The Olivier Index

The New Year’s spread on the tables of Petersburgers will be more modest this year than it was in 2021. They won’t have to skimp on ordinary goods yet, but delicacies such as caviar or red fish, as well as premium alcohol, will cost considerably more. Scammers and poachers who offer goods that aren’t readily available on the cheap may try to take advantage of this.

According to the Central Bank, annual inflation, as of November, was 11.98%. During the month, consumer prices increased by 0.37%; fruit and vegetables were among the items that rose most noticeably. Given that they are among the main ingredients in traditional dishes, we should expect that New Year’s Eve purchases will cost more.

Racing against inflation

As Svetlana Kazantseva, associate professor in the Basic Department of Trade Policy at Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, told DP, the annual growth rate of food prices in Petersburg was about 10%, according to research data.

“Prices for dairy and meat products are growing more slowly, which is explained by cheaper animal feed. Taking into account the inflationary component and the desire to save money, we can assume that the amount of the average bill [for New Year’s supper], if it does increase, will be an order of magnitude smaller than the rate of annual inflation, that is, about 5–7%,” the expert notes.

Marina Petrova, CEO of Petrova Five Consulting, is partial to other estimates, according to which the New Year’s meal will cost an average of four thousand rubles, which exceeds last year’s level by 12%. The simplest traditional dishes are taken into account: Olivier salad, herring under a fur coat, jellied meat, chicken with potatoes, sausage slices, champagne, and vodka. If the menu is expanded to include roast pork, fish aspic, red caviar, red fish, cheese, and cognac, then the cost will double. But it should be borne in mind that the percentage of consumers who themselves cook the food for their holiday meal has been decreasing every year. Many people have long preferred to buy readymade dishes at the store or order them delivered to their homes. However, this year they are likely to purchase more budget-conscious options. The desire to save money will primarily impact delicacies, seafood, salmon fish, beef, and caviar. The annual growth rate in prices for fish delicacies and caviar is already higher than the inflation rate.

“Traditional New Year’s menu for residents of Petersburg [clockwise, from far left]: Olivier salad, herring under a fur coat, roast chicken, caviar sandwiches, hard alcohol, sliced cheese, sausage and fish, juices, champagne, mineral water, candy, cake, tangerines.”

Beware of fakes!

According to market participants, a decrease in the total volume of red caviar is expected due to a lower salmon catch in the Far East. It will be bring a higher price than in previous years, however. During the pre-New Year sales period, it is possible that we will see an increase in prices of 35–40% compared to last year. On average, pink salmon has risen in price by 25%, chum salmon, by 5%, sockeye salmon, by 15%, and trout, by 10%. According to the Fishing Union, this year the percentage of Pacific salmon red caviar on the Russian market is close to 100%. Prices for grainy caviar from Far Eastern salmon caught in 2022 increased by an average of 10–15%. However, last year’s caviar is also on the market at a more affordable price. According to Nikita Ostrovsky, a purchasing manager at Lakifish LLC, imported red caviar appears only sporadically on the Russian and Petersburg markets.

“We can talk about insignificant amounts imported from neighboring countries, such as Armenia and, to a lesser extent, Kyrgyzstan (red trout caviar is imported from there). This category of goods is in a lower price and quality segment by comparison with trout caviar, for example, from Karelia,” he says. Another factor are the Russian government’s measures to restrict the import of red caviar to stimulate domestic production.

Ostrovsky also warns that, since caviar is considered a mandatory part of New Year’s feasts, it is likely that buyers will look hard for cheaper offers — for example, at illegal points of sale, where it is offered at a price 50% lower than the average market price.

“This can be imitation caviar, which is sold disguised as the real thing. Caviar diluted with sunflower oil. Or obtained by poaching, without the necessary paperwork. In pursuit of profit, people are willing to purchase such products,” he points out.

In fact, imitation caviar is sold legally in many stores.

Participants of the delivery market expect an increase in orders of readymade meals for the New Year’s meal, despite everything. Many of them note that they usually experience an increase in customer activity on December 21.

“We don’t take orders all day, only until 8 p.m., and then we deliver them to customers’ homes. This time round, we expect the number of orders to double compared to normal days. We regularly observes this pattern on holidays. The average bill for orders in Petersburg should grow this year. In any case, last year it grew by about 25–30%,” Vera Pradchenko, CEO of VIP Fish [a service that prepares and delivers Japanese food], told our correspondent.

[From top to bottom of tree]
Cost of Olivier salad: 408 rubles (2021) vs. 455 rubles (2022); cost of herring under a fur coat: 269 rubles (2021) vs. 292 rubles (2022); cost of a no-frills New Year’s meal: 5909 rubles (2021) vs. 6737 rubles (2022); cost of a more expensive New Year’s meal: 8391 rubles (2021) vs. 10,909 rubles (2022). 40% increase in the per bottle price of imported alcohol in the more expensive meal. 20% increase in the price of premium cheese in the more expensive meal. 2.4% increase in the price of domestic salmon caviar in Russia as of October. Consumer price index for groceries in Petersburg in November: 2021 – 111.3%, 2022 – 108.9%; consumer price index for alcoholic beverages in Petersburg in November: 2021 – 102.8%, 2022 – 106.3%; increase in the price of red caviar in Moscow and Petersburg since the beginning of 2022: Moscow – 13.3%, Petersburg – 13.66%

We won’t be left without champagne

Alcoholic beverages are an equally important part of the New Year’s feast. This year, the patterns of purchases in terms of category is almost identical to previous years. Sparkling wines and vodka are still the primary drinks. But there have been changes within the categories. They have been caused primarily by the aftermath of the departure of global brands, explains Dmitry Isachenkov, director of development at Ladoga. “It is safe to say that Russian vodka will be on 90% of Russian New Year’s tables — here consumers prefer domestic products with festive designs,” he says.

After the brands that made up about 50% of the champagne market in Russia left the country, producers less dependent on the political conjuncture began filling the vacant niches. For example, Ladoga signed contracts with three new suppliers and imported 80 thousand bottles in 2022 by year’s end, which is four times more than by the end of last year. So, Russian consumers can easily find real champagne wines in Russia if they wish.

It is worth noting that the share of imports of wines from Champagne [sic] did not exceed 2.8% of the total volume of sparkling wine imports. The choice of the mass consumer will be distributed one way or another among the major Russian producers: Kuban-Vino, Derbent-Vino, Novy Svet, and Inkerman. Affordable imported sparkling wines — Italian proseccos, Spanish cavas, French cremants, and Austrian sekts — will invariably remain popular.

