotypes are true, e.g. popular American beers are nothing to write home about. However, there are plenty of very good local breweries, which are sometimes attached to a single bar.

Single malt whiskeys, such as Macallan, are considered the cream of the crop.

Single malt whiskeys, such as Macallan, are considered the cream of the crop.

The British are big on beer and wine, with the young and lower class going for the former; the more bourgeois elements preferring wine. (Many Britons in the south actually drive over to France and buy a year’s worth, e.g. 100 bottles, of wine at a time; this is profitable, because whereas the average good-quality bottle in the UK is priced at £10-15, in France one can get them for as low as £2. The differences add up over many bottles and besides you get a nice weekend break into the bargain). The hard drink of choice is whiskey; as is well known, Scotland is the center of the industry. Its distilleries are major tourist attractions. The most famous Irish whiskey is the sweet Jameson, produced in Dublin.

In the US, alcohol consumption is much less prevalent than in either the UK or Russia; partly due to the 21 thing, partly due to more conservative social mores. The most common whiskey is the Jack Daniels blend.

As everywhere else, beer dominates at institutions of higher learning; in fact, many drinking games, such as beer pong – which even has national tournaments – originated in its fraternities. Over the entire population, there is a roughly equal split between beer, wines, and spirits.

The Russian Diaspora

This deserves its own section, as I feel especially qualified to comment on it.

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). By the early 1990′s, these were joined by ethnic Russian academics, as part of a general “brain drain” (e.g. reminiscent of postwar Germany), since the new Yeltsin government failed to pay them living wages (this situation was only substantially remedied in the late 2000′s); as well as ethnic Germans returning to Germany (who now form their own Russian-German minority, concentrated in Berlin). By far the three most popular countries for emigration were the US (half Jews, half Russians); Germany (mostly Russians, some Germans); and Israel (Jews and a few pretend-Jews). Other destinations included Italy, the UK, France, Canada, Australia, and South Africa.

It is common for Russian ballet and circus companies to tour in both the US and the UK.

It is common for Russian ballet and circus companies to tour in both the US and the UK.

Though they are drawn from multiple ethnicities – for instance, they include Tatars, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, etc., while the Russian diaspora in the US is more accurately called the Russian-Jewish diaspora – their culture, i.e. spoken language at home, cuisine, mannerisms, fondness for ice skating, playing durak or making borscht, etc., is 90%+ Russian. Importantly, this does not mean that they like Russia (the country) or even Russian culture. I should stress that dismissing and dissing Russia was fashionable in the 1990′s, when Yeltsin’s “family” were pillaging the nation and many Russians, especially migrants, genuinely felt “betrayed” by the Russian state (it is an open question as to what extent this feeling is a result of their need to justify to themselves their own decision to leave their roots and emigrate). In fact, many diaspora Russians are psychologically averse to equanimity on Russia; in many cases, they are huge fans of whatever country they immigrated to, and of the West in general, as if to justify their own immigration to themselves. Consequently, some even view any “defense” of Russia, no matter how justified, as a personal attack on themselves and respond ferociously.

There’s also a generational aspect here. Whereas the “fathers” tended to gleefully 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 – frequently extending to right-wing, neoliberal views on economics and society; less frequently extending to concepts such as positive discrimination or the welfare state, which they associate with “socialism” – the effect was sometimes quite different on Russia’s “sons”. A few followed in the footsteps of the “fathers”; some (perhaps most) are largely indifferent to Russia, and have blended into the socio-political mainstream of UK or US society; others appreciate Russia to an extent that the “fathers” find puzzling, annoying, or even intolerable.

(But here, another caveat. The Russia-bashing “fathers” are also, by and large, the successful ones. Those Russian emigrants who failed to set up a good career in the West, and ended up driving taxicabs despite their higher educations, tend to be more resentful of their adopted countries, and look back on Russia more fondly. In general, among diasporas, views on the old country are ANYTHING but objective.)

It is hard to generalize, but overall – and this is hardly surprising – ethnic Russians and more recent migrants have higher opinions of their original homeland (they are also more leftist and closer to the European political spectrum) than Russian Jews or earlier migrants (who are more right-wing and closer to the American political spectrum).

Opinions on Russia amongst other emigrant ethnicities largely reflect sentiment in the home country, but if anything magnified even further.

But more about the Russian diaspora. As I mentioned, the one I’m most familiar with is the one composed of emigrant academics (though there do of course exist other circles, e.g. female gold-diggers, and gangsters or corrupt bureaucrats who had taken their ill-gotten gains to the West, etc.; I have little familiarity with the former and none with the latter). They cluster around university towns; if there’s a campus, chances are there are a few Russians around. As an in-joke amongst them goes: “What’s an American university?”, “It’s a place where Russian physicists lecture to Chinese students.” Not that far off the mark either… In the hard sciences, especially math and physics, many profs in Western universities are Russians (and it’s also the case that math and physics classrooms in the US are disproportionately populated by East Asians).

The winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics were a pair of Russians working in Manchester. When asked if they were interested in Medvedev's plan to come back, their answer was a firm no.

The winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics were a pair of Russians working in Manchester. When asked if they were interested in Medvedev’s plan to come back, their answer was a firm no.

These academics usually have one, or at most two, children, who are pressured to study hard and more restricted from pursuing social activities than the indigenous population (though not to the extent typical in Chinese or Indian families). At their homes, one almost never sees a Play Station or computer games; one does however see books on math, science, history, economics, as well as magazines like New Scientist or The Economist. Their children don’t usually have much fun at school, but on the other hand they do stuff like win local chess tournaments and reliably get into the top universities. 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. But on second thought this isn’t that surprising. Academia is a very safe environment (in terms of employment) and guarantees a reliable cash flow and career progression. The truly entrepreneurial Soviet academics have long since abandoned academia and made big bucks in the business world.

In the past two years, the Russian government has begun making noises about drawing back its researchers lost to brain drain. To date, the initiative has met with minimal success. Although Russian academic salaries are becoming competitive with Western ones (when the cost of living and low income taxes are factored in), most see no particular reason to risk the adventure, especially since the conditions for pursuing research in Russian universities remain far below those in the US or the UK. Besides, emigration is a young person’s game, and many of these academics are now in their 40′s and 50′s, or nearing retirement. Finally, the possibility of the subgroup of Russia-haters / West-worshipers going back can be excluded altogether. I suspect that the only scenario in which a substantial portion of the Russian academic diaspora returns is if their host countries go the way of the USSR, i.e. mounting debts and state insolvency leading to a collapse of research funding.

Russian mail order brides

Not only did they break hearts, Russian mail order brides also inspired a bestselling book.

Not only did they break hearts, Russian mail order brides also inspired a bestselling book.

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, and hotter to boot. Sounds like a good deal, no?

But while traditional gender roles are indeed a bit more evident 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), and it most certainly doesn’t equal respect, let alone supplication, to the extremely beta males who presumably can’t score with the local girls and order women over the Internet in the first place. Furthermore, the days when being foreign upped your worth in the eyes of Russian girls ended sometime in the mid-2000′s; nowadays, if anything, they are at a disadvantage relative to Russian guys.

In many cases, the customers don’t get what he thought he signed up for, as his Russian wife gets her residency papers, empties his bank account, and dumps him for someone cooler and richer. They then go on to vent their resentments, complaining in person to anyone who would listen and posting about “male discrimination” at sites like The Spearhead, and describing Russian women as avaricious, disloyal, gold-diggers, etc.; my response is, why should she not exploit a total sucker like you!?

Discrimination

For this section, I’m going to look at relative levels of discrimination based on race, immigrants, sex, sexual orientation, and religion.

Race

The kind of blatant, institutionalized racism common in America prior to the civil rights movement is practically non-existent. Somewhat more prevalent is unofficial discrimination; for instant, half of all US prisoners are African-Americans, whereas they only constitute 13% of the population. On the other hand, it’s also pretty much beyond doubt that African-Americans commit more crimes than their share of the population. Quite a lot of Americans would consider the preceding sentence racist or at least controversial, which is itself a strong testament to their non-racism. When they must find some group to blame, Americans tend to focus on poor people and illegal immigrants; but in general, as mentioned above, criminal acts are viewed as individual – as opposed to group – moral failings.

Russians are far more open about blaming groups such as Caucasians, Chechens, etc. – sometimes derogatorily called “black-asses” – for high crime rates. This is not without foundation. While skinhead violence is tragic and highly visible, it is – according to many who live in Russia – dwarfed by the scale of everyday crimes committed by various ethnic gangs from the Caucasus. Nonetheless, dispassionate analysis of crime rates does overflow into outright racism far more casually than in the US or the UK. It’s not so much as Russians being far more racist than the PC culture being far less developed. It is common to hear Britons in private conversations, or on the comments sections of papers like The Telegraph or The Daily Mail, making pretty racist comments about “Third World immigrants”, “Islamic gangs”, etc.

Anti-Semitism

Overall, anti-Semitism is somewhat more prevalent in Russia than in the UK or the US (it is comparable to average European countries and far lower than in the Middle East, which is the epicenter of modern anti-Semitism). Jokes about Jewish niggardliness can be heard in all three countries, but whereas Americans and Brits only tend to make them in private or when drunk, they are aired more openly in Russia.

Boris Berezovsky: Probably responsible for 31% of Russia's anti-Semitism.

Boris Berezovsky: Probably responsible for 31% of Russia’s anti-Semitism.

