Conclusion: Comparison of USA, UK, Russia

As my series comparing life in Russia, Britain, and the US draws to an end, I rank them based on my own preferences – with the caveat that the perceptions of people of different temperaments, character, and socio-economic status may differ radically. Then I finish off with a brief overview of the main trends in these countries and their prospects for the future.

Life Quality

There is a panoply of life quality indices available on teh interwebs, each more useless and less meaningful than the last. That is because quality of life is highly subjective and will have huge variations across different people and personalities, largely regardless of the weights assigned to particular measures such as “GDP per capita” or “atmospheric pollutants per urban cubic meter” or whatever. But ending with that conclusion, that each country is unique in its own way, lets gather round a circle and sing Kumbaya, yada yada yada, will I imagine leave most readers who have gotten this far unfulfilled, so I’ll spare you that BS and give you my personal rankings. The obvious caveat being that I speak only for myself, and perhaps those with similar character traits to myself.

AK at Tahoe

I would say that the US in general, and California (and the Bay Area) in particular, is the best place out of all those I’ve yet lived in. There are opportunities for personal fulfillment everywhere: sunny beaches, snow-capped mountains, tranquil bays, serene forests, gambling dens, world class colleges and innovative companies, foreigners, rootless cosmopolitans, guns, political and social radicals, environmentalists, lots of people who are high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, global cuisine…

There are far fewer restrictions than in Britain, and the spice of life is much thicker, but not so thick as to engender the daily anarchy and unpredictability that is life in Russia. I think most Californians appreciate it. But despite it being one of the more bureaucratized and regulated US states, and its finances being in a public mess, and poor public schools and high rates of poverty, nonetheless most Californians still say that they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Though quite a few are now leaving it to seek better economic opportunities in states like Colorado or Texas, it is typically done with the firm intention of going back.

Me at an ancient church in Vladimir, Russia.

Me at an ancient church in Vladimir, Russia.

Russia is second. Unpredictable and chaotic is also EXCITING. What will the day bring? Its daily life remains culturally insular, relatively speaking, but on the other hand its becoming rapidly globalized. Girls are prettier and more open. Intimate conversations about philosophy, politics, the meaning of life, stretch out over many cups of black tea into the early hours of the morning. Russia still has pockets of bucolic idyll (and, let’s not forget, poverty and alcoholism) that have long ceased to exist in the factory-farmed landscape of the US and Britain; albeit, they too, are dying out, as strip malls, fast food joints, brick dachas (as opposed to the old wooden izba), petrol stations and asphalt roads overspread the countryside, as advanced capitalism remakes Russia in its own image.

With it also goes the old way of doing things. “Legal nihilism” doesn’t only suppress citizens and enhance bureaucratic power; it also ENABLES and FREES people, e.g. getting pirated software for pennies, or paying off a policeman for some minor traffic violation. It is insidious, but also convenient. These arrangements are, slowly but surely, coming to an end, as Russia becomes “Westernized” at an unprecedentedly rapid pace (even if, ironically, popular opinion is far less endearing towards the West now than in the 1990’s). This is probably for the better. Some aspects of the old Russia will be missed. But it will forgotten soon after the average Russian could afford to take a high-speed train from Moscow (or Voronezh) to the newly gleaming ski resorts of Sochi, or to buy a car on loans and drive it across modern highways.

Me (right) at Conwy Castle, Wales.

Me (right) at Conwy Castle, Wales.

