by Anatoly Karlin, Russia Insider:
It has now been exactly a year since I returned to Russia.
One of the questions I get asked the most from Russians and foreigners alike is whether I enjoy living here, or whether I am disappointed. My answer is that it fell within my “range of expectations”. I like to think that this is a function of my perception of Russia prior to 2017 having been reasonably accurate, and considering I was blogging as “Da Russophile” on Russia matters until 2014, that’s pretty much an accolade
. In my experience, the typical response of visiting foreigners and expats to life in Russia is one of pleasant surprise, no wonder since Russia might as well be “Equatorial Guinea with hackers” so far as the Western media today is concerned. However, I banally didn’t have anything to be particularly surprised about, pleasantly or otherwise.
Even so, there are areas where Russia shines, as well as some where it doesn’t (that’s for an upcoming just published post on 10 Ways Life in America is Better than in Russia).
First, the good points – where Russia performs better than the United States.
1. Everything’s So Cheap
I don’t have the foggiest how Moscow ever acquired its reputation as one of the world’s most expensive cities. Probably idiots and Intellectuals Yet Idiots dumb enough to buy the $5 bottled water at Sheremetyevo Airport before taking one of the shady, overpriced Caucasian gypsy cabs down to their five star hotels in central Moscow.
In reality, food, rent, utilities, property, hotels, travel, restaurants, museums, transport, healthcare, and education are all far cheaper than in major cities in the United States.
The basic staples – carbs, meat, eggs, vegetables, seafood, most alcohol – are all approximately twice cheaper. Boneless, skinless cuts of turkey are less than 300 rubles ($5)/kg at my local market, which is run by Armenians. Wild salmon, at 500 rubles ($9)/kg are actually cheaper than farmed salmon from Norway, though in another of Russia’s strange inversions, farmed salmon is more prestigious, unlike in the West. It is actually easier to list expensive exceptions. Vodka is still somewhat cheaper than in the United States, but only by a factor of perhaps 1.5x, instead of more like 10x some fifteen years ago; this is a good thing.
The Big Mac, a classic item international price comparisons, costs 130 rubles in the Moscow suburbs, which is twice cheaper than in Britain and the USA. A similar relationship holds as you move to more upscale restaurants, at least after you adjust for the requirement to pay tips in the USA.
For obvious reasons, anything that’s imported is similar to US/EU prices. To the extent this affects me, that’s only Tabasco sauce and some Indian spices. Prices are also comparable for domestically produced Russian wines, whose quality has been improving by leaps and bounds even in the one year that I’ve been here, helped along by sanctions and my personal demand. Probably the single item that I miss most due to the sanctions is feta cheese; there is an East European equivalent called brynza, but it’s not really comparable. Otherwise, local Russian producers have developed competitive alternatives to many popular West European cheeses, at least to the extent that I, a non-connoisseur, am unable to distinguish them from European imports (the local blue-veined cheeses I have found to be especially impressive). Unless you really can’t do without your little Gorgonzola and your little Gruyère and your particular brand of prosciutto, you should be just fine here.
Property and rent are both approximately thrice cheaper in Moscow than in comparable locales in London. However, in one of the few positive aspects of the post-Soviet privatizations, almost 90% of Russians own their own homes.
Most utilities are so cheap that they might as well be free. In the past year, I paid $8 (500R) per month for 72Mbps Internet versus $80 for 15Mbps downloads and 5Mbps uploads with Comcast in California, and $45 for 10Mbps downloads and 0.5Mbps (!) uploads in London. Similar numbers with mobile plans, and what’s better, unlike in the United States, there are no multi-year contracts which are next to impossible to get out of. In both cases, Russian prices are held down by vigorous competition, whereas in the United States many ISPs have de facto monopolies over any particular region. This might surprise some people, but much of Russia’s information infrastructure is more modern than in the USA – for instance, one click money transfers with national state-owned banking giant Sberbank have long been standard, whereas I received an email from Wells Fargo announcing this as a new functionality just a few months ago.
Road and rail transport is approximately 5x cheaper. A 100km rail journey from Moscow to Kolomna or Volokolamsk on an elektrichka costs no more than $5 (300R); in the UK, a similar journey from London to Portsmouth will cost at least £25. I paid about $75 for a high speed Sapsan to go from Moscow to Saint-Petersburg, though I could have gotten there for as cheap as $25 on platskart shared accommodation. In contrast, my American round-trip cost me $700 with Amtrak– and I sat the entire route (not something I would have the stamina for nowadays). In Saint-Petersburg, there were several three star hotels in the center offering accommodations for as low as $50 a night; a similar location in Washington D.C. would have set me back by at least $200 a night.