Isachenkov notes that the structure of purchases in the whiskey category has changed significantly — it is this category that has undergone the most powerful changes after the refusal of major brands to do business in Russia. Most consumers were ready to look for a replacement within the category, including among domestic manufacturers. Thus, sales of entirely Russian-made Fowler’s brand whiskey had by year’s end increased four and a half times compared to 2021. Other consumers have shifted to other categories and are choosing rum, tinctures, brandy or vodka. Sales of still wines increased in proportion to the other categories. At the same time, the product range of both importers and Russian wineries has been growing.

“We should not talk about the growth of the average bill, but about the increase in the cost of each item in the bill. For many, this is a long-awaited holiday after the emotional turmoil experienced during the year, and the consumer selects special drinks for celebrations above the usual cost,” the expert argues.

Different things matter

On average, the prices of the ingredients for Olivier salad have increased by 10% in Petersburg. Potatoes and onions have fallen in price, while he price of carrots has not changed. Green peas and mayonnaise have risen the most, by 20% and 17%, respectively. Herring under a fur coat has risen in price by 7%, primarily due to the main ingredient, herring (which has gone up by 20%), while beets have fallen in price by 32% and potatoes by 25%. However, the so-called Olivier index should be treated with caution.

The various indexes are more of a marketing tool to draw attention to the researcher’s brand. There is the lipstick index (launched by Estee Lauder), which is a litmus test showing how women react to changes in the economy. The American manufacturer argues that, when incomes fall, sales of expensive clothes and shoes decline, while sales of luxury cosmetics, on the contrary, grow. There is Deutsche Bank’s cheap date index (based on the costs of taxi rides, lunches at restaurants, and hotel rooms [sic]). There is the latte index (based on the price of a cup at Starbucks, now Stars Coffee in the Russian Federation) and the Big Mac index (based on the price of a hamburger at McDonald’s, now Tasty, Period). The iPod index has become an atavism.

In Russia, the Telegram channel Sugar. Portion. Collect maintains a cup of tea index by charting weekly changes in the average retail price3s of the ingredients in the Russian Federation. Other researchers use the statistics issued by Rosstat as their benchmark when calculating the cost of preparing borscht, Olivier, or herring under a fur coat.

“Any index is an indicator of rising or falling prices. You can use it to calculate how the cost of goods changes from year to year,” says Daria Zhigalina, a business automation services systems analyst at Kontur.Market. “It is important to understand that all indices are real economic indicators, albeit served up in a humorous package. Every year we see how official agencies publish data on the basket of consumer goods. Everyone has been accustomed to this indicator for a long time and knows that it can be used to assess the quality of life in the country and the purchasing power of the populace.”

According to the expert, by assessing the fluctuations in the cost of ingredients, we can analyze the economic situation separately in each region and in Russia as a whole.


For retailers, the New Year’s Eve period is a time when they can increase their revenue. Judging by the foot traffic in stores, the current situation will most likely not affect retail chains negatively since their turnover is growing. At the same time, the structure of sales will be redistributed towards traditional and inexpensive goods. In my opinion, retail has already begun to change the structure of its offerings, reducing the number of goods above the average price. In this regard, premium retail chains may be in a less advantageous position.

—Irina Kapustina, Director, Graduate School of Service and Trade, St. Petersburg Polytechnic University

Caviar has not been imported [to Russia] since 2014, after government restrictions on the import of certain types of food were enacted. Prior to this, Russia imported frozen red caviar from the USA and Canada. Here it was processed and sold in salted form. The salmon catch this year amounted to 300 thousand tons, and 13–14 thousand tons of caviar were produced. Last year, the catch was over 500 thousand tons, while more than 20 thousand tons of caviar were produced. Compared to last year, the shortfall is 30%. Despite the fact that the supply of caviar is much lower than last year, the price has not increased. If there were a further rise in prices, people would simply stop buying it. It is possible that before the New Year some sellers will raise prices, but they will bring them back down after the holiday.

— Alexander Fomin, Vice–President of the Fishing Association

The growth in the price of goods that have always been considered delicacies — caviar and salted salmon— is indicative. They have doubled in price over the year, and the same dynamic is typical for most other frills. This year, salmon will be largely replaced by trout, which is cheaper, and eggplant caviar will be preferred. Real incomes fell in Petersburg by 2.7%, according to official statistics. By my calculations, for a business person, the celebration of the New Year will be about one and half times more expensive than a year ago. The selection has become somewhat smaller, but if you want them, you can find all the goods you need. We should especially not envy pensioners living on their own. The subsistence minimum doesn’t take factor in the cost of such events.

—Anatoly Golov, Co-Chairman of the Consumers Union of Russia

Russians have no reason to skimp on their New Year’s meal. On the contrary, consumer spending on the New Year’s meal may increase due to both inflation and the fact that some Russians will not be able to celebrate the New Year outside the Russian Federation and will spend money at home. Recently, statistics were published that about 15% of the population have experienced an increase in income, while 20% have experienced a decrease. Consequently, some consumers will still increase spending for the New Year and their average spending will grow at a level slightly higher than inflation.

—Artyom Tuzov, Executive Director of the Capital Markets Department at IVA Partners Investment Company

Source: Darya Zaitseva, Darya Dmitrieva & Yevgeny Petrov, “Petersburgers won’t be serving caviar and red fish on their New Year’s tables,” Delovoi Peterburg, 23 December 2022. Infographics, above, courtesy of Delovoi Peterburg. Translated by the Russian Reader


The morning begins with me looking at the light on the computer monitor. If it is on, it means there is still electricity. When I see that the light is on, I immediately get up and go put on the kettle to refill the thermoses. We got hold of the simplest gas stove, and you can of course heat water on it. But first of all, there is not an endless supply of gas and we skimp on it. Secondly, I am afraid of these stoves: over the past month they have exploded four times in our district alone. I walked past the residential buildings where these stoves exploded and saw the broken windows and cracks in the walls. It’s a little scary, let’s just say.

After I put the kettle on, I get on the Telegram channels. I have to find out whether there were [missile and drone] attacks at night, and if so, whether they hit infrastructure. Now this is the most terrible thing, because if it suddenly turns out they hit infrastructure, it means that soon there will be no heating and water. So then I start rushing between washing and drying my hair, charging the power banks and flashlights, getting the laundry going, and cooking food. You never know when the lights will go out and that’s why you do everything quickly, all at once. You feel like a trained circus animal.