That said, anti-Semitism is non-existent in official policy. Three of the wealthiest oligarchs are Jewish; so was one Prime Minister in the past decade (Mikhail Fradkov), who last I heard was head of the SVR intelligence agency. Ironically, the clownish leader of Russia’s leading nationalist party,Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is a Jew (Fun anecdote: When asked about his ethnic roots, he replied, “My mother – was a Russian; my father – was a lawyer!”; feel free to search for his quotes on Google, he’s as much fun as Gadaffi or Berlusconi).

After a big outflow to Israel in the 1990′s, net migration between Russia and Israel has stabilized at a level close to zero (despite that the latter is a wealthier country and the Jewish homeland). Attitudes towards Israel are actually more positive than in most European countries, probably because Russians sympathize with their Islamic terror problems (Palestine; Chechnya) and appreciate the visa-less travel regime between the two countries.

Most negative opinions on Jews in Russia stem from the fact that most of the oligarchs created in the corrupt Yeltsin era were Jewish*, including the most infamous and/or ostentatious ones: Berezovsky (“godfather of the Kremlin” in the 1990′s), Abramovich (he of the world’s most expensive yacht), etc. Nowadays, it is Caucasians and Central Asians who are the main targets of xenophobic rhetoric in Russia.

* This isn’t anti-Semitism, just the facts on the ground. I don’t want to get into a history lesson, but for a good explanation of why Jews are so overrepresented amongst the Russian oligarchs (and why other “market-dominant minorities” emerge elsewhere, e.g. ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, or whites in Latin America) consult World on Fire by Amy Chua.

Probably the best places for Jews in the world (maybe even Israel, given its terrorist problems) are the US and the UK. I don’t really know why that is the case. Perhaps, they have traditionally been the most capitalistic societies, which left less to differentiate between indigenous Britons / Americans and Jews than in less commercialized mainland Europe. But this is just speculation on my part.

In conclusion, while you do people with too much time on their hands who rant on about Zionist Occupation Government in all three countries, their views are very much in the fringes.

Immigrants

There is a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric in all three countries. The complaints are pretty similar: they steal jobs; commit crimes; etc. IMO, their real sin is to be willing to do work that Americans / British / Russians are no longer willing to do for low wages, and are easier scapegoats for economic problems than politicians, bankers, and others with wealth and power. As a rule, the crowd picks on the weak and losers.

Most low skilled migrants to the US come from the poorer, southern areas of Mexico, and from Central America. They are widely employed as agricultural laborers throughout the US South-West and Texas; as nannies everywhere (including the North); and as construction workers. The US is more successful at integrating immigrants than either Russia or the UK, possibly due to its “melting pot” traditions. Americans are far more understanding of people who have difficulties communicating in English, and immigrants have a far easier time getting a job than their equivalents in Britain. As long as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stays off their backs, some of them do quite well. Their children can attend US schools for free (though problems can start up once they apply to universities, where background checks are more stringent). Any children born in the US automatically become citizens, for which reason they are disparagingly called “anchor babies” by anti-immigrant activists. If they are apprehended by ICE, then they are typically put into deportation proceedings. They can hire a lawyer or the government appoints one for them. If they are found guilty of illegally entering the US, they are driven over the Mexican border (or flown to their country of origin) at government expense and barred reentry for many years, or for life if the immigrant had committed a felony while in the US.

The US immigration process, pursued by the rulebook, is incredibly inefficient, taxing, and idiotic. A skilled foreign worker needs an H1-B work visa for 6 years before he becomes eligible for a Green Card, which entitles her to Legal Permanent Residency (if she changes employer, the clock starts ticking from the beginning again; furthermore, during this time, her spouse cannot work unless he also has a work visa). After getting the Green Card, it takes five more years to become a US citizen, during which time it is impossible to go abroad for any long period of time without risking the permanent residency (two years is the absolute maximum if you exploit all bureaucratic channels). To America’s detriment, many decide that spending 11 years in this limbo state just isn’t worth it, and thus depart back to China, India or eastern Europe after getting an American degree or work experience in the US.

In the UK, most low skilled migrants come from the Indian subcontinent (Pakistan, Bangladesh); Africa; and eastern European countries such as Poles, Latvians, etc. AFAIK, the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are now mostly family members and relatives of previous immigrants who have already settled in the UK. The eastern Europeans are more recent arrivals, coinciding with the opening of its labor markets to the new EU members in the east (it was the only country to do along with Ireland and Sweden). The result was a sharp rise in Polish migration – perhaps 500,000 in total – where they worked as plumbers, construction workers, agricultural workers, and in the service industry. However, it’s a very transient migration wave. Following the post-2008 recession, many – perhaps most of them – have left back for Poland (which is now doing very well, economically).

Possibly not the best way to endear oneself to the indigenous population.

Possibly not the best way to endear oneself to the indigenous population.

The Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are there to stay, arguably to Britain’s detriment, as not only have they transformed many inner cities into areas of urban blight (e.g. Luton, Burnley, Leicester), but they also form the bulk of the British Muslim community, which is by far the most radicalized and anti-progressive in Western Europe. For instance, in polls more than a third support the death penalty for apostasy.

