In this third part of my series on national comparisons between Britain, Russia, and the US, I look at the social institutions and infrastructure that play such a big role in our everyday lives. Why is Russia’s life expectancy ten years lower than in the US? What are the most popular university subjects? Where do they live and shop, and how do they get to work? RAFO.
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) – free at the point of service – is, IMO, the best healthcare system of the three countries. Though waiting lines were a big problem a decade ago, New Labour has thrown a lot of money at them and nowadays lines are much shorter (though the system may well suffer now that the current government wants to “reform” it by cutting staff). Those who can afford it are free to use private healthcare providers or private insurance. The UK spends 8% of GDP on healthcare, and provides objectively better healthcare outcomes than the US system which occupies 16% of its GDP.
That said, the American system is better at some things: its medical technologies are the most advanced in the world and its hospitals are better equipped, and if you can pay for it – or if your insurance covers it – then you chances of surviving many forms of degenerative diseases are substantially higher than if you’re treated by the NHS. Also, emergency service is free; even if you’re an undocumented immigrant and have a heart attack, you will be treated at the EM ward and get that triple bypass. However, if you’re suffering from a wasting disease and aren’t insured, you are screwed. Also very problematic are minor, but painful and very inconvenient problems, such as a chipped tooth. What you can fix in Russia for a $50 fee, or get for free after several weeks of waiting from the NHS, may set you back by a cool $500 in the US.
PS. Speaking of dentistry… the Brits have a reputation for very bad teeth. But this is an outdated stereotype.
In Russia, compulsory medical insurance is paid out by companies, while treatment for indigents is provided by the state. However, with spending on healthcare a meager 4% of GDP, and many facilities in lack of repair and staffed by poorly trained specialists, treatment of chronic diseases in Russia remains fairly primitive in comparison with the US or the UK. It is wise to pay a “gift” to the nurses to ensure that you or someone you care about gets good treatment during your hospital stay; though it’s their job, their salaries are still very low, and such things are appreciated. This also applies to doctors. Call it corruption, call it a legacy of communism, or call it social support for healthcare workers, but it’s expected – especially from richer people – and refraining from it can make your stay a more unpleasant and dangerous one.
Life expectancy, at 69 years, is far lower than the 78 years in the US or the 80 years in the UK, but it is primarily not because of poor healthcare – Ingushetia, one of Russia’s poorest regions, but a “dry” Muslim republic, has a life expectancy of 78 years – but because of the alcohol and smoking epidemic (see below). The lowest life expectancies are in particularly run-down regions, especially those with big non-Russian (and non-Muslim!) minorities, as well as Siberia and the Far East; the highest life expectancies are in the Muslim Caucasus, the southern regions, and Moscow. In the UK, life expectancy is highest in the south, especially around London; and lowest in Glasgow at 73 years (not surprisingly, Glaswegians are also the most alcohol prone in the UK). In the US, the highest life expectancies are on the east coast and the west coast (including California), at around 81 years; the lowest, at 75 years, are in the South, the epicenter of America’s obesity crisis.
After a great deal of investment in recent years, the infant mortality rate has fallen to 7 / 1000 live births in Russia, which is the same as in the US, but higher than the UK’s 5 / 1000. To deal with the post-Soviet fertility crisis – the number of expected births per Russian woman dropped from a replacement level rate of 1.9-2.1 during the 1980’s to a nadir of 1.12 in 2000 – the government implemented pro-natality measures in 2007 that gave each woman a $10,000 payment for a second child. Since then, the fertility rate rose from 1.3 children per woman in the mid-2000’s, to 1.6 by 2010.
The UK’s fertility rate was 1.9 and the US fertility rate was 2.1 in 2008. Generally speaking, families of two children are the norm in both countries, while families with three or four children are also fairly common; in contrast, while the vast majority of Russian woman do have children, the typical family size is one or two children, with more being rare outside the Muslim Caucasus (where the fertility rate is about 2 children per woman). There are significant regional differences in all these countries. In the US, fertility rates are lowest in the highly urban North East, followed by the West Coast and industrial Mid-West; they are highest in the South and central states; Utah, with its Mormon population, is a very high outlier. In Russia, fertility rates are higher in rural areas, and to the east of the country, and amongst some traditionally Buddhist peoples of Siberia and in the Muslim south; the biggest single outlier is Chechnya.
Russia’s alcohol epidemic has no parallels outside the former Soviet Union (Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states suffer from similar problems), and is the main reason why its life expectancy lags nearly a decade behind the US and the UK. According to research, something like 25% of Russian deaths, both directly and indirectly, are caused by alcohol consumption. It is not unusual for the heavy drinkers to retreat to a multi-day vodka binge with like-minded friends, called a zapoi, and then go back to work and stay dry for a few weeks or months on end; and this occurs amongst men of all ages.
