National Comparisons: Freedom And Security

In the first part of my series comparing Russia, Britain and the US, I am going to look at their levels of social freedoms. While political scientists go on about to what extent a country has “democracy” or “rule of law”, this ignores that these arcane concepts have practically zero relevance to the everyday lives of ordinary people. They are, however, much more concerned about issues such as their right to get a fair wage, travel to different countries, and smoke weed in peace. Who gets what ratings from Freedom House is a matter of indifference.

Employment & Social Welfare

Real wages for the majority of both American and British workers have stagnated since the 1970’s, while inequality has soared. The American Dream, with its promise of social mobility, has largely faded. In recent years, academic studies have shown that social mobility – as measured by your children’s chances of switching socio-economic classes – is now lower in the US than in practically all developed countries except Britain. This is a very worrying development, since social mobility has traditionally been an antidote to America’s high levels of inequality; without it, it begins to resemble the socially stratified and politically unstable Latin American countries.

That said, I believe the US remains by far the best deal for two kinds of people: the rich, and the entrepreneurial. Income taxes are low by UK (and European) standards, and property is far more secure than in Russia. Furthermore, as a rich, technologically advanced country covering half a continent with more than 300 million souls, the US offers unparalleled opportunities for all kinds of leisure activities and hobbies: flying planes; sailing; skiing; rock climbing; surfing; horse riding; gourmet dining; white water rafting; etc. Unskilled workers have less rights and more insecurity than in most of Europe, but for the upper middle class America is truly an oyster.

The US is an extremely attractive place for business development. The bureaucracy is minimal and registration of a Limited Liability Company (LLC) – the optimal structure for most S&M businesses, especially online-based ones – can be done over the Internet for about $200 (the best places for setting up an LLC are Nevada and Delaware, which are referred to as “onshore offshore” among some circles). The US consumer market is gargantuan, and for most categories of products, around five to ten times larger than the UK’s or Russia’s. The weirdest stuff, like bounce shoes, or medieval catapult replicas, or kombucha tea, finds its niche in the US.

Bureaucratic hurdles and a much smaller consumer market make the creation of small businesses more difficult in Russia. In fact, the country comes 123rd in the world in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index, in comparison to the 4th position of the UK and the 5th position of the US. The best opportunities in Russia now tend to be in the state sector. In contrast to the impoverished 1990’s, state coffers are now flush with money and salaries for managers in state companies, academia, the bureaucracy, etc., are increasing fast. Though relative to developed countries, salaries remain low – about $700 per month, or $1000 in Moscow, is typical – their impact is multiplied by cheaper staples (e.g. potatoes, meat, etc. cost 1.5-2x less than in the US or the UK), very cheap utilities (gas, water, electricity) and cheap transport. Since the mid-2000’s, Russia’s “brain drain” to the West (primarily Germany, the US, and Israel) has abated, while economic migrants have poured in at an accelerating rate.

Most "everyday" products in Russia are cheaper than in the West.

Most “everyday” products in Russia are cheaper than in the West.

Russian consumers are now relatively well-off by global standards. The GDP per capita, taking into account international price differences, is estimated at $19,000 by the World Bank for 2009. This compares to about $36,000 in the UK and $46,000 in the USA. Obviously Russia still has a lot of catching up to do, but it is no longer a struggling, collapsed superpower where the poor struggle to even feed themselves, as in the 1990’s, but an upper-middle income country not that far from Portugal ($25,000), Korea ($27,000), or even Italy ($32,000). The material accouterments of development, such as cell phones and Internet access, are now widely in evidence.

Got this done by a street artist in Moscow for 300 rubles ($10) back in 2003. Nowadays, such deals are much harder to find.

Got this done by a street artist in Moscow for 300 rubles ($10) back in 2003. Nowadays, such deals are much harder to find.

One consequence of high oil prices and economic growth has been a rise in prices relative to international levels. Back in the early 2000’s, it was possible to do cool stuff for a pittance, e.g. $25 for an hour of flying time. Now they are little different from prices in the US, and you’re better off doing your “geoarbitrage” – exploiting differences in international prices to have the most fun for the least money – in places like Argentina or China.

Though state sector jobs have usually been comfortable in both the UK and the US, their prospects have dimmed considerably due to their fiscal crises. Britain has decided to radically trim down the share of public workers in the labor force, but it’s unlikely that the private sector will be able to reabsorb most of them (thus, I expect many years of heightened unemployment, falling house prices, and depressed consumer activity). The budget cuts in the US are more symbolic, but some states are cutting down ferociously; thus, while federal employees are largely secure for now, the prospects of workers in local government are more uncertain.

One thing that all three countries have in common is that few of their citizens save any of their money. In fact, given Anglo-Saxon habits of treating their houses as a piggy bank, net household debt is on the order of 100% of GDP and quite a lot of Americans and Brits are now underwater. This figure is much lower in Russia, but only because its private lending sector is far less developed than in the West; credit-based purchases were just beginning to take off in 2007-2008, until the economic crisis short-circuited them.