This isn’t just reflected in these figures, or photos of extremists carrying placards with “Behead Those Who Insult Islam” on them. The areas in which these communities predominate are no go areas, because of the gangs and crime rates. They also have very backward ideas on women’s rights. Once when I was shopping for groceries with a female friend who happened to have dark features, which I guess can pass for South Asian ones, a bearded Asian man began hurling slurs at her for exposing herself, i.e. wearing a T-shirt, forcing me to resolutely intervene. Now all this might sound stereotypical, prejudicial, racist, etc. to liberals who’ve never lived or even wandered into such areas, but they are just the facts on the ground.

Some US conservatives believe that Muslims are going to demographically take over Europe, turning it into a “Eurabia”. This is, by and large, fear-mongering nonsense, including the British variant of the Eurabia scenario: “Londonistan“. The fact is that Muslims are only c.3% of the British population, are highly fragmented by ethnicity and levels of religious devotion, and their fertility rates – though higher – are steadily converging to the UK average. In the next generation, though the UK will become a more Muslim country, minarets won’t replace Oxford’s “dreaming spires” any time soon. Nor, BTW, is Russia going to become majority Muslim (despite analysts / propagandists who argue otherwise). They constitute a maximum of 10% of the population (polls actually indicate 4-6%), and the two largest Muslim ethnicities – Tatars and Bashkirs – have fertility rates that are no different from those of ethnic Russians. In fact, the only Russian Muslim group with fertility rates substantially above replacement level rates are the Chechens, of whom there are only a bit more than one million.

Migrants in Russia – called “Gastarbeiters”, from the German name for Turkish guest workers – are typically from the poorer countries of the “Near Abroad”: Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Georgians, Armenians, and Moldovans. The Central Asians dominate construction work, Caucasians dominate open air markets / bazaars, while Slavs tend to work in services like interior decorating or hairdressing. The typical pattern is for them to arrive legally – Russia has visa less travel with the former Soviet republics, with the right to reside up to three months – but work illegally and overstay. The migrants live in communal apartments in out of the way places, and their employers typically arrange bribes for the police to leave them alone as long as they don’t make trouble. There’s a good photo album of their living conditions here.

Their lives are unpleasant, access to social services is far more limited than for illegals in the US, and they always live under the cloud of arbitrary deportation (sometimes, for political reasons: once, there was a large campaign at expelling Georgian illegals after a serious deterioration in relations with Georgia). Nonetheless, around 5-8 million of them have decided to come nonetheless, because of the salary differentials. Whereas a Tajik can expect to earn perhaps $80 per month in construction in his home country, in Russia the equivalent figure is $500+.

Gender

The stereotype of Russia is that it’s a patriarchal country, and one where things have gotten a lot worse for women since the end of (supposed) Soviet egalitarianism. This isn’t quite as simple.

For the seventy years of its existence, there was not a single woman in the Politburo, whereas the current Cabinet has two (albeit in the “softer” departments: economy; healthcare). Nonetheless, politics is undoubtedly far more markedly dominated by men in Russia than is the case in Britain or the UK.

The female share of the workforce is higher, and the ratio of male to female wages, and the prevalence of female managers, is similar to that in the US and Britain (and higher than in mainland Europe). Russian women did take a big hit in the 1990′s when state employment fell (most state workers are women), but as already mentioned, the state has since recovered; whereas the prospects for women in the UK, due to the big cuts in the state sector planned for the coming years, are bad.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was one of the top 10 Soviet snipers of WW2, with 309 confirmed kills.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was one of the top 10 Soviet snipers of WW2, with 309 confirmed kills.

The early Soviet state pushed for the modernization of women’s lives, pioneering concepts such as maternity leave, industrial employment, etc. The latter reached an apogee during the Second World War, when the conscription of men spurred huge growth in industrial jobs for women. Uniquely amongst the combatant nations, Soviet female volunteers were allowed to serve in combat positions on the front, such as fighter pilots and snipers.

The process continued after the war, e.g. the first female cosmonaut was Soviet. However, most women’s professions remained those regarded as traditionally feminine – nurses, doctors, teachers, office workers, bureaucrats. Today, more jobs are closed off to Russian women than in the UK or the US – mostly by social convention (e.g. whereas many women work traditionally male jobs such as truck drivers in the US, it is far rarer in Russia), but in a few cases by formal requirements (e.g. e.g. Moscow Metro’s job ads for train drivers specifically ask for male applicants). Front line combat in the armed forces is closed off to women in all three countries.

Discrimination laws exist, but lag behind Britain and the US. It is far easier for Russian bosses to get away exploiting their female colleagues, e.g. trading pay rises for sexual favors. The good news for the majority of normal men is that there are far fewer frivolous harassment lawsuits.