This excess mortality is especially concentrated amongst middle-aged men. Among young people, beer is displacing vodka, lessing the disparity relative to the US and Britain in recent years; while among old people, death rates begin to converge with Western ones, largely because any old Russians are typically those who rarely or never binged on hard spirits in the first place.
While Britain also has something of a binge drinking problem, it does not cause major health impacts on the population as a whole because most of it happens just one night a week, amongst people in their late teens and twenties with robust constitutions.
Many rural Russians even brew their own moonshine (samogon) – a relic of Gorbachev’s failed attempts at prohibition – which can be surprisingly good and sometimes even better than the bottled stuff. It’s certainly much better than DIY booze. Once upon a time when the vodka ended, our host didn’t want to end the party / binge, and mixed up a brew of medical spirit with water and slices of lemon. By that point we were probably too drunk to notice and certainly too drunk to care. The morning after consequences were unpleasant to say the least.
Alcohol prices are very low in Russia*. Last time I checked, you could buy a bottle of vodka for $3, and a two liter plastic bottle of beer for less than $2. In contrast, a bottle of vodka costs $15-20 in the US and a six-pack of beer is perhaps $8. However, wine can be pretty cheap. While good stuff costs $15+, the cheapest bottles can be had for $3, while a five liter Franzia pack costs $12.
* However, those days are coming to an end. Taxes on hard spirits are to be quadrupled through to 2015.
Smoking is far more popular in Russia than in the UK or the US. Only 20-25% of people smoke in the US and the UK; in fact, smokers are widely considered to be losers. In contrast, upwards of 60% of Russian men and about 30% of Russian women smoke. The share of the smoking population peaked from the early 1990’s (when the Russian tobacco market was liberalized) to the mid-2000’s. They have now started falling under the pressure of a state propaganda campaign against smoking (anti-smoking initiatives were began in the West almost three decades ago) and rising tobacco taxes. Nonetheless, cigarettes remain very cheap. Whereas a pack costs $5-8 in the US and the UK, you could buy one for just $1 in Russia as late as 2008. But as with vodka, the days of cheap cigarettes are now numbered.
Mandatory schooling in the UK consists of primary school for 6 years and secondary school for another 5. After that, many students go on to do three to five “A-Levels” in their chosen subjects for another 2 years and apply to university through UCAS. In total, about 40% of the population goes into higher education. It used to be highly subsidized by the government, but tuition fees were raised to £3,000 per year in the mid-2000’s and will be raised further to £6,000-9,000 from 2012 (in practice, all self-respecting universities will charge the highest rates, since failing to do so would signal lack of confidence in their own quality). These fees may be covered with a direct loan from the Student Loans Company, but will effectively act as a burdensome tax until they are paid off. IMO, it would behove the average British student to study at European universities, most of which are free or charge only symbolic rates. Typical UK programs offer a single program of study (e.g. Math; Fine Arts) for three years and are geared towards corporate applications.
There are 12 grades of US mandatory schooling, divided into: elementary, secondary, and senior high. In the latter, students work on the SAT’s and ACT’s that are required for university admission. The SAT’s are pretty basic, and mandatory; but other qualifications such as A-Levels or International Baccalaureates are accepted in lieu of ACT’s. About 70% of the US populations ends up with some kind of college education and there are far more mature or returning students than in the UK. In private universities, fees are high, but subsidies for poor families and scholarships are very generous. Ironically, public universities are actually less affordable for lower middle class families (though poor families get state aid). Any remaining lack of money can be made up with state subsidized loans. Finally, fees are very low in America’s excellent system of community colleges. The claims that most Americans can’t afford university are untrue; in fact, the US rate of tertiary enrollment is higher than in most European countries, which rations by limiting the numbers of available places.
Apart from the occasional truant, secondary schooling is universal in all three countries. All British pupils wear school uniforms, but it is infrequent in Russia, and very rare in the US.
Corporal punishment is still practiced in schools in the conservative states in the US, which is shocking to many Europeans. Russia abolished corporal punishment in schools in 1917. The UK abolished the practice in 1987, and extended it to private schools by the early 2000’s (under EU pressure); before that, the headmaster’s cane was a common cultural element amongst the boarding school graduates that formed the British upper middle class. E.g. see Roald Dahl on the matter.
Home schooling is legal in all three countries, but is by far the most widespread in the US. If I had to guess, it’s because of its large population of fundamentalists who don’t want their children to be exposed to the theory of evolution or sex education.
All three countries are fairly conservative (by mainland European standards) on sex education. In the US, the focus is on propagandizing abstinence only, which doesn’t seem to work if teenage pregnancy rates are anything to go by. Sex education remains highly controversial in modern Russia, but is no longer the taboo it was in the USSR. In the UK, most sex education focuses on the reproductive system, with coverage of contraceptive methods typically limited to a single class. Most mainland European states seem more progressive; a German acquaintance told me one of the sex ed assignments was to buy a condom and bring it to class.