When I’m going somewhere, I always put a few flashlights in my backpack. It’s strange to imagine that not so long ago a flashlight was not a mandatory item. Now it is a “must have” (my phone suggests writing “must heh” — heh!), like a medical mask during the time of covid. It’s even more important! When I go outside and travel somewhere, I never know if there will be light where I’m going. Most often there is no light — or cellphone connection for that matter. I hate this feeling of being in a vacuum: there is no mobile internet, no telephone connection, no light, and no matter what happens to you, you won’t even be able to call an ambulance. You’re living “in the moment,” damn it. Where there is no light, the elevators don’t work. I usually walk slowly up to the sixteenth floor by an isolated dark staircase. Somewhere on the eighth floor there is usually an old, peeling stool on which I can sit in the dark and take a break. I usually don’t need such a rest, but sometimes I turn off the flashlight and sit on this stool in the dark and listen to the wind blowing in the stairwell.

Last week I got stuck in the elevator: while I was going up, the lights turned off and the elevator stopped and went dead. There was a chair inside and a box containing water and medicines. I sat down, but quickly froze. Immediately, before the phone connection disappeared, I had telephoned my husband and asked him to call the help hotline so that they would get me out of there. Otherwise, it was possible to get stuck there and sit for four to seven hours. My husband got through to the hotline in half an hour — he was the twentieth in the queue. Half of the city sits in frozen elevators every day. They pulled me out of there.

When I’m returning home in the evening, I make a wish: please let there be light at home. I ride in a minibus and nothing is visible through its windows since neither the streetlights nor the traffic lights are working. I have developed a “sense” of a way that I cannot see, but I know and understand where I’m going and when I need to get out. After walking up and down all these stairs and unlit streets, I really want to find the light on at home for at least half an hour. If, when approaching our building, I see that there is no light, I slow down. There’s nowhere else for me to hurry — it’s dark and pointless everywhere. Life in general has become quite hectic. Although I have hated hurrying and scurrying my whole life, now I have to hurry and scurry.

Sometimes I manage to find a store where the lights haven’t been turned off yet. It’s like going into a church: it’s light and warm there and your mood improves a little just because you’re in a store and it’s bright inside. The prices have been shooting up monstrously and I wander the aisles for a long time figuring out what I can buy to fit my modest daily budget. But basically, since the light began to leave us, I have got used to eating rusks and croutons in different flavors. I’d never bought them before — they’re not my kind of food — but now they are quite handy. First, they are relatively cheap, and second, they come in different flavors. It’s the illusion of variety. Third, they don’t need to be cooked.

I went to see my mom yesterday. We discussed all these common everyday problems of ours. And then Mom decided to make a joke and asked:

“What are you all doing for the New Year?”

Neither she nor I laughed.

Source: Sergey Abashin, Facebook, 15 December 2022. Professor Abashin is quoting a letter he received from a Ukrainian friend or colleague, but he does not identify her by name or mention where exactly she lives. Translated by the Russian Reader

Fascism with a Human Face

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at a session of the Valdai Discussion Club, acknowledged a decline in the real incomes of our compatriots.

He noted that the issue was being resolved in cooperation with the trade unions, RIA Novosti reports.

This dialogue continues. We see that people’s nominal incomes are growing, but real incomes have become slightly lower. Bearing in mind the state of the Russian economy, we can solve these problems and should do so in accordance with the existing plans of the Russian government.

Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation

The head of state also said that it was necessary to fight for wage increases. At the same time, he addressed his appeal to both Russians and “ordinary citizens” of the United States and Europe.

Since the start of the special operation by Russian troops in Ukraine, people have experienced a loss of income and savings. Putin also noted earlier that many Russians were at risk of layoffs.

Source: Andrei Gorelikov, “Putin urged both Russians and citizens of western countries to fight for higher salaries,” Rabota.ru, 28 October 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


“There are more than 485 air fresheners in operation: they were installed in the air ducts of the climate control system. They spread the fragrance around the car every ten minutes. The fragrance is called ‘Moscow Metro,'” explain the metro’s press service , stressing that all the aromas were safe, hypoallergenic, and complied with regulations.

In 2019, during a vote on the project’s implementation, ninety percent of passengers surveyed said they would prefer an air-freshened carriage to a regular one. Muscovites especially wanted the smell of cherry blossoms in the subway.

Source: “Air fresheneres installed on the Filyovskaya metro line,” Russkii pioner, 3 November 2022. Photo courtesy of Russkii pioner. Translated by the Russian Reader


What attracts people [to the shot bar Fedya, the Wildfowl!]? The irony and the simplicity, but at the same time the pleasant crowd. Here you can meet people who, the day before, dined on sets [sic] of scallops and dill sauce at designer restaurants, but they are glad to eat belyash and kvass at Fedya’s. Every other table orders kebabs (from 325 rubles) and drinks tinctures and macerations. Security guards monitor everything: if you swear loudly, they will politely ask you to leave.

Source: “From brilliant shot bars to giant food halls: 12 Petersburg openings in 2022 — Vitya Bar, Noise Cabaret, Moskovsky Market, and the inclusive Outside Entrance,” The Village, 5 December 2022. Photo courtesy of The Village. Translated by the Russian Reader


The “Fedya, the wildfowl!” scene from the beloved Soviet comic crime caper The Diamond Arm (1969), starring Andrei Mironov and Yuri Nikulin

Black Friday

Despite its declared war on “satanic” western values, Putinist Russia continues to slavishly imitate all the worst the mythical west has to offer, including “Black Friday,” as exemplified by this image from an email flyer sent to me earlier today by the major online retailer Ozon, featuring the pop singer Dmitry Malikov. Nor has Putin’s “proxy war” with the west stopped the pidginization of the Russian language, as seen in the second-to-last piece in this grim holiday collage. ||| TRR


The expected tourist flow from Iran may amount to approximately two thousand people a week starting in the spring of 2023, director of the municipal tourist information bureau Yuri Bogdanov said on November 24. According to him, relevant negotiations are underway with air carriers.

“We are negotiating with airlines that want to provide direct flights between Iranian cities and St. Petersburg. We hope that there will be six flights per week with an average number of around 300 seats on board. This is already about two thousand people a week. We expect that, beginning in the spring, these airlines will supply their airplanes,” TASS quoted Bogdanov as saying.