The UK is a distant third, after both Russia and the US. True, all things considered, it has the best healthcare system (for the average person, if not the rich), is much more transparent, driving is safer, it is to an extent more “civilized”… but it is also far more superficial and boring. It might have a decent welfare state (even if the current government is doing its best to dismantle it) and be relatively uncorrupt and transparent, but then again, the Scandinavian states – Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway – are far more so. Plus they have more social rights into the bargain. The Netherlands are both richer and more cosmopolitan. Obviously, it is better to be a low-wage worker than in the other two countries; a British £6.50 / hour wage with free healthcare beats a US $9 / hour wage with a minimal safety net any day of the week, not to mention a Russian $300 / month wage with theoretically free but inadequate healthcare. (But the social states of northern Europe are nonetheless far better; for instance, low-wage Swedes still get $15 / hour, and free healthcare and higher education to boot). There are, roughly speaking, as many restrictions as there are in Russia; but unlike in Russia, they are all actually rigidly enforced. The weather is bleak and rainy, the landscape uninspiring; unlike the US or Russia, there are far fewer natural wonders (though thankfully countries like Spain and France are nearby).

In conclusion, if you are in the working poor, or are a lower middle class who wants a high quality, predictable and safe life, then Britain is the country for you; but the adventurous are most at home in Russia, while the entrepreneurial and upper middle class and rich have the best time of it in the US.

The Winds of Change

Russia in 2011 is an utterly different country from Russia in 2001. Only a decade ago, many Russians were deep in poverty; transactions were in cash, stored beneath bed mattresses or in safes, while in the villages outright barter was common; cell phones and computers were playthings of richer Muscovites; and the (much smaller) car fleet was largely composed of boxy, dusty Ladas with a sprinkling of dark-windowed BMW’s ferrying about oligarchs, bureaucrats and mobsters. Today, credit cards and loan-based purchases have become common in cities throughout Russia, extreme poverty has retreated to the margins, cell phones are universal, and many fairly ordinary families have acquired cars, computers, and Internet service. I would also estimate that corruption (both small-scale and large-scale) and social cohesiveness have improved, though merely from the very bad to just bad.

This brings me to another point. The last time I was in Russia (and Britain) was in 2008; the last time I was there for a substantial period of time was in 2005. So given the rapid pace of change, many of the impressions I have about the place are becoming obsolete. On the other hand, visiting Russia for small periods of time across gaps of several years has allowed me to take “snapshots” of progress in the country, which would not be as easy for someone who lives there permanently due to the “creeping normalcy” effect. Though people’s everyday concerns are dominated things like rising prices and poor government services, when one takes a big picture view, a fast rise in prosperity – which is broadbased across regions and social classes, not just concentrated in Moscow as in the 1990’s – is undeniable. (Though in truth, for the poor, most of these gains are just making up for the impoverishment in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse). Despite the 2008 crisis, the improvements feel like they will be sustained in the years to come.

The overall impression I have of the UK during the period is stagnation. Except for state employees (e.g. academics, doctors) and high-income earners (e.g. bankers), real wages seem to have stagnated. Civil rights and privacy have retreated. It is only in the past decade that Britain has filled the streets and squares of its cities with CCTV cameras. Binge drinking has increased. Though government services, like healthcare, have undoubtedly improved, their future is uncertain. Even during the mid-2000’s boom, the UK ran a deficit; since then, revenues from the depressed housing and financial sectors have plummeted, creating a 13% of GDP budget deficit black hole. Closing it will require more taxes (which the neoliberal Tories are averse to) or a sweeping downsizing of the social state (which is to be replaced by a “Big Society”, a parallel universe in which individuals, charities, and business will run libraries and children’s daycare centers for free). I do not think the UK has good prospects for the next decade.

As I’ve only lived in the US constantly since 2008, I can’t really identify any strong trends in everyday life, though logically they would be closer to Britain’s stagnation than Russia’s recovery. As in the UK, its primary near-term challenge is the unsustainability of its fiscal position. The Republicans are deadset against tax rises, preferring more tax cuts for the rich and the wholesale dismantlement of America’s welfare state; the Democrats don’t want any serious cuts in social spending, and will thus have to keep on borrowing (the military and security agencies are sacred cows that no-one wants to touch). So I see the likelihood of the US resolving its fiscal problems in time to avoid a serious crisis as being very low; what would happen after that is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, I expect things to churn on, with continuing technological innovations; but with stagnant wages and stubbornly high unemployment, and roads falling into further disrepair in the margins (especially in near-bankrupt California).