The curriculum in US universities is far broader than in Britain. In contrast to the latter’s hyper-specialization, Americans place a particular stress on the value of a well-rounded “liberal arts” education; in addition to a chosen major, students are encouraged and frequently required to take classes in history, math, literature, etc. So despite the typical US undergrad degree lasting four years as opposed to the British three, the average American student only spends perhaps 2-3 years on her major; on the upside, she emerges more knowledgeable on the world in general. The US doesn’t have rigidly structured programs for particular subjects, as with Britain; as long as the requisite units have been taken by the end of the four years, the student gets his degree. To take U.C. Berkeley as an example, you need 120+ units to graduate; each class is worth three to five units; and you typically take about four classes per Fall and Spring semester (and perhaps one or two classes during Summer).
Mandatory schooling in Russia lasts for 10 years, and consists of 11 grades (the 4th grade is bizarrely missing). Traditionally, universities admissions were based on school grades, and in the case of elite universities, written and oral exams in the proposed field of study. Recently, this system has been replaced by the Unified State Exam, which is to be taken by every school leaver and used in all university admission applications. The idea is to make the process fairer and more transparent. About 70% of Russians go into a Higher Education Institute (VUZ), which can be a university, academy, or specialized school. The typical undergrad program at a university lasts four years, follows by a two year Masters. Students take classes from different departments in the first period, and spend an increasing proportion of time on their chosen subject later on. University fees are AFAIK much lower than in the US or the UK, but state stipends for students are miserly; there is intense competition for the limited fully subsidized places.
Many poorer American students take part-time jobs to fund their university study; many others work to begin building their career (e.g. it is common for both US and UK students to intern at investment banks, IT companies, etc. during summer). Fewer young people work in Russia; university study is more typically expected to be a full-time job. However, its system of distance learning and evening classes is arguably far more developed – a legacy of the Soviet focus on expanding economic opportunities to ordinary workers, e.g. a Volga fisherman doing problems on math and engineering sent to him from an educational institute, in preparation for transferal into the oil industry.
Most universities in the US tend to be private, albeit there are some excellent public schools too. In Britain and Russia, almost all universities are public. I don’t really see the need for most UK universities to remain under state control; with the recent reforms, they will get very little funding from the state anyway, so why continue bothering with their red tape and regulations?
The marking systems differ. In British schools, everyday school grades are numerical, with a 1 being best and a 5 being worst; however, in national exams, an alphabetical scale is used (A* is best in GCSE’s, and recently in A-Levels too; a C is a pass, while anything lower is a fail). In Russia, the order is reversed, with a 5 being best (pupils who consistently get these are called otlichniki, lit. “outstanders”; proudly by their parents, and disparagingly by their classmates) and a 2 being worst (pupils who specialize in these are called dvoichniki, lit. “two-ers”). In the US, an A is the best grade, a C is a pass, and an F is a fail. The marks for different subjects are computed into a Grade Point Average (GPA), with an A counting as a 4.0; an A- as a 3.7; a B+ as a 3.3; a B as a 3.0; a C as a 2.0; etc. To get into a good British university, you’ll need mostly A’s, with a few B’s; to get into a good American university, you need a GPA higher than 3.5 and a good extra-curricular record.
In US universities, having a GPA of less than 2.0 is regarded as a fail, and grounds for expelling a student unless he improves. Having a GPA above 3.3 is very much recommended from a future employment perspective; to get into decent graduate schools, law schools and medical schools, a GPA of 3.7-4.0 is expected. In British universities, the undergraduate degree classification goes, from best to worst: 1st, 2:1, 2:2, 3rd, pass, fail. Those with a first-class or upper second degree enjoy the best job prospects. During the Soviet period, graduation certificates were either Red (theoretically better) or Blue (theoretically worse), but in practice few paid attention to them because it was possible and even typical for geniuses to get Blues because they did badly on their obligatory and ideologized (Marxist-Leninist) political economy exams. I don’t know how degrees are classified in today’s Russia.
There has been a lot of grade inflation in the US and the UK in recent years. This is especially visible at private, prestigious US universities like Yale: it is hard to get anything less than a B (equivalent to a C at public institutions). After all, why would parents pay over the roof for their children to end up with crap grades? The same processes can be observed in the British national exams, GCSE’s and A-Levels, to the extent that top-tier universities are now creating their own entrance exams because it is hard to separate the top flyers from the merely competent.