The expert clarified that there were more flights before the pandemic and six thousand tourists used to arrive from Iran every week.

According to Bogdanov, the flow of tourists may return to its pre-covid levels in St. Petersburg by about 2026, but at the same time primarily due to guests from Russia, and not from foreign countries. According to the figures he cited, in 2019, about five million Russians and 5.5 million foreigners visited the Northern Capital, while 6.4 million Russians and 150–200 thousand foreigners visited the city in the first nine months of 2022.

“We have reformatted the priorities for domestic tourism — we want to reach the same 10.5 million tourists a year. There is every ground for this to happen,” Bogdanov opined.

Earlier, the State Duma Budget and Taxes Committee recommended that St. Petersburg be included in the list of regions that charge tourists a resort fee.

Source: “Petersburg expecting two thousand tourists from Iran weekly from spring,” ZakS.ru, 25 November 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


At least 58 children, some reportedly as young as eight, have been killed in Iran since anti-regime protests broke out in the country two months ago.

According to Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA), 46 boys and 12 girls under 18 have been killed since the protests began on 16 September, sparked by the death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody.

In the past week alone, five children were reportedly killed by security forces as violence continued across the country.

Those who died last week include the nine-year-old Kian Pirfalak, who was one of seven people – including a 13-year-old child – killed in the western city of Izeh on Wednesday.

Speaking at Kian’s funeral on Friday, his family said security services had opened fire on the family car, where Kian was sitting next to his father. Iranian security services have denied responsibility for his death, blaming the shooting on “terrorists”.

Iran’s mounting child death toll comes amid escalating violence in cities across the country, with protests showing no sign of abating.

[…]

Young people have been at the forefront of anti-regime protests, which started after Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran’s morality police. She had been arrested for not wearing her hijab correctly.

The deaths of two teenage girls, Nika Shakamari and Sarina Esmailzadeh, both allegedly beaten to death by security forces for protesting, provoked further outrage.

Videos of schoolgirls across the country protesting against their killing by removing their hijabs and taking down pictures of Iran’s supreme leaders went viral on social media, leading to raids on schools where children were beaten and detained. According to Iran’s teachers union, another 16-year-old girl, Asra Panahi, died after she was attacked by security forces in her classroom in the north-western town of Ardabil on 18 October.

The attacks on children in schools is continuing, according to Hengaw, which said a 16-year-old girl from Kurdistan is on life support after throwing herself from a school van, having been arrested at her school last week.

HRA says more than 380 protesters have been killed since the protests began and more than 16,000 people have been detained, including children. The figure is disputed by the authorities.

Source: Deepa Parent, Ghoncheh Habibiazad and Annie Kelly, “At least 58 Iranian children reportedly killed since anti-regime protests began,” The Observer, 20 November 2022. Thanks to Sheen Gleeson for the heads-up.


A view of Vokzal 1853 on opening day. Photo: Sergei Yermokhin/Delovoi Peterburg

On November 21, the opening of the food hall [fud-kholl] Vokzal 1853 took place in the building of the former Warsaw railway station.

It is the largest gastronomic space in St. Petersburg and, so its creators claim, in Europe.

So far, not all the establishments in the eater have opened — the launch . The event zone [event-zona] is designed for to accommodate 2.5 thousand guests and have 4 thousand seats, while the entrance to the second floor is still closed.

The cost of renovating the former railway station exceeded 1.5 billion rubles. The Vokzal 1853 food hall [fud-kholl] is a project of the Adamant holding company and restaurateur Alexei Vasilchuk. In total, as stated earlier, more than 90 restaurant concepts [restorannykh konseptsii] will await visitors, and the total area of the food hall will be about 34 thousand square meter.

The company plans to open a concert venue, craft [kraftovye] shops, and a coworking [kovorking — sic] in the space.

Earlier, DP reported that its creators had conceived the decoration of the premises to suggest the atmosphere of nineteenth-century railways stations, and visitors would find themselves in the “epicenter of a bustling creative life.”

Source: “The largest food hall in St. Petersburg opens in Warsaw railway station building,” Delovoi Peterburg, 22 November 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


Ukraine continued to reckon with the fallout from Russia’s air strikes on its energy infrastructure, with much of the country still struggling with blackouts. Residents in Kyiv, the capital, were told to prepare for more attacks. Russian missiles damaged a hospital on the outskirts of Zaporizhia, a Ukrainian-held city not far from Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, controlled by Russia. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said Russia was heavily shelling Kherson, the southern city recaptured by Ukrainian forces in early November. Local officials said that strikes killed seven people in the city on Thursday.

Source: The Economist, “The World in Brief” email newsletter, 25 November 2022


Maxim Katz, “Why Russians don’t protest — answered by an old experiment (English subtitles),”1,108,570 views. Nov 23, 2022. “The lack of mass anti-war rallies in Russia is often explained with some psychological defect of the Russian people. But is it truly so? Today we will talk about a social experiment called the Third Wave, and think about whether it is true that it can all be explained with some unique malleability of Russian society.”

This is a wildly disappointing exercise in sophism and self-deception by the usually much more lucid Maxim Katz. Russia has arrived at its present murderous and self-destructive bad end not through rigorous and ruthless totalitarian indoctrination and psychological manipulation, as suggested by Katz’s invocation of Ron Jones’s 1967 Third Wave experiment in a California high school, but through a chaotic, consistent indulgence of opportunism, consumerism, escapism, ressentiment, hipsterism, “westernism,” capitalism, cynicism, nihilism, and thuggery by the elites and the much of the so-called intelligentsia, thus almost completely overwhelming the decent, democratic, and egalitarian impulses and undertakings of differently minded and empowered “other Russians” from all walks of life and all parts of the country. It has been one of the missions of this website to bear witness to both these tendencies in their extreme and trite manifestations. You’ll find vanishingly little of what Katz describes in my chronicles of the last fifteen years here and on The Russian Reader‘s sister blog Chtodelat News. You will find, however, plenty of stories of brave grassroots resistance and movement building blunted and, ultimately, murdered by a police state whose PR wing has urged Russians to trade their freedom for food courts. ||| TRR

Annals of Import Substitution: Khudi Zarina, Etc.

