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The Paleo Manifesto” by John Durant, published in 2013. Rating: 5/5.

Most books on the paleo diet follow a set pattern: An inspirational story about how the author wrecked his health with junk food or vegetarianism before the caveman came riding on a white horse to the rescue; an explanation of why, contrary to the popular expression, almost anything is better than sliced white bread; a long and exhaustive guide to the do’s and don’ts of paleo with plenty of scientific explanations; and finally, a list of recipes and suggestions for further reading.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still get a solid idea of how to eat, move, and live by paleo principles from John Durant’s THE PALEO MANIFESTO. But at its core, this is no diet book.

It is a bold attempt to situate the paleo lifestyle within the “Big History” of human biosocial evolution, which is divided into four distinct “ages”: Paleolithic, agricultural, industrial, and information. Each of these ages was characterized by diets that created new problems, problems that were in turn partially mitigated by solutions specific to the very age that spawned them. This is a narrative that evokes a whiff of historical materialism, though John Durant is far more of a neo-reactionary than a Marxist.

Well aware of its pervasive violence and cultural backwardness, Durant does not unduly glamorize paleolithic life. (Nor does virtually anyone in the movement, strawmen set up by paleo’s detractors regardless). But one can’t escape the physical evidence that hunter-gatherers were far taller, stronger, and healthier than the early agriculturalists hunched over their hoes. An anthropologist shows off a male specimen who was 5″10 (175 cm) tall and weighed 150 pounds (68 kg), despite having a musculature that would put the vast majority of modern humans to shame. Average heights decreased by 5 inches after the transition to agriculture, and tooth and bone health deteriorated drastically.

The Bible tells the story: Man took up farming and began eating bread, and then cities appeared, famine and disease stalked the land, and childbirth became painful and dangerous. But childbirth also became more frequent, and the vast (if low-quality) caloric surpluses from grains enabled farmer populations – armed with metal weapons and commanded by literate elites – to gradually displace the world of Enkidu. That world might never have been paradise on Earth, but it “probably seemed like the Garden of Eden” compared to the lives of early farmers.

Agricultural civilization, over time, evolved sociobiological antidotes to the new ills it had spawned – first and foremost, disease. Wine and hot tea appeared as substitutes for (filthy) water. Spices, which have antimicrobial properties, became a universal staple of southern cuisines. Fermented foods and beverages negated some of the poisons inherent to the new diet. Early fertility cults and promiscuous attitudes gave way to patriarchal structures that enforced heterosexual monogamy – a natural adaptation to the appearance of STD’s.

In a stunning insight, and highlight of the book for me, Durant argues that Mosaic Law can be interpreted as one of the most comprehensive – if unintentional – disease prevention guides in history. Cleanliness was associated with godliness; taboos appeared against cannibalism, and eating (potentially spoiled) meat after the third day; leprosy sufferers were to be shunned. Only virgin women could be captured, while all the others had to be killed (the past is a foreign country). The entire “kashrut” system of “clean” and “unclean” animals rested on a valid scientific basis. Vermin, shellfish, and most insects were disease vectors; pigs, lizards, snakes, amphibians, bird of prey and carrion, and cats – which were worshipped in Egypt! – gobbled the former up. In contrast, no plants are forbidden – even though many of them are poisonous – and nor do primarily plant-eating insects such as locusts, whose consumption would provide a double benefit in terms of both protein and fewer crops destroyed. All these strictures were backed up by severe punishment for transgressors, on both the early and godly plane; disease control was a matter of “life and death for the entire community,” and could only be effectively carried out with the cooperation of the entire community.

Industrialization brought a whole new set of nutrition problems. Sailors died like fleas from scurvy on long voyages; obesity started appearing in Britain in the 19th century as sugar became a staple; rickets increased in frequency as people stayed indoors for longer on what was an infamously sunless island in the first place. Instead of religious commandments, this time it was science and technology that constituted the solution. Limes and lemons were packed on ships in addition to the traditional salt pork and gin; in 1863, a formerly obese Englishman called William Banting published the world’s first diet book, based on restricting sweet and starchy foods (see a pattern?); in 1933, the US government started fortifying milk with Vitamin D to combat rickets, and a few decades later celebrities and sunbeds made sun-tans cool again. “Again, we learned how not do die.”

We are now entering the age of biohackers: The Pareto Principle followers, the fox thinkers, Qualified Selfers, the n=1 experimenters who are seeking novel and individualistic ways of improving their health without waiting for formal science – which advanced “one funeral at a time,” as Max Planck so eloquently put it – to catch up. They try to take a big view of the progress and pitfalls across the ages, and adjust their diets and lifestyle to get the best of all worlds: The paleo diet intrinsic to humans for 99% of their existence as a species; the cultural traditions against disease and recent-adaptations like lactose tolerance of the Agricultural Age; the soaring successes and arrogant foibles of the Industrial Age; and the wealth of individually-tailored data and analytical tools now available on the information highways. For the first time ever, optimal health is within our grasp.

The second and third sections deal with the details of the paleo lifestyle, and as such is much closer to the content of most books on the subject. It’s all pretty much standard: Avoid grains and legumes, eat meat (from tail to tail), vegetables, fruit, nuts, and insects (both the familiar oceanic and unfamiliar land versions). Don’t fear saturated fat; the French Paradox is no paradox. Mimic a hunter-gatherer or herder diet. Follow ancient culinary traditions (experiment with broths, fermented and raw foods, organ meats, etc.) and practices (e.g. fasting). Move naturally – humans are evolved to stand, walk, squat, lie down, and occasionally sprint; they are not evolved to sit or do moderate jogging (check out CrossFit and MovNat). Running was traditionally done barefoot, which enables a more natural and less stressful action; consider that or getting a Vibrams. Do cold plunges and saunas. Don’t fear the Sun – the risks of getting skin cancer from it are negligible compared to the warding effects it gives from depression, other cancers, and a multitude of other ailments.

Nonetheless, we still find some clever insights – as well as controversies. For instance, I liked how he destroys the Whole Foods-shoppers’ worship of organic and whole foods over processed. He points out that “organic sugar is still sugar,” and that the absurdity has even spread to “organic tobacco,” while processed foods can be both very healthy (e.g. cooking, fermentation) or very unhealthy (e.g. Coca-Cola, Mars bars).

He does a good job of defending the ecological role played by responsible hunters – though I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say lion burgers are a good or valid way of advancing an animal preservation cause – and of rebutting vegetarian arguments. These range from the rational-seeming but factually wrong (e.g. the assertion that hunter-gatherers got most of their calories from plants, or references to T. Colin Campbell’s deeply flawed interpretation of the China Study), to politicized absurdities such as Carol Adam’s assertion in THE SEXUAL POLITICS OF MEAT that meat-eating is a mechanism to enforce “patriarchy” (in reality, hunter-gatherer tribes were far less hierarchic and male-dominant than complex, grain-based civilizations). Still, while it might be true that vegetarians are crazier than average, there was no need – no need whatsoever – to go off on that bizarre tangent about Hitler’s vegetarianism. What the hell, dude? If you’re trying to present yourself as a voice of reason against the filthy grain-eating peasants, calling on the curse of Godwin probably isn’t the smartest way to go about it.

But a few quibbles cannot detract from what is, all things said, a monumental contribution to the nutritional canon. THE PALEO MANIFESTO is eminently readable, greased along by Durant’s endearingly morbid sense of humor (he advises against cannibalism on account of modern people having a “much higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids due to their grain-based diets”). There is a consistently fluid command of the relevant medical, nutritional, and anthropological literature, as might be expected of the organizer of the world’s largest paleo Meetup group. Above all, he succeeds at contextualizing the paleo lifestyle within the big story of humanity’s biosocial evolution, and his conclusions – earlier jeremiads against the Standard American Diet and vegetarianism regardless – end up acknowledging the critical importance of integrating lessons from all four of the major nutritional epochs.

Though paleo is the most “natural” way to eat, it eminently cannot feed a global population of seven billion. The agricultural system – that is, local and organic – plays a vital role in maintaining plant genetic diversity, but it probably cannot feed the world either, short of most of us returning to a hardscrabble existence in the fields. The industrial system is the caloric workhorse that feeds the world, but it suffers from “serious health, ethical, and environmental drawbacks.” According to Durant, the most realistic, sustainable, and humane way forward is to keep the industrial system, but mitigate its worst effects by drawing on the best of what the paleolithic and agricultural systems have to offer. Meanwhile, the information system that industrialism enables can continue to push forwards our understanding of optimal health and nutrition through the vision and self-experimentation of the 21st century’s biohackers.

And really, who can argue with that?

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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One of the best possible arguments against vegetarianism in just 1:24 minutes.

They like steak too.

Most herbivores are herbivores because their teeth can’t chew through fur and tough skin, not because they are humanitarians. (In the conventional meaning of the word). But put some little defenseless critter in front of them, and they’d be chomping down on it before you can say “moo!”

As for pigs, their omnivorous appetites are so well known that they have even given birth to a trope for body disposal, both in literature and real life. You don’t even have to be dead for them to start feasting on you – just being incapacitated would do quite nicely.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Archives, Food, Nutrition, Zoology 
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caveman-computerFirst you couldn’t have more than 10% fat in your diet, then carbohydrates became the source of all evil*. Slow-Carb waged war on the various Schools of Paleo. But the Food Pyramid continues to loom over them all like some kind of Eldritch abomination.

Weight machines were once all the rage, but then free weights became king. Then Tsatsouline brought kettlebell back into fashion, while others urged us on to condition ourselves with our own bodyweight, like convicts.

Eggs, coffee, and long-distance running caused perennial headaches to gurus all round.

So how does the layman observing this cacophonic monkeyhouse deal with all the noise? Simplify. Simplify the shit out out of all this crap and reduce it all to the following basic question:

Would you have been doing this 10,000 years ago?

Diet fads and exercise methodologies come and go, but the human body remains constant – at least on the timescales that matter. Apply the Caveman Test – and you are unlikely to go very far wrong.

Should you count calories? Erm, lolzwut? No caveman would know what a calorie even is. Forget all those Weight Watchers programs that would have you obsessing over that extra 5 calories you ingested at lunch.

How often should you eat? Did hunter-gatherers eat 6 carefully portioned meals a day – or did they alternate between bouts of fasting and feasting in-between their hunts? There you go – intermittent fasting. Feel free to give breakfast the finger if you’ve never liked it anyway.

Did you eat grains? No, they ate root tubers. When humans started eating grains, life expectancy plummeted relative to the levels of the Paleolithic Age. But here’s the thing: Humans have adapted. Partially adapted. Some human groups have adapted more than others. East Asians have been cultivating and eating rice for more than 10,000 years, and it remains a major staple of their diet to this day; but they nonetheless boast some of the world’s lowest morbidity and obesity profiles**. It is not an unreasonable hypothesis that their physiologies have evolved to better process grains. Reinforcing it is the observation that some of the world’s worst obesity crises are among peoples that have only very recently adopted grain heavy modern diets – the Ameri-Indians, the Samoans, etc. If you are East Asian, you shouldn’t worry much about eating rice. You were doing it 10,000 years ago, after all. If you’re Europea, approach with caution – rice only arrived in Iberia only a millennium ago. And if you’re Ameri-Indian, flee for the hills. Other forms of grain however appear to be pretty much universally bad.

lactose-toleranceDid you drink milk? Again, no. But because its a useful trait to have, lactose tolerance independently developed among several human groups – and then spread outwards. But if you don’t come from those red and orangey areas, chances are high you are lactose intolerant. So don’t bother with it. Forget about GOMAD.

Did you eat fruit? Of course – whatever Tim Ferriss might believe. But here’s the thing: The fruits we have now are, quite literally, the fruits of labor – that is, of a long period of selection for size and sweetness. Take the strawberry. People like pretending that eating bowls of the stuff is healthy (I won’t even go into stuff like orange juice). Here is a picture of wild strawberries – that is, the genuine ones – that might change your mind on this (and don’t forget they would have all been foraged, and only available for part of the year).


What kind of things would you have eaten that you don’t eat much of now? Root tubers. Organs. Bone marrow.

How would you have exercised? Certainly not by lifting symmetric weights in “sets” according to a certain schedule. Anything but that.

How about:

  • Ripped rock climbers.

    Ripped rock climbers.

    Bodyweight exercises: Pressups, pullups, squats, bridges.

  • Gymnastics.
  • Rock climbing/bouldering. Seriously – have you ever seen a fat rock climber? It’s pretty much perfect as far as developing the optimal physique is concerned. Most of the muscles (except the pushup ones) are worked out from all angles and directions; there is the strongest of incentives to drop weight, which acts even at the subconscious level; and reaching the top is inherently motivational. There are now many gyms with bouldering walls.
  • Sprinting
  • Wrestling
  • Lugging about uneven weights

What else would you have been doing differently? According to Cracked, a leading scientific authority, pretty much everything: Shitting, bathing, breathing, sleeping, childbirth, dental hygiene, sitting. (Well, okay, Cracked’s articles can be quite dubious in many cases – but that one hits the mark.).

Well, you get the idea. Don’t obsess too much over one guru or another. Use your own brain – apply the Caveman Test.

Would you have been doing this 10,000 years ago?

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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Remember the advice to replace rice with more vegetables at Korean BBQ’s? Well, one place I sometimes go to (Steve’s BBQ) to my pleasant surprise now has a new dish made specifically of just salad and BBQed chicken, pork, or beef. It was specifically marketed as Lo-Carb. The paleo revolution is gaining.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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If you’re in the city during the day and don’t want to grab the nearest carb-loaded baguette, burger, subway etc on hand, what do you do?

1. Get a Burrito Bowl at Chipotle, probably the healthiest major fast food outlet in America. Get it without rice. This is the most affordable option costing only $6 standard, or $8 with avocado spread.

2. Go to a Korean BBQ place and get something like Bulgogi beef. Very caveman-like. Make sure to replace any rice they try to serve with grilled vegetables. Will cost maybe $10. A live Mongolian grill or Shabu Shabu are also valid alternatives, but will typically cost more.

3. A soup at a Thai eatery, no noodles, such as Tom Yum or Tom Kha Kai. Can cost as little as $5.

Modern cell phones are quite adept at finding these places. Then there’s always the traditional method of asking people. No excuse not to do it!

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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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.


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.


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.


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.



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!?


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


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.


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.


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+.


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.


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.


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)
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Edit 2013: It is with regret that I now acknowledge a lot of what I thought I knew about optimal eating some years back was wrong. Please disregard this post.

Sometime ago I wrote that introducing a fat tax is a good idea on the grounds that fatty foods are unhealthy and addictive (like drugs), and that a fat tax is socially progressive and would encourage healthier eating lifestyles. This argument is especially persuasive in countries where people who consciously lead unhealthy lifestyles can freeload on universal healthcare systems. Even in the US, these irresponsible characters drive up the costs of private medical insurance for everyone else. Given that Obama is energetically driving our fat asses in this direction, no matter that the nation is going broke, this issue becomes rather pertinent.

My arguments for a fat tax were considered worthy enough to be included in an anthology of essays dealing with this problem of At Issue: How Should Obesity be Treated?, edited by ed. Stefan Kiesbye [Amazon linkie], where the original essay was republished as A Tax on High Fat Foods Might Modify Poor Eating Habits. I re-republish their slightly edited* version below:


A Tax on High Fat Foods Might Modify Poor Eating Habits

Anatoly Karlin

Anatoly Karlin is the author of a blog that concentrates on Russian news topics, as well as one subjects of general interest.

The government should implement a graduated tax system on foods high in fat to counteract the obesity epidemic. Such a program would persuade people to cut back drastically on fat- and sodium-rich foods and encourage them to start eating food that is good for them. The goal is not to increase the life expectancy on the population but to make people live healthier and more productive lives.

We noticed that culinary cultures which consume a low-fat diet have tend to have dramatically lower mortality rates from CVDs [cardiovascular diseases] and degenerative diseases than those who indulge in a high-fat, high-sodium ‘civilized’ diet. As such it is a good idea to encourage consumption to shift from high-fat to low-fat foods.

Taxing Fatty Foods

Research should be conducted so as to ascertain the optimal levels of taxation to maximize positive outcomes, and the tax will probably be introduced gradually. But I’ll give a rough idea of how the tax will work below.

Calculate the caloric fat content of a particular food (take the number of grams of fat per 100g and multiply by 9; divide this by calories per 100g to get %). Anything under 20% will remain untaxed. This includes vegetables, fruits, fish and some white meats (skinless chicken breast). Then a flat tax of 25% for 20-30% fat (this will account for leaner steaks), 100% for 30-50% fat (traditional red meats) and 200% for 50+% fat (fast food hamburgers, vegetable oils, etc).

It goes without saying that advertising unhealthy foods will be a no-no, along with alcoholic drinks and tobacco.

Sodium will be taxed too. The RDA for sodium is 2g, or 4g of salt (max 3g/6g). Say, anything with more than 0.5g of sodium / 100g will be flat taxed at 50%.

A few foods, while OK in fat, are unacceptably high in cholesterol. The big one [is] eggs – one egg yolk = 2 days of RDA of cholesterol. Tax them at 200%. While some seafoods like prawns or oysters are medium-high in cholesterol, they have other health benefits, so leave them untaxed. I will not tax sugar because a) cakes, puddings, etc will already be taxed for their fat content and b) a lot of fruit actually contain a rather high % of sugar, but it is of a healthy kind. Fruit shouldn’t be taxed.

Advertising Restrictions

It is of course vital to propagandize the benefits for personal health of a low-fat diet on prime-time TV, radio, Internet and other media outlets. It goes without saying that advertising unhealthy foods will be a no-no, along with alcoholic drinks and tobacco. On the other hand, people do respond to price signals and meat and sweets costing less than fruit does not make a good contribution to public health. The fact is that countries with some specific diets (e.g. Okinawans have a life expectancy of 85 years) have health results that are objectively better than countries with other diets (e.g. Americans, Danes have a life expectancy of 77-78 years). So surely it would make sense to tax and subsidize in a way that shifts consumption patterns to the ones seen in countries/regions with the better health results?

Radical problems (a million preventable deaths from heart disease per year in the US alone, etc) require radical solutions. The hoi polloi [common people] will be treated to an intense national information campaign informing them of the benefits of the low fat diet.

Seriously though. The elite has a vested interest in improving the health of the workforce. Firstly, there will appear articles in newspapers and programs on TV exploring the links between nutrition and health. Advocacy groups for healthy dieting will appear and momentum for legislative changes will build up. Eventually, the government will bow to the public interest and gradually step up the fat tax.

You can still stuff yourself with butter and high-fat cheese if you really want to, you’ll just have to pay more for it.

Fast Food Industry Must Change

In industrialized countries, agriculture tends to account for a low % of GDP [gross domestic product] (7.9% in Portugal, 4.6% in Russia, 2.0% in France, o.9% in the US), and accounts for a correspondingly low % of those countries’ workforces (10.0% in Portugal, 10.8% in Russia, 4.1% in France, 0.4% in the US). So a dip in these figures will not affect the national economy much. In any case producers can adjust to it if plenty of advance warning is given and changes are introduced gradually.

Same goes for the food industry. The demand for food will remain; they will just have to try to adjust to the new order of things. Maybe it will be too hard for companies like McDonalds or KFC, but who cares about them anyway?

For some products you can pay very dearly indeed for consuming them (e.g. illegal drugs), i.e. with jail time. Secondly… in France and some US states unhealthy snack foods like chips and soft drinks are already subject to taxes.

Currently, even people who would otherwise want to eat healthily are discouraged from doing so because of higher prices because this is a niche market squeezed by the mainstream food market which is high in fat and sodium.

Incidentally, however, I have always supported legalizing all drugs, for the usual health, monetary and battling hypocrisy reasons, although they would remain heavily taxed (except red wine and to a lesser extent white wine, the consumption of which will be encouraged in moderate daily doses). On the topic of which, fat is actually also a drug – it is both debilitating and makes you irritable and mentally sluggish if consumed to excess in one session.

Finally, consumption of high fat foods will not, of course, be banned outright. You can still stuff yourself with butter and high-fat cheese if you really want to, you’ll just have to pay more for it.

Consumption Patterns Will Change

Today, there is an illogical situation in which rich cakes sometimes cost substantially less than an equivalent weight in fruit or salad, in supermarkets or in catering. The fat tax will reverse this state of affairs by encouraging people to switch consumption patterns to a lower fat, healthier diet. After all, elasticity is high within foods.

Currently, even people who would otherwise want to eat healthily are discouraged from doing so because of higher prices because this is a niche market squeezed by the mainstream food market which is high in fat and sodium.

Yes, it will affect the poor more than the rich. However, consider also the fact that it is the poor who suffer most from low-quality diets and the attendant symptons of obesity, heart disease, etc. Money from the fat tax can be used to support subsidies to healthy foods, community sports programs and a system of preventative healthcare, all of which are sorely lacking in Russia and the industrialized West.

A fat tax is a profoundly pro-poor measure.

A Market-Based Solution

I have considered converting the food industry into a totally planned thing, on the Soviet model but focused on the goal of fat reduction. Inefficiencies will invariably develop; but since… a) [food production] constitutes a fairly small portion of GDP; b) the goals of what to increase, what prices to set, are quite clear; and c) there aren’t many food products (relative to advanced industrial goods), it is a sound proposal.

Nonetheless, I think the market-based solution (fat tax, but free setting of prices) should first be completely explored and the planned model considered only if the former fails in its objectives (say, reduce by 50%+ annual cases of heart disease mortality, etc, over a decade since its full implementation). …

[Personally], I have cut out all butter, margarine, vegetable oils (switching to things like balsamic vinegar, salsa and low fat, low sodium tomato sauce and bolognese); cut out jams with any added sugars (there are some preserved with fruit concentrate, which I think is OK); only consume skimmed milk, low-fat cheese; no chocolate or coffee; a glass of red wine per day; only do skinless chicken breast or fish; cut out egg yolks. Of course, I don’t always follow it, but the only exceptions are in social settings where I go to a party or gathering, etc. As long as interruptions are infrequent rather than systematic, all is good.

Chicken and fish can be greatly enhanced by tossing in lemon, peppers, all kinds of spices, etc, and served with rice, pasta, etc. … For instance, you can even make a delicious carrot cake (calories 159, cholesterol 0, fat 0.6g, calories from fat 3%).

The point is that a low fat diet is only a little bit more restrictive than an unrestricted fat diet, if you bother to find/adapt the appropriate recipes, and it is orders of magnitude better for health/wellbeing. …

The key point is not increased longevity, which due to the high standards of treatment-based modern medical care, is not going to be much more than 5 years or so. The key point is a much increased healthy life expectancy. …

Note how in the UK life expectancy has increased much more rapidly than healthy life expectancy. The main trend in this period? More consumption of fats, especially saturated, in the forms of fast food, which has increased obesity levels significantly over this period.

So the question isn’t whether you’d like a few more years or not, but whether or not you want to spend the last few years of your life incapacitated and hooked up to mediciny machines.

At least so far. If medical progress continues and radical life extension therapies become available by the middle of this century, those few added years could make the difference between death and immortality!


A few qualifiers and clarifications I would add:

  • The major arguments stand, though today I would reduce the emphasis on just fat (indeed, some of it has a positive effect like nuts) and highlight the dangers of consuming a lot of food with a high glycemic load.
  • Make this book (Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever by Ray Kurzweil) required reading. Whether or not you are a singularitarian, the health advice in it applies to everyone.

Finally, despite the perceived “statism” behind this approach I should emphasize that my own life philosophy is that it does not pay to wait for the government to “help” you and instead take the personal initiative to guarantee your own health and wellbeing. Nor are private corporations your salvation. They are interested only in profits, not people, however hard they pretend otherwise.

Above is my perception of the medical-industrial complex. Wanna deal with them?

* They took out things tangential to the argument (mostly Russia-related, since remember, back in April 2008 this blog was still Da Russophile), as well as the irreverent humor. ;)

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
The method, art and philosophy of drinking lots and lots of vodka.
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The ability of Russians to drink prodigious amounts of alcohol before getting knocked out is legendary in the West*. It is a subject at once of grudging respect for the hardy Russian soul and airy condemnation of their shallow barbarism. Actually, there is nothing particularly supernatural or mysterious about it, nor is it a result of genetic resilience to the embrace of the green serpent acquired over generations. It is a simple procedure that anyone can learn, albeit mastering it is more of an art. With the ongoing Christmas and New Year festivities, as your drinking guru I feel it is my duty to inform you of how to drink lots of spirits and enjoy it.