Economics and related disciplines (Business, Management, Marketing, etc.) have become the most popular subjects in Britain, Russia, and the US. With the exception of Applied Math* and Computer Science – useful for finance and IT, the two most dynamic, high-paid and prestigious sectors in all three countries – the hard sciences (e.g. Physics, Chemistry, Engineering) are withering away, though the extent of the degradation varies (most advanced in Britain, least advanced in Russia). Though there is concern about this process in all three countries, I view this as a natural consequence of post-industrial development. Other disciplines that have grown in popularity include History, Legal Studies, and Political Science. There has also appeared a plethora of degrees in Media Studies, Women’s Studies, etc., in all three countries; they are popularly dismissed as “fluff” or “doss” subjects, and certainly offer substandard employment prospects.
* For whatever reason, it is “math” in American English and “maths” in British English.
The process of becoming a doctor or lawyer varies by country. In the US, universities rarely offer classes in medicine. Instead, “pre-meds” are required to take a number of classes in fundamental sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Physics, Math) while doing any degree they wish (though in practice most pick something like biochemistry). The aspiring lawyer tends to take classes in subjects like Legal Studies, History, and Political Science. There is intensive competition for places at law and medical schools, so only those with the highest GPA’s, and the best MCAT’s (Medical College Admissions Test) and LSAT’s (Law School Admissions Test), get in. After several more years of study, and apprentice work at a hospital or law firm, a new doctor or lawyer appears in America.
In Britain, both Medicine and Law are studied as subjects at university for three years. As I understand it, the apprenticeship with a hospital or law firm follows immediately afterwards. On average, US doctors seem to be better trained than British ones; at least, whereas an American doctor would have no problem establishing himself in the UK, the reverse does not apply (not to even mention a Russian doctor).
Which country has the best education system? The results of international standardized tests show that there is little difference between the three countries. Russia does slightly worse on the PISA tests than the US, and the US does significantly worse than Britain; on the other hand, Russia tends to do slightly better on the TIMMS and PIRLS tests. So it’s hard to say. If I had to make a generalization, I’d say math and hard sciences are taught better in Russian schools, whereas the British and Americans are better at developing argumentative and essay writing skills.
In writing and literature, Russian schools are more into rote learning and learning by repetition, as opposed to analysis and evaluation. (Whereas Americans and Britons undoubtedly write better essays, Russians quote their national writers and poets nonstop; even I can still recall some of Aleksandr Pushkin’s poems that had been drilled into me at an early age, and my grandma seems to know the entire Russian literary canon by heart.)
The situation is clearer in higher education. According to the most famous ARWU global universities rankings, Russia has just 2 institutions in the Top 500, compared with 154 for the United States and 38 for the United Kingdom. However, it’s important to stress that these rankings aren’t primarily reflections of universities’ quality of education, but of their funding and international prestige. The scientific programs at Moscow State, MIPT (host to several Nobel Prize winners, but not even on ARWU’s lists), and the top 10 or so Chinese institutions for that matter are easily as rigorous as MIT or Cambridge. It is ridiculous to say, relying on ARWU, that education is better at the University of Lancaster or the University of Reading – decidedly middling UK institutions – than the University of St.-Petersburg, Russia (which produced the researcher who would make what is probably the biggest mathematical achievement of the past decade). The Times Higher Education ratings are even more overtly biased in favor of Anglo-Saxon institutions.
These rankings should all be more properly considered as global university reputation rankings. In many parts of the world, the simple ownership of a university degree from the US or the UK – no matter the subject, no matter even the performance – confers a great deal of respect and lucrative job offers. That is why Gadaffi’s son paid a $1.5 million “donation” for his London School of Economics degree and some Chinese pay as much as $20,000 for degrees from fake Californian universities. It is common for oil rich countries like Oman or the UAE to pay for their well-connected citizens to get papers from some middling British university and present them with a secure administrative job on their return. Dependent on this money, lower-ranking UK universities practically never fail these students, no matter how little they study. Russia’s attitude to Western degrees isn’t quite as absurd as that of the Arabs; nonetheless, when choosing between a Moscow State graduate and an equivalent LSE graduate, the Russian employer will typically give the job to the British-educated applicant.
While judging these things is hard, I would say that the level of theoretical knowledge gained by students at Russian universities is no worse than at equivalent British or American universities; possibly, even better (note that the standard Russian undergraduate degree lasts six years, as opposed to four in the US and three in the UK). However, Russian universities fail big-time when it comes to applying their research capabilities to corporate applications. This is in stark contrast to the US, where venture capitalists scour universities for the next big start-up, big corporations sponsor and head-hunt for talented students, and professors and departments strike up partnerships to develop innovative new products and services. The same process goes on at British universities, if at a more subdued pace.
Russian universities are the successors to the Soviet system of higher education, whose biggest strengths were in math and theoretical physics, while the main applications were in military R&D. This made research hard to monetize in civilian markets in the context of the new market economy. But far more critical than these Soviet distortions was the state’s neglect of the academic sector throughout the 1990’s-early 2000’s. Scientific equipment has not been modernized, with the result that only a few top universities are still capable of conducting world-class research in spheres such as applied physics or microelectronics. Still more damagingly, many of the most brilliant, younger, and entrepreneurial people left Russian academia for the much bigger salaries of business or foreign academia. The result is that even in distinguished institutions, it is not uncommon to see professors in their 70’s continuing to teach subjects like math – not so much for the salary as love of their work – which is inspiring, but also very ineffective.
