Near universal home ownership, and low cost of essentials means poor Russians still enjoy a moderate standard of living despite high costs of imported goods
This article originally appeared at The Unz Review
Always interesting to read people’s impressions of their visits to Russia, especially as I haven’t been there myself for a few years now.
Driving into the city of Voronezh from the airport, I could see entirely new neighborhoods, supermarkets, office buildings, and the like. In 2003, there was only one shopping mall in the whole city, and it was nothing special. Now, there were malls as huge as any in Toronto.
Absolutely tallies with my own impressions as well as statistics. Here are some articles from my archives on this:
- On food consumption and housing access. See also more recent update from Alexander Mercouris.
- On automobile ownership (has approximately doubled in past decade, and is now at 317/1,000; still lags the First World, but is well ahead of the Second i.e. Latin America/Middle East. And Russian public transport is good).
- Internet penetration (soared from around 20% in 2005 to two thirds of the populationtoday; that’s basically equivalent to countries like Greece or Italy).
- Gastronomic revolution – written not by myself, but by a repatriate.
There are indeed a lot more immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, and it is a very charged political topic. That said, an acquaintance who is currently based in Tajikistan says that the 2014 devaluation resulted in a big outflow of Gastarbeiters back home.
I wasn’t surprised to see Ukrainian refugees in a big city like Voronezh, but it was surprising to see so many in remote farming villages. And each refugee family had a horror story to tell. It’s one thing to hear these stories from professional journalists; it’s another to hear them from ordinary people who aren’t being paid to say what they say. This is an underappreciated factor in the growing anger among Russians against the Ukrainian government.
After all that’s happened, I don’t see how eastern Ukraine will ever accept being ruled by Kiev. It’s like a marriage that has crossed the line between verbal abuse and physical violence.
There’s currently something like a million recent Ukrainian refugees in Russia.
“I just don’t get it,” said my wife. “Prices are almost as high here as in Canada, yet the wages are a lot lower. How do people manage to survive?”
The essentials of life are much cheaper, though.
(1) According to the Big Mac Index, standard fast food is quite a lot cheaper in Russia than Canada. Most food of the sort you buy in supermarkets – and especially in open door farmers’ markets, which is where many Russians still do their groceries – are also a lot cheaper. Example: I’m somewhat of a pickled cucumber addict (specifically made in brine, not vinegar). In Russia they are produced by rural babushkas and cost pennies. In the US, they are produced by hippies with liberal arts degrees from UC Berkeley, and are sold for $7 a bottle at Whole Foods.
(2) Most Russians – something like 90%, thanks to the post-Soviet privatization of homes – own their own properties, so few have to spend money on rent. Additionally, there is no public shame with living in with your parents for a long time, as you have in the Anglo-Saxon world. Utilities are also really cheap in global terms (even if they are constantly rising). So there are typically very big savings on accomodation costs relative to what you see in the far more mobile West.
The gray economy (additional wages in envelopes) is still pretty prevalent if less so than 10 years ago.
Sure, imported goods like electronics are either as expensive or even more so, but in conjunction with the above factors, most Russians can now afford things like cell phones, computers, and cheaper cars.
They are now aging badly, and North Americans wouldn’t hesitate to call them “slums.”
They do indeed look pretty crap from the outside, but I found that this is in many cases a mistaken impression (albeit one that is reinforced by Russians’ lack of care for maintaining nice clean public spaces). The room interiors themselves are usually a very different story with good wooden furnity, a Persian carpet on the wall, chandeliers, etc. Moreover, and somewhat surprisingly, the blocky Soviet era constructions – despite being aesthetically challenged – are usually structurally better than the artsier but much flimsier newer constructions. This is a joint result of the large-scale corruption in the construction industry and the capitalist motive to minimize costs.