Labor Rights

Americans are by far the most overworked (c.2000 hours / year). Holidays are few and far between, bosses are very powerful. (Combined with easy access to guns, this creates a few “going postal” incidents every year, in which angry employees gun down their bosses and coworkers). Testing employees for drugs is commonplace, which would be considered pretty absurd by most of Europe. Russians and British also work a lot (c.1700 hours / year), though not as much as Americans. (By comparison, central Europeans are real slackers, clocking in just c.1300-1500 hours / year). The workplace atmosphere in the UK and Russia tends to be more relaxed and easygoing than in the US. A Russian company of 10 people usually has 30 office birthday parties a year.

One of the foundations of the British welfare state.

One of the foundations of the British welfare state.

In the private sector, dismissals are quick and easy in all three countries. Unions are very weak; the prospect of them grinding the country to a halt, as regularly happens in France, is unthinkable. Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and rely for health insurance on their employer. Unemployment benefits are small and run out after 26 weeks; credit cards may fill the gap in the meantime. Russian labor laws are likewise ungenerous, and benefits are meager to the extent that most unemployed persons don’t even bother registering . In the UK, one could get very modest unemployment benefits (“Jobseeker’s Allowance”) for a year before the state forces you into a make-work job; however, IIRC, this has recently been shortened to 3 months.

The Homeless

There are far more beggars on the streets of US cities, though they are very noticeable in Russia and the UK too. The reason for the big rates of US homelessness is partly to do with the unstable nature of economic life, especially the dangerous dependence on debt for education, medical procedures, etc; another reason is that by law, it is much more difficult to institutionalize the mentally ill in the US (this is not necessarily a bad thing, as the procedure can be abused by unscrupulous family members).

Most of Russia’s homeless have become so through alcohol or drug addiction (though some became homeless because they were ethnically cleansed from parts of the former USSR in the anarchic 1990’s; others lost their homes to “black realtors”, the bands of thugs who use violence and trickery to steal housing; finally, many didn’t get just compensation for having their old apartments knocked down to make way for more elite developments).

The same major causes – drug addiction and alcoholism – appear to have been at play in the US too, at least until 2008, but since then the homelessness has exploded; in Berkeley, where I now live, I’d estimate their numbers have doubled or tripled. Their social composition also changed. Before 2008, probably 75%+ were African-American males; now, there are a lot of whites and women, too. I think this development is largely linked to the flood of foreclosures sweeping the US in the wake of the housing bubble collapse (foreclosure fraud has also become disturbingly prevalent). The economic situation in Britain is pretty similar to that in the US, so I wouldn’t be surprised if homelessness there has also increased in the past few years.

Prisons

The US and Russia, in this order, are global leaders in incarceration rates. Russian prisons are the toughest, as they involve forces labor, brutal criminal hierarchies, and rampant diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS. However, sentences are much shorter than  in the US. The typical sentence for murder is 6 to 15 years, while only terrorists and serial killers get life sentences. Many Russian prisons are located in Siberia, where the main obstacles to escape aren’t guards or walls, but the remote, inhospitable location. The system’s most famous prisoner is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man until 2003 when he was arrested for tax evasion. About 0.58% of the Russian population is imprisoned.

Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco; the most famous US prison, held Al Capone, now a tourist attraction.

Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco; the most famous US prison, held Al Capone, now a tourist attraction.

Even relatively minor felonies in the US can get you very long jail sentences. For instance, California’s “three strikes law” means that someone convicted of three felonies (e.g. burglaries, car thefts) may well never see freedom again. God help you if end up in a supermax. Prisoners are organized around race-based gangs (white Aryans, Hispaniacs, blacks), which maintain hierarchies and war with each other.

There is forced labor in US prisons. Many prisons are privately owned, and thus have an incentive to band together and lobby for harsher sentences; critics even point to the emergence of a “prison-industrial complex“. The prison population has quintupled in the past 30 years, so that now 0.75% of the US population is behind bars.

Though British prisons are no song either, at least by Scandinavian standards, they are far preferable to both Russian and American ones. The rate of imprisonment has risen in the past decade and overtaken most European countries, but at 0.15% of the population, the situation is still a lot better than in Russia or the US.

You want to stay out of a US supermax.

You want to stay out of a US supermax.

Why is this? Unlike Europeans, Americans tend to view crime not as an inevitable phenomenon borne of adverse socio-economic conditions (e.g. inequality, community breakdown), but as individual transgressions by bad men and women. This religious-tinted perspective, based on clear conceptions of what is good and what is evil, perhaps, also explains the relative harshness of US punishments. You have a higher chance of dying in a Russian prison, but you’ll stay much longer in a US one.

After extensive use in the Soviet period, Russia implemented a moratorium on the death penalty from the mid-1990’s. Though 65% of Russians supported capital punishment in 2005 (down from 79% in 2002), it’s not coming back any time soon due to its agreements with the Council of Europe. The death penalty was abolished in the UK in the 1960’s, and likewise its reintroduction is extremely unlikely (despite a slight majority of the British population being in favor).

The US had a moratorium from 1967 to 1977, but the death penalty is applicable in most states outside the North-East nowadays. While there is opposition to the death penalty in liberal pockets of the US, by and large it enjoys a lot of popular support, and is unlikely to make an exit any time soon. One recent improvement is that underage offenders can no longer be executed. Most executions are by lethal injections, and each one attracts a mass of anti-death penalty activists.