Now while it is true that some universities have begun to prosper and strike up corporate partnerships, e.g. Moscow State University with Yandex (Russia’s Google), this remains the exception rather than the rule. Academic salaries have risen massively in the past few years and continue increasing, but are still not competitive enough to draw back the academics lost to the 1990’s “brain drain” (see The Russian Diaspora in the second part of this series) or, more importantly, to retain the best current graduates. Until Russian academia is modernized and acquires a more commercial focus, it will not be able to play a major role in the development of Russia’s market economy.
Cheating is most prevalent at Russian universities, followed by American ones, and then British ones. In the former, it is not unheard of (though far from typical) to pay instructors for a passing grade. In the US, direct payments to instructors don’t pass muster (as in the UK) – nobody is going to risk their $60,000-$150,000 salary, secure job, and professional reputation by taking bribes. Cheating there is done more discretely, e.g. by paying professional essay writing companies for college essays (read here for a interesting account from one “shadow scholar”). These companies, BTW, are completely legal by dint of the First Amendment; though they all take care to stress that their essays are for purely educational persons, and shouldn’t be used for cheating, everybody understands that this is just the fine print.
More frequently, students simply plagiarize from the Internet. My impression is that it is endemic in all countries, and is only discouraged by a high rate of discovery and severe punishments. To this end, special programs have been developed to compare student essays and exams with comparable content on the Internet. I don’t know about the situation in Russia, but punishments tend to be severe for students caught plagiarizing in British and American universities.
Overall, university admissions are probably the most meritocratic in the UK. In Russia, though the system is supposed to be meritocratic, it is skewed by corruption, for it is not unknown for applicants to bribe admissions staff at the more prestigious universities, and certainly the children of oligarchs or powerful politicians – no matter their intellectual aptitude – experience few problems in getting into schools like Moscow State University or MGIMO. However, direct bribes have become more difficult in recent years, due to the national standardization of the exam system. The US is in between. Though direct corruption is as unheard of as in the UK, the system itself is rigged in favor of the rich and influential. The most egregious example of this is the open discrimination in favor of legacies, the children of former alumni of the university. The more your parents “donate” to the alma mater, the better their children’s chances of getting in. This reminds me of a Simpsons episode where the nuclear power tycoon Mr. Burns takes out his checkbook to negotiate a place in Harvard for his ne’er-do-well son Larry.
Man: Well, frankly, test scores like Larry’s would call for a very generous contribution. For example, a score of 400 would require a donation of new football uniforms, 300, a new dormitory, and in Larry’s case, we would need an international airport.
Woman: Yale could use an international airport, Mr. Burns.
Burns: Are you mad? I’m not made of airports!
This would be considered pretty repellent by Europeans (and most Americans too), but is only counted as corruption by the former. There are two other major examples of discrimination in university admissions to US colleges. First, good athletes – primarily American football players, rowers, and lacrosse players – are much more likely to get in with poor grades, as they bring their university money and recognition (this is also common in Oxbridge, UK, for rowers). Second, there is positive discrimination* based on race: due to their poorer academic performance in schools, African-Americans** and Hispanics have an easier time getting in on poor grades than whites or Asians. (Jews have a great time of it. Though they have the highest grades of any ethnicity, they are counted as whites for the purpose of university admissions.)
* This is not necessarily a bad idea. First, a higher education is absolutely necessary for all but the lowest-skilled careers in the US, and to enter the ranks of the elites (this is also the case in the UK and Russia). It’s in the interests of the American state – if not of ethnic Asians, who are disadvantaged by the system – that all races are adequately represented in higher education. Second, positive discrimination – in theory – is supposed to make up for the supposed discrimination that African-Americans and Hispanics suffer in schools (otherwise, why would their SATS scores be so much lower than the national average?). Abandoning it may be viewed as a politically incorrect admission that the reason their scores are lower isn’t because of systemic racial discrimination, but because of something else. The uber-controversial issue of race and IQ rears its head. So, curiously, despite its more right-wing stance on most social and economic matters, at least in this respect cultural Marxism goes deeper in the US than in Europe (including Russia and the UK).
** This translates to being black. Amusing anecdote: several years ago, a bunch of white South African students who are now American citizens applied for an academic prize for “African-Americans”. The awarding committee was not amused.