  1. Nice piece of work you’ve done here (I’m referring to the series as a whole). Some comments & nitpicks:

    “Intimate conversations about philosophy, politics, the meaning of life, stretch out over many cups of black tea into the early hours of the morning [in Russia]”

    Just my experience: not anymore they don’t. This classic Russian-novel way of behaving seems to have gone out the window as the country Westernizes.

    “The Netherlands are both richer and more cosmopolitan [than UK]”

    More cosmopolitan? How did you conclude that? No place in Europe is more cosmopolitan than London.

    “if you are in the working poor, or are a lower middle class who wants a high quality, predictable and safe life, then Britain is the country for you”

    I think this conclusion applies for Europe as a whole.

    On a personal note, this series reminds me that I relate more to cities and regions than to countries. The USA is home, but certain parts of it are so alien to me that I would never want to live in them. Many European cities or regions would be preferable. And vice versa.

    • I agree.

    • DenisDenisovich says:

      “No place in Europe is more cosmopolitan than London.”

      Probably true. However, despite what the BBC and the British press may try to project, London is not England and England is not the United Kingdom. In the last national census, 98.86% of the inhabitants of my home town in North-West England classified themselves as “white British”; furthermore, 86% of my fellow home-town folk described themselves as “Christians”, though I dare say very few of them attend church regularly.

      The simple fact is that only 10% of the UK population consists of immigrants (6% Asian), which immigrants include Canadians, Australians etc., and over 90% of UK immigrants choose to live in London.

      I recall some Vietnamese “boat people” suddenly appearing in my home-town in the early ’70s. They must have thought that they had drawn the short straw when they and their compatriots were being allocated to various British towns and cities, for they disappeared after about a year. One thing is for sure, they did not seek employment in the “traditional” heavy industries that once thrived in my home town such as coal mining, chemicals and glass making. All those industries no longer exist in my old neck of the woods, which is very probably a major reason why 98.86% of my home-town population is “white British”, mostly consisting of unemployed working class that some US citizens might call “white trash” and whom the white middle classes of Southern England like to call “chavs”.

      On the collapse of the deep mined coal industry in my old town – the industry that I had been employed in for most of my working life until 1985 – I left the UK to seek employment in Germany. It was then when the veils were lifted from my eyes as regards how pathetic the quality of my existence had been prior to my emigration from the UK.

      I have now lived in Moscow for 17 years and for the past 13 years have been married to a Muscovite who has borne me three children. They were all born in state hospitals in Moscow. I very seldom return to the UK. (5 times in 17 years.) The UK seems an alien place to me now and from my point of view London most definitely is a foreign city.

      The interesting thing is that I enjoy a better standard of living in Moscow than I should do if my family and I all chose to live in the UK. Firstly, I should find it very difficult to find employment in my native country (I am over 60); secondly, even if I were to find the same employment there in which I am engaged now, although I should be paid considerably more than I am now, the purchasing power of my income in the UK would be much less than that of my income here in Russia.

      I don’t drive. I have never learnt to drive. I used to walk to my pithead from my National Coal Board house in the UK. Here in central Moscow I use the metro everyday. Public transport here is dirt cheap. In the summer my family ups sticks and moves to our dacha (country cottage) situated some 57 miles west of Moscow. We travel there using the elektrichka (fast electric commuter train). The journey takes 80 minutes and costs 140 roubles one-way ($5).

      My children’s education in Moscow is, in my opinion, better than that which they would receive in the UK, especially if we were to live in a British city. And I believe all my family live a healthier life here than we would in the UK. I say this because we eat far more fresh fruit and vegetables than folk do now “back home”: food in the UK is mostly processed and filled with additives. My wife makes soup most days: in the UK, “soup” means Heinz out of a can. My wife also makes preserves from the fruit and vegetables that grow in our dacha garden.