Freedom & Regulations

The TSA has courted controversy with its "naked body" scanners.

The TSA has courted controversy with its “naked body” scanners.

There is a lot of rhetoric in the US on freedom as an unalienable right. But things aren’t that straightforward. Many security-for-freedom compromises have been made under the rubric of the “war on terror”, and at least for practicing Muslims, or for those passing through an American port of entry, the Homeland now differs little from an authoritarian regime.

Speaking of airports… American ones have prying, time-consuming and ineffective anti-terrorist measures (some find them humiliating, I find them annoying). They can demand your fingerprints, and take away your notebook and other electronic belongings, without explanation. Russian and UK airports aren’t pleasant either in this respect, but somewhat better than American ones.

But in most cases, the US still far better on the free speech thing than our other two alternatives. Britain’s libel laws are (in)famous for being exploited by corporations and rich individuals all over the world for silencing those who publish unsavory or incriminating information on them; frequently, the threat of exorbitant legal fees is enough to force removal of the material. They can also obtain gag orders to prevent publication of such documents in the first place. The mere act of owning literature like the Anarchist Cookbook or “justifying” terrorism gives you a small chance of landing a hefty jail sentence.

In Russia, libel lawsuits have emerged as one of the most powerful defenses of corrupt politicians against valid criticism. It is the worst country of the three for “leakers”, whistleblowers and investigative journalists. Before you can air the elite’s dirty laundry you must get some kind of political cover, as Navalny almost certainly did when exposing corruption in state pipeline operator Transneft. But if a lowly police officer tries to expose his superiors’ corruption, the likelier outcome is that he’d be fired, and may even go to prison for “corruption” himself.

The situation in the US is far better. It has been widely criticized for its extralegal campaign against Wikileaks, but in a way, the very fact that the Department of Justice is finding it so hard to charge Julian Assange with anything is a testament to the robustness of its institutional safeguards.

On the positive side, Russia's police have excellent fashion sense.

On the positive side, Russia’s police have excellent fashion sense.

The police in big Russian cities, especially in the Metros, are omnipresent and provoke a sense of foreboding rather than security. They have the right to stop you at will and demand to see your documents (i.e. an internal passport); if you don’t have them, and a bribe doesn’t suffice, then it’s off to the police station to confirm your identity. But in practice, as long as you don’t have Central Asian or Caucasian features (i.e. a potential illegal alien or terrorist) or a young Slavic man (i.e. a potential draft evader) then you’re very unlikely to get stopped. (By the way, the recent immigration bill in Arizona effectively gives its police the same powers as those “enjoyed” by their Russian counterparts).

Most Russians dislike their police, which is unsurprising given their penchant for corruption and brutality. Americans and especially Britons regard their police much more positively, mostly seeing them as honest upholders of the laws. (Of course, certain groups such as African-Americans in the US, don’t share these views).

Russia has an onerous system of registration. To access social services, you have to be officially registered as living in the area of their provision. This shows up in your internal passport. There is no such system in the UK or the US.

That said, in one very real sense, Russians are far freer than Westerners. That is in the laxness of regulations or their non-enforcement. One advantage of life being more chaotic and improvised is that Russians don’t have to worry nearly as much as Americans or Britons about offending some local ordnance, getting a parking ticket, etc.

Gun Rights

The freedom to get armed and dangerous is one of America’s most cherished rights, to the extent that some states like Texas even allow concealed carry onto campuses. The most liberal firearms policy is supported by most of the US population, with the sole exception of some urban liberals.

Me at a California shooting range. Probably 2006.

Me at a California shooting range. Probably 2006.

You can go buy a gun after a quick background check (and you don’t even have to undergo that if you talk to the right people at one of the many gun fairs going on year round). Hunting rifles, shotguns, pistols (the Glock 17 is my favorite; costs about $400), semi-automatics (like the cool FS2000, costs about $3,300) are all good for the taking. There is a ban on the manufacture for civilian use of fully-automatics after 1986, resulting in soaring prices due to competition for the remaining stocks; an AR-15 of this type will cost around $15,000-20,000.

Citizens have the right of “concealed carry” in most of the conservative states; recently, Texas even allowed students to carry them onto campus. Except for a few limp-wristed liberals in degenerate areas such as the Bay Area, the vast majority of the American public supports gun rights.

As mentioned above, private gun ownership is very restricted in the UK. The main exceptions are low-capacity shotguns; single-shot rifles (e.g. bolt-action); low-caliber semi-automatics; and air guns. All kinds of handguns and fullbore semi-automatics are banned. This stance is supported by the vast majority of the population. There are rifle ranges where enthusiasts can practice rifle shooting (I did it at my school for free, though it was atypical in its close relations with the military), but ordinary Britons are far less into guns than Americans.

Russian laws are in between the two Anglo-Saxon countries. Acquiring licenses for shotguns and hunting rifles is easy. Getting one for a pistol is far harder; from what I heard, one common ploy is to register yourself as an employee of a security company (the authorities rarely bother checking up on it). Most Russians concerned with self-defense just get an air pistol instead. IIRC, its possible to get a license for a fullbore semi-automatic, but it requires a good reason and 5 years of possessing a license for other guns without incident. In practice, there are a lot of unregistered guns floating around in Russia, especially in the unstable North Caucasus region.

