Paranoia and economics are boring


December 19, 2014 by AK

Not much to say about Putin’s press conference (mostly boring). One thing though: there is such a thing as too much whataboutism. When a Russian journalist asks the Russian president about Russia’s crippling bureaucracy, and the president says, “It’s far worse in Brussels,” that’s not merely whataboutism, it’s a spit in the face. Now on to some boring stuff about exchange rates and sanctions. Is 60/60 (Brent and RUR/USD) a sustainable equilibrium?

Meet the Asiopeans


December 18, 2014 by AK

The chairman of Russia’s Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, made himself the butt of many a joke after intimating that serfdom had a certain value as a “spiritual bond” holding the nation together. He is now on the record supporting an “Asian Court of Human Rights” as a counterbalance to the ECHR. I guess the founding members would include China and Russia with Burma as an honorary associate.

Zorkin may not have noticed but aziatskiy does not only mean “geographically Asian”. It has another meaning;, slightly dated, biased and racially charged but not yet extinct: “savage; rough”. Likewise, “European” still has a connotation of “civilized, enlightened, humane” in modern Russian. Prejudice comes in handy sometimes. “An Asiatic court of human rights? What’s that, a new word for death by a thousand cuts?”

The storm is nearing perfection


December 17, 2014 by AK

I sometimes wonder if the decision-makers in the Kremlin realize how ugly things are getting in the Russian economy, and how fast. The realization has not quite sunk in, I’m certain, but someone must have explained to the Great Helmsman the most unpleasant practical implications, like a 5% GDP plunge and empty-pot marches next year.

Still, he’s been spared a guided tour down the chain of causes and effects, which begins with early signs of stagnation in late 2013, goes on to the Crimean and Donetsk adventures and the Western sanctions they triggered, incorporates Moscow’s inflationary counter-sanctions and does not leave out the judicial expropriation of Bashneft.

There is also a chance the man does not care a jot – what if he’s preparing for war? Judging by the ruble’s rebound, not yet.

Vladimir Medinsky’s laundry


December 16, 2014 by AK

Every other Russian knows this joke. A telephone rings. “Hello, is this the laundry?”

“Laundry, shmaundry! [Prachechnaya-kherachehnaya!] This is the Ministry of Culture!”

Last week, Russia’s culture minister Vladimir Medinsky vowed not to hand out government grants to documentaries negative on Russia. As he put it, “I’m talking about those who make movies based on the principle ‘bloody Russia is sh!te’ [Rashka-govnyashka]”.

Also last week, Moscow City’s culture commissar Sergei Katkov dispensed professional advice to young Muscovites, “Lift your ass and get to work, start earning cash…” Kapkov’s message was actually sensible unlike Medinsky’s – the city can subsidize culture to some degree but people should be prepared to pay their share. He later apologized for the harsh language.

But one is left to wonder why, of all Russian officials, it was two culture bureaucrats who code-switched so inappropriately.

Zwei Rand


December 14, 2014 by AK

I’ve quoted the Russian journalist and fiction author Yulia Latynina a few times on this blog: I do not share all her views and biases but enjoy some of her commentary. But I only found out last week, via the inimitable Lurkmore, that Latynina had been nicknamed – for her libertarian leanings and rants – Zwei Rand.

Moscow or Pikalevo?


December 14, 2014 by AK

Russia is sliding into a full-scale economic and social crisis faster than I expected as the fiscal and monetary authorities are powerless to stop, much less push back, the juggernaut of self-destructive behavior launched by the Kremlin earlier this year. The veteran Russian fund manager Slava Rabinovich, who has been blogging actively since the invasion of Crimea, appears to share the idea that Russian “monotowns” may turn into war zones (“Fergusons”) when the crisis hits in earnest. In contrast – and unexpectedly to me – the author of the “four Russias” theory, prof. Natalia Zubarevich, sees greater potential for change in the “first Russia”, that of the large cities. For now though, she admits the virus of neo-imperialism has demented Moscovites almost as deeply as small-towners, even though city folk will be the first to sober up:

Natalia Zubarevich. To begin with, I buried [my] “four Russias” in March this year… I simply did not understand my country well [enough]. It turns out there are emotions and phobias that are stronger than the rational. The “four Russias”, that’s rational. Residents of large cities are more modern, more at home in the globalized world, they think differently. But when “Motherland in danger” strikes, everyone is the same. The Levada Center‘s polls that on Crimea, Muscovites and big city dwellers had exactly the same reaction [as other Russians].

