From inflation to rationing?

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January 28, 2015 by AK

The weak rouble and retalliatory import bans imposed by Moscow have made food so much more expensive that a massive poverty relief program may be needed to keep millions from going hungry and rebeling. The Kremlin won’t be able to manage anything as sophaticated as foodstamps. True to its Soviet roots, Moscow would rather introduce price controls of all sorts: a portal to a cold, bleak, monochrome Venezuela with nuclear weapons.

Am I exaggerating?

Official forecasts for 2015 Russian CPI inflation vary but I mostly hear 13-15%: bad but not nearly Zimbabwean. One could counter that US inflation peaked at 13.5% in 1980 and GDP growth in 1979-82 was pathetic. I’m sure Russian propagandists will be using this comparison in their optimistic speeches, pointing out that Volker’s Fed had the prime rate at 21.5% at some point vs. the Russian central bank’s current 17%.

Apart from Russia 2015 being a completely different animal from the US ca. 1980, one depressing fact is that the weight of food in the Russian CPI is about 30%. Other prices held equal, a 50% hike in the price of all foods will translate to a 15% hike in the CPI. I suspect this is more or less what’s happening in Russia.

One again, looking back at 2012 or 2013, about 30% of household spending was on food, excluding alcohol. On average. Without looking up Russia’s official distribution of wealth, I understand that the number of households who spend more than half their income on food is several million at least. Natalia Tikhonova, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, estimates that one quarter of Russians are “poor” according to her criteria:

Rosstat [the Russian state statistic service] relies on the cost of the consumer basket; we use this principle: a poor person is one whose life in one’s native country is so much worse than the bulk of its residents’ that one cannot sustain the minimum socially accepted standards of consumption…

There are three key signs of poverty. The most important is being unable to secure adequate nutrition for oneself. We are not talking about variety, rather about feeding oneself to the full, say, with cheap pasta, and being able to buy some meat products twice a week. At least bologna at 130 rubles per kilo [about $4/kg at that time]. As a rule, these people cannot afford non-free medical care even when it is acutely needed. And they have very poor housing conditions.

In simple monetary terms, if food gets 30% to 50% more expensive and other prices hold steady, a household that used to spend half its income on food will now have to spend 65-75%; a 60% share will grow to 78-90% and so on. Perhaps these people do not make up 25% as prof. Tikhonova claims – at 10% of all Russians, they would still number 14-15 million.


La brioche Chouvaloff

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January 27, 2015 by AK

Last week, Russia’s deputy PM Igor Shuvalov claimed in Davos that Russians would rather starve than turn against Putin in the face of foreign pressure.

Igor is a sly old fox. His words can never be taken at face value and his motive for saying this or that are anybody’s guess. But as Russians say, a word is not a sparrow: once it’s out, you can’t catch it. It would seem suicidal for a filthy-rich official to tout common people’s readiness for unnecessary self-sacrifice unless he believed in the protective powers of publicly licking his dictator’s bottom. Few Russians are willing to starve for Putin, of course, just as few were ready to starve for Brazhnev or Gorbachev, who were paragons of modesty and asceticism compared with Putin’s buddies. Granted, some are willing to fight for the pale man but that’s a different matter altogether.

The Telegraph mislabeled Shuvalov a hardliner: he’s always been known as an all-understanding, “Westernized” liberal. But once you’re on Putin’s bandwagon, it doesn’t matter much if, at heart, you prefer freedom to puppetmastery. You’re part of the system and you’re going to do your master’s bidding like a faithful marionette.

Here’s a link to a 2012 Ekho Moskvy piece on Igor Shuvalov’s “palace” just outside Moscow, next to Skolkovo. The “liberal” Igor happens to share the last name with the 18th century patron of science and arts Ivan Shuvalov, who gets much of the credit for founding the Moscow University and the Russian Academy of Arts and for supporting Mikhaylo Lomonosov. The new Moscow University humanities building was named after him in 2007. Ivan Ivanovich owned at least two palaces in St. Petersburg, both worth having a look at. Perhaps Igor Ivanovich is trying to imitate, within his more limited means, that illustrious namesake: hence the “palace” near Moscow and the purchase of land in Skolkovo. His remark on Catherine II, although sourced from popular fiction, betrays a degree of historical awareness. Still, a rather limited degree.


A wounded beast is dangerous but doomed

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January 25, 2015 by AK

How, then, to square my claim that the sanctions against Russia are working well with the renewed Russian-backed assault on Mariupol and across the board in Donbass? First, the economic disaster, although inexorable, has yet to hit with full force. Second, economic basket cases are capable of waging disastrous wars. They can even win battles and campaigns and wreak considerable damage on their neighbors. One thing they cannot do is restore themselves to prosperity and global power status. Russia may wreck Ukraine but it will become and remain a struggling pariah state until its leadership changes.

That could be avoided in a theoretical scenario where Russia’s one, five, or ten top figures vanish into thin air and a new team is parachuted to replace them. There would be no need to worry about Putin’s 85% approval ratings as they are phony in more ways than one. A change in the state TV line, with Putin’s team exposed as the thugs they are, would fix those ratings in weeks, perhaps days. Crowds turn on their idols just like that when the time is ripe.

Unlike John Schindler, I don’t take Putin’s support levels seriously and don’t see a metaphysical opposition to the West as the Putin clique’s motivation for the war. In fact, I have yet to meet a Russian who believes in holy wars although I mostly talk to decent, educated Russians. To me, the whole 2014 war is about an aging dictator who still cannot overcome his adolescent trauma.

One also wonders if the timing of the pro-Russian and Russia-backed offensive in Donbass has anything to do with the Litvinenko inquest scheduled for next week, particularly these two new bits of evidence?


It’s a matter of time now

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January 24, 2015 by AK

When I was a grade-school child, I asked questions like this: “Why is Grandmaster X surrendering to Grandmaster Y when there’s no checkmate, not even a check, and both players have pieces of equal value?” My grandfather would explain that Grandmasters X and Y can both calculate three to five moves ahead. When I grew up a little, I had another question. Why can’t X keep playing in the hope that Y makes an impossible gaffe? No one was around to answer so I have since presumed it is merely good chess manners to take your opponent’s sound judgment for granted.

When President Obama claimed that the Russian economy was “in tatters” in his latest State of the Union address, he made a forward-looking statement that was not immediately true but would inevitably become true barring an economic miracle in Russia. There’s little question that not-so-grand Master P. has lost the GDP game. I don’t know if he has realized that much yet. Regardless, he’ll keep playing a bigger, not so gentlemanly game and it won’t be statistical averages that stop him.


More Turgenev trivia

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January 22, 2015 by AK

Following up on this, I must admit haven’t read the dramatic trilogy, The Coast of Utopia by Tom Stoppard, and I’m not sure I’m going to, any time soon. The brothers Ostrovsky, who translated the work into Russian, faced difficult choices but all in all, the Russian text works well on stage. For the fun of it, they rendered “Miss X can go hang!” literally as “Miss X can go hang,” a lovely calque.

But the reason for this post is Turgenev’s Smoke, once again: Stoppard puts these words by a Turgenev character straight into the writer’s mouth. A bit suspicious: Potugin is a chinovnik, a civil servant, a bureaucrat who rose to a respectable rank after twenty-two years of service. He came from the second estate, the priestly estate that gave birth to some great Russians but was much inferior to the aristocracy socially. Turgenev, in contrast, was the only son of a very wealthy landowning family. But like Potugin, Turgenev – if old rumors had it right – lived in thrall to a woman who was neither his wife nor proper mistress, for years upon years. Besides, Dostoevsky claims that Turgenev conveyed Potugin’s views to him directly, in the first person – but Dostoevsky could not stand Turgenev. Admittedly, Turgenev did complain about new Russian composers getting stupid ideas instead of following Mozart but that was not his best call.


The right man for Utopia

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January 19, 2015 by AK

I have finally seen Alexei Borodin‘s and Russian Youth Theater‘s production of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia. The work consists of three full-scale plays so the show lasted for 10 hours gross and eight hours net of intermissions. Yet, to my surprise, it was never boring, even though during the last hour or two, both actors and spectators had to fight off fatigue.

Much has been written in praise of both Stoppard’s play and its productions in London, NYC, and Moscow. Russian theater is going through yet another revival but Borodin is neither young nor newly famous: he started directing in the late 1960s and has led Youth Theater since 1980. He is highly respected but hardly fashionable and seldom en vogue. At the start of his directing career, Borodin was fired from Smolensk Drama Theater for a too-innovative staging of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. That was 1968, twenty-three years after the play was published – almost as recent then as Stoppard’s Arcadia is now. In 2006, Youth Theater staged The Coast of Utopia, published in 2002; in 2011, another work by Stoppard, Rock’n’Roll, staged by another distinguished director, Adolf Shapiro.

Stoppard’s trilogy, in two words, is about the Bakunin family in its ancestral mansion in the 1830s-1840s, and the Herzen and Ogarev families in France, London and Switzerland. Belinsky and Turgenev are major characters, too, but the home bases are undoubtedly the Bakunin estate and Herzen’s evolving household. Home and home away from home; philosophy and politics shaping the lives of those who care (too) much about them, and of those around them who don’t. Home away from home: this what what Arkady Ostrovsky, a co-translator of the play and the Moscow bureau chief of The Economist, says about Alexei Borodin:

Borodin was born and grew up in China, in a good, ordinary family that preserved the ethos and instincts of Russia’s pre-revolutionary middle class. When he was 14 years old, he was “replanted” into native Russian soil–and took roots…

The Borodins could have bought a flat in the centre of Moscow, but instead they moved into a wooden house with a mezzanine and two large stoves in Pushkino, a few miles from Moscow on the banks of the quiet Klyazma river. (The area was once popular with rich Russian capitalists.) It was a substitute for the Shanghai mansion.

The Russian language does not distinguish between a house and a home, but the Borodins definitely had a home, full of the rituals that are the pulse of daily life. All three sisters joined in Alexei’s home-theatre (their grandmother made the costumes). There were still the family meals at the oval table, the cakes for Easter; the white, starched tablecloth; the floor-polishing every Sunday

“Never, never pull the shade off a lamp! The lampshade is sacred.” (Bulgakov, The White Guard.)  I had no idea until yesterday that Borodin had a completely un-Soviet childhood: he was born in 1941 in a family of pre-1917 Russian immigrants in China and moved to the USSR at 14. Khruschev’s Russia was preferable to Mao’s China, especially as the family was nostalgically attached to the ancestral country.


“He was ‘us’.”

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January 12, 2015 by AK

I have recently posted notes on prof. Borenstein’s piece, helpful as far as Russia is concerned but not much relevant to the Tsarnaev case. Now, moving on to Masha Gessen writing in The New Yorker:

While Tsarnaev may look white, he grew up Muslim in Boston—his family immigrated to the U.S. in 2002. Before that, he lived in Kyrgyzstan and Russia, where he was considered “black.” (The N.Y.U. professor Eliot Borenstein explains the phenomenon of that perception very well.). None of Dzhokhar’s closest friends at college, at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, was white.

What the author seems to be trying to say is that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has always been viewed as, and perhaps felt like, a member of a racial, ethnic and/or religious minority. That much could be true but not exactly in the way Masha Gessen makes it out to be.

From what I’ve read about the Tsarnaev family, I’m not getting the impression that the brothers “grew up Muslim.” Dzhokhar arrived in the US in 2002, at seven or eight, but did not develop a serious interest in Islam until 2011-12, when he was already enrolled in the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The family visited a mosque but “occasionally“; the father, Anzor, was described as non-religious but keen on keeping Chechen, or more generically North Caucasus, customs.

There were no signs that Dzhokhar was shunned or viewed as representative of the Other by his fellow students at high school and college.