“Our everything: a huge selection of goods from Russia! Even more goods from Russia – look! [1.] Zarina hoodie, 1,689 rubles [approx. 21 euros]. [2.] Vasilisa Botanika bedding set, 1,571 rubles. [3.] Tech Team Comfort urban scooter, 3,990 rubles.” Source: Ozon email advertising circular, 2 May 2022. Ozon is a major Russian online retailer and is sometimes referred to as “the Amazon of Russia.” When I still lived in Russia, I regularly ordered books from them. In the first weeks of the war, they were pushing the imported western goods they still had in stock. ||| TRR

“Don’t You Know What’s Going On?”

Spoiled by grocery delivery services, I am rarely in supermarkets these days and don’t see all of life’s nitty-gritty.

Today I went into the Dixie [a Russian discount supermarket chain] near my house. Everything seemed pretty normal. I went along the shelves, but I really like buckwheat groats [a staple cereal grain in Russia] and wanted to buy some, and there was no buckwheat. I didn’t need sugar but when I saw there was no buckwheat I looked at the sugar shelf — no sugar. Also there were no Always pads, and I needed some. Probably there was lots of other stuff missing too, but I didn’t have time to make a thorough study. I put some of what was there into my basket and got into line for the register. I never remember prices, alas, so I didn’t particularly notice whether anything had gotten more expensive over the last month. But this would be cleared up shortly.

A woman and her friend come running into the store, right up to the register, and she starts complaining loudly that she bought ketchup for 146 rubles [$1.33 today (3/15/22) — trans.] as per the shelf tag, but at the register they charged her 194 rubles [$1.77], which she only noticed when she got home and checked the receipt.

“Why would I want ketchup for 194 rubles! You have to sell it for the price that’s written on the tag. Give me my 48 rubles back!”

“We’re not giving you anything back: our prices don’t match the shelf tags. You can return the ketchup and we’ll give you your money back.”

“What do you mean, the prices don’t match? You are obliged to show them!”

“On your website it still says that ketchup costs 146 rubles,” the woman’s friend interjects.

“The prices are changing every other day here, you think we’re going to go around pasting up the new ones all the time?! Don’t you know what’s going on?” screams the cash register lady.

“We’re not the ones setting the prices. They change by themselves in the system. They don’t even send us shelf tags: we just scan everything here at the register!” adds another cashier supportively.

“Why is the store management suddenly changing the prices?” I ask.

The line, the cashiers, and the woman with her friend all look at me with stern incomprehension and even an element of disapproval.

“What, you don’t know,” someone mutters angrily, and everyone again looks away, down at the floor or at the checkout conveyer belt.

Everyone knits their brows in silence. The older cashier quietly tells the younger one how to do a return, take cash and calculate the correct change, because many people’s bank cards aren’t working.

No one says out loud that President Putin is waging war in Ukraine or that “NATO-the Americans-who knows who” is to blame. No one discusses why the prices are higher and why there’s no buckwheat. No one says anything at all and everyone looks at the floor.

Only the man who was standing behind me went back to the shelves and grabbed a third bottle of vodka.

Source: Alexandra Polivanova, Facebook, 14 March 2022. Translated by the Fabulous AM with the author’s permission. Photo by the author

The Perfect Gift for Defender of the Fatherland Day

The Dendy Junior with a cartridge and detachable controllers

Toys for everyone

On the eve of Defender of the Fatherland Day [February 23], the demand for electronics (game consoles, laptops, tablets) has grown — they are among the most coveted gifts. Ozon said that in mid-February, unit sales of consoles and accessories had increased 2.2 times year-on-year. “Retro consoles have been an unexpected trend in the video game consoles category — they have been the best-selling products. Dendy Junior and Sega Genesis will be nostalgic February 23rd gifts for Petersburg residents,” the retailer’s press service added.

Wildberries has also seen a run on electronics. But electric razors (demand for them increased by 153% in the first half of February) and hair and beard clippers (up by 48%) have been their most popular items.

M.Video-Eldorado told us that headphones and portable acoustics have been trending. In addition, the new digital reality dictates its own rules: gifts that cannot be touched with your hands are becoming more and more desirable. High demand this year has been shown by digital content such as subscriptions to services (videos, books, etc.). Sales of digital codes for games had more than doubled by February 2021 [sic].

Sales on Avito of laptops and smartphones have also increased by 15% and 9%, respectively. You can buy devices for an average of 22,380 rubles and 17,920 rubles [approx. 249 and 199 euros]. Some female Petersburgers decided to make their task as easy as possible and present men not with a specific gift, but with a gift certificate. The Avito press service said that users spend an average of 4,700 rubles [approx. 52 euros] on them.

Retailers can also make money in February on sales of children’s goods. Radio-controlled toys have become more than twice as popular on Ozon. Wildberries noted that parents purchase toy weapons, cars, airplanes and helicopters, as well as various prefabricated models for their little defenders.

Whether he’s going to the army or on a fishing trip

Goods for hunting and fishing — that’s what female customers have paid attention to this holiday. However, even this involves electronic gadgets. “The list of [our] popular items includes an echo sounder and a case for it, a monocular telescope, powerful binoculars, and a set of walkie-talkies,” Ozon’s press service says.

“In the household and garden goods category, sauna accessories (for example, a hat embroidered with the phrase ‘February 23’) and goods for cooking kebabs and barbecue (a set of skewers with lacquered beech handles in a tight protective cover has been among the top sellers) have been purchased the most,” [reports Ozon]. It’s funny that in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region this year one of the most popular February 23rd gifts will be a set for making homemade liqueurs.

Wildberries’ female shoppers have been no less creative in choosing gifts. They decided that army dry rations are an inexpensive and original option, orders of which have increased by 344% year-on-year. These are gift sets designed to look like a real soldier’s rations. Jumbo-sized dry rations featuring canned food and snacks cost about 1,5000 to 2,000 rubles [approx. 17 to 22 euros].

Traditional values

And yet the popularity of socks and men’s skin care products remains unshakable. In the first half of February, Wildberries saws the number of orders for socks in St. Petersburg increase by 113%, and shaving kits by 150%, while orders for cosmetic care kits rose by 750%, deodorants, by 46%, and colognes, by 157%. The demand for men’s lotions has increased by 100%, while the popularity of shower gels has soared almost ninefold compared to January. Ties (up 95%), belts (up 153%), and wallets (up 144%) are also among popular traditional gifts.