Mikhail Sokolov. They all get ironed with the same hot iron applied by federal TV channels.

NZ. One expect people to have built-in filters nonetheless.

MS. 20% are protected somewhat by a filter.

NZ. There are more of them in large cities, certainly, but in March the level of support was practically the same [across the board]. I have buried them [the four Russias] for the time being – but I’m going to dig out that corpse, wait another year and dig up that quasi-corpse because ratio never goes away. Now though, that hot iron of universal euphoria, of post-imperial syndrome: wow, we have beaten them! – it’s going to pass and then rationality will start hatching again. The four Russias will be crawling out into the sunlight again. It’s rather important to me that the first Russia come back. Slowly shaking off the dust, those who have not left will be crawling outside.

MS. This is the Russia of megalopolises.

NZ. Of big cities – where the depth of information is different, the level of education is much higher and rational behavioral models are fully formed. I used to think foolishly they had also been inoculated against imperialism somewhat. No, in that we all stand united, that’s a shared thing.

MS. Still, I wish you wouldn’t bury us all in the same concrete.

NZ. I’m using Levada’s percentages.

MS. Do you trust them?

NZ. The first reaction was genuine but big cities will be the first to start sobering up.

MS. Are you saying that the crisis will first hit the big cities?

NZ. No, not the crisis but the sobering up. That’s because experts seem to agree that… it’s going to affect not so much the poorest – although them, too, as inflation always hits the poor – but speaking of this airstrike’s overall impact, it’s going to hit the urban middle class above all. It’s their ability to get an education, to get medical care, to travel abroad, to get high-quality jobs…


What disgraces science? Sloppy experiments and plagiarism


December 13, 2014 by AK

According to The Independent,

Arsenal owner Alisher Usmanov hands Nobel Prize back to disgraced DNA scientist James Watson straight after buying it off him.

Which seems to imply the oligarch Usmanov is a respectable owner of a football team and the Nobel prize winner Watson is a disgraced DNA scientist.

A disgraced scientist, to me, is one whose conclusions are based on negligent or deliberate errors, primarily in her experiments. A scientist caught faking results is a perfect example. Especially dangerous is a forensic scientist engaged in such practice, endangering innocent people. Examples include Annie Dookhan, who falsified at least 27 (and possibly thousands of) test results in Massachussets; Theresa Caragine and her coworkers at the NYC lab; and of course Patrizia Stefanoni, whose botched DNA tests contributed to the railroading of Knox and Sollecito.

Merely breaking established lab protocol can result in sham results. Even if sloth is to blame rather than bad faith, a consciously invalid experiment is a betrayal of science. That’s what disgraces a scientist. There’s also plagiarism but it does not produce invalid results by itself, merely misattributes them.

Here’s what the science historian Nathaniel Comfort, a professor at Johns Hopkins, has to say about Watson’s eccentricities. James Watson may have said incredibly wrong-headed things but I’m not aware of him falsifying results. He is accused of not giving a female colleague enough credit for her research that was critical to his own discovery. Not good but neither proven nor a case of plagiarism. He may have made outrageous claims, some underlain by prejudice more than a scientific conviction, but can his ill-considered comments count for more than 25 years of running the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory?

I don’t have much good to say about Alisher Usmanov but I’ll give it to his PR advisors: a smart move.

This time… different?


December 11, 2014 by AK

Whoever was in the right and in the wrong in Ferguson, the scope and intensity of the recent protests against racially motivated police violence have been impressive. The organizing behind these actions, peaceful and violent, remains underappreciated by mainstream media. African-Americans only make up 12% of US residents. Putin’s opponents make up roughly the same proportion of Russians. Cops don’t shoot as much in Russia as in the US but police brutality is widespread and mass protests are rare.

Two reasons from the top of my head: barriers to community organizing and lack of protest ghettos. But that’s only true of large cities, which the sociologist Natalia Zubarevich calls “the first Russia”. About 30% of Russians live there if all 500,000+ cities are counted, and 21% if only 1,000,000+ cities are included. In good times, that’s where most dissidents dwell – educated middle-class folks generally averse to violence.

There’s is also a second Russia of mid-sized towns making up 25% of total population. Of these people, 40% – that is, 10% of Russia’s total – live in one-company towns, on Zubarevich’s estimate. As a major economic crisis is approaching, chances are multiplying that these company towns will turn out ghettos of discontent. The Kremlin won’t be able to pour cash into the economy as in 2008-9. Putin’s personal interference won’t work wonders either. Lookup “Putin” and “Pikalevo”, a town by St. Petersburg centered around Oleg Deripaska’s alumina plant. You’ll get “Putin Plays Sheriff for Cowboy Capitalists” from the NYT and “Pikalevo, la città fabbrica salvata dal blitz di Putin” from La Repubblica.

This time around, no blitz is going to save the “monotowns” but it can do what lightnings often do, start a fire. Back in December 2011, Zubarevich wrote in Vedomosti:

It is for the “second Russia” that the impact of a new crisis, should it occur, will be a very strong shock: manufacturing declines by more than other sectors and mobility and competitiveness of these residents are not high. Will there be enough money in the federal budget to increase transfers to regions by a third and boost funding to keep up employment by several times, as it was the case in 2009? If not, it is the residents of industrial towns who will be the primary protest engine demanding work and wages, which will put more pressure on the authorities to make populist decisions. A lot of the half-alive enterprises should have been closed down long ago because of their inefficiency and loss-making but it was not done during the crisis [2008-10] and, most likely, will not be done if a repeat shock hits. As the year 2009 showed, the authorities realize the threat for the “second Russia’s” protests and know how to put it out. Struggling for jobs and wages leaves the “second Russia” perfectly indifferent to issues concerning the middle class. The authorities realize that and try to set them on the “first Russia”. This is running against time. During economic growth, wages in industrial towns grew slower than in regional centers; during the crisis, they declined faster. The population of industrial towns is contracting fast; the youth are moving to regional centers. It’s no use threatening the capital with Nizhny Tagil [a heavy-industry town in the Urals].

Holy Seb!


December 8, 2014 by AK

Extracts from Yulia Latynina’s latest radio interview on Ekho Moskvy. Without endorsing her views in general, I more or less agree with this:

First, I have to tell you that… I’m in the Netherlands, in Maastricht, at a congress… talking to Russian speakers. One of them is designing… essentially an artificial intelligence system to drive automobiles… With another person, who is designing systems of a different kind but also artificial intelligence essentially… so that the airbag would inflate before the crash when the AI system realizes, on time, that impact is inevitable… It’s complex object recognition and it’s used for different purposes. Why am I talking about this? It’s Europe living in the 21st century. I can’t say it has no problems – it does. But then I listen to Putin’s speech on the sacral Korsun (Chersonesus). Then I realize that Russia is living in a totally different age; also, I realize that whatever you can say about the sacral Chersonesus, Prince Vladimir… killed the governor of the city and his wife and before that, he raped his daughter before their eyes. [Yes, according to a Russian chronicle.]

OK, so I understand all the stuff about sacrality but there are no jobs in Russia for the [hi-tech/AI] people I’m talking about. They have left Russia and it’s ridiculous to assume that any Russian company is working on things like that. What’s going on in Russia reminds me of what’s going on in the Middle East, where people are told, “they are damned in the West: rich but low in spirituality while we are highly spiritual but we’re paupers.” Of course there is a difference between Russia and the Middle East, at least in the size of the elite. If all the militants disappeared from Syria… it’s still unlikely a European elite would emerge, capable of running the state. In Russia, thank God, that kind of elite exists. It has not thinned out completely… it’s still going to take a long, long time to weed out this elite. But the vector we’re moving along is of course frightening.

“Why are we still living in the shadow of the reformation?”


December 8, 2014 by AK

Asks Rupert Everett. Why, indeed? And what is he talking about?

He’s talking about Soho’s being “gentrified” at a rate threatening its existence. Well, if “decadent” is used as “delectable”, I guess “gentrified” can be a swear word. But why is Soho on the verge of extinction?

At first, this article in The Independent first explains that Soho cannot carry on as a hub for the gay community: gentle and gay don’t go well together, the author seems to believe. But it soon turns out it’s more about music: one club’s closure “will limit young artists’ chances to showcase their talents, ultimately affecting the British music industry.” That sounds bad — until we’re told the problem runs deeper:

In April, Rupert Everett featured in a documentary, Love For Sale, looking at the impact gentrification was having on prostitution.

He asserted that Soho brothels were closing and being forced into suburbia.

“For many people, there’s a real attachment to Soho,” he said. “In fact if I had a home, it would be Soho. It’s important it doesn’t lose its rough edges.[“]

I wish I had your problems. Curiously, Everett has downgraded “reformation” to lowercase but is being suspiciously heteronormative in implying the sex workers are female.


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