Today in Russian decadance

Picture taken on July 22, 2010 show Miss Russi...

Image by AFP via @daylife

On this hot Moscow Friday, I bring you two jewels of Russian decadence:

One. Miss Russia, known also by her mortal name Irina Antonenko, will soon depart for Las Vegas to represent her country in the Miss Universe competition. In her suitcase is a custom-designed dress embroidered in gold, becrusted with sapphires and amethysts, and, yes, trimmed in sable fur. It is supposed to resemble the old tsars’ crown, ye olde Monomakh’s Cap. Total cost? $60,000.

Two. Roads in Russia are a disaster, but building them is a shitshow of corruption that makes you want to bring in a Soprano-backed construction crew to do it on the cheap. The best metaphor to date comes from Russian Esquire, which did a calculation based on the most corrupt corner of Russia, Sochi, where preparations for the 2014 Olympics are already under way. Because 30 miles of roadway in Sochi will set you back some $8 billion, Esquire did various estimates on what road surfaces could account for that cost.

The options are as follows:

  • 6.37 cm of oysters
  • 21.9 cm of foie gras
  • 9 cm of Louis Vuitton handbags
  • 4.7 cm of fur coats
  • 13.85 cm of Hennessy
  • 6 cm of black truffles

And now you know.

via LifeNews.ru, Esquire.ru

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43 Responses to Today in Russian decadance

  1. “Because 30 miles of roadway in Sochi will set you back some $8 million…” I think you meant billion (227 млрд рублей за 48 километров).

    • Julia Ioffe says:

      Zoops! Typo fixed! Thanks for the eagle eye, Karlin!

    • No matter, you’ve interested me in this to investigate a bit myself.

      It’s actually an understatement to call it a “roadway” – the “Скмост” includes a railway, 50+ bridges, and 27km of tunnels over mountainous terrain – and has to be completed within 3 years in an area with poorly developed infrastructure.

      I’m not saying this isn’t a massively corrupt project. Its real price without kickbacks would probably be around 2-3bn $, based on similar construction costs elsewhere. But this kind of corruption (50-75% of project costs) appears to be on a level typical of the Russian road construction sector, rather than being in some uber-corrupt league of its own. (Had this been a simple road, as implied in the Esquire article, things would be dire indeed).

      And I’m certainly not a shill for the road construction mafia! ;)

  2. Mark Adomanis says:

    Maybe the Russians have succeeded in building some kind of super-road that has capabilities about which we Americans can only dream? Isn’t that also a possibility??

  3. kovane says:

    As with any story about corruption in Russia, published in the Western or Russian liberal media, authors conveniently leave out some key facts. In this case, the reason why this road costs so much: because the cost includes buying out of land and houses. I guess, its equivalency would be building a road through New York’s Central Park. Of course, that doesn’t mean that contractors didn’t steal a single ruble. Corruption in Russian road construction is appalling indeed, but the average cost of large projects is commensurate with European. I haven’t even mentioned much more difficult climate and soil conditions in Russia.

    http://news.babr.ru/?IDE=86935

  4. Mark Adomanis says:

    Julia,

    Something I want to get your thoughts on:

    In my view holding a massive international event like the Sochi Olympics is good for Russia precisely because it forces things like this corrupt road contract out into the open. Would we have ever heard about this if it was, say, a highway link between Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan? Or a new rail line between Chelyabink and Ekaterinburg? Almost certainly not.
    When you’re going to have the entirity of the world media crawaling about part of your country, as Russia will in 2014, there’s really no way of faking things: either this road will get built and will function adequately, or it won’t and Russia will (deservedly) be an international laughing stock.
    I guess my point is that if (as certainly seems plausible) corruption and graft cripple the Olympic preparations and the Sochi games are a huge mess this will do FAR more to weaken Putin, Medvedev et. al. than anything Kasparov, Nemtsov, or Nezavisimaya Gazeta could cook up.

    What’s your opinion on the matter?

    • tsandr says:

      The Olympic preparations and the Sochi games will do far more to ENRICH Putin, Medvedev et. al. May be that’s why they are so anxious about?