Corporate customers of online stores this year bought sweets for the holidays. According to SberMarket’s b2b department, companies have most often ordered gift sets of Merci candy, coffee and tea in gift packages, and Old Spice, Palmolive, and Gillette skin care sets for employees for Defender of the Fatherland Day this year.

Source: Darya Dmitrieva, Delovoi Peterburg, 22 February 2022. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Translated by the Russian Reader

Household Debt in Russia Over 170 Billion Euros

reliable future consumer credit coopReliable Future Consumer Credit Cooperative is one of many retail lenders ready to help ordinary Russians “boost their standard of living.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Household Debt of Russians Exceeds Twelve Trillion Rubles
Half of This Amount Was Borrowed Over the Last Year
Emma Terchenko
Vedomosti
January 31, 2018

This emerges from statistics gathered by the United Credit Bureau (OKB), based on information about the outstanding loans of 82 million Russians.

According to the Russian Central Bank, the Russian populace’s bank debt grew by 13.2% in 2017 to 12.2 trillion rubles [approx. 170.75 billion euros].

The OKB’s calculations show the number of new loans grew more slowly than their total amount. Over the past year, loans increased by 37% compared to 2016 (by 4.14 trillion rubles), whereas their quantity increased only by 12% to 34.8 million individual outstanding loans.

Moreover, an increase was observed in all segments of the loan market—mortgages, cash loans, auto loans, and credit cards—according to the OKB’s statistics.

Banks mostly disbursed money to Russians in the form of cash loans: nearly 3 trillion rubles or 33% more than in 2016. The number of such loans reached 24.7 million units, an increase of 14%.

The total amount of mortgages issued for the year increased by 42% to 1.8 trillion rubles, while the total number rose by nearly a third to 959,237 individual mortgages. According to Rusipoteka, a financial analytics company, 53% of the housing mortages issued last year were supplied by Sberbank.

In November, the mortgage portfolios of Russian banks exceeded a record five trillion rubles, the Central Bank reported previously.

“Afer the crisis, banks tried to build up their mortgage portfolios. Many of them reduced their down payments to accomplish this. Therefore, amongst the loans issued last year, around a third had down payments of less than 20%,” says Rusipoteka director Sergei Gordeiko.

According to the OKB, auto loans for all of 2017 increased by 36% to 333.3 billion rubles or by 25% to 436,539 individual loans. The National Credit History Bureau (NBKI) estimated the annual growth of auto loans at 29%.

“Auto loans have returned to pre-crisis levels, and the share of cars bought on loan has been growing,” notes NBKI’s director general Alexander Vikulin. “In 2017, every other automobile in Russia was purchased with a loan.”

The OKB claims credit cards are the fastest growing segment. Although the number of new credit cards issued last year grew only by 8% to 8.65 million cards (this figure excludes replacement cards), their total limit increased by less than half: by 48% to 544.5 billion rubles.

According to the NBKI, the number of newly issued credit cards grew by 52.6% to 6.87 million units in 2017. Equifax reported an 52% increase to six million new cards issued on the year.

The reason for the discrepancy is the databases of creditors monitored by the various credit bureaus differ. Unlike other credit bureaus, the OKB receives all information about loans made by Sberbank, which, according to different estimates, accounts for 42% to 46% of the loan market. The NBKI, for example, does not monitor figures from Home Credit Bank. None of the three bureaus—OKB, NBKI, and Equifax—take Russian Standard Bank’s statistics into account.

With its share of the credit card market, Sberbank has an impact on discrepancies in the calculations of the OKB and the other bureaus, argues Frank RG director general Yuri Gribanov.  According to Frank RG’s data, based on the management statements of banks and taking into account the utilization of credit limits and overdue debts, Sberbank’s portfolio of credit cards and overdrafts constituted 42.5% of the overall portfolio of all Russian banks as of December 1, 2017. During the year, it grew by 16.4% to 559.6 billion rubles.

A Sberbank spokesperson did not provide exact figures for the issuing of new credit cards last year, but confirmed they had not grown, remaining at a “consistently high level.”

Tinkoff Bank issued 2.41 million new credit cards in 2017, 43% more than the previous year, while Sovkombank issued more than a million credit cards. Vostochny Bank increased its issuing of credit cards by 140%, OTP Bank, by 135%, and VTB Bank by 13% (440,000 cards).

“The main reason for the growth is that banks have returned to sales channels that were frozen after 2015, for example, lending to walk-in customers,” says Alexei Shchavelev,  director of the cross-selling department at OTP Bank.

“In addition, many banks now have built up a broad base of quality customers: payroll customers, debit card holders, borrowers. It is now much easier for them to sell credit cards, because this customer base has been clarified,” Pavel Samiyev, managing director of the National Rating Agency, explains.

The demand for credit cards from borrowers themselves has been caused by the growth of consumer activity in general and improved customer solvency, argues Rostislav Yanykin, director of Russian Standard’s credit card sales. In the fight for customers, banks have been offering increasingly advantageous terms for using credit cards, he admits.

People who take out loans to boost their standard of living have mainly fueled the growth in lending to the populace, argues Nataliya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank.

“In the past two years, they suffered more than others from the crisis in terms of reduced purchasing power.”

According to NBKI’s Vikulin, retail lending has been growing due to the economy’s stabilization.

Translated by the Russian Reader

NB. According to a May 17, 2017, article in the New York Times, household debt in the US had risen to $12.73 trillion in the first quarter of 2017, a new peak. Converted into rubles, this would amount to approx. 742 trillion rubles at current exchange rates. Based on the latest UN estimates, the current population of the US is nearly 327 million people, while the population of the Russian Federation is nearly 144 million people, based on the same estimates. In 2016, GDP (PPP) per capita in the US was over $57,000, while it was just over $23,000 in Russia, according to figures published by the World Bank. TRR

Poor Russians Up to Their Necks in Debt

ruble coin 2This one-ruble coin, minted in 2014 and sporting the newish symbol for the ruble, adopted in 2013, won’t buy you love or much anything else. 

Poor Russians Go into Debt
Tatyana Lomskaya
Vedomosti
October 11, 2017

Low-income Russians have been unable to wait for an uptick in incomes and have turned to loans to meet their consumer needs. Experts, including the Central Bank, believe such borrowers are a danger to the economy.

The demand of Russians for loans has been growing. In August, their arrears to banks rose to levels not seen since the spring of 2014. Ruble-denominated loans reached their maximum historic high, according to RANEPA’s monthly newsletter Monitoring the Economic Situation in Russia. Banks have been vigourously issuing loans. In July, they provided Russians with 23% more loans than at the same time last year. Consumer loans have been the fastest growing. According to the National Credit History Bureau, such loans increased by 27% over the past eight months.

Loans have been playing a growing role in the budgets of Russian families, notes the newsletter. In the first six months of the year, new loans made up 21% of household final consumption expenditures. This is significantly higher than the crisis levels of the last two years (15–18%), although it is still below the peak levels of 25–27% in 2013–2014. With virtually no increase in the real incomes of individuals, this generates additional risks to their financial circumstances, noted RANEPA’s analysts.

Residents of poor and distant regions are the biggest borrowers of consumer loans at the moment, along with the poorest segments of the populace, notes Natalya Zubarevich, director of the regional program at the Independent Institute for Social Policy. This is how they offset falling incomes. Wages in Russia have been growing since August 2016, but real incomes have continued to fall.

People cannot skimp and save forever. People turn to loans to meet their needs, says Zubarevich. What matters is that banks not issue too many loans, which would raise the specter of a huge number of defaults.

The debt burden has been growing more quickly in regions with the highest poverty levels, according to the FR Group, although the situation varies from region to region, notes project manager Anastasia Zyurkalova.

Russians have been spending more and more of their income on consumption. According to some indications, they have abandoned the savings model of financial behavior, acknowledges Yelena Grishina, head of RANEPA’s research laboratory on pension systems and social sector actuarial forecasting. One of the ways they survive is by taking out loans. Certain segments of the populace have outlived the means they once had for limiting consumption. In the first six months of 2017, a linear dependence bwtween increases in the volume of loans and poverty levels in the regions was observed, says Grishina. Russians are now more positive than a year ago: they have assessed the changes in their welfare, and the percentage of those who skimp on food and clothing has decreased, note RANEPA’s analysts [sic].

The burden of non-mortgage loans is highest in regions with high unemployment and a poorer populace, Alfabank’s chief economist Natalya Orlova wrote last autumn. The middle class [sic] would be unlikely to emerge as the main source of the growth in demand for retail loans, she noted. The average borrower is more likely to be someone with a limited income. Judging by the numbers for the first six months of 2017, nothing has changed, says Orlova. It is still less well-off Russians who want to bring their consumption up to average levels. The increase in retail loans in the poorest regions is likely due to people’s tapping out their savings and and trying to maintain a certain level of consumption, agrees Karen Vartapetov, an analyst at S&P.

A significant portion of the demand for consumer loans comes from people whose incomes are less than the median income in Russia. Often, their incomes are unstable as well, and their debt burdens are high, noted analysts in the Central Bank’s research and forecasting department. (Their opinions may differ from the financial regulator’s official stance.)  Yet banks currently do not really have the capacity for an increase in lending, and so even a moderate uptick in consumer loans is fraught with risks no less serious than during the 2010–2012 loan boom. To limit these risks, the Central Bank has been working out individual debt burden indicators, notes a source at the regulator. The share of an individual’s expenditures on repaying loans should be such she could continue to pay back the loan even if negative events were to occur.

For the time being, the largest banks surveyed by the Central Bank have reported that the percentage of borrowers with increased levels of debt burdens has not grown, and the number of people with monthly incomes of less than 20,000 rubles [approx. 290 euros] who have taken out cash loans has fallen, says the source at the regulator. The banks have been forced to behave more conservatively. Everyone well remembers the wave of late payments in 2012–2013, says Yuri Gribanov, CEO of Frank RG.

After the crisis of 2015, the quality of loan applicants has not improved considerably, notes Sergei Kapustin, deputy board chair of OTP Bank. There are still many people with problematic debts that have not been managed and refinanced at another bank. According to certain channels, the share of such debts is ten percent, and banks have been forced to lower the number of loans they issue. In addition, a number of bankers issue unsubstantially large loans to people who have borrowed money at other banks in amounts disproportionate to their incomes.

The demand for consumer loans is currently quite high, says Mikhail Matovnikov, Sberbank’s chief analyst, and there are still a lot of extant bad loans at high interest rates, especially among low-income Russians. This not at all what the economy needs, and it is bad for borrowers, too, he argues.

The banks’ fight against such loans has pushed borrowers into the arms of microfinance institutions, where the circumstances can be even worse. This year, the microlending market has grown from 186 billion rubles to 242 billion rubles [approx. 3.5 billion euros]. The banks have not met the steadily growing demand for loans, according to research by microlender Home Money.

home money

A screenshot from Russian microlender Home Money’s website. “It’s simpler to make a phone call than to borrow from somebody! Call if you need to! New services: personal legal consultant; home protection; credit history.”

Measures to limit interest rates cooled the consumer lending market in 2015–2016, notes Dmitry Vasilyev, an analyst with Fitch. Currently, the portfolio’s growth matches the nominal growth in incomes of Russians (2–3% during the first sixth months of 2017) and the percentage of risky and unsecured loans has lowered. Some borrowers have drifted to the microlenders, while some banks have been weeded out due to noncompliance with tougher standards, says Vasilyev.

Orlova points out the banking sector is at a crossroads. Maintaining quality lending means not taking on as clients people working in the informal sector and incapable of confirming how much they make and microlenders currently lending at very high rates. Or banks could increase their appetite for risk and take on inferior borrowers to increase their market shares and loan portfolios. Banks have to earn money. If there are no borrowers willing to pay (for example, the government, which would have to become much more active in the state debt market), the issue would become particularly critical. Prospects for income growth in the coming year are worsening, and the risk that not very well-off people would not be able to service their loans is growing, warns Orlova. Poverty will not seriously decline in Russia in the coming year, if we believe the government’s three-year macro forecast, as submitted to the State Duma. It will drop from 12.8% of the populace this year to 11.2% in 2020, i.e., it will not drop to the levels of  2012–2013 (lower than 11%).

Translation and image of the ruble coin by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. The original article, as published yesterday by Vedomosti on the front page of its paper edition, was behind a paywall. Thanks to Press Reader for providing me with the text of the article.

This Is Russia

DSCN0810

“This is Russia. This is the Russia that Americans are so scared of.”