In all three countries, more women go to university than men. Furthermore, the difference in male and female life expectancy in Russia – 62 years to 75 years in 2010 – is one of the highest in the world. This is mostly because, while there are some female alcoholics, excessive alcohol consumption is far more prevalent among Russian men. Unlike in the US or the UK, there is no rhetoric among Russian conservatives against single mothers.

The flip side of patriarchy is chivalry. Women in Russia can retire at 55, whereas for men it is 60; pretty bizarre, given that they live about 13 years longer. They cannot be sentenced to the death penalty (on which there is, granted, a moratorium) or to life imprisonment. Women aren’t subject to conscription in Russia. Whether this is discrimination, a privilege, or both, is up for debate.

Sexual Minorities

Being LGBT is far worse in Russia than in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Despite the impassioned rhetoric against homosexuality in the US, this does not stop several states from allowing gay marriage and there being an active political debate on the subject. The state of gay rights in the UK is similar, but with less vitriol.

In Russia, homosexual acts between males were only legalized in 1993. Under the Mayoralty of Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow Pride parades were banned up and marches dispersed until his ouster in 2010. Support for gay marriage is minimal, at no more than 20% of the population. Gay couples can’t adopt children.

Society will tolerate you, but it will object to you flaunting your sexuality; it is common for Russians to fear the “propagandization” of the “homosexual lifestyle” and its (supposedly) infectious effects on children. Obviously, it’s still far better to be a homosexual in Russia than anywhere in the Middle East (except Israel), or most of Asia for that matter. You won’t go to prison just for being gay. But even in Moscow, you’ll be subjected to the kind of discrimination and popular disapproval that would have prevailed in the US or Britain in, say, the 1980′s.

Islamophobia

The omnipresence of “war on terror” rhetoric in all three countries, and Russia’s and Britain’s large Muslim minorities, make this an important issue.

The US used to be markedly better than the rest, but with the upsurge of Islamophobia in recent years – bizarrely, well after 9/11 – makes this no longer accurate. Rep. Peter King recently launched congressional hearings about the “radicalization” of the Muslim community, no matter that most terrorist attacks in the past decade actually came from White nationalist and anti-government groups. But these neo-McCarthyite antics have the support of most of the population.

American Muslims tend to have a divide between conservative fathers and mothers, and liberal sons and daughters. The parents come from more traditional societies and tend to continue thinking in this way. Their offspring not only have the natural tendency to rebel against them, but also against a government and a society that is ever less welcoming of their presence in the country. Go to a Muslim political gathering, and you’ll hear about Foucault and Derrida and the importance of “changing the narrative”; you won’t hear anything about the likes of Sayyid Qutb or the necessity of jihad.

The British have the most radicalized Muslim minority in Europe. There is a lot of latent Islamophobia, though it’s not quite as extensive as in mainland Europe; given that their Muslims are more extreme than in the US or Europe, however, that is somewhat understandable.

The two most populous Russian Muslim minorities, the Tatars and Bashkirs in the center of Russia, are indistinguishable from ethnic Russians in their secularism (including alcohol consumption). The southern Muslims of the North Caucasus, such as Daghestanis, Chechens and Ingushetians, are far stricter, religious, conservative, and patriarchal (e.g. the father of the house, to this day, still frequently decides whom his daughter is going to wed). However, Russians are not Islamophobic in the way that Britain or especially the US is; their antipathy is expressed not through religion, but through ethnicity. That said, there’s also a countervailing admiration for Caucasians’ famed warrior spirit, machismo, and perceived social cohesion.

Conclusion? If you’re a moderate Muslim, then chances are you’ll get along fine in Britain, Russia and the US (though you will also occasionally run into prejudice, bigotry and discrimination). If you’re a radical Islamist, however, then staying in Russia and the US could be outright dangerous; you’re better off moving to the UK, where you may be prosecuted but at least won’t be put into secret jails.

Ageism

The retirement age in the UK is 65, at which point an employer can force his worker to retire without additional compensation. In state institutions like universities it is done as a matter of course. The retirement age in Russia is 60 years for men and 55 years for women, but many continue working into their seventies and eighties to supplement their meager pensions. My impression is that people retire late in the US. I don’t know much about elderly workers’ rights or the details of their pensions systems, largely because I haven’t yet had cause to concern myself with them.