The most prestigious US universities belong to the Ivy League: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth College, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Yale. In particular, Yale University is known as a fostering ground for future Presidents. Other excellent universities, with lower social profiles, include Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, Chicago, and Carnegie Mellon. Academically, the foremost US universities include Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and Yale. The British elites go to Oxford (if they’re bright) or St.-Andrews (if they’re not as bright, e.g. heir to the throne Prince William). Cambridge is probably the most academically rigorous – certainly for the sciences, anyway – followed by Oxford, Imperial College, University College London (UCL), the London School of Economics (LSE). The most prestigious Russian institutes are Moscow State University; the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), which trains Russia’s diplomats; St.-Petersburg State University; and the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow.
Fake colleges and degrees are common in both Russia and the US. In the latter, they are mostly in fun sunny places like California and Hawaii.
Most Americans, Britons, and Russians don’t do sport regularly. None of these countries has the kind of mass fitness culture or “body culture” seen in Germanic and Scandinavian countries.
In Russia, the main divisions are seasonal: ice hockey in winter; football in summer. In Russia, kettlebells (girya) are a common site in gyms, whereas they are virtually unknown in Britain and the US. This is a shame since they are extremely effective at developing overall body strength.
In Britain, the lower classes play football and the upper classes play rugby and cricket (contender for most boring sport in the world).
In the US, basketball, American football, and lacrosse are the big sports; California is special in that skiing and surfing (IMO two of the world’s coolest sports, along with shooting) are both possible and very popular. The US is remarkable in the breadth and diversity of its sporting culture – you can find amateurs in practically anything.
The Russians are world leaders at chess, with plenty of very strong players. The British are also pretty good at it. Far fewer Americans know how to play it, and even state tournaments in the US are about as competitive as county tournaments in the UK or oblast tournaments in Russia (which have far fewer people). Of the world’s top 100 players, fully a quarter are Russian; three are English; and three are Americans – but of those, two have Russian names, and one has a Japanese name.
Just as many Russians will play chess or checkers, or the card game of durak (lit., “fool”), to pass away the time, Americans like to gather in groups of three or more to gamble in poker. Of course, gambling isn’t really the right term for poker, since the player with more skills will always win in the long-term. The popularity of poker has grown tremendously in recent years, with mathematicians getting involved in figuring out optimum play.
Thanks to its Asian population, the fascinating game of go, or weiqi, is also far better known in the US than in Russia or the UK. It is far more complex than chess; whereas in the latter the pieces can only move in certain ways around an 8×8 board, in go you can place stones on any unoccupied territory on a 19×19 board in an effort to encircle and capture your enemy’s stones. Whereas there are computer programs that can play chess at grandmaster level, none have yet been developed for go.
If checkers correspond to the linear warfare of (early) WW1, and chess to the mechanized combined-arms warfare of WW2, then go is the face of future war.
The ideal middle-class settlement for both British and Americans is suburbia. In theory, it combines city amenities with rural idyll; the critics aver that it is better at combining city pollution (noise, gas fumes, etc) with rural isolation. There are some excellent Amerian cities (e.g. San Francisco; Seattle; Austin), but many others are uncontrolled suburban sprawls (e.g. Los Angeles) or post-industrial shells beset by so-called inner city blight featuring ethnic ghettos and high crime rates (e.g. Detroit; Baltimore).
Most Russians live in apartments, in flats of varied age and construction quality. The Russians have a stricter division between high-density cities and low-density countryside, with a c. 100km band separating the two with a lot of intensive agriculture and dacha settlements (houses with plots of land) where Russians go during the weekends or holidays to tend to their vegetable gardens, pick mushrooms, etc. About half of Muscovites have a dacha, and they range from simple huts to luxurious mansions not very aptly called “cottages” (kotedzhi).
In all three countries – in contrast to central Europe, where renting is prevalent – most people own their own houses or apartments. Both the US and the UK place ideological stress on the virtues of private home ownership (extending mortgages to people of questionable creditworthiness was one of the key reasons of the 2008 financial crisis), while most Russians simply privatized their homes off the state during the 1990’s.
Housing prices have soared in Russia over the past decade to a far greater extent than in the US and Britain, but have fallen after the 2008 crisis; nonetheless, on average prices remain far below British and American levels. A typical, two-bedroom apartment in one of Moscow’s suburbs, not far from a Metro station, may cost $250,000; this will only buy you a semi-detached house in a middling British town, whereas an equivalent apartment in a London suburb will probably be closer to $1,000,000. In Moscow oblast, more than 100km from the city, a detached house with a big plot of land costs no more than $150,000; in the Russian regions, two-bedroom apartments are typically well below $100,000. In the US, as with Russia and the UK, there are great geographic disparities. Where space availability isn’t an issue, e.g. Texas, it is fully possible to buy fully detached houses with big plots of land for not more than $200,000; whereas in the Bay Area, excluding the ghetto areas, even a modest studio could set you back by up to $500,000.
