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Jan 27, 2014

Russians and Racism

We are looking for an apartment, and Svetlana has to do the heavy lifting. When she calls about an apartment, there is always an interrogation, which starts with a question – are you (ethnic) Russians? This is perhaps the most uncomfortable question to answer. What they really want to know is that we’re not Central Asians or from the Caucasus. If you answer that you’re French or Estonian, there will be no problem, I am sure. It is all about the race, or, rather phenotype (peoples of the North Caucasus are of course, Caucasians, just with slightly more Mediterranean facial features; one has to live here to develop the fine art of discerning who is from where). In Russia, the racial discrimination in housing is open, blatant, and goes completely unchecked. I don’t know if there are laws against it, but they are certainly not enforced. It is uncomfortable, because we happen to be ethnic Russians, and the discrimination benefits us by narrowing the pool of potential competitors. And if we refuse to answer, well, we need a place to live.

This is sad, because the majority of Russians I know are fairly tolerant, who like the French or the Turks are keenly aware of their own very mixed ancestry. Ethnically distinct individuals used to be well-integrated into the cities, dominated by ethnic Russians. It all seems to change since the large-scale economic migration from Central Asia and from the Caucuses began. It is not that the in everyday life people became harsher. Muscovites are a still a fairly reserved, but friendly bunch. In six months, I have not heard one confrontation or harassment in the streets. We know there are racist thugs here, but I have never seen one. But I cannot remember housing discrimination in the Soviet Union.

The same problem exists in the United States, see for example, an excellent exposé by This American Life. The difference is that in the US, landlords are a lot more careful about expressing their preferences. But in both countries, unfortunately, the real estate makes racism worse than it could have been. Why? Because people begin to discriminate on the basis of someone else’s perceived racism, not on their own beliefs and sentiments. They think their neighbors or potential buyers will feel uncomfortable around diverse people. It is both more sinister (you don’t have to own your racism) and more powerful, self-perpetuating form of racism. I am sorry to say that the dynamics of it is the same.

But if Russians learned the American – much older - lessons, they would know that racism is not just ugly; it is also very costly, and creates huge long-term social and economic problems. Once you allow ghettoes to emerge, you pretty much guarantee crime, weak educational outcomes, and self-perpetuating cycle of poverty. You create large underclass, not just a few disadvantaged individuals. If anything, the governments should actively fight residential segregation by any means necessary. Whatever the cost, it is immeasurably lower than the potential cost of a racially divided society. As long as White and Black, poor and middle class, Slavs and Tajiks live in a close proximity, and send their kids to the same schools, there is hope. They may not like each other very much, and complain about each other, but they still live in the same world. Once they separate, you’ve got a problem. 

Jan 19, 2014

Кулунда в Новой Зеландии

Садишься в самолет в снежной Москве и через сутки с небольшим выходишь из другого в разгар Новозеландского лета. Чудеса, которым никогда не устанешь удивляться. Здесь пахнет, как пахло в Кулундинской степи, в Петропавловке Красноозерского района, где мы с братом проводили каждое лето у деда. Так пахнет в начале лета, когда степь еще зелена, и скорее около речки Карасук, чем в открытой степи. Разнотравье, ветер с привкусом пыли, коровий дух, и что-то еще, чему имени нет, и не надо. Помимо запаха, ощущение лета, просто кожей чувствуется летний воздух. Не солнце и не температура, а именно бархатистость его касания.

Свет здесь другой, не такого оттенка, какой-то менее желтый. Небо ночью совсем неправильное, а днем – похоже, но солнце на севере и слишком высоко. И еще, гряды гор – в Кулунде нет гор, только небольшие холмы кое-где. Помню, как дальнозоркий дед за пять километров видел пыль от приближающейся хлебовозки, и уже посылал меня за свежим хлебом в сельпо. Там были чудесные пряники и легковоспламеняющиеся расчески, которыми брат начинял пузырьки из-под лекарств, превращая их в бомбочки.

Вот откуда вся это мелочь, все эти сотни деталей завалявшихся в голове, и моментально, совершенно непроизвольно всплывают в памяти с необыкновенной отчетливостью. А вспомнить свой номер телефона в Провиденсе, где мы жили три года – убей, не мог сегодня, а надо было. Все-таки человеческая память – неэффективная машина, удивительная по своей нерациональности. Хотя впрочем, может быть она оптимальна по какому-то совсем другому параметру. И возможно картины Кулундинской степи и запахи моего детства важнее, чем номера телефонов. Ведь номер-то можно как-то найти, а летний запах раз потеряв, уже и не вспомнишь, что когда-то имел.

Jan 1, 2014

The New Year, a Russian ritual

Russians don’t just love their New Year celebrations – who doesn’t? They also have an anxiety about it, a deep-seated belief that it MUST be properly celebrated. Perfectly cool and cynical people will burst into cheesiest series of congratulations, emails with smilies, and stolen digital art. They cannot help it – it’s the New Year! Otherwise, things may go wrong. Generally anxious about the future, Russians are a somewhat fatalistic bunch. The New Year is like a gulp of hand-made optimism.

It is certainly the biggest carnival in the Russian cultural cycle. A thoroughly secular holiday, it tends to unite various religious communities and subcultures, and takes on an air of universality in otherwise very diverse and divided country. Since 1975, the TV shows the same movie, which many adults swear not to see again, and yet they are drawn to it like zombies. What is so special about the movie – no one can explain, including its creator. The plot involves a guys getting very drunk and flying by mistake from Moscow to Sankt Petersburg, and finding his true love via a series of errors. The movie has eight songs (so it is really a musicle), and about everyone in the country knows them.

But the movie is just one element of highly ritualistic set of actions. It is not just the champagne – it has to be the right champagne, and it has to be opened a few minutes before midnight, and glasses must cling exactly от the chimes of the Kremlin clock, or the world will end. Everyone, including those who passionately hate Putin, will listen to his 5-minute speech right before midnight; just like they watched Yeltsyn and Gorbachev, and Brezhnev before. No one cares what these guys have to say – people just want to make sure we still have a country, and a government, and someone is in charge. In this sense, the New Year is a deeply civic ritual.

Then there is the long TV concert show with whoever are the biggest pop stars of the day, with lame jokes and mostly nostalgically recycled old pop songs. It is not about the new and the experimental (although Russian pop culture is normally fairly robust and inventive). The whole thing is meant to be junk food for the soul. Again, the same woman tends to sing at least something every year since early seventies. She just did it again, plus she hosted most of the show (she is 65). As close as one can get to royalty, Alla assures the same thing – yep, we still have a country, and goddamit, we can afford to eat good food and drink anything we want, even is just once a year.

Emails from Russia dies out on about December 30. Even the workaholics and the insane stop working. It’s the New Year, we must celebrate!