In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galeria Shopping Center, located in downtown Petersburg. It’s gigantic, covering the land once occupied by five or six graceful tenement buildings and a cultural center and cinema. They were demolished in the mid 1990s, not to make way for the shopping mall, but so a new train station could be built there, jeek by jowl with the existing Moscow Station, because federal and regional officials wanted to build a high-speed train line between Petersburg and Moscow. Millions of dollars were allocated for the project, but ultimately, the train line was never built nor was the new station erected. No one knows what happened to the millions of dollars allocated for the project. They simply vanished into thin air.

The site of the former-future high-speed train station sat vacant for many years behind a tall, ugly construction-site fence. No one could figure out what do to with all that wasteland, which was in the very heart of the city, not in some forgotten outskirts. However, before the money had vanished, and the project was abandoned, construction workers had managed not only to demolish all the tenement buildings on the site but had also dug a foundation pit. Over the long years, this pit filled up with water. Some time after Google Maps had become all the rage, I took a look at our neighborhood via satellite, as it were, and discovered to my great surprise it now had a small lake in it. It was the foundation pit of the former-future high-speed train station, filled to the brim with water.

Good times came to Petersburg in the 2000s, when the country was flush with cash, generated by high oil prices, a flat tax rate of 13%, and runaway corruption. It was then the city’s mothers and fathers (I’m not being ironic: most of Petersburg’s “revival” was presided over by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a former Communist Youth League functionary who had converted to the gospel of what she herself called “aggressive development”) decided that Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful, haunting, enchanting cities, should be extensively redeveloped, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a mecca of consumerism that would give pride of place to cars and new highways, since cars had become the new status symbol among the city’s rich and poor alike. They also decided that, since other big cities in the world had lots of high-rise buildings, their city, which did not have almost any high-rise buildings, should have lots of them, too.

Basically, they decided to demolish as much of the inner and outer city as they could get away with—and they could get away with a lot, because they had nearly unlimited political power and lots of the country’s money at their disposal—and redevelop it with high-rise apartment buildings, superhighways, big box stores, and shopping and entertainment centers, each one uglier and bigger than the last. Thanks to their efforts, in a mere fifteen years or so they have gone a long way toward turning a Unesco World Heritage Site into an impossible, unsightly mess.

But let’s get back to our miniature inner-city lake. Finally, developers came up with a plan to convert the site into a giant shopping mall. Even better, the architects who designed the mall were clearly inspired by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect and a leading Nazi Party member, to turn a rather oversized mall into a celebration of kitsch faux-neoclassicism, precisely the sort of thing Speer had championed in his projects. This, indeed, was a bit ironic, because Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, had survived a 900-day siege by the German army during the Second World War. Considered the longest and most destructive siege in history, it killed at least 800,000 civilians, that is, it killed the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the people who now enjoy visiting this mall, with its distinctly neo-fascist aesthetic.

Along the sides of the street running down towards the photographer from the Albert Speer Memorial Shopping Center, you see lots of shiny new, fairly expensive cars, parked bumper to bumper. In fact, the Albert Speer has a huge underground car park where you can park your car relatively inexpensively (our neighbor lady, a sensible woman, does it), but most Petersburg car owners actually think parking their cars wherever they want—especially either right next to their residential buildings or, worse, in the tiny, labyrinthine, incredibly charming inner courtyards of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings—is their legal right. It isn’t, but they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. I know they think this way because many Petersburg car owners have told me so.

To my mind, the precipitous rise in personal car ownership in Petersburg has done more to degrade the city’s beauty than all the underinspired colossal high-rises put together, because the city was purposely designed by its original builders, beginning with Peter the Great, to have a good number of intersecting and radiating, awe-inspiring, long and clear sightlines or “perspectives.” Hence, many of the city’s longest avenues are called “prospects,” such as Nevsky Prospect (the title of one of Nikolai Gogol’s best stories) and Moskovsky Prospect. Nowadays, however, you gaze down these “perspectives” only to see traffic jams and hectares of other visual pollution in the shape of signs, billboards, banners, and marquees. It’s not a pretty sight.

On the right of the picture, somewhere near the middle, you should be able to spot a small shop sign with the letters “AM” emblazoned on it. It’s one of the dozens of liquor stores that have popped up in our neighborhood after the Kremlin introduced its countersanctions against US and EU sanctions, which were instituted in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The US and EU sanctions targeted individuals and companies closely allied with the regime. Putin’s countersanctions, in a manner that has come to seem typical of how the Russian president for life’s mind works, were targeted against Russian consumers by banning the import of most western produce into the country. An exception was made for western alcoholic beverages, especially wines and beers, and this meant it was suddenly profitable again to get into the liquor business. The upshot has been that you can exit our house, walk in any direction, even putting on a blindfold if you like, and you will find yourself in a liquor store in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

Last summer, I tried painting a little verbal and photographic sketch of the effect this massive re-alcoholization has had on our neighborhood, along with other, mostly negative trends in the use and abuse of commercial space in the city.

Finally, there is one other thing you should know about all those new, mostly oversized cars parked on the street. Since the average monthly salary in Russia barely crawls above 600 or 700 euros a month, even in a seemingly wealthy city like Petersburg, most of those gas-guzzling, air-polluting status symbols were bought with borrowed money.

Just the other day, in fact, I translated and posted a tiny article, originally published in the business daily Kommersant, about how people in the Voronezh Region currently owed banks approximately two billion euros in outstanding loans. In 2015, the region’s estimated population was around 2,300,000, so, theoretically, each resident of Voronezh Region now owes the banks 870 euros, which I am sure is more than most people there earn in two or three months. Of course, not every single resident of Voronezh Region has taken out a loan, so the real damage incurred by real individual borrowers is a lot worse.

I could be wrong, but I think what I have just written gives you a rough idea of how you go about reading photographs of today’s Russian cities, their visible aspect in general, turning a snapshot into something meaningful, rather than assuming its meaning is obvious, right there on the surface. You don’t just tweet a photo of a new football stadium or fancy restaurant or street jammed with expensive cars and make that stand for progress, when progress, whether political, economic or social, really has not occurred yet in Russia, despite all the money that has been sloshing around here the last fifteen years. Instead, you talk about the real economic, political, and social relations, which are often quite oppressive, murky, and criminal, that have produced the visible reality you want to highlight.

Doing anything less is tantamount to engaging in boosterism, whataboutism, Russian Worldism, and crypto-Putinism, but certainly not in journalism. That so many journalists, western and Russian, have abandoned real journalism for one or all of the isms I have listed is the really scary thing. TRR

Photograph by the Russian Reader