AK's Travels

You can view a table of my travel reviews and ratings here, as well as some guides to individual cities like Moscow and SPB.

Conclusion: Comparison of USA, UK, Russia

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

Life Quality

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

[Read more…]

National Comparisons: Politics & Media

In the fourth part of my series comparing Russia, Britain, and the US, I turn my attention to aspects of their politics, including: markets and freedom; media independence; the role of “dissident” voices, billionaires, and corruption; and Internet culture. Some people – perhaps Kremlinologists in particular – will no doubt be surprised by my conclusion that there are far more similarities than differences.

Politics & Democracy

In the US, there are two main parties that form a “bipartisan consensus” on most of the truly important topics. Both parties are beholden to corporate interests (Democrats more Wall Street; Republicans more Big Oil). Obama’s foreign policy is no real change from that of the later Bush administration. The political and mass media establishment is more than happy to criticize foreign countries for human rights abuses, real or perceived – especially those they dislike, like Russia or Venezuela – while similar or identical things happen in the US itself. A good example is the criticism towards the breakup of unsanctioned Russian political protests, which have exact parallels in the US; just as I was writing this post, 100 antiwar activists and 35 Bradley Manning supporters were arrested.

(The double standards thing is every bit as prevalent in the UK too, by the way. For a good summary see this article by Mark Sleboda.)

There is a strong “culture war” element to US politics, with a strong liberal vs. conservative struggle on hot issues such as global warming, the power of unions, gun rights and abortion. The US also has far more direct democracy at the state level than either the UK, not to mention Russia. For instance, when California needs to decide whether to decriminalize marijuana or gay marriage, it consults the voters; in most of the rest of the world, the decision is left to unelected “experts”.

[Read more…]

National Comparisons: Everyday Life

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.

Healthcare

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.

[Read more…]

National Comparisons: The People

The second part of my series comparing Russia, Britain, and the US focuses on the people themselves. What are their strengths and foibles? How do they vary by class, region, race, and religion? How do they view each other and other countries and peoples? What do they eat, drink, and watch? Where do they travel and against which groups do they they discriminate?

The National Character

As befits its climate, Californians are a sunny and gregarious people. It is not unusual to refer to someone as your friend after getting to know her after a few minutes, whereas this typically takes weeks in Europe. Other states are, from what I heard, different; e.g. New Yorkers are known for being curt and rude.

Friendly is distinct from polite. As a rule, Britons are very polite. However, this translates into a greater sense of distance and insistence on propriety that approaches dourness as one travels north into Scotland. Driving on UK roads is a stress-free experience (and a boring one), while Californian roads demand attention and Russian roads are for thrill seekers only.

Russians are cold and curt to strangers, which many foreigners attribute to rudeness. This isn’t exactly fair; most Russians are just warier of people they don’t know. This is not an irrational attitude in a society more permeated by scams and violence.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

Introduction: Comparison of USA, UK, Russia

Over at Mark Chapman’s indispensable blog, Giuseppe Flavio linked to a fascinating “Comparison USA-Germany” by an academic who was deeply immersed in both cultures. This inspired me to do something similar.

Red Square, Moscow; Los Angeles, California; Kostroma by the Volga; Conwy Castle, Wales.

Red Square, Moscow; Los Angeles, California; Kostroma by the Volga; Conwy Castle, Wales.

My credentials? Having lived for 6 years in Russia, 12 years in the UK, and 5 years in the US (in that order, though I was back and around a lot); and being an active observer of social and political affairs since about 2003, I feel that what I’ve got to say will be of interest both to readers of my blog and friends from all three countries.

Note that I’m biased in a somewhat idiosyncratic sense. I disdain ideological labels, but generally speaking I’m a proponent of personal (social) freedoms with strong state support for the marginalized, infrastructure and the environment. The usual disclaimers about much of this being my own subjective opinion apply.

I originally planned to write this is as one huge post. However, WordPress crashed at somewhere around the 25,000 words mark – losing about 20% of the work in the process – so I’m splitting this into many posts instead.

Corrections are welcome. Though much of what I say is grounded in personal experience, a lot also comes from second hand (or third hand) sources, or from Internet research, and will as such be of uncertain veracity. Please also feel free to pose further questions in the comments; if they are interesting, I will incorporate them into the overall text.

I hope to keep expanding on this text in the years to come, and adding other countries (like China) into the mix.