Many Brits and Russians smugly criticize the Americans for the “recklessness” of their gun laws, arguing that it leads to higher crime, etc. But they aren’t borne out by the facts. The homicide rate in Russia is 15/100,000; granted, it’s down from 30+/100,000 in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but it’s still more than twice as high as in the US. The reason for this has nothing to do with guns. The average Russian murder, statistically speaking, is from stabbings or blows during a drunken argument between two middle-aged guys at an apartment. So these Russian critics are pretty hypocritical.

Britain is far safer, with a homicide rate of about 1.5/100,000 compared to America’s 6/100,000; perhaps a better argument for gun control? But then again, gun ownership in the US is concentrated in affluent suburbia, which are just as safe if not safer than their British equivalents. The rates of petty crimes such as burglaries and car thefts are certainly far lower. Homicide rates only truly go out of control in the inner city areas of places like Washington DC or Atlanta, rising to as high as 70/100,000; but these are caused not by (legally registered) guns, but by turf wars between drug gangs using unregistered guns. Due to the “war on drugs”, prices are high and so as profits, and people will kill for money no matter what. The solution to this problem is drugs legalization, not gun criminalization.

Alcohol Rights

The equivalent sacrosanct liberty in Russia is the right to be drunk. Gorbachev’s attempts at partial prohibition were unpopular and may have even contributed to disillusionment with the Soviet system. In public, on park benches or underneath them, or trundling in for the work day, nowhere will you see as many drunk people as on the streets of any Russian city.

The legal drinking age is eighteen, but I’ve never seen anyone being checked, including visibly underage buyers. It’s common to see people milling around beer stalls in public parks or tourist attractions, including teenagers. Beer is considered more as a soft drink than an alcoholic beverage.

In contrast, I’m always asked for an ID when shopping for booze in the US (unless I wear my camo pants and black wife-beater, in which case they ask no questions). This isn’t to say that there aren’t any shops or bars willing to sell alcohol to people under 21, but generally speaking they’re either in isolated rural areas or you have to really look for them. The situation is easier in the UK, because the legal age is 18; furthermore, even 16-17 year olds don’t face unsurmountable problems in getting served. The going rate for fake ID’s seems to be about $200 in both countries (there are cheaper alternatives but they tend to be unreliable).

Travel Rights (Passports)

If you like to travel, the UK passport isthe best there is. Thanks to its “special relationship” with the US, and links to the British Commonwealth and the EU, a British national can visit some 166 countries without a visa. The US passport is almost as good with 159 visa free countries (though Cuba is banned outright unless you have an approved reason for it). The Russian passport is far behind with just 95 countries. Good for traveling through Central Asia and the Middle East, you’ll need a visa to visit the developed world bar Israel.

Good for getting out of town.

Good for getting out of town.

Though many Britons complain about the difficulties of getting a Russian visa, they pale besides the troubles Russians experience with visiting the UK. They have to fill in multiple forms with confidential financial and personal information, and can be – and frequently are, after the Litvinenko Affair – refused entry for no discernible reason.

Russia operates on the principle of “visa free travel must be reciprocal between states”, which IMO is a respectable stance; hence, if the British (or Europeans, Americans) want to visit Russia without hassle, they should pressure their own governments to simplify or remove visa procedures for Russians.

You might not get what you want from them, but British Embassies are by far the most pleasant of the lot. Russian ones are staffed by rude people and rather anarchic; there was something close to a riot the last time I was in the SF Russian Consulate. American embassies are protected by intimidating layers of armed men, and their staff tend to be the most arrogant of the lot.

ASBO’s

Are an anti-freedom specific to the UK? The ASBO (Anti-Social Behavior Order) is a restraint order that allows for your activities – even if they’re legal – to be restricted by court order on the “balance of evidence” (i.e. not even proof of guilt). They can be imposed based on anonymous denunciations. Violating their terms can result in a prison term. Usually used against troublesome teenagers.

Gambling Rights

Now that's what I call dedication to the cause!

Now that’s what I call dedication to the cause!

Gambling is without doubt the most liberalized in the US. The main centers of the gambling industry are in Las Vegas, Atlanta City, and Reno. The latter is particularly suitable for North Californians, especially if they also like skiing (Tahoe is just an hour’s drive away from Reno). The glitzy mega-casinos of Las Vegas used to be the global gambling mecca, but in the recent years it has been decisively overtaken by Macao.

Any one of dozens of casinos in Vegas dwarf the biggest casino in Britain, where they are much more restricted (recently there were plans to allow the construction of a few “super-casinos” in the UK, but IIRC they’ve fallen through).

All casinos in Russia were banned in 2009, except in four remote regions without any existing facilities; idiotically, poker was amongst the “gambling” games banned, and as such Russian players typically go to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or further abroad to Europe. As such, most remaining casinos in Russia are necessarily underground operations, that pay for police and/or political protection (the Prosecutor General’s son was implicated in a casino racketeering scandal a week ago). Being more risk-averse and less capitalistic than Americans, the conservative stance of the UK and Russia on gambling is broadly supported by the population.