      Last year I took my family on one of our rare visits to the UK. We went to the North West of England, to my old haunts. It was pouring it down with rain everyday and my children (my son is 11 and my two daughters are 10 and 3 years old) felt quite cold and miserable; it was August and the temperature was 15C every day: in Moscow it had been in the high 30s for 6 weeks. I took my kids to an indoors aqua-park. We were among the very few there who were not obese.

      As regards my sense of personal freedom here: in that respect I don’t feel any worse off than I did in England. I can’t vote here and I wouldn’t vote in the UK: I think all politicians are on the make to a greater or lesser degree. (Much greater in Russia it seems.) As regards the police: I have always been satisfied with the few dealings that I have had with the Russian cops: I’ve never bribed a cop here, nor have I ever been asked to do so by them. No doubt I should have a different opinion about Russian policing if I were a driver. As regards the wonderful British bobbies, they don’t take bribes (usually) because they are too highly paid and receive wonderful benefits: same goes for British judges. Police brutality? No Russian cop has ever laid a finger on me. After having been on strike in the UK for 12 months (1984-1985), I cannot say the same for the British police.

      I reckon I’ll stay here until I breathe my last. Might even become a Russian citizen. I kept my British citizenship so that my children could get a British passport. Anglo-Russian dual nationality is recognized by the UK but, for some reason, not by the Russian government. So despite my general satisfaction with my life in Russia, my children’s British passports function as a “get out of jail free card” just in case the shit hits the fan here. But seriously, my children’s passports give them the opportunity to travel around the globe if they should wish to do so.

      My wife, however, only has a Russian passport. Whenever she travels to the UK, she goes there as my guest and is limited to a maximum stay of 6 months. She speaks English fluently, is the mother of three British citizens and the legal spouse of another, and yet British border officials demand that she give an itinerary of her travels in the UK and addresses of where she plans to stay and make it perfectly clear to her that if she overstays her visa period of validity, she will be in serious trouble.

      I have long needed no visa here, having been granted a full Moscow residency permit for a foreigner. The British only do that if you are a “business person” who is granted a “business visa”, such as former Moscow mayor Luzhkov and his wife and many others of their ilk have received, and can put £1 million in a British bank account. And this regularly happens in the country that loves to wag its moralistic finger at Russia over matters concerning bribery and corruption. What hypocrisy!

      That’s the trait I dislike most about a certain class of my fellow countrymen.

      I think I shall stay here.

      • Wow, thanks for the wonderful story, Denis. Very interesting to read it.

        I think your story proves is just more proof that it is idiocy to judge countries by some artificial index of “living standards”. It all depends on your socio-economic position, social preferences, and temperament.

        I can confirm that it is exceedingly difficult for Russians to get visas to visit the UK. At least she’s your wife; but if she’s, say, a parent or grandparent, then good luck with that! Chances are he or she wwill be refused outright, no matter how many good references and financial documents you submit. Really puts any British complaints about Russian visa procedures into perspective…

    • Re-conversations. Guess that’s just one more example of current Russian reality overtaking my earlier impressions of reality – and not for the better, in this case. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case, though, since all those night-time discussions typically happened with middle-aged and older people anyway. I guess the Pepsi generation now discusses banalities over Vkontakte or Skype.

      Re-Netherlands. I was very impressed by the fact that the average Dutch seemed to know English, German, and often French, in addition to the native language. I would argue that with the partial exception of London, the Netherlands are far more cosmopolitan than Britain (not to mention Russia or the US) as a whole.

      Re-Europe. Agreed. Conditions for lower-wage workers in Germany, France, and especially Scandinavia definitely seem a lot better than in the US. These American workers can be fired on a whim, get about 5 days of holidays per year, can be forced into overtime, get minimal (or no) health insurance, and have a salary of $8-$11 / hour. The north Europeans typically get far better health insurance, one to two months of vacations, shorter work hours, heavily subsidized university education for their children, and salaries of $15-$20 per hour (this is somewhat compensated by higher prices in Europe, but nonetheless, even in real purchasing power terms my impression is still that they get the better deal).