PS. One more note on relative prices. In recent years, the media has made a lot of Moscow becoming the world’s “most expensive” city. It probably is… if you’re an expat addicted to five star hotels, top-class escorts, and champagne lounges. For ordinary people, who don’t live in Moscow’s center or its airports, living costs are still far cheaper.
America is the quintessential land of skyscapers; any city that is anywhere will have a few, to make up its financial district, while those in major cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco are world famous. They used to be practically non-existent in the USSR, except for the “seven sisters” Stalinist-era showpieces in Moscow. During the 2000’s, however, skyscraper construction has taken off, and most of the largest Russia cities now boast a few skyscrapers. During the euphoria of 2007-08, construction began on Russia Tower, which was to be at 600m the tallest skyscraper in Europe; however, financing for it collapsed after the 2008 economic crisis, and it remains in limbo to this day. In Britain, there are few skyscrapers. Most are of modest height and concentrated in The City (London’s financial district), including the infamous Gherkin.
British roads are good (though not as good as German ones), US roads are mediocre, and Russian roads are crap. Beyond Moscow’s ring road, many roads become potholed; further afield, e.g. the single road tying the Far East of the country to the center, it is little more than a dirt track that turns into impenetrable mud during the rasputitsa, or rainy season.
Part of the reason is that the country is vast, and that central planning with its penchant for railways didn’t care much for good roads or automobile ownership; another reason is that the road construction industry is, quite possibly, the most corrupt sector of the Russian economy (which is no mean achievement). The dismissed Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, is suspected of organizing kickbacks totaling billions of dollars to well-connected road construction companies in the Moscow region alone. Now there’s quite a bit of corruption in road construction in the US too – for instance, Massachusetts somehow managed to spend $15 billion on basically a couple of substandard tunnels in the Big Dig – but in Russia it seems to be the rule rather than the exception.
The vast majority of cars in the US are stick-shift, while a similarly vast majority of cars in Europe, including Russia and Britain, are manual-transmission. Petrol costs the same in both Russia and the US, and is about three times as expensive in Britain. Some cars in Russia run on natural gas.
Russian railways, on the other hand, are far better than their roads. They don’t offer amenities like free Wi-Fi, as British trains now do, but they make up for it in vastly lower costs. The price of a ticket from Manchester to London can approach £80. When I traveled from Moscow to St.-Petersburg in 2003, it was 500 rubles, or about $15 (granted it was on the lowest-class, because I was a cheapskate, but even getting a good class cabin for the overnight journey would have been well under British rates). As for US passenger railways, the less said the better. IIRC, it costs about $20 to go from San Francisco to San Jose, there’s no Internet, and after that the line ends.
The Moscow Metro carries up to 9 million passengers a day, and despite price rises, remains cheap. In contrast to the drab, utilitarian nature of most metro stations elsewhere, its central stations are truly “palaces of the people”, featuring murals, mosaics, statues and monuments, etc. A single journey costs a bit less than $1, while buying multiple journeys decreases the average price. Students and pensioners get to ride free. In the Soviet Union and early 1990’s, men would typically give up their seats to women, but this ended sometime by 1996. A victory for feminism? Or a collapse of moral standards? You decide.
Interesting factoid #1: Packs of stray dogs have become intelligent enough to navigate Moscow’s subways. You can sometimes see them lying or sleeping on the train benches. Read more here.
Interesting factoid #2: Russia’s most famous post-apocalyptic novel of recent times, Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, is set in the Moscow Metro, where subterranean human civilization ekes our a miserable survival while nuclear radiation and mutants ravage the world above.
Most other big Russian cities also have metros, as do the biggest UK cities and most big cities in the eastern US. Mass transit is very poorly developed on the West Coast. Los Angeles is a giant car sink, with legendary traffic jams. San Francisco and the Bay Area have the BART system, but it’s not a pleasant riding experience and pretty expensive besides; plus, the train seats are full of germs and shit. Yes, shit, like for real: “Fecal and skin-borne bacteria resistant to antibiotics were found in a seat on a train headed from Daly City to Dublin/Pleasanton. Further testing on the skin-borne bacteria showed characteristics of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the drug-resistant bacterium that causes potentially lethal infections…” Makes one wish for the cold, hard comfort of the wooden benches of an elektrichka.
Tramways used to be a major part of the urban transportation landscape in Russia, but their significance has decreased since the 1990’s; however, they still remain a prominent feature of the transportation system in some cities, including St.-Petersburg. They are no longer an important transportation mode in either the US or Britain.
Cars aren’t only at the center of US transport, but its life in general; if you live in suburbia or rural areas, you can’t get by without them. Big strip malls like Target, Walmart, Costco, etc., dot suburbia and serve the customers within a ten mile radius or so, having largely displaced local shops. The same process is ongoing in Britain, with a ten year lag. In Russia, car ownership is much lower than in the UK or the US; partly because of lower incomes, but also because they just aren’t as necessary, seeing as its cities are higher density and have cheap and adequate public transportation options (rail, metros, trams, buses). That said, Moscow’s traffic jams have become infamous in recent years, and nowadays only idiots – of whom there are a lot – commute to work by car there.
