Russia: is it really that bad?
July 24, 2007 2:37 PM   Subscribe

How is life in Russia these days? Is it really as bad as some of the sources I've come across suggest?

I'm of Russian Jewish ancestry, and much of my family left before the collapse of the USSR. Despite their ambivalent childhoods, they were unanimously of the opinion that Russia as a nation was declining steadily and bound to get worse. Thinking they were exaggerating, I sought out documentaries and reports from many different organizations... that seemed to say the same thing. Drugs, AIDS, birthrate decline, women with PhDs working in malls, immigrants forced out, oligarchs, mafiya, and decrepit infrastructure. Even the Russian students I've spoken to at my school tend to be pessimistic. But somehow, economic forecasts don't seem all that bad, so how much does life in Russia today correspond with these perceptions?
posted by StrikeTheViol to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Some facts from the cia world book:

Life expectancy:male: 59.12 years
GDP - per capita (PPP):$12,200 (2006 est.)

Living in Russia is like living in Libya or Brazil. Except you like 15-20 years longer in those countries. I dont know what sources you'lve been reading but it doesnt compaer to the N. America or Western Europe. Heck, many eastern european countries like Poland are richer and have a higher quality of life.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:45 PM on July 24, 2007

Russia's economy is not comparable to a normal industrialized country. It's more similar to an oil state. Check out this paper. Oil and gas exports make up ~20% of Russian GDP (according to these dudes) and greater than 60% of export revenues. I don't know anything about life in Russia, I'm just saying, economy-wise, there are good reasons why you could see like solid GDP/capita growth and a such forth and it wouldn't square with lifestyle statistics.
posted by jeb at 3:08 PM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

My cursory explorations into Russian literature in college lead me to believe that Russia has always been thus. The players change, but suffering seems to have always been a Russian birthright.
posted by squink at 3:23 PM on July 24, 2007

A good friend of mine comes from a background similar to yours. She visited Russia maybe 3 years ago and her experiences support what you're read. Her cousin lived in an apartment in St. Petersburg that could only be reached by going through 5 separate locked and reinforced doors, daily life required bribing someone, whether a police officer or an organized-crime type, the famous statue gardens they visited were covered in graffiti and empty beer cups, I could go on. Desperately poor old women sold maps (aggressively) on the rickety subways... in general it sounded like visiting a, well, third world country. I think she valued the experience, but her recounting of her visit was constantly punctuated with "...that's Russia, though... Russians are crazy!"
posted by MadamM at 4:03 PM on July 24, 2007

Oh, incidentally, if you're thinking of visiting and don't speak Russian/speak with an foreign accent, expect to get gouged on entry prices to museums and so forth. Although I've heard that's not uncommon for foreigners visiting national landmarks in other countries... anyway, I hope I've helped you.
posted by MadamM at 4:05 PM on July 24, 2007

I've visited Russia only very briefly, last year, but can say that the roads have definitely gone to hell (a major topic of conversation with our drivers), and that corruption is certainly present. We had two Environmental Health ladies turn up with a suitcase to take 'samples of food' for 'testing for safety'. The meat and dairy produce, ok, but how likely is it that tea, coffee and wine are going to give anyone food poisoning?

There are huge industrial sites that have just shut down, and it's not that the jobs have gone elsewhere, it's that they've gone, so you end up with huge residential areas that all look like the worst inner-city/housing scheme/banlieu areas in a Western country.
posted by Lebannen at 4:39 PM on July 24, 2007

I'm Russian, and I think this perspective represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Russian culture. You cannot judge Russia by external, public face. Until real Russians invite you into their private sphere, any judgment on their lives is meaningless. So if you don't know anyone, yeah, it'll be shitty. But in my family (mostly junior academics, not a well-paid profession in Russia), there's a sense of optimism, which is pretty rare.
posted by nasreddin at 5:22 PM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yes, nasreddin, but why is that? That's my question. I know from your previous comments you're not going to toss slogans at me, so what's the reasoning behind the optimism?
posted by StrikeTheViol at 6:13 PM on July 24, 2007

My perspective isn't fully representative, since I'm a Muscovite, and we have it better than almost anyone else in Russia, but that money is unquestionably filtering down to some extent: there's a more developed consumer culture, a greater extent of civil society, there are increasingly legitimate voices criticizing the abuses of the legal system, etc. The bribery thing, believe it or not, is a good sign: a legal system which has not committed itself to due process is more easily escaped with the kind of small-scale one-on-one interactions bribery involves. In other words, when the laws are bad, it's good to be able to avoid them.

I think the West's image of Russia is a) still very much influenced by the early-to-mid '90s, and b) blinkered by Putin's supposed authoritarianism. Now, Putin is, by Western standards, an authoritarian; but in Russia, the choice has always been between the big boss and the little bosses (dukes, landowners, regional party secretaries, oligarchs...). A big boss doesn't have the energy to keep tabs on everyone, so it's easier to escape into the private world and be relatively immune from harm.
posted by nasreddin at 6:26 PM on July 24, 2007

Also, remember, if you only judge by documentaries, America looks pretty bad too: Sicko, Fast Food Nation, etc. etc.
posted by nasreddin at 6:55 PM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

My friend knows a couple Indian guys that were almost beaten to death by some skinheads in Moscow or St. Petersburg. They now study with him in India.
posted by chunking express at 8:18 PM on July 24, 2007

I'm Russian, and I think this perspective represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Russian culture... So if you don't know anyone, yeah, it'll be shitty.

As a Russian and a Muscovite as well, I think this perspective is, unfortunately, rather accurate. While it's very difficult to grasp the intricacies of Russian culture, the fact is that the average Russian's life is quite shitty. The fact that Russians can be happy living a shitty life means little to me.

For a long time now, Russia has been the proverbial colossus on clay feet, with the impoverished heartland supporting several, admittedly very rich, cities -- in Communist times a public face for Western governments, today a public face for Western investors. I've always laughed at the Hollywood-inspired conception of Russia as Moscow surrounded by Siberian wasteland, but there's a certain truth to it, unfortunately.

Corruption and crime, Putin, social and economic polarization, the resurgence of nationalism, the demographic crisis... I don't see that much room for optimism, quite frankly. That said, I think Russia has more hidden potential (for both good and bad) than the West will ever know. I am sure it has a few surprises left for the world -- I just hope they aren't the "recoiling in horror" kind of surprises.
posted by Krrrlson at 10:46 PM on July 24, 2007

I'm working my way through Russia, Ukraine and Romania this summer and fall. Russia is pretty frightening compared to anywhere else I've ever been, and I travel a lot and for long periods of time when I do. While Russians are generally lovely people, their lives are often horrific; it's a testament to their characters that they laugh and socialize so wonderfully and are so generous with what they've got.

And one probably can't make enough of the *extreme* difference between life in the few big cities where some wealth filters down, and the absolute desperation of many villages and "outlier" areas. Of any country which one might consider "above" third world, Russia would be my last choice in which to live. Actually, many third world countries would be preferable. It's telling when Ukrainians bristle at the thought of modern-day life in Russia.

I see almost no room for optimism. The country is spiraling into bottomless corruption and dangerous nationalism, with things for most of its citizens getting worse - and without an empire of developed (or semi-developed) satellites to prop it all up. And, as anyone who's read the news will say, the country is increasingly becoming isolated from the rest of the world, both because of Russia's own poor choices and inability to make the changes other former Communist countries have and because of their increasing irrelevance to anyone interested in anything but gas and oil.

There was reason for hope when communism fell, but Russia has managed to do a fine job of killing most of it - almost unique in the East. I suppose Moldavia and Belarus are about as bad, but I'm actually slightly more optimistic for them.

A pity, because I really love Russia.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:59 AM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Dee, first, I don't really know why you think Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus are better off than Russia. That's false, by any measure; and if Ukrainians bristle, it's because a lot of them have a chip on their shoulder about the 'Moskaly." (admittedly Russians have one about "Khokhly" as well).

Second, nationalism is not something Russia is spiraling into; it's been that way since the closing days of the Soviet empire. Life for ordinary Russians is *indescribably* better than under Yeltsin, because the economy is healthier, the infrastructure is improving, salaries are getting actually paid, the middle class is expanding. Even in provincial dumps like Ryazan there are improvements.

I am resentful of this uncharitable and condescending attitude. The negative things everyone's brought up--demography, authoritarianism, isolation--were all worse in the Yeltsin era.

For example: recently the sociology department of Moscow University had a crisis where there were some accusations of corruption in the cafeteria, etc. There was genuine student activism, sit-ins, extensive Internet debate, and so on. That sort of thing would not happened a decade ago. People are beginning to challenge established structures.

I'm not going to debate this anymore, I've had this argument with too many people with immobile preconceived notions. Just remember, at least, that there is a significant proportion of people who don't think Russia is tumbling into oblivion.
posted by nasreddin at 7:23 AM on July 25, 2007

First of all, I never said that Moldavia and Belarus were better off; I said I thought they were about as bad, but that I had more hope for them. (But to be fair, I don't know about Belarus, though for Moldavia I do have more hope.) Ukraine, for all its problems, I believe is already more livable and a substantially better place to be now and in the near future than Russia. Not just in its cities, but across the villages and towns.