    • Julia Ioffe says:

      Mark, I think this is a really interesting thought. And I think it’s absolutely true. Look at what happened in Vancouver. Russia’s failure in the ring, in a place it had always been the victor, laid bare the rot of corruption in the athletics system and showed Russians that you can’t build sport with kickbacks. But then what happened? The Russian President, justifiably pissed, orders the Treasury to do an audit of the Russian team’s preparations. He personally oversees that this happens and that it doesn’t pull its punches. And, as you recall, it didn’t. It exposed insane amounts of corruption — not paying for coaches to go to Vancouver, shell companies set up right inside the Sports Ministry, high school coaches training the Olympians, selling tickets to Russian fans for 11x their value, 97 breakfasts in 20 days for Mutko. And THEN what happened? Nothing. Is Mutko fired? Nope. Is any substantive change made? Ditto. Mutko is still in charge, showing everyone that nothing will happen to you no matter how brazenly you steal in broad daylight.

  5. markchapman says:

    “It absorbs money at hitherto unheard of rates.”

    Well, not quite. In fact, a very similar situation has been hitherto heard of. Known as the “Big Dig”, the project to reroute the central artery of Interstate 93 into a 3.5 mile tunnel in the heart of Boston

    http://wbztv.com/bigdig/big.dig.massachusetts.2.773232.html

    took years to complete and cost, all in, $22 Billion USD. You could pretty much pave it a couple of yards deep in saffron for that, I’d wager.

    Corruption? I guess there might have been a bit. So as not to be a linkpig, I haven’t included the links, but if you follow the one above you’ll find links on the sidebar to “Contractors plead guilty in Big Dig fraud scheme” (falsifying qualifications of apprentices to overbill the project – cha-ching!! $300,000.00) and “Father and Son Plead Guilty in Big Dig Fraud Case” (falsifying vehicle weights to make it appear more material was hauled away, to the tune of a quarter-million bucks). I wouldn’t go so far as to say roadbuilding projects in the United States are as corrupt as those in Russia; that’s certainly not the case. But it’d be hard to reconcile a cost of $22 Billion for 3.5 miles of road by saying asphalt isn’t cheap. I’d point out here that these enormous costs meant other highways that desperately needed repair went begging, just as they are in Russia. Just before I finish pointing out stuff, I’ll point out that the cost of Big Dig project was not mentioned at all in Russian news or by Russian bloggers.

    I’m not looking to piss you off, because I admire and enjoy your work. I’m also not looking to make an argument that Russian roads are in fine shape, because that’s not the case in general and some of them are beyond awful. However, continuous criticism and nitpicking over how much the Medvedev/Putin government spends on the Sochi Olympics is not particularly productive in the great scheme of things. They’ve got the money, and if that’s how they choose to spend it, so what? When the locals that have to use the roads start running people out of office because the roads are impassable, then things are more likely to change.

    • Mike Murray says:

      It does not seem to me the point of this story was to compare Russia to the United States or the West. Just to talk about the ludacris decadance of Russian in the face of more pressing needs. The United States does not face so abject corruption but i’d say there are projects here in the states that suprass the Russians in sheer audacity. For example they spent $1.25 million dollars on squrrel bridges over a highway because on average 5 of these squrrels are killed per year. At least the construction in Russia will prove beneficial to its inhabitants.

      • markchapman says:

        I’m sure you’re right, Mike, although I don’t know that the point was to highlight Russia’s ludicrous decadence, either. The Olympics cost crazy money, ‘way out of proportion to any benefit the host country might experience – except prestige. Russia seems determined to do well regardless the cost, but all they get is ridicule and sneering suggestions that the Olympics should be held someplace else where there aren’t so many Russians.

        I wouldn’t necessarily agree either that the United States doesn’t face such abject corruption. Perhaps if you’d said, “bare-faced, unapologetic corruption”, I’d be onboard, because it seems to be in some measure a part of the social fabric in Russia. However, the freewheeling, venal, bold-as-brass corruption and profiteering following the invasion of Iraq has, I venture, never seen equal. Entire companies were stood up that did nothing at all except siphon off taxpayer money by the trainload. Respected, publicly-traded companies like Halliburton charged the U.S. taxpayer for three meals a day for soldiers who were dead, or who had never even been there in the first place, and nearly doubled the figure it was actually paying for gasoline. New trucks that got a flat were simply abandoned, because it was deemed too dangerous to try and recover them. A security company at the Baghdad Airport stole the forklifts that were already in place, painted them in the company colours, and billed the U.S. taxpayer for new forklifts. That’s corruption on an absurd scale, by whatever name you choose to call it.

        The aