Monday, August 29, 2005

Russian reality & the impoverished world of the rich

Since my trip, I've noticed that articles about Russia, in the US, sound completely insane.

Especially travel writing. Take this one, from the NYT/IHT.

"I remember when Tverskaya was dark," said Carrie Barich-Hart, a transplanted Minnesotan who has lived in Moscow since 1992, referring to Moscow's main boulevard, "when there were no restaurants except for a few hotels. In the last three or four years, Moscow really started coming alive again."

I think everyone should visit Moscow ... but, you know, here's a Reality Check. Never believe the New York Times.

Everyone in Moscow eats in the most drab, low-quality fast food restaurants imaginable. Because they are kind-of affordable. The slightly better restaurants, are usually terrible, and ridiculously expensive. There is nothing like the small "excellent food, reasonable price" family-restaurants that you can still find in, say, Paris, New York or Naples. The single best thing I ate in Moscow was some kind of hot freshly-made flatbread, at a metro station, for 10 rubles. The second-best thing, quite far down, was a crepe from a "Russian Blini" stand ... which tasted only like an approximation of the real thing. The best food in Russia can only be found outside of Moscow. And it's not in restaurants, but in homes.

Both these spots are D.J.-soundtracked restaurant-as-theater spectacles of bankers, models, stars, molls and hangers-on nibbling $30 salads and coolly ogling each other. "Right now, Moscow is younger and wilder than ever," said Barich-Hart. "It's as if the whole city just turned 21."

I'm sorry to be burdening the Internet, by repeating this kind of crap. People who write for the New York Times travel section live in a kind of "Sex in the City" pseudo-world, where rich people can always buy better lives than the rest of us. Luckily, the world isn't really like that. You can get better experiences simply by meeting some Russians, and hanging out with them. Do it in the countryside, and it will be even more wonderful. Russians love to go to the country, and that's where the real culture is. DJ's & performance artists in snobby clubs, trying to impress the nouveau rich, is a pretty thin, Las Vegas-L.A. limo lifestyle, where nothing is real. Far better to just wander around Moscow on the Metro, meet people randomly, try to find colleagues in your area of interest, and try to understand what's going on. That's travel. The rest of it is mindless, tasteless, meaningless consumerism.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

A million "sister city" relationships

This is just a thought.

Eugene, Oregon, the city I live in, has a sister city relation with a Russian city in Siberia: Irkutsk. But, why does Eugene have only relations with one Russian city? With the number of Russian scholars associted with the University of Oregon, and others with relatoins in Russia, why aren't there official relationships with all those cities defined by real interactions with them? This could keep the transnational municipal foreign-relations movement alive, and also strengthen ties in the local community. Why have just one sister city in Russia, or France, or Egypt, or Nicaragua? The point of transnationalism is to erase national boundaries, not reinforce them.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Leaving Russia & entering the US -- the gauntlet

Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO) Moscow

Trying to figure out the system at the Moscow aitport (SVO): you walk in, and besides some typical modern Russian kiosks, you see a ticket purchase counter -- not useable for getting your boarding pass. All the activity is on the right wall, at customs/departure. So already, the system's different than at US airports.

Instead of checking in and getting your boarding pass first, choose whether to go into departure customs: green line (nothing to declare) or red line (something to declare).

I said my goodbyes, then went through the green line. First thing was security. Woman asks "Seattle?" "Yes, Seattle", I say in English, to make it clear that I'm a foreigner and am, consequently, too silly to be dangerous. They x-ray the bags. And when I went to my baggage, the fellow said, in passable English, "please take your large bag to be inspected". I don't think I was being singled out. It seemed, I must say, much more like a security search than a "customs export" search. Not much vigilence about taking historical items out of the country, or lots of cash, or whether you were leaving with more than you came with. Inspector was very nice and completely minimal. Helped me shut my bag again, sent me to get my boarding pass.

Presented ticket & passport at the immediately subsequent ticket counter. Checked the large bag. No tag for the carry-on. Got the boarding pass, and went to the "passport departure" line. Wordlessly, the passport lady took my passport & ticket, communicated with the computer for a minute or two, stamped my visa. I went in ...

... to the Moscow airport gated section, for ticketed passengers only. Quite a scene: a dozen duty-free shops of fair size, not very busy, a bunch of bars, even an Irish pub and an Indian Restaurant. Smoking common, but not overwhelming. There's an upstairs area where people camp out, because you're not allowed into the gate until just before your flight (there's another security check there). This upstairs areas is a 15-foot-wide balcony, that wraps around the gated area, and looks over all the gates. It obviously had a different purpose, at another time. Right where the balcony turns, there's some power outlets, so if you have a russian plug, you can hypothetically sit and work ... without benefit of a chair, and on a floor that's mucky in places. Sitting against a wall, cross-legged, typing, balancing a notebook, is very hard on my 45-year-old back ... I really need to start doing yoga.

