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Thursday, June 30, 2016

I'm Back From Russia-- With A Couple of Observations

I spent most of June in Russia and Azerbaijan, mostly Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was my first trip to either country. St. Petersburg, was a city founded in 1703 to be Russia's window to the West, and Moscow, founded in around 1150, is less European. Over 12 million people live in Moscow; only 4.8 million live in St Pete. (By contrast, NYC has 8.5 million people and L.A. has around 4 million.) People don't smile much in Moscow and they all seem to have poker faces. St. Petersburg seems more like a European city in every way. But even in St. Pete there's an underlying anti-Western attitude. I met a 20 year old soccer player and spent some time with him. Although he aspires to live in Miami and speaks English well, he seemed offended when he asked me if I like Petersburg better than L.A. and I said no, I like L.A. better. And when I asked him if he likes American music, he immediately dismissed the very idea as absurd-- and then told me he likes rap music.

Simon Shuster offered some hints at Time Magazine about where that antipathy towards America (and the West) comes from. Russia has been encouraging, perhaps subtly, extreme violence, heavily trained and weaponized violence, around football matches in Europe. Putin denies any involvement but a member Parliament, Igor Lebedev, deputy chairman of the Russian soccer foundation "urged the hooligans on Twitter to "keep it up."
The phrase they chanted during the violence-- Russkie Vperyod! (Forward, Russians!)-- happens to be emblematic of the brand of throwback patriotism that emerged from Putin's most recent run for re-election, in 2012.

Khrushchev's grave
Ahead of that vote, the Kremlin decided that the only way to galvanize a weary electorate was to play on the old fears and prejudices of the Cold War. It worked: Putin's popularity rose along with animosity toward the West. Ever since, a series of crises in Russia's relations with the West have helped the state's powerful propaganda channels [including high school curricula, I discovered] nurture a national siege mentality, portraying Russia as the victim of a bullying and treacherous West whose primary aim is to bring the country to its knees.
I'd be remiss if I didn't pass along a warning. I traveled with 2 friends, Roland and David. All 3 off us had all of our electronics hacked. David got home and found someone had withdrawn a considerable amount of money from his bank account. My e-mail list was bombarded with nonsense from the hackers and I had to change my passwords. Roland has to buy a new phone because his was so badly screwed up. So... yes Russia is wonderful to visit but, think about unplugging while you're there.

St. Petersburg is a gorgeous city, with one incredible public building after another, architecturally far more spectacular than anything in America. You can compare it to Paris, not to any American city. But just below the surface this was a different kind of dynamic-- low wages. Helsinki, capital of Finland, is very close to St Petersburg, just 242 miles-- 3.5 hours by train, 50 minutes by air. But the two cities are very different. In Finland, wages and labor standards are very high. Stuff is expensive but the standard of living is very high. Both cities have airports very close to town. It costs $15 to take a taxi to the airport in St. Pete. It's $55 in Helsinki.

Income inequality is very big in Russia and much less so in Finland. We use something called a Gini coefficient to measure income inequality. The Gini coefficient is a number between 0 and 1, where 0 corresponds with perfect equality (where everyone has the same income) and 1 corresponds with perfect inequality (where one person has all the income-- and everyone else has zero income). These are the wealth Gini coefficients comparing not just Finland and Russia, but several countries to offer some context:
Finland- 0.615
Canada- 0.688
U.K.- 0.697
Russia- 0.699
U.S.- 0.801
Zimbabwe- 0.845
So... the U.S. isn't the worst.

I went to visit the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg. My grandfather left Russia in 1905 after a series of pograms had killed thousands of Jews across Russia including small villages like the one his family lived in. When he got to St Petersburg to board a ship for America, the Grand Choral Synagogue was 12 years old and the second largest synagogue in Europe. My grandfather wasn't any more religious than I am but he had never been in a grand building of any kind before. He prayed at the synagogue before leaving for America.

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