In education, it is not unusual typical to see older people at US universities, who take classes in subjects they’re interested in for pleasure or enlightenment. This is much rarer in the UK and Russia.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
🔊 Listen RSS

The classic Marxist argument holds than an emerging bourgeois class, its wealth based on commerce, industry and capital accumulation, was constrained and frustrated in its political ambitions by the nobility. France was divided into Three Estates, the Third Estate which bore the taille (the main direct tax), the nobility (subject only to the capitation poll tax and viengtième) and the clergy (only required to donate a pre-negotiated don gratuit). The ‘privileged’ orders maintained monopolies, held the right to collect the tithe or seigniorial dues and enjoyed many exemptions, e.g. on military service, the corveé and most taxes. L.S. Mercier in his Tableau de Paris succinctly summed up the many grievances against the aristocracy – “The castles…possess misused rights of hunting, fishing and cutting wood…[and] conceal those haughty gentlemen who separate themselves effectively from the human race…who add their own taxes…beg eternally for pensions and places…[and] will not allow the common people to have either promotion or reward”. The last point was expounded on by the Abbé Sieyès, in the heady atmosphere of 1789, when he wrote, “All the branches of the executive have been taken over by the caste that monopolizes the Church, the judiciary and the army. A spirit of fellowship leads the nobles to favor one another over the rest of the nation”. These illustrated the main complaints of the Third Estate against the nobility – they were perceived as venal, reactionary and parasitic, a foreign blot on the French nation.

Yet the above view that 18th century France saw the bourgeoisie superseding the old nobility economically but being frustrated in their social ambitions by them is a flawed and simplistic narrative. The arguments of the revisionist school, which challenged the French Marxist interpretation of the Revolution as the replacement of the nobility by the bourgeoisie as the dominant class, are many and covering all major revisionist historians (Cobban, Taylor, Doyle, etc) is futile in an essay of such length. However, Schama’s Citizens encompasses their arguments in one book, albeit one we have to treat with caution due to its constant and unwarranted bias against the revolutionaries, harkening back to historical dramatizers like Carlyle, Dickens and Baroness Orkzy.

In a nutshell, Citizens considers the old regime to have been surprisingly modern – progressive, prospering, addicted to science and change. Old-style feudalism was supposedly already pretty much vanished from the countryside – most dues were equivalent to money rents. French state-funded pure science was the equal of any in Europe and was translated into many useful applications, particularly in military technology. Economic growth proceeded at 1.9% per annum in the late 18th century, a rate only matched during the era of the Empire and its artificial Continental System. Transport (from 1760 to 1780 travel times by coach from Paris to Bordeaux fell from fourteen to five days), communications and trade) were developing rapidly, unifying the French market. Industry burgeoned, growing at an impressive average of 3.8% per annum from the 1760′s to the Revolution) and was the most developed in Europe outside Britain. Growing literacy and the rise of a public opinion fueled an explosion in newspapers, pamphlets and encyclopedias.

Also incorporated is Doyle’s insight that by the late 18th century, nobility could be easily bought (France had 120,000 nobles in 1789, an order of magnitude greater than in Britain) and that the late ancien régime underwent fusion between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. While officially engagement in commercial activities was to be punished by derogation, in practice France’s leading industrialists were also nobles – for instance, the Duc d’Orléons, the King’s own brother, owned glass-works at Cotteret and textile plants at Montargis and Orléons. Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely. Moreover, the biggest frictions were not between the commercial bourgeoisie and nobles, but between different sections of the nobility – the usually successful urban nobles of Paris and the booming peripheral cities like Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux and Nantes, and the rural gentry, which comprised 40% of the noble population and frequently had nothing to distinguish themselves from the commoners around them than by their titles, and thus had the most to fear from a loss of privileges. This was the main reason behind the 1781 Ségur Law, which limited sales of military ranks to the old nobility and was primarily aimed against the recently ennobled nouveau riche. Furthermore, there is evidence that even the more ordinary bourgeoisie (which number some 2.3mn souls on the eve of the Revolution) admired and aspired to nobility – for instance, in December 1788 the lawyers of Nuits declared, “The privileges of the nobility are truly their property. We will respect them all the more because we are not excluded from them…why, then, suppose that we think of destroying the source of emulation which guides our labors?” For every corrupt and unpopular intendant there would be a progressive like Saint-Sauveur in Languedoc, who applied science to solve economic and public health problems in his province. To quote Schama in extenso, assuming modernity to be a “world in which capital replaces customs as arbiter of social values, where professionals rather than amateurs run the institutions of law and government, and where commerce and industry rather than land lead economic growth”, the “great period of change was not the Revolution but the late eighteenth century”.

So instead of being a class war between bourgeoisie and nobility, there is evidence that it was ideas, a reaction against this brave new world of ‘money and death’, that generated the Revolution. This new social phenomenon was based on several sources – foremost, philosophy and reviving interest in antiquity, all reinforced by the decline of absolutism throughout the eighteenth century and the rapid spread of literacy. Louis-Philippe, the Comte de Ségur, recalled in 1826 – “We were inclined to surrender whole-heartedly to the philosophical doctrines put forwards by men of letters…we took secret pleasure in the fact that these men attacked the old edifice that seemed to us to be so Gothic and ridiculous. Censorship in the last decades of the ancien régime was relatively light and forbidden books and pamphlets could be bought even near the entrance to the Palace of Versailles, where they found willing customers amongst the aristocrats and courtiers who as often as not were the subjects of their vitriol and ridicule. Rousseau captivated people with his aspiration to candidness, simplicity and Virtue; Voltaire criticized the bloated upper hierarchy of the Church; Montesquieu proposed the division of government into the legislative, executive and judicial branch, replacing the old feudal system of the Estates. In general invective was directed against the system of monarchical rule – writing the Rights of Man in 1791, Tom Paine summarized these sentiments by stating that “what is called the splendor of a throne is no other than the corruption of the state, which “indiscriminately admits every species of character to the same authority”.