      The flip side is that the European middle class is far less rich than the American one. I know quite a number of German and Swedish professionals who have relocated to the US to escape the high income taxes of their homelands.

      Re-regions. Again, completely agreed. The Bay Area rocks. So does Seattle/Cascadia, so does (but IMO to a lesser extent) LA, the Great Lakes, the North East, and some cities in Texas or Colorado. But I wouldn’t live in the Deep South if I could help it – far too hot, swampy, and theocratic; in comparison, even places like Manchester or Yekaterinburg would be preferable.

      • I agree about the South. There are some nice places, but I hate hot weather; and the whole Sunbelt is doomed anyway in its current form, due to peak oil. Also (maybe it will surprise you!) I wouldn’t want to live in California either. San Francisco is OK, but Southern California holds no attractions for me at all (I want winter and traditional European-style urban spaces). Plus, CA is going down the toilet economically and socially.

        Mostly I like the traditional Eastern cities: New York, Chicago, Boston, plus New England and some of the Mid-Atlantic area. I dislike Washington, even though it’s a reasonably attractive city, because everything there is focused on politics. I’ll put in a good word for Philadelphia, which many people regard as a dump, because it’s one of the most historic and characterful US cities.

        I’ve never been to the Pacific NW, though I’m pretty sure I would like it.

  2. An excellent piece as a whole and so many things that to list all the things I would want to comment on would take a lot of time.

    In Britian’s case, I think we are going to have a few problems over the coming years as we have a declining economic positions, especially compared to a similarly sized EU country like Germany where they have a strong manufacturing sector. Also, not just economic and statistically, there probably is a general cultural and intellectual stagnation in Britain, which while not universal has spread over a large proportion of the populace. Politically as well, we are not great as we don’t have a decent electoral process like all other EU countries and the parties are almost exactly the same. I’m not blatantly anti EU, as many Brits are, but it has created many problems, for example the 2004 expansion opened the British labour market to everybody from poorer Eastern Europe, which created pressure on pre-existing settlements of pay and labour conditions

    Among my generation, the words on the lips of most people’s minds seems to be emigration. The country cannot provide for us and give us a decent first world lifestyle that we rightly expect, plus things like property prices have risen beyond reasonable rates (one of the causes in London at least has been bankers, Russian oligarchs and other wealthy outsiders distorting the market). We have the advantage of other anglophone coutnries, or in the EU if we can get round to learning new languages (lol, but I’m learning German). We used to have a ‘postwar’ consensus, which was essentially statism, that all political parties worked for the good of everybody in the nation, but we have lost that collective unity of purpose.

    • Agreed. The 2000’s infatuation with “Cool Britannia” is definitely over on the mainland; it seems to be back to 1970’s-style “sick man of Europe” for the next decade.

  3. Yalensis says:

    Good blog and lots of interesting comments! Re. American cities, my 2 cents worth: California may be nice enough, but Seattle is probably the best city to live on the West coast. There is the spectacular beauty of the Pacific Northwest, plus a great city which is both fully functional and also manageable, in terms of size. Every possible sub-culture, and fantastic cuisine. In American East, I think the best place to live (especially if you like mountains) would have to be somewhere in Vermont. Great winters, lots of snow, beautiful little towns, great ski resorts, and a local culture of rugged individualism. Re. deep South: it’s true the climate is inhospitably hot and majority of people are right-wing Christians, but are also generally friendly and hospitable, and the larger cities are fully functional centers of modern civilization. I have relatives who live in Texas, and they love it there. I wouldn’t want to live there myself — too hot, too flat, no scenery, etc. But when I visit, I am always astonished by the level of hospitality and customer service. For example, if you shop in a grocery store in any Texas city, the employees will not only bag your groceries, but also carry them out to your car and pack in your trunk, and not even expect a tip — it’s just part of the service. Whereas in the Northeast, people are rude, customer service is terrible, you must bag your own groceries, etc. In Texas, the major cities have all the amenities – symphony orchestras, opera, museums, etc., and most people don’t speak with any particular regional dialect, just standard American English. In more rural areas, situation is different: Texas has a unique culture, is bilingual and half Hispanic, but among the Anglo population, there is a lot of sentiment in favor of seceding from USA and becoming independent country. I estimate if there were to be state-wide referendum to secede, it could go either way. I think they would be sorry afterwards, because people there don’t realize just how dependent their economy is on the rest of U.S., federal grants, etc. However, it is something that definitely could be an issue in the future. People talk about dissolution of Russia, but I honestly believe, based on what I hear from my Texas relatives, USA is more likely to break apart in coming decades.

