Translation: A Hell Of Their Own Making

Believe it or not but some people call me a Russophobe. Even more shockingly, perhaps, I plead guilty (at least in the sense that I do not have a very high opinion of the Russian people). There are only two logical alternatives: (1) Claims that Russia really is as good as Western Europe and the US on issues like corruption, social cohesion, etc., which is quite simply implausible to almost anyone who lived there; (2) That the cronyism, bad roads, etc. are all the fault of “corrupt bureaucrats” or even just “Putin”, as if to pretend that they are not real Russians but an occupying force, which is simply bizarre and only believed in by liberals.

The most plausible but rather banal explanation is that to the extent that things are bad in Russia (although, ironically, as I’ve frequently shown here they are nowhere near as bad as portrayed in the Western media) they are bad because of Russians themselves, or more precisely the crook-enabling and general impudent go-fuck-yourself attitudes inherited from the Soviet era. There is no way to quickly change this, least of all by decree, and Putin himself implicitly recognizes this, although as President, he has to sugarcoat things and explain them to the people in a fatherly way (whereas as a blogger I am perhaps a bit blunt about these things).

Anyhow, the following account basically encapsulates the basic thing that is wrong with Russia and, indirectly, the liberal interpretation of the symptoms (that they are the Kremlin’s fault). And while A Hell of their Own Making is set in Ukraine, any Russian would recognize this in her own country; only Ukrainian nationalists would seriously deny that social attitudes in Russia and Ukraine are rather similar.


A Hell of Their Own Making

I live abroad. Once upon a time, I came to visit my mother in Ukraine with my husband. I got the kin together for a barbecue picnic. We decided to go to a place not far from mother’s house – a beautiful valley with a lake and a small forest. During my childhood I loved to wander there among the sweet-smelling grass and wild flowers, and to bathe in the lake.

We came there. The wild grass was now covered with tall weeds, many places were burnt out or filled up with plastic rubbish. I was so disappointed! We could barely find a more or less clean clearing by the lake. We tidied up the trash and cigarette butts so that we could sit, then we started a fire in the mangal grill. The barbecue was delicious, but the sight of my beloved valley depressed me – everything was so dirty, so pathetic… The lake was murky and desiccated. I did not risk swimming in it.

From the start I told my relatives not to throw the trash into the grass and bushes, but to gather it up and put it into a special bag. When we were leaving I checked that we had left nothing behind. For I was very sad about this forest clearing. And I was loudly distraught that people could so comprehensively foul up a place where they themselves went to relax. Is it really so difficult to carry the trash over to the bins that are one hundred meters away at the valley’s end?

When we were preparing to leave, I found out that no-one had the trash bag in their hands. I started asking who had it. And my mom waved it way – we’ve already thrown it away. “How did you do it, where?” I whispered. “There, into the reeds. What, are we garbage men or something? Everyone dumps it there!” It was hard to refrain from swearing out loud. It was impossible to retrieve the trash from there – it had already lodged in the reeds by the cliff.

At that moment I recognized a great truth: They deserve the lives they lead. They deserve their cracked asphalt, broken lampposts, dirty streets, and reeking rivers, and their criminal government, and their miserly wages and pensions. They spit on themselves, so why shouldn’t the government spit on them? They do not respect themselves – so who will respect them?

It is not the government which litters on the streets and trashes children’s playgrounds. It is not the President who steals lampposts and cables. I no longer trust your complaints. My countrymen, it is you who created your own hell, and it’s you who will have to live in it.


Harsh but it rings true. I wonder if any “Russophiles” will now call the author a Russophobe (or perhaps Ukrainophobe) herself? The only thing I have to add is that many Russians – especially liberals, and those who love to complain – really do not realize how their own actions and attitudes (or the lack of them; in a recent poll, only 50% of Russians said they’d report a drunk driver, compared to about 90% in the US and the UK) contribute to problems. It is always someone else who is to blame, like Putin, or the US, or oligarchs, or ethnic minorities. Oftentimes this hatred is expressed in shockingly violent and callous terms to popular approval. They cannot see fault in themselves, so ironically enough, it is the much loathed Russian state itself which is left with the unenviable task of trying to re-inculcate basic moral values and respect for the law into a self-hating and crook-enabling society.

That is why I support it. The words of the liberal-conservative Vekhi are as relevant now as they were back in 1909: ”We ought to fear the people and bless this government which, with its prisons and bayonets, still protects us from the people’s fury.”

Russian Anti-Semitism, Or Just Affirmative Action In Action?

While writing this post on Da Russophile about why Russians do not (for the most part) hate Jews – a post that will also be of interest to AKarlin readers – I came across very interesting historical data on literacy and educational accomplishment by ethnic groups in the USSR.

Per 100 people of respective nationality
Literacy Rate among…
ages 9-49 50 and older
Jews 85,0 90,0 62,5
Germans 78,5 79,1 74,4
Russians 58,0 64,3 27,9
Ukrainians 53,4 59,2 22,2
Georgians 50,3 57,0 24,7
Belorussians 47,6 54,2 16,1
Koreans 45,1 50,6 20,6
Armenians 42,9 47,5 20,4
Tatars 41,7 46,4 19,0
Kazakhs 9,1 9,9 5,3
Uzbeks 4,8 5,2 3,3
Chechens 3,4 3,6 2,6
Tajiks 3,0 3,0 3,0
USSR average 51,1 56,6 24,5

This table shows the literacy rate among different groups from the 1926 First All-Union Census. Coming less than a decade after the Revolution this table is of course a reflection of the Tsarist education system, not of the Soviet one. Apart from puncturing one Communist myth, that the Tsarist regime didn’t do anything for people’s literacy and that it was all a Soviet achievement, it also demonstrates that Jews had the highest literacy rate of all the peoples in the Empire.

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Money Mania, By Country

The Economist lies about Russia, it has beef with France, and in general it is far more useful as a barometer of Anglo-Saxon elite opinion than as a good source of objective information on the real world. Nonetheless, it does have the occasional gold nugget, and even one gold vein – its Daily Charts blog.

After all, one can rarely argue with cold, raw statistics, and opinion polls.

Above is a chart from early April about the importance Europeans attach to being rich. It’s funny the extent to which it confirms almost every relevant stereotype in the book (in general, the act of stereotyping is very much maligned, but that’s for another post). Russians and Ukrainian gold-diggers, oligarchs, mafia. Israel – Jews LOL. Greeks have a reputation for being a very mercantile people. Czechs are individualists, so it makes sense that they’re high up there too.

At the other end of the scale, you have the Scandinavian countries that operate under the self-effacing principles of Jante Law, and the French with their rich anti-capitalist intellectual traditions and love for existentialist philosophy. In the middle we have quintessentially bourgeois nations such as the UK, and Germany – they love themselves some money, but Protestantism has long encouraged them to be low-key about it.

The Geography Of Russia’s IQ

Human capital (primarily education) is the single most important factor behind long-term productivity gains, and hence economic growth. The relatively high human capital of Russia and China, which is comparable to developed country levels, is the most important reason why I rate their future prospects much higher than those of the other two BRIC’s, Brazil and India.

But the internal distribution of human capital is also very important. For instance, in Italy there is an almost perfect correlation between regional PISA scores in Math and Science, and regional GDP’s. I have long wanted to find a similar data set for Russia, and I finally did so today in Jarkko Hautamäki’s slideshow comparing regional PISA performance in Finland and Russia. Based on the figures there I estimated the PISA scores (Math and Science) for Russia’s regions and compiled the map below.


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