A renewed interest in the ancient world stirred ascetic Roman ideals of asperity, simplicity and readiness to sacrifice, as exemplified by the tale of the Horatii (which inspired the famous David painting, Oath of the Horatii). Modern manifestations of the Roman ideal were seized upon, as illustrated by the emergence of patriot citizen heroes during the French involvement in the American Revolutionary War (against a monarchy!) – e.g. du Couëdic, a ship commander who became a patriot hero after his Pyrrhic victory over a British frigate in which he was mortally wounded and his sloop practically destroyed. And finally there was the reflection of these ideas in the popular culture of the time – plays caricaturing the privileged orders (e.g. The Marriage of Figaro), David’s paintings and the polemics of folks like Mercier and Linguet. Thus as we can there was more to the background of the Revolution that social and economic turbulence – also playing a great rule were new ideas like equality of opportunity, the virtues of simplicity and patriotism, and a return to an imagined past while being propelled forwards technologically – as gushingly envisioned in Condorcet’s futurist writings.

The other side of the Marxist argument is that, in Albert Soboul’s words, “The French Revolution was the crowning achievement of a long economic and social evolution that made the bourgeoisie the master of the world”. He has a point regarding his evaluation of the Revolution’s lasting legacy – in particular, that of its Constituent Assembly. The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) was the foundation for civil equality – Clause 2 states, “These [natural and inalienable] are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression”. Guilds and price controls were abolished and the Le Chapelier Law (1791) prohibited workers’ associations. That said, many of the liberal reforms of that era were simply a continuation of previous royal policies. The main Revolution-inspired tax, a common one on land and movables, had precedents in Calonne’s reform proposals of 1786 and free trade was in favor from Turgot to the Eden Treaty. The removal of internal customs barriers and the emancipation of Protestants both happened in 1786 under the ancien régime.

The Revolution opened up careers to talent, which could only favor the bourgeoisie since urban workers and peasants did not have the educational opportunities to exploit this. However, in the short term, because of the Revolution’s distrust of professional associations (links to old regime corporatism and privilege), medicine and law were “thrown open to the market, with minimal qualifications required”, resulting in “revolutionary France being a happy hunting ground for quacks and charlatans”. Afterwards, the militarized bureaucracy that was the Napoleonic state employed 250,000 officials, five times more than the old regime and about 10% of the entire bourgeoisie, who even enjoyed the rudiments of a contributory pension system. The army was very successful in adapting to the new society, as Napoleon could testify. So the bourgeoisie, as in middle class, gained authority – but what about the other meaning of bourgeois, as in capitalist?

The Revolution affirmed property rights and produced aforementioned pro-capitalist legislation. However, in the short term it was a catastrophe – war and British naval superiority, coupled with revolts in the provinces led to the eclipse of France’s most dynamics economic sector in 1789, overseas trade, as well as the cities that sustained it (Bordeaux, Marseilles, Nantes, etc). Emigration and persecution of the old noble elites caused the collapse of Lyon’s silk industry. Granted, military campaigns and the Continental System created artificial demand for cotton and metallurgy, but these also collapsed following the defeats after 1812. From a long term perspective, the ruling class remained confined to land-owning nobles and bourgeoisie as before, who invested in land rather than industry, especially because of the mass sale of the biens nationaux – for instance, one asked what kind of Frenchman is mad enough “to risk his fortune in a business enterprise…[and not]…one of the confiscated estates”. France had to wait for the railways to really ‘take-off’ into its industrial revolution and its main impact, meanwhile, was in its ideas – nationalism, civil equality, sovereignty and meritocracy, which were born in the last decades of the ancien régime and propagated through Europe by French armies. “The people thought kings were gods upon earth…[now] it’s more difficult to rule the people”, according to Kolokotrones, a Greek brigand and patriot.

Following our analysis of the origins and results of the Revolution – in which we say that although its repercussions did impact somewhat on the social structure, the main motivations seem to have been based on ideas, not class – it’s time to look at course of the Revolution itself. The first and most famous French Revolution was, according to Lefebvre, actually four revolutions. The first was the ‘aristocratic revolt’, which, due to circumstances and Louis XVI’s indecisiveness and assorted gaffes, succeeded in calling up the Estates-General to approve new taxes. However, the privileged Estates’ insistence on the ‘forms of 1614′ transformed the debate – “King, despotism and constitution have become only secondary questions. Now it is war between the Third Estate and the two others”, according to the Abbé Sieyès. Eventually though, faced with deadlock and ominous signs from the government, they joined in common with a doubled Third and took the Tennis Court Oath. The popular revolution stormed the Bastille, took control of Paris and destroyed the capital’s hated customs wall on hearing rumors of a royalist plot to dissolve the National Assembly by force. Meanwhile the peasant revolution destroyed feudalism from below via the widespread burning of seigniorial obligations. The King was forced to back down. With its newfound power, the bourgeoisie used the National Assembly to enact Enlightenment-influenced civil equality reforms.

