Monday, November 14, 2005

Propaganda still works

Talking with a Russian from St. Petersberg, the subject of the pension privileges protests comes up. Civil servants and retired people are being asked to exchange some minimum privileges, like bus transportation, for the equivalent cash, in their salary & pension. "What's the problem with that?", I was asked. "Is something wrong with these people's arithmetic?"

No. Civil servants and pensioners in Russia sometimes don't receive their salaries & pensions. So when you take away their privileges, you may be taking away their very last possibility for survival.

Of course, in Moscow & St. Petersberg, and a few other choice places, civil servants are paid regularly, because the majority population in those cities have more money, and want civil services. But in the rest of the country ...

It reminds me of what I said to a Moscovite when I first saw the city. "Why is everything so well kept?" I said, having seen other parts of Russia first. "Well, there's 18 million people in Moscow," I was told. "The number of people doesn't matter," I said, "what matters, is the proportion they get of the resources." Which in Moscow is something like 75% of the country's wealth. "It's always been that way," an old Russian field director told me: "... you either got onto Moscow's train, or you lived in the country".

But, of course, it's still amazing that professionals in Moscow & St. Petersberg are unaware of this. Despite endemic cynicism among the Russians, propaganda still works.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

High School

There are many facets to any human culture, and it takes some time to tease the patterns from the background.

Among modern Russians, there's a pervasive tendency to needle each other, especially in groups. It's very competitive, and meant to deflate people, to put them down, to make them conform. I think this can be found anywhere ... but in Russia there's very little counter force. There's no corrective to the behavior, as we have in the US: 'don't put me down'.

This tendency towards extremely negative and gratuitous criticism, towards one's comrades, is probably a remnant of the Soviet system. A command economy is rather like a cradle-to-grave high school.

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.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Robustek ; fragiletek

I'm in an old village in Russia, collectivized after the revolution but still a subsistence village today. There's a great "cobbling technology" tradition in these places ... new fences look ancient, even when they incorporate new materials. Well-made, sturdy, practical ... beautiful. There are lots of useful patterns here to study, lots of promising design/build sequences that lead to good results.

It's not just fences. The locks people use here, interestingly, are clearly modern, but have a very solid, reliable, medieval feeling to them. The soviet technologists didn't see a need to change these designs, I guess, so there are millions of locks in Russia that make western locks look ... very wimpy. They're fun to use. In the village, they lock some things up which they probably don't need to, I think partly because these big locks are just so handy & handsome. Robust technology.

Contrast this with modern commercial technology ... many Russian children have their own cell-phones. Young Vasya here has a new bluetooth Sony Ericsson phone-camera, which he knows like the back of his hand. So we linked it up to Olga's new Apple powerbook with built-in bluetooth, running Mac OS X 3.9. We were able to browse the camera's files, send files to it, and use the camera as a remote control for the Powerbook. And no doubt, if he had GPRS, we would get that working.

But it's demo technology only.

Once you try to actually use this pair for something, it gets horribly tedious. That's true of some basics on Mac OS X too. For example, the file browser gets stuck on the previous directory download, gets confused, and hangs up. Eventually, you'll have to shut down the powerbook to fix this problem. The phone may not be discoverable forever ... no matter how often you click the "discoverable" button. So you have to turn it off too. If you're trying to resize a photo so it fits on a phone, with the default software on a Mac, good luck to you. iPhoto can't do a genuine resize. And if you do it without creating another user account, and without importing the photos to that user's iPhoto, you may destroy your original photo trying to resize. Fragile technology.

Everyone in the computer industry knows what's going on here, and most consumers know too. Innovative, deeply robust technology can only be built under certain circumstances ... strong public funding, well-protected R & D laboratories, slow product cycles, etc. Even when this happens, and private industry moves in to capitalize on it, they inevitably screw it up. Apple spends far more money on advertising and industrial design than on functionality, engineering and QA. The same is true of Motorola, SONY & Ericsson. There have been pockets of exceptions, and this is promising technology ... But, seriously, bluetooth is just two radios sharing data. Why can't it be reliable, now? I'm sure the first locks worked pretty well, right off the bat ... There are plenty of engineers who would love to be given the chance to really make this technology work ... including those who created these products. But profits come first.

Which makes me wish that the people who made these locks, and the R & D lab cum factory they worked in, could have survived to make these products today. Because then, they would work.