The traditional party begins with a meal in the evening and lasts well into the night. If you are a healthy, non-East Asian adult male, you can expect to consume around about 500-750ml of 40% vodka (that is, the equivalent of 2-3 13% wine bottles, or 4-6 litres of beer) during a typical “zapoi”. Adjust upwards if you have exceptional alcohol tolerance, adjust down if you are a woman (smaller body mass, higher percentage of fat), a pure-blood East Asian (many of them lack the gene that breaks down alcohol) or have health problems, particularly heart or liver related. Or if you’re a child…unlike the French, Russians are generally strict on this. At best you’ll get a glass of low-alcohol apple cider before being sent to bed sometime around 10pm. Now 500-750ml of vodka sounds like a really big amount, inducing a certain sense of fear and loathing in the average Westerner. But spread over several hours and consumed according to a certain procedure, you should overpower this beast with no problems.

The key principle is to fill your belly up with foods that slow down the transfusion of alcohol into the bloodstream. This should prevent the dangerous spikes in alcohol levels that knock out the uninitiated, albeit it does mean that you’ll remain drunk as late as next midday. This means that you should eat lots of fatty, starchy and salty stuff. A typical (hopefully) set-up for a zapoi will include some of the following: fried potatoes and onions; salads like Olivier, vinaigrette or potato salad with their heavy mayonnaise or oil-based dressings; cucumber, cabbage and other pickles; cheeses, sausages and hams; oily fish like sprats, herring or sardines, preferably pickled or oil-preserved. Perhaps the ultimate “zakuska” (something you “bite over”) is salo, salted pork fat. Personally I’ve always found it rather disgusting and refrained from eating it, regardless of my state of inebriation. It is important to eat a zakuska immediately after downing a shot so as to soak up the vodka and release it into the blood steadily rather than suddenly.

There is a large body of etiquette surrounding traditional Russian vodka drinking. The most important is that of the toast. When it’s your turn, 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. When you’re sufficiently buzzed, judging how much you’re pouring by eye becomes hard – it’s much more effective to count out the appropriate measure in your head. This applies especially when you have to fill heterogeneous glasses. Everybody drinks at the same time – downing shots by yourself is disreputable, since that is associated with alcoholics. Follow it up with a zakuska, as mentioned above.

If you start feeling unwell or if you’re a drinking noobie, bow out of a few rounds by covering your glass when the bottles is coming round. By drinking with enthusiasm and honor at the start, you’ve shown your respect for the host and the other guests; getting stone-dead drunk is disrespectful. Folk tradition involves blowing out through your noise, downing the shot and breathing in with your first over your nose – nobody really does that anymore and I fail to see the need for it. Following the above advice, you should power through the appetizers and small talk, the main course with its weightier discussions and the desert with cakes and tea with lemon. You will have drunk a very respectable amount of vodka, but should remain at nothing more than a pleasant buzz.

Don’t make any of the mistakes stupid Westerners make (the further west they are from Russia, the stupider they tend to be). Eat before and while drinking. Don’t eat anything very spicy. Do not drink anything carbonated – that just accelerates the rate at which alcohol gets into the blood. Although purists strongly recommend against mixing, I am agnostic on it. Some people’s bodies seem to react badly when vodka and beer, or whiskey and wine, etc, mix; otherwise, if your body is OK with that, what matters is the level of alcohol intake per unit time independent of the beverage. As long as you keep a close eye on it things should stay under control. Especially in the late hours, when people become very drunk vodka can become like water and what I’d call a “race to oblivion” ensues; try very hard to avoid this temptation.

Damage control. Most importantly, drink lots and lots of water before going to bed. I know it requires discipline, but you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches up the road. Take a few multivitamin pills if you don’t want to feel like a poisoned zombie next morning. Water and vitamin pills fight the dehydration and leaching of vitamins brought on by alcohol poisoning (however well you drink, the fact remains that consuming a vodka bottle in one night will poison you).