The above account is not as simply as it might appear. The composition of the Third Estate in the Estates-General of 1789 was actually mostly composed of venal office holders (43%) and lawyers (25%), while only 13% were involved in commercial activities. Furthermore, the Third was actually more conservative than the Second on the vast majority of economic and social issues! Also the Estates were prepared to fuse together into a National Assembly to demand a constitution and afterwards, all (former) orders overwhelmingly supported measured to eradicate privileges (e.g. the August Decrees).

The other major period as regards social interpretations is from the purge of the Girondins in June 1793 to the Thermidorian reaction in July 1794. Now the legacy of this period – the Maxima, forced loans, laws against hoarding, the Vendôme Laws – is certainly not pro-bourgeois under any understanding of the term. According to a variant of the Marxist interpretation, the bourgeois bent over backwards to appease the sans-culottes by implementing economic Terror. In this way war pressures (the levée en masse and its associated release of democratic sentiments), food shortages and radicalization of the clubs (e.g. Cordeliers) was to be sublimated and redirected against the Republic’s foreign enemies.

The problem with this interpretation is the assumption that the sans-culottes had a powerful political identity and goals of their own. They were in fact politically passive. They did not lash out when their champions were destroyed (e.g. Roux imprisoned under the Law of Suspects in September 1793, the Hébertists guillotined for their excessive zeal in March 1794, etc). All their journées during the period – the overthrow of the King, the purge of the Girondins, demands for the Maxima – were in any case supported by a large number of Assembly deputies. Finally, they faded as a political force after Thermidor once the war started going much better, despite the winter of 1794-95 being one of the harshest on record and rampant inflation following the abandonment of the Maxima. This is illustrated by the failed uprisings of Germinal and Prairial. One cause of this is that the “popular societies of the sections rarely numbered more than 400 members”, meaning that only 5% to 10% of Parisians actively participated (and were mainly drawn from artisans and shopkeepers), in contrast to the sectional battalions which numbered around 100,000 men. Thus they were too weak without the support of bourgeois Jacobinism. They defined themselves culturally (not politically) as favoring fraternity, liberty and candidness, and in opposition to the corrupt, superficial ‘aristos’. It wasn’t really a class with common social backgrounds, but rather an intellectual and cultural fad which predated the worker movements of the 19th century, e.g. in its politicized social goals and partial tolerance of a feminist movement.

Although in general the Jacobins shared moderately well-off bourgeois backgrounds, what defined them were their ideas. Robespierre dreamed of a Rousseaun Republic, a Romantic vision of Virtue as absolute end. But “virtue without which terror is harmful and terror which without virtue is impotent” – political Terror was necessary for the preservation of the Republic from its internal enemies and to inculcate virtue. Rationality, incorruptibility, candidness, the Supreme Being were virtue – and those who dared stand against it (Hébertists, dechristianizers, feminists, Enragés, etc) were to be smitten down by the guillotine. Even as the Convention passed Saint-Just’s Vendôme Laws (the transferal of the lands of émigrés to landless French patriots), the deportation of French vagrants to Madagascar was being seriously discussed. Furthermore, it was more about “punishing political crime and rewarding political virtue” than any social consideration, especially considering it “[only appeared] as an appendage to a prolonged denunciation of disloyalty”. The Thermidorian reaction was a grouping of republican moderates intent on ending the Terror, and consequent reprisals against the Terrorists were a matter of vengeance, not class war, since they were almost all bourgeois themselves.

While the Marxist view of the Revolution as a social struggle (transition from feudalism to capitalism) is useful in analyzing social changes between 1789 and 1799, it is bankrupt as an explanation for why tendencies already embedded in ancien régime France erupted so suddenly and violently. It was an unqualified boon only for landed middle-class bourgeoisie who were focused on a career of state service, but was disastrous for those in commerce (at least in the short-term). In general the bigwigs of the nobility retained their positions, and social conditions worsened for the urban poor because of the much reduced influence of the Church, which had been the main system of social support in the old regime. Amazingly, despite population increase, the number of hospitals in 1847 was 42% less than in 1789. However this was in a sense just an acceleration of late 18th century trends, when worker incomes plunged, economic inequality soared and the system was increasingly decried by polemicists like the doom-mongering Mercier. French reality fermented with the intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment to produce a social and above all an intellectual one. It was a revolution primarily inspired and fueled by ideas – not by class conflict.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
No Items Found
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.