EDIT 4/16/2011: The era of permissive US attitudes towards gambling may be waning, in the wake of the shutdown of the three largest online poker sites and arrest warrants for their CEO’s. Formally, what they were doing has been (arguably) illegal since 2006, but for whatever reason the Feds have only decided to move now. Online poker remains legal in the UK, (even) Russia, China, and most of Europe.

Violence & Nudity Rights

Grand Theft Auto, a quintessential American video game.

Grand Theft Auto, a quintessential American video game.

It’s cliché that American culture is violent, while Europeans are oversexed. I find this generally accurate. A German once told me about a video game in which some enemy characters were topless green fairies. When it came out in the stores, the Americans censored out the nipples; the Germans censored out the blood splatter. Nudity is far more prevalent on TV in Europe, even prime time, which would be unthinkable in the US with its more puritanical instincts. On the other hand, many aspects of American culture invoke the righteousness of controlled violence: Western shootouts; the Second Amendment; Grand Theft Auto; the entire zombie genre; grindhouse flicks (e.g.Texas Chainsaw Massacre); etc.

The UK has the worst – or the best – of both worlds. Violent imagery is not condoned as in the America and its gun laws are some of the most restrictive in the world (suffice to say that their Olympics pistol shooting team has to practice in France). And the general attitude towards nudity is still best exemplified by “No sex please, we’re British.” The placidness of British life is interrupted in sudden jolts by Friday night binges, in which they try to make up for days of rain-filled monotony with paroxysms of drunken licentiousness that is the stuff of legends throughout civilized Europe.

Female toplessness, let alone full nudity for men or women, is illegal in public for all three countries (if you want more liberality, then Germany, Scandinavia and Canada is where it’s at). On the other hand, it is not uncommon for young Russian women to wear see-through vests during summer. Their American counterparts like to wear opaque tights, while British girls have a penchant for short skirts.

The Americans and British favor swimming shorts for men and two-piece bikinis for women on the beach. Topless or clothing-free areas are atypical. Nowadays, Russia is drawing closer to the European mainstream in which female toplessness is more prevalent on the beaches. Russian men tend to wear swimming briefs, which are decidedly uncool in Britain and the US. Thongs have become popular in all three countries, but most remain too shy for string bikinis at the beach.

TV & Video Games

Russians are all round extremists. Back in the 1990’s, even prime-time TV was filled with images of the most blood-drenched inanity – what the eXile referred to as “death porn” – as well as real, hardcore pornography. Some sense of sobriety has since been restored to the TV stations and such scenes are now limited to late hours as in normal countries. The old atmosphere continues to reign on the Internet. It’s common to see photos of partial nudity on the more tabloid newspapers, which is unheard of on American ones and rare on British papers (to the extent that “Page 3″ is known by everyone to refer to The Sun‘s photos of topless models on, erm, the third page).

Not in Britain, please.

Not in Britain, please.

The British have by far the strictest ratings system for video games, with some like Manhunt 2 being banned outright. Almost nothing is banned in the US thanks to the First Amendment, though the age classifications system is pretty authoritarian. If there exists a video games classification agency in Russia, no one I know has ever heard of it; besides, it would be totally redundant since all video games are pirated there anyway.

One positive thing to say about Britain is that it has by far the most tolerable advertising on TV. It is shorter and not as in-your-face buy-my-product in style. The length of commercials makes watching TV in the US or Russia rather excruciating. One telling thing I’ve noticed is that about 25% of commercials in the US and Russia reflect their respective healthcare crises of obesity and alcoholism: high-carbohydrate, high-saturated fat foods in the US; beer in Russia. When watching Russian TV, you can tell when it strikes 10pm without consulting a clock, as the commercials become infested with beer promotions. One day about seven years ago I was watching a documentary on Russia TV that bewailed the nation’s economic and social crises and the government’s indifference – yes, contrary to what the Western media says, Russian TV does criticize the government – and one segment ended with some demographer citing the numbers of alcoholics in the country as evidence of social decline. This was immediately followed by a commercial for Baltika beer, as if determined to prove him right!

Abortion Rights

All three countries have abortion rights. The US since Roe vs. Wade in the 1970’s; the UK also since that period; Russia since Stalin’s death (and during 1920-1936). In the UK, a woman can get an abortion up until 26 weeks. IIRC, there are similar laws in the US; though conservative states put up a great deal of bureaucratic obstacles to women getting abortion. Some abortion doctors were even assassinated by religious fundamentalists.

In Russia, abortion is legal on request to 12 weeks, and for social reasons to 22 weeks. The country has the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest abortion rates. There were 2-2.5 abortions for every live birth in the post-Stalinist USSR, where it was used as a major component of birth control; though this indicator began to fall consistently from 1993, it was not until 2007 that live births exceeded abortions.

Driving Rights

In the UK, you can take a driving test at the age of 17. They are far more rigorous than in Russia or the US. Many people fail multiple times. In the US, it depends by state: IIRC, the California driving age is 16, and it’s as low as 14 in some of the more rural states inland.

Russians can take driving tests from the age of 18, IIRC. They seem to be about as hard as US tests, but the passing criteria can be lowered depending on the size of your bribe to the instructor.