Those who remember him at the school suggest he was well integrated in its diverse community. “[Dzhokhar] wasn’t ‘them’. He was ‘us’. He was Cambridge,” Andrea Kramer – whose son studied with Dzhokhar – told the Wall Street Journal.

I don’t know if it’s true that none of Dzhokhar’s close college friends were white or “white” in Gessen’s narrow sense. If true, nothing points at the young man being rejected by other students for whatever reason, including religion and ethnicity. He might have felt lonely and unanchored but that would have been an entirely different matter.


The Frankfurt Airport School

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January 11, 2015 by AK

I was drying my hands in a restroom at Central Europe’s largest airport when I caught a fragment of an announcement: “Passengers… Kierkegaard and Kant, please contact the information desk.” They must be on a flight to Copenhagen, I thought. Can’t Kant be a Danish name?

Then the announcer repeated the summons: “Passengers Spinoza, Descartes, Kierkegaard and Kant, please contact the information desk.” He spoke Emglish but pronounced the names as written, in a sort of German way: Des-car-tes, Keer-keh-guard. Was it a joke or some security awareness test? And could it be one guy, not four – an S.D.K. Kant? An offspring of philosophically-minded parents perhaps, or a thinker who refashioned his name in an image of the four greats?


The wrong context

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January 9, 2015 by AK

Prof. Eliot Borenstein’s piece in The Washington Post is a good primer on racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices in modern Russia.

But is it relevant to the Tsarnaev case? As far as I know, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev only lived in Russia for a year or two, in a city dominated by “Caucasians” in the Russian sense of the word, with ethnic Russians making up only 5% of the population.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was born and spent the first 7-8 years of his life in Kyrgyzstan, an independent state since 1991. The majority ethnic group in that former Soviet republic are the Kyrgyz (70%+), who tend to be East Asian in appearance. Dzhokhar’s Chechen ancestors were probably deported to Kyrgyzstan from the North Caucasus by Stalin in 1944 but did not return to their homeland when Khruschev allowed that in the late 1950s. Do the Kyrgyz see the Chechen minority as “Russian,” “white,” “European,” or otherwise? I have no idea and the author does not discuss the Kyrgyz context or the long-term impact of the 1944 displacement.

The Tsarnaev family moved to Russia in 2001 – not to Moscow but to Makhachkala, the capital of the multiethnic republic of Daghestan. Ethnic Russians are a small minority there, 4% in Daghestan and 5% in Makhachkala. Almost all other residents belong to ethnic groups native to the Northern Caucasus. Daghestan is also over 90% Muslim. Zubeidat, Dzhokhar’s and Tamerlan’s mother, is an ethnic Avar. The Avars are the largest ethnic group in Daghestan and Makhachkala, with a 27% and 29% share respectively. Dzhokhar may not have felt at home in Makhachkala, but he would not have experienced ethnic discrimination by a majority Slavic population.


Ancient Russians abroad

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January 7, 2015 by AK

If Henry James was the grand master of the Americans Abroad novel, Turgenev probably deserves the first prize in the pre-1917 Russians Abroad nomination. Other Russian majors used that setting, Gogol in Nights on the Villa, Dostoevsky in The Gambler, Leskov in A Passionate Patriot. But there are at least three major works by Turgenev which focus on Russians living or traveling in Central Europe.

First, Asya, a novella published in 1857. Second, Smoke, the 1867 novel I read last year thanks to Erik McDonald. Unfortunately, it got overshadowed by other Russian masterpieces of the 1860s. Third, The Torrents of Spring (1872). Turgenev called it a povest’, that is, a tale or novella, but it is commonly referred to as a novel in English translations. It’s a love story of sorts, narrated by an aging man who had, thirty years earlier, fled the girl he loved for a more mature woman and the more down-to-earth pleasures of her companionship. A sad tale of betrayal and self-betrayal; thankfully, Turgenev was averse to moralizing.

Post-1917, Russians Abroad became a common literary theme for obvious reasons. Take Nabokov’s pre-WWII Russian prose for example.


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