The US only seems capable of producing gas-guzzling SUV’s well, with the result that its automative sector collapses during oil spikes. Increasing fuel economy standards is a political hot potato, with Republicans set against it even though the US lags behind pretty much every country in the world in this respect (including China). The UK’s domestic brands have all collapsed, so the only cars there are foreign imports or produced by foreign-owned factories on its soil. It is not uncommon for Britons to buy their cars in Europe because of the high prices of cars sold in the UK. In Russia, the huge Avtovaz factory that produces the sturdy Lada (based off a 1970’s Italian design) just about survives with help from government subsidies and high tariffs on imported cars. Nonetheless, it doesn’t have a bright future, since most Russians would prefer to buy a second hand Audi or Toyota than a new Lada, even if the former costs a bit more. Whereas a decade ago most cars on the road were of visibly boxy Russian make, today’s (much bigger) car fleet seems to be more than 50% foreign; of the foreign makes, about half are imported and another half are manufactured by foreign-owned factories in Russia. A high proportion, e.g. about 50%, of vehicles on US roads are SUV’s; this percentage is closer to 10% in the UK and Russia. In France and Germany, SUV’s are very rare.
Flying is extremely prevalent in the US; it is frequently more profitable (and certainly faster) to take a flight from San Francisco to, say, Las Vegas or Los Angeles, than to make the journey by car (the only other valid transportation option). A typical round-trip starts from around $150. In Britain, to go from Manchester to London costs less by train than by plane, but not by much; many opt for the plane. Flights to Europe are cheap and very competitive; not infrequently, budget airlines like Ryanair offer amazingly good deals at prices like $50 for a round-trip to Prague, Munich or Barcelona and back. As for Russia, the days when you got on rickety Soviet-era planes with a shot of vodka for courage are over; most airlines have modernized their fleets. Air fares are competitively priced – the farthest off cities will cost about $500 for a round trip (e.g. Vladivostok), but common routes like Moscow to St.-Petersburg are around $100, and go even lower on the cheapest no-frills airlines.
Most shopping in the US and Britain – and increasingly, Russia – occurs in retail stores of varying size specializing in food, electronics, alcohol, cell phones, clothes, etc. These differ from high-end venues specializing in quality and fashion (e.g. Topshop) to mass consumer venues (e.g. Safeway, Tesco, ASDA, Walmart, IKEA) to those catering for lower-income people (e.g. Costco, Aldi); they are standardized, and it is often hard to tell the different between these shops be they in the US, Britain, or Russia. There are also plenty of ethnic stores (e.g. Chinese shops in the US, or Armenian shops in Moscow); they tend to sell interesting foods and wares that are rare elsewhere, but also tend to be more congested and less hygienic.
Online shopping is most advanced in the US, which has generated giants like Amazon and eBay. It is also prevalent in Britain, but much less so in Russia (though it is growing very fast).
The outdoor market, or bazaar, is a prominent feature of Russian life. Located near railway stations and protected by private security, all kinds of vegetables, fruit, pickles, meat, fish, clothes, pirated video games – and even less legal things in their darker corners – are sold here. Food products are typically cheaper than in normal shops, and despite criticism over sanitary conditions, they are often fresher too.
These markets are typically dominated by migrants, though ethnic Russians are also prevalent. They will pay to set up a stall and hawk their goods to passers by. Haggling over prices is usual and expected. They are highly congested and thrum with the beat of commercial life. There are no effective formal controls over cheating – e.g. weighting vegetables incorrectly on purpose so as to extract a higher price – but is rare due to the potential reputational risk of doing so. With rising incomes and a decreasingly tolerant outlook by the authorities, due to the markets’ association with crime and illegal immigration, the prominence of these huge bazaars has fallen in recent years; nonetheless, they remain a favorite shopping place for the poor, pensioners, and even lovers of fresh fruit and vegetables (though buying meat or fish from them is less advisable). Such markets are much rarer in Britain or the US; in fact, most of them are temporary, only springing up on a certain day of the week.
Electronics are cheaper by about 30-50% in the US than in both Russia and the UK. I presume that is because the latter have higher tariffs? Books are far cheaper in Russia; typically, modern novels cost $5. In the US, they are usually $10, and £10 in the UK.
The US undoubtedly has the best cafes. Free WiFi (after buying a drink) is usual, even expected. This is much rarer in Britain, while Russia doesn’t even have a cafe culture as such*.
* Of course, Russia’s changing rapidly, and this might no longer be the case. I was last there in 2008, and for a substantial period of time in 2005, so much of what I say about it is already outdated. This is a point I emphasize throughout this series.