In all three countries, there is a written (computerized) and a driving component to the test. The written material is hardest in the UK, and one section actually involves watching videos and making split second decisions on what to do in dangerous situations. The written tests in all three countries involve answering fairly simple multiple-choice questions from a booklet that you study beforehand.

As a rule of thumb, it is legal to drink one pint of beer, or a glass of wine, but NOT two, when driving in Britain and the US. It is very unusual to see drunk people behind the wheel in both countries. There are a lot of drunkards on Russian roads, however the problem has decreased markedly since the mid-2000’s when a no tolerance policy towards driving and drinking was introduced (having the slightest traces of alcohol in your body leads to a suspension of your license).

You drive on the left hand side of the road in the UK, but on the right hand side in Russia and the US.

Drugs Rights

The cool states are colored green.

The cool states are colored green.

The US has a reputation for maintaining a hard line against marijuana, but the situation is more nuanced in practice. In someplace like Tennessee, you could go to jail for mere possession. In Berkeley, California, you can light up a joint at any public park. Policing marijuana possession here was put on the very lowest priority, below jaywalking, so obviously no-one cares. You can extend weed coverage to the rest of the California by telling the doctor that you “suffer” from some kind of “disease”, e.g. “migraine headaches” that can only be “alleviated” by smoking marijuana. The doctor will give you the medical certificate for a small fee and you can go hit the bong.

Drugs off all kinds are far easier to acquire in the US than in the UK according to, erm, acquaintances. I don’t know about the situation in Russia.

Piracy rights

In theory, Russia has copyright law; in practice, 90% of software in Russia is pirated and the chances off getting in trouble for it are virtually non-existent. Fire sharing is all prevalent. In the US it is an extremely serious offense, about on par with rape, thanks to the political power of the record companies. But fortunately for its tens of millions of illegal file downloaders, the individual’s chances of being detected and prosecuted are very low. Piracy is illegal and prosecuted in Britain, though the rare convictions that happen don’t tend to result in absurdly huge fines like in the US.

Conscription

Both the US and Britain have professional armies. The last time the US had conscription was during the Vietnam War, and though it is extremely unlikely to be used again, men have to register with the Selective Service System upon turning 18 in case of a future mobilization. They can theoretically be called up until the age of 25. Britons had a system of National Service from World War 2 until the early 1960’s.

Conscription remains a major institution in Russian life. The bulk of its military is made up of conscripts, though the numbers of contract soldiers are rising. Conscription is slated to last until at least 2020. In the recent past, the length of service has recently been shortened from two years to one year. This was accompanied by a narrowing down of deferments, and greater efforts to crack down on draft evasion. There are biannual drafts in the spring and autumn.

In a typical scenario, the future conscript receives a letter from the local Military Commissariat (voenkomat) upon turning eighteen, informing him of his obligation to appear at their office. Unless one has a valid deferment (e.g. a place in a university) or resides overseas, failing to do so is a fairly serious offence. Then he has to go for a medical checkup with military doctors to ascertain suitability for service; they will, of course, try to prove that he’s healthy and fit to serve. This is followed by travel to the marshaling ground, where he is assigned and transported to his unit in another corner of the Russian Federation. Alternate service lasts longer and is very unprestigious, involving dirty work like cleaning sewers, so few opt for it.

Many wealthy and well-connected families can find ways for their sons to evade conscription or to get assigned to elite units where there’s little hazing. The most common method is to get a “white ticket”, certifying an illness that makes one unsuitable for service. Sometimes the illness is real, but more often it is imagined and paid for; the going rate amongst doctors for signing the appropriate papers is $2,000-$5,000. However, this “white ticket” (its real color is red) often results in future job discrimination; furthermore, it is unreliable because the Military Commissariat may insist on its own medical tests if they have suspicions about the existence of the illness (the correct response is to deny them this request in writing; legally, they cannot force those medical tests on someone).

Therefore, other methods of draft evasion are preferable, e.g., a direct bribe to the officers of the Military Commissariat. Not everyone can afford this; even a few years ago, the typical payment was around $5,000-10,000 (the amount depends on the Military Commissariat: some are cheaper, some are expensive, others actually don’t accept bribes). Since then, there has been a fall in the numbers of eligible conscripts (due to the collapse in birth rates during the 1990’s), a halving of the length of service, and an increasingly serious anti-corruption campaign. This means that a rising proportion of each year’s male cohort has to be called up to maintain the Armed Forces at one million soldiers. As a result, successful draft evasions have fallen, while typical bribe sizes have soared well above $10,000.

Though training and conditions of service are better than in the cash-strapped years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they are still very substandard and extensively criticized by human rights groups. In particular, hazing – called dedovschina (lit. “rule of the grandfathers”, i.e. of soldiers nearing the end of their service) – is prevalent in many units and directly results in the deaths of a few dozen soldiers every year. (In total, about 200-300 commit suicide in total out of the one million-strong armed forces; some would have done so anyway, but others are surely caused by hazing).

It was hoped that the reduction in length of service would reduce incidents of hazing, because it would (by definition) eliminate the “grandfathers”, but it actually may have had the opposite effect. When administered through the grandfathers, the system had a certain framework of rules and traditions to it; today, the hierarchy is no longer set by length of service, but by the rule of the jungle. With no tradition of a strong NCO corps, checking this chaos will be a major challenge in the coming years.