There's fee-based Wifi at the Moscow airport, by Tascom. You apparently pay for it in one of the shops downstairs (maybe -- there's a list of vendors at their website) but I enjoyed being offline.

Your flight boarding time is on your boarding pass, in a big font, and that's when the security check starts. Very thorough. Women do this work, searching you, waving wands, make you take your shoes off, X-Raying, metal detector walk-through, and going through every single thing in your carry-on luggage. This seems completely security-oriented, not customs-oriented.

Flight was uncomfortable for me because I had an aisle seat, and couldn't fall asleep in it. I couldn't get a vegetarian meal ordered -- Aeroflot is impossible to reach by telephone: get your ticket right, and get your meal right (all their US - Russia flights are non-smoking), when you buy the ticket, because you won't get another chance -- but luckily there was an extra in 1st class, and the crew gave me that -- potato & mushroom raviolis with asparagus. Not bad.

On the plane, you get a customs declaration. If you're a US citizen or green card holder, you can take up to $800 worth of purchases into the US. I guess you don't need receipts for this, if the value's pretty obviously low. Customs doesn't care about personal items at all -- your electronics, your shirts purchased in Russia, etc.

USDA-wise, as far as agricultural products go, I did have some rasberry jam with me, little hedgehog that I am, but I said I had no food. Jam is a condiment. I don't know if they would have taken it, if I brought it up, so I didn't. My wife & family spent hours in the forest picking those wild rasberries, so I wasn't keen to mention it. I know that the commercial grade stuff would probably pass, and that homemade stuff might not. Which is hugely unfair, so I was quiet on the subject.

At SeaTac, US Customs is pretty lenient towards native english speakers, I'd say. I interacted with five of these border cops. The first one, at the passport counter, asked me about some questions to determine that I was legit -- the passport could be fake, after all. He was making conversation "who do you know in russia?" "what do you do for a living?" etc.

You get your bags, in an interminable wait inside customs. When you get them, you head towards the exit, slowly, looking for one of the wandering customs agents. The one I got asked me what I had -- gifts etc? I said "small stuff, worth less than $100 ... I bought some shirts" and at that he handed me back my passport & form & waved me on. The next guy said less (he saw the previous conversation), another guy nodded me on, and the final guy took the form, on the way out. No inspection, but I think that's because I don't fit their profile.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Street snapshot of the Russian commodity economy in 2005

Nestle is everywhere in Russia, selling ice cream. But so are the competing Russian brands. Of course, Nestle is trying to capture the money spent already on ice cream here ... and bring the profits to 'Switzerland' where they are 'based' (but really, the profits go to their major stockholders). Nestle (and Danon, ADM etc.) are agressively sourcing from the Russian milk industry -- so Russian cows will soon be treated as badly as US cows --systems of abuse are very much 'prototyped in the US' by capitalism, prior to export.

Ice cream manufacturers in Russia, under this intense competition, will probably mostly sell out, to appease Nestle's desire to re-brand Russian ice cream ... if that hasn't happened already. Most of these 'native manufacturers', when they really are native, are the nouveau rich, broadly called oligarchs here, who stole the country's resources during Yelstin's great sell out. Ironically, many of them have swiss bank accounts ...

So, after having destroyed the Soviet economy through economic-political opportunism under Yelstin, the West is playing hardball, grabbing what resources they can ... in a never ending destructive cycle.

People seem to be very aware of Nestle's rapacious imperialist habits, and that of all these expanding Western companies, whether consumer-branded or not. But they seem pretty cynical about Russian companies too. "You can't trust what it says on the package!" some babushka advised us in a grocery store, about a Russian fruit juice. True of all modern production.

So is the answer in the villages? Is that where there's still some way to escape the insanity? Well, villages often have their petty oligarchs too now -- Lords, who mostly keep to themselves but, like those nobles of old, tend to treat normal people like dogs.

The answer: is in coalition, of course! The tools to solve the problems are there, and some are using them in Russia. The most we can do in the US, to help, is to stop the World Bank, and related programs, which endlessly fund destructive empire-building for the benefit of a few.

Time habits

Russians, at least the urban kind, are surprisingly obsessed with the clock. Things should start & finish on time. Trains should run on time. You should work "from bell to bell", and then rush to do something else. Russians on the Moscow Metro definitely outpace the Japanese in Tokyo. Such determined bursts of energy ... to get home, go out, or go relax. They really seem to make transition time as short as possible. This 'culture' is very much the residue of top-down optimizations. It takes getting used to, seems both unnatural, and surprisingly anti-cooperative.