Wake up with the Sun, drink a can of beer and take a walk – cool air and dawn light has wonderful recuperative qualities. Even better, do some physical work. If you feel sick, then it’s better to be sick – pushing a finger down towards the back of the throat over the toilet does the trick. It’s unpleasant but you’ll feel a lot better afterwards. Unless you had the misfortune to be drinking bad moonshine, or medical spirit diluted with water and lemon juice (you never know what the crowd will insist upon when the conventional vodka runs dry!), then chances are you’ll still be somewhat drunk until around midday, but the hang-over should be mild and you’ll be pretty much OK by the afternoon.

The above generally assumes the party is a conventional, more or less respectable one. Of course, some are held just for the purpose of getting really drunk. This typically occurs when a smallish group of people, usually men, want to bond. In this case the zapoi can be continuous and may last as long as several days. Can’t really recommend much here, since I’ve never been in an extreme zapoi (and don’t intend to any time soon). For obvious reasons this should be done very infrequently unless you want to die of liver cirrhosis at fifty.

A drunk will never lie or do things he or she does not really want to do. As such, vodka is the enemy of hypocrisy. As I’ve noted many times on this blog, Russians know that they live in the matrix; Westerners point to them and laugh, unable to understand that they are laughing at a mirror. For Western civilization is systematized hypocrisy; this is not to condemn, but to explain – its self-belief and affirmation of itself as universal is probably its greatest strength, with hypocrisy an unavoidable consequence.

In contrast, Russian life is remarkable free of hypocrisy – it is either very open (even the old folk sayings tell – beware those who don’t drink, they’re untrustworthy), or very hypocritical (called Sovietism); but since the latter is so transparently hypocritical, it is easily negated. While Soviet citizens may have professed to believing in the party, the open reality was that the true object of belief was vodka. That is equivalent to belief in nothing and everything, in absolute relativism, in other words, the level beyond systematized hypocrisy, which inevitably leads to oblivion. And this Russian belief in nihilism, is every bit as universal in its own way as Western systematized hypocrisy, yet both are forms of spiritual suicide; their union will be the cardinal event of this century, in which one will die and one will live, but both will be.

Which leads to the next observation about the vodka binge – it is like a dream. What is clear and lucid and sublime in the Zone, blurs to incomprehensible psychobabble upon awakening. It reminds one of the Borgesian parable about how reality is a grim prison, while dreams can give us an image of freedom. When Dante was old, lonely and dying, God came to him in a dream and told him of the secret purpose of his life; “Dante, in wonderment, knew at last who and what he was and blessed the bitterness of his life. Tradition relates that upon waking, he felt that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would not be able to recuperate or even glimpse, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of men.” One has to live the dream to know it. Vodka is nothing more or less than a mirror into the soul. A mirror might be an illusory, sinful thing; but is all the more irresistible for that.

Therefore, I consider getting drunk to be a most spiritually uplifting activity (although as with most things, its the quality, not the quantity that counts). When you are in this Zen-like state, you may experience life-changing revelations and it is amazing how even a normally dull or stupid person is capable of making the most acute philosophical and psychological observations. It is interesting to speculate that in some form or another much of the world’s stock of epiphanies and doctrines may have first been expounded in a humble peasant izba or workers’ commune, rather than in the hallowed halls of academia of the bourgeois world…

And this brings us to the last point I want to make about Zen and the Art of Vodka Drinking… Should you ever become an alcoholic, talk like I do above. Intellectual drunks are funny, everybody likes them and you’ll get no shortage of small change from admiring strangers to fund your habit.

I do not remember whether or not I was drunk when I wrote this post.

* I use the “West” and “Westerners” and “Russia”, etc, as a civilizational generality in the tradition of Spengler and Huntington and Co., rather than the panoply of individuals and nations (or “imagined communities”) that come in whole or in part under those labels. Actually, saying so is a tautology, since the problem of defining the “West” is well-known, ancient and still unresolved, as is the subproblem of whether Russia is a part of it. Still, pointing out the obvious is sometimes necessary to avoid having to later justify myself before irate cyber warriors.

Legal disclaimer: The author cannot verify the truth or falsity of the above information – use it at your own risk. The author does not necessarily endorse what he wrote about drinking alcoholic beverages and may or may not have done the things aforementioned.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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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.