All that said, I stress that far from everyone regards the Armed Forces with fear and loathing. Of those I know who served in the Russian Army, most describe it as an exercise in pointlessness and boredom; what bullying they experienced happened to other people in other units. A few even look back in fondness. According to opinion polls, Russians are evenly split on whether to continue conscription. Some say it helps build character and discipline; others regard the Army as a dangerous prison, or at best a waste of time.

Comments

  1. Fascinating post. And well-selected points of interest!
    Спасибо!

  2. Very balanced and as close to real life as possible, on the Russian side, at least. Just some additions.

    Software piracy is decreasing, mostly due to new computers being sold with and installed OS. On the other hand, books, music and films are still available for free download.

    Funny that swimming trunks appeared on the beaches only recently and only popular among younger generation. On Soviet beaches the only men’s swimming wear were briefs. I’ve heard opinions that trunks and jammers were borrowed from the West.

    The distinctive feature of the Russian labor legislation is 28-days long annual vacation (48 or so for teachers).

    Lack of law enforcement, indeed, makes life way easier. So, cars can often be seen parked on the sidewalk or even on the lawn. This is not even considered a transgression, while being prohibited by the traffic laws. On the other hand, this flexibility of the laws makes life harder for those who live next door.

    • Thanks, Dmitry. It’s encouraging to hear from you that I got more things right than wrong based on irregular visits to Russia.

      Of course, some impressions are no doubt becoming outdated. E.g. on software piracy. Prices are converging to international levels. Fashion is becoming more Westernized. The last time I was in Russia was in 2008 (and before that in 2005), and since it’s changing much faster than already developed countries – the Britain or US of 2000 is little changed from that of 2010, while Russia has become practically another country – many of my observations are receding into history.

      On the swim wear, I made a mistake in terminology (in the UK, “trunks” refer to briefs; whereas they’re similar to shorts in the US). I meant to write Russian men traditionally wore swimming briefs. They were the default in the US prior to the 1980’s, when swimming shorts became popular. So if they’re now spreading to Russia, it is probably due to US influence.

  3. A very solid and interesting post, Anatoly! I think you’re right that Russia has changed greatly in the last 5 – 8 years, while its critics are just tooting the old cold-war horn without really knowing much of what they are talking about. As long as they can find their beliefs validated in regular excoriations by the Moscow Times, they’re happy that Russia is still collapsing. You’re also right that while Russia has a lot of catching up to do in terms of standard of living and mortality rates, most russophobes are content to point to the way things are now and snicker. They don’t note that Russia is making gains in both while the U.S. and U.K. are remaining stable or slipping. While Russia’s infant mortality rate was greatly reduced, the rate in the USA actually increased. Wages in the western countries have increased little or remained stagnant, while Russia’s increase regularly and steadily. Westerners can laugh and say, “so what? They still get paid less than half what I do”, but an upward trend is an upward trend, and if all things remain the same, eventually the lower will reach and pass the upper. That won’t happen anytime soon, but the west’s margin for sneering is growing smaller all the time, while the days when you could get laid for a pair of jeans exist only in imagination.

    • The general observation that the US/UK and Russia are in some sense converging – Russia’s economy and consumer culture is catching up, while Anglo-Saxon integrity and social cohesion regress in Russia’s direction – is indeed one that I agree with, and is spelled out in greater detail in the last part of this series. :)

  4. Giuseppe Flavio says:

    Hello Anatoly,
    first of all, thanks a lot for writing this post, and thanks in advance for the next. It is a very interesting reading. I’ve spent at most a month in total in the three mentioned countries, my English isn’t fluent, my Russian doesn’t exist, so my knowledge on them comes from the internet, movies and literature. I expect my opinions to be mercilessly corrected.
    a) US people are very proud of their freedoms (in many US movie you hear the “this is a free country line”, even when it doesn’t make much sense), but they have a strange tendency to limit such freedoms on moral grounds. The alcohol ban of the ’30 comes to mind, prostitution is illegal in most of the US (it’s legal in almost all of Western Europe), and there were until recently the various state laws forbidding “unnatural” sex.
    b) However most of these laws are happily ignored, Russian/Italian style. Those on “unnatural” sex were unenforceable, the ban on prostitution doesn’t work, just like the alcohol ban. Until the Spitzer affair, I though that prostitution was legal in the US, since you can find prostitutes on yellow pages.
    c) About gun rights, note that most unregistered guns were registered guns stolen from their legitimate owners (I suppose gun smuggling in the US isn’t of epic proportions), so the more registered guns you have in a country, the more unregistered guns you have in the hands of criminals, including petty ones that can be the most dangerous for the average guy.
    Although I don’t have precise statistics, I’ve noticed from news reports involving petty criminals in Italy, that they don’t have guns, at most they use toy guns or knifes. When they meet a policeman or a shop owner armed with a real gun it ends badly for them. While it looks like that in the US even petty criminals have real handguns, which explains why the US police is so taser-happy.