It’s not exactly a secret that the astronomical cost of American healthcare and higher education is the stuff of horror stories in Europe, and Russia is no exception. $4,500 endoscopies are very much an #OnlyInAmerica type of thing, even if you use private healthcare in Russia. One of my acquaintances did a one year Master’s program in International Relations at LSE last year, which cost $50,000; one year on a PhD program that you can do at one institution of the Academy of Sciences can cost $1,000, if not entirely free. Vets are also far cheaper. For instance, one of my acquaintances found a stray puppy several months ago, which required complex spinal work to fix her hind legs; this ended up costing an incredible $200.
The converse of all this is, of course, that Russian salaries are 4-5x lower than in the US. Adjusting for twice lower prices, the average Russian lives 2x poorer than the average American, and this gap is much larger for healthcare professionals and researchers. For example, while $10,000 per month is common for American anesthesiologists, his Russian equivalent would be lucky to take home $1,000.
On the other hand, this is paradise for anyone with a dollar-denominated income stream.
2. Better Food
One possible cause of the massive rise in American obesity in the past generation is that the nutrients to calories of American crops has plummeted due to commercialized agriculture and the infiltration of corn and soy into every conceivable category of foodstuff. Russia is only at the start of this process, so the food you can buy at the local markets here tends to be organic and grass fed by default – and without the associated markup that you get in the West.
Speaking of the local markets, although it has much declined relative to the 1990s and the Soviet period, every so often you still meet a trader willing to barter and haggle. Although time-consuming, I would argue that it is also more “authentic” to the human experience; bargaining at local markets has long been an integral part of post-agricultural life, and perhaps many moderns miss it, as attested to by the inclusion of this mechanism in almost every video game RPG.
Apart from being healthier, many common foods are simply “better” than their equivalents in the West. Perhaps the two most striking examples are cucumbers and watermelons. The most common (and cheapest) cucumbers are small, prickly things, which are far less watery than the long, smooth ones you will encounter in a standard American or British supermarket. The watermelons of the Caspian region are bigger and far sweeter than the slurpy spheres that are standard in the West.
Russian cuisine doesn’t have a reputation for being exactly healthy. But it depends on what parts of it you adopt, really. Like the French, there is a culture of eating animals “from head to tail” in Russia, so it is easy to find organ meats and bones for making broth at the markets. I would also note the popularity of aspics here, which is known as kholodets; it is the paleo/ketogenic to the max. In my opinion, Russia also has some of the world’s best soups – my personal favorite is sorrel soup. All this shows up in waistlines – there are almost no obese young women.
In some categories, the variety on offer is substandard to what you can expect in the West – cheeses, spices, and wines are the obvious ones. In others, it is better – pickles come to mind, in both variety and quality (pickles in Russia are genuinely fermented, instead of being bathed in vinegar). Even though I live in a “prole” area of Moscow, my local tea shop has about thirty sorts of Chinese teas on sale, some of them remarkably rare, but all of them at rather reasonable prices. In London, you’d probably have to go to something like the venerable Algerian Coffee Store to find a similar Chinese tea collection.
3. Nicer Service
Yes, you read that right. Shop assistants and waiters now tend to be at least as, if not more, courteous than their equivalents in the United States. Contra Matt Forney’s experience in Eastern Europe, I find that the stereotype of sullen sovok service is about as outdated as the hammer and sickle. Nor does this just apply to Moscow. Russia’s regional cities have also been rediscovering that the stale Soviet stolovaya had been preceded by service a la russe in Tsarist times.
One partial and amusing exception: Georgian restaurants, especially those with a long pedigree for supposed “excellence.” My theory is that in the USSR, Georgian cuisine was considered to be the most exotic cuisine accessible, at least to people outside the high nomenklatura, so those establishments continued to be patronized by Soviet people, with their less demanding requirements. Since people with the Soviet mentality primarily went to restaurants to network and to show off how rich they are, as opposed to just having a good time, you tend to get much less enjoyment for the ruble at those places.
The variety of restaurants one can choose from is almost as great as in the great Western metropolises. You don’t have near the same variety in Chinese and especially Indian restaurants that countries with huge diasporas from those two countries can boast, but those are substituted for by Central Asian and Caucasian cuisine. I am not a fan of Caucasian cuisine: Georgian cuisine is too pretentious, while Dagestani/Chechen cuisine is possibly the most primitive on the planet – their signature dish is dough and meat boiled in water, which I suppose is “honest” but hardly something to go out of your way for. However, I have gained considerable respect for Uzbek food (the Uryuk chain is recommended).
However, the center of Moscow has been crafted into an SWPL paradise, so there is no shortage of cuisines from American-style burger joints with craft beers and lettuce leaf burgers (no, really) to Vietnamese pho bars (I especially like the Viet Cafe chain).
Finally, unlike most of Europe – Moscow is a 24/7 city, like America. Most supermarkets and restaurants are open late into the night, or 24/7. Life here is convenient. Only major restriction: Shops can’t sell booze past 11pm.
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