And uncharitable and condescending attitudes have nothing to do with anything - why should I be less condescending to Ukraine, for instance? I've no bias; in fact I adore Russia (which I also said.)

I absolutely can see that life is better in Moscow, generally speaking. (It's worse for the poor, though.) But it's worse nearly everywhere but certain large cities, and I'm not comparing it to Yeltsin's time, I'm comparing it to three and five and ten years ago. More to the point is that nearly all the Eastern European countries have made strides to improve life in nearly all areas at a pace immeasurably more rapid than Russia has done; often without the same level of foreign investment and without the raw wealth Russia possesses. I shudder to think of where Russia would be without its non-initiative wealth (in other words, wealth from the ground, particularly oil.) It wouldn't be pretty.

The middle class may be growing, but since the middle class was miniscule before and much of this growth is paralled by devastation amongst the lower classes, it's not emblematic of much at all.

Crime has doubled since 2006, Putin's former economic adviser talks about the "new nomenklatura" and how it has the country in its pocket, the current government sponsors the assassination of journalists (et al), the health crisis deepens, life expectancy is still absurdly low, little has been done to alleviate social problems or to advance Russia's handling of things like the environment. And Putin has been a much more outlandish user of nationalistic rhetoric than his predecessor. That's one of Russia's biggest problems, probably - they are a sort of giant Belarus with the residual belief that they are among the top two most powerful nations on Earth. Russia must overcome positioning itself according to this erroneous belief.

No doubt facts can be found to support the opposite point of view, so I judge with my own eyes, which sees the bulk of the country in a worse state than a few years ago, and which has seen Poland, Hungary, Romania and about a half dozen other recently 'destitute' states improve their lot and the lives of their citizens more in the last five years than Russia has come close to doing since Reagan was president. Hell, my home country of Bosnia was more livable just a couple years after a brutal war!

Yes, there are many people for whom life is improving. But for many, many more - the majority in fact - it is getting much worse. I visited Russia when it could truly be said it was a "second world" country. But as I would with Kenya, Peru, Pakistan and many others, I would now characterize Russia as a solidly third world state with a typically small middle class and a ridiculously tiny upper class. Wealth filters down a wee bit in the capital(s), but is sucked dry from the provinces. I still like it there, though!

Economic measurements of national prosperity do not accurately reflect the conditions for the average Russian; they never have. There is great wealth in the country, but (historically) it's not filtered down at all, and there's little reason - outside Moscow et al - to think it will anytime soon.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:03 AM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

OK, Dee. There are a few things I could pick on, but overall, it seems like you've thought this through, so I don't want to associate you with most of the people that make this argument. I will defer to your judgment about five years ago; I haven't been back since 2003 (I'm draft-eligible).

I don't see what measure you're using to estimate how much worse off the people are now than five years ago, and I don't think that's true at all. Do you have a link?

(the Politkovskaya thing I'll grant you, but on Litvinenko, there's just as strong (if politically inconvenient) of a case against Berezovsky as there is against Putin.)

The Russian middle class is hardly minuscule; it's a third of the population, which is pretty good for a developing country. I don't think the "second world/third world" distinction makes any sense here--what possible criteria are you using? Not having an authoritarian leader? The nationalism stuff, in the '90s, was coming from people like Lebed and Zhirinovsky, who have since allowed Putin to say it for them. The rhetoric was there, though.

I also think you're missing the fact that Eastern Europe has benefited mostly from integration into the EU, which has driven jobs and investment to places like Romania (where the job market is unstable, being based primarily on low wages). Russia, for a variety of reasons, will never be a part of the EU. But the impact of oil on Russia's economy is overstated, since much of the oil revenue is by law appropriated into a giant stabilization fund (bracing for the inevitable collapse).
posted by nasreddin at 11:29 AM on July 25, 2007

(the Politkovskaya thing I'll grant you, but on Litvinenko, there's just as strong (if politically inconvenient) of a case against Berezovsky as there is against Putin.)

Riiight. Nothing to see here. Move along, comrade.
posted by Krrrlson at 6:17 PM on July 25, 2007

Riiight. Nothing to see here. Move along, comrade.

This is a derail and I won't pursue it further, but a) the man the Brits have fingered as the murderer, Andrei Lugovoi, used to run security for Berezovsky, and b) a UK graduate student published articles describing her interactions with Litvinenko before his death, and evidently he was a paranoid conspiracy-theory nutjob who kept threatening to blackmail various famous people, including Berezovsky. The British sued her for libel, and she won.
posted by nasreddin at 8:25 PM on July 25, 2007

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