    • During regular visits to San Diego, we were accustomed (since it’s a requirement built into the plan) to receiving a detailed briefing on areas to avoid, local trends in crime, areas that were off-limits to military (which doesn’t mean you can’t go there, it just means you have no excuse if something happens to you there, because you were told) and local gang activity. We were regularly told that the largest advantage the San Diego police enjoyed over local gangs was their access to helicopters. Otherwise, our briefers reported, the gangs were as well or better-armed than the police. There’s pretty much nothing you can’t get if you’re persistent and have the cash.

      America’s fascination with guns and “frontier justice” is an anachronism that is jarring in the context of its mostly common-sense approach to other issues. In one of the recent college shootings – Virginia Tech, if I remember correctly – a commentator had theorized that someone could have “taken him down right away” if only everyone were carrying a gun. Yes, that’s just the ticket; four or five people blazing away with weapons that are notoriously inaccurate at greater than point-blank range unless you’re an experienced shooter, and lots of people running around screaming and diving for cover. How long would that doctrine prevail before some foreign student got preemptively shot in the back of the head because he was “acting wierd” and reaching into his backpack, maybe for a gun? Everybody packing a pistol would be fine if everybody could be trusted with one. Is that the case? You tell me.

      • Giuseppe Flavio says:

        We were regularly told that the largest advantage the San Diego police enjoyed over local gangs was their access to helicopters.
        That’s impressive. Here only the big criminal organizations like mafia have access to military weapons, like the AK-47, but in limited numbers. Do you know which is the size of these local gangs in terms of manpower and budget? I suppose they’re much smaller and organized than a mafia gang.
        Re. shootings like that at the Virginia Tech, there is also the risk of blue on blue incidents. For example, the mad guy with a gun starts shooting, someone react with his gun, then a third person that didn’t see the scene from the start may think that the guy (or guys) that are reacting is the mad one and shots at him with his gun.

  5. Have you seen this article in New Yorker about Navalny? Well written and informative.

    • Yeah, I did. It will be interesting to see what direction Navalny and his projects (e.g. Rospil) develop in the years ahead.

      • In the last days, I’ve read some interviews with him and, frankly, I’m a bit worried. He has a strong nationalist stance. He is a regular participant of ‘Russian marches’. He has certain political aspirations and I do not know how far they may go. And, finally, he used his anti-corruption campaign to gain a very strong support. His political program includes three ‘Nos': No to corruption, no to migration, no to oligarchy.
        I’m very bad when it comes to fortune telling, but I’m really worried by certain parallels that can be drawn between him and fascists. Didn’t Mussolini and Hitler accuse earlier governments of corruption?
        Keep an eye on him.

        • I’m agreed. His anti-corruption and pro-gun rights crusaders are cool, but it would be best if he remained very, very far from real power.

  6. The big growth in casino gambling in the United States is on Indian reservations, which given their semi-sovereign status are subject to relatively few legal controls.

    If I’m not mistaken, it’s no longer possible in the United States to (legally) evade the background-check requirement for gun buyers by going to a gun show. While this is strictly an impression of mine, which may be colored by the fact that I live in a state (New York) with restrictive gun laws, I believe that the “gun culture” aspect of American life is perhaps a bit exaggerated. Guns are unusual among manufactured products in that they last just about forever with minimal or even no maintenance and do not become obsolete. My reasoned guess is that a non-trivial percentage of the guns in private ownership are decades-old relics, perhaps inherited from one’s parents or grandparents, that are gathering dust in attics and basements and which haven’t been fired in years.

    • If buying in CA, then yes – background check is mandatory. But it *might* be different in some of the more gun-friendly states, I don’t know.

      I know that even in ultra-liberal Bay Area there are plenty (not anywhere near the majority, but still a sizable group) of gun enthusiasts. In the more conservative interior parts of the country this is surely far more prevalent still.

  7. Leon Lentz says:

    Even though the purported goal of this site is to avoid following Western propaganda, the author falls right into that trap.

    In US, a nonworking housewife’s household chores are counted towards the GDP, in other words, the amount added to the GDP is the wages she would otherwise had to pay if she hired somebody to do it, instead of doing it herself. In Europe, in particular, in UK, the dwelling that one owns causes the amount of rent that could be charged if that dwelling was rented out, to be added to the GDP.

    Additionally, these are countries with innumerous taxes, insurances and other small expenses which make life more bothersome and expensive than in Russia. And who can tell if the bigger houses in US are better than an ability to walk in a beautiful green city or a forest? To most Russians, US is one concrete ugly jungle-jail house with no freedom, excessive heat and inability to walk. Having lived in both countries for many years, I can tell that Russia is hands down a better place to live than US, and most likely, UK.

    Incidentally, I met in US a number of English families and individuals who have moved there and they do not miss their country at all, very much unlike the Russians who literally despise the like in US.
    Culturally, ecologically, educationally and esthetically, Russia, certainly is much more advanced. Also, if one considers the degeneracy of Americans, their grotesque obesity, unattractiveness of women, oppressive political system, their essentially fascist police state, their destroyed nature and patriotic, low quality education, which is far behind that of Russia by light years, the choice between the two will be obvious. In a pure monetary terms, Russia is still ahead if you make adjustments in the ridiculous US and UK GDP calculation system which is meant to deceive and obfuscate, rather than to reveal the truth.

    When I return to Russia for a few months every May, I feel a whiff of fresh air, it is a delightul break from the ugly America.

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