    • During the few times I’ve been in Texas, I’ve thought “this place feels like an independent country.” Of course, it was an independent country for a few years, and if historical precedents mean anything, could be again. But my feelings were just impressions based on things like “local folk costume” (e.g. grown men wearing cowboy boots and hats everywhere) and other peculiarities (like putting your nickname on your business card: “William ‘Billy Bob’ Johnson”).

      • Yalensis says:

        I forgot to mention that official speed limit on Texas highways is 137 kilometers per hour (that’s 85 mph, and they’re thinking about raising the limit even further!). In most of USA it’s 55 or at most 65 mph. Texans take pride in being individualistic cowboys (as in “Don’t you dare tell me how fast I can drive!”). However, there is also a rational reason for this: Texas is a huge state, does not have passenger rail service; aside from flying, driving is the only means of transportation, and we are talking 8 to 10 hours of driving just to get from city A to city B. (Compare this to a small state like Rhode Island, where you can drive from one side of the state to the other in less than an hour!) Therefore, Texans will happily welcome any incremental increase in speed limit that will help them get there faster. And the roads are good, and can handle that kind of traffic. Only problem is that when collisions do occur, at those speeds they are spectacular and deadly.
        Returning to theme of “secession”, Texans tend to talk secession whenever Democrats are in power in federal govt, then calm down a bit when Republicans are in power; but the idea is always there, seething behind the scenes. If there were to be secession, it would probably get ugly fast and possibly even lead to race wars between Texas Anglos, on the one side; versus Hispanics and African Americans, on the other, the majority of whom would probably support staying in the Union. Also, I estimate at least half of the population of the larger cities (Houston, Austin, Dallas), even including a lot of white folks, would oppose secession. In conclusion, if there were to be referendum and secessionists won referendum, then there would probably result in internal civil war within Texas itself.

  4. Dear Anatoly!

    Russian Mind magazine would like to offer you a publication of your article (Conclusion: Comparison of USA, UK, Russia). The publication would be properly referenced, indicating your name as the author, optionally giving a link to your blog as well.

    Russian Mind is a new product on the British press market. It provides facts and opinions regarding the events and social trends, both Russia-related and global ones.

    After the materials are printed, we can send you a complimentary copy of the magazine.

    Could you kindly provide your e-mail to simplify communication and the post address to get the printed version.

    Best Regards

    Olga Kudriavtseva

    • Hi Olga,

      Thanks for the offer – it’s very much appreciated. I sent you my response by email.

      PS. For future reference, you can contact me through here.

  5. In my opinion, this is shallow analysis of Russian reality…..

  6. Philip Owen says:

    In the US, you can get shot by a madman at any time. I’ve lived in Boise, Boulder and Cupertino. I don’t rate any of them compared to a decent sized market town in the UK. I totally agree that Russia is exciting but calming down fast. However, I compare Saratov and Cardiff and Cardiff has to win as a place to actually live in a functioning city. Saratov has better urban potential; the trams and trolley buses are still there, people actually respect their high cultural events, Russians have the aspirations of the vanished upper working class of the UK but the potential has yet to be realised, even for the rich. The US is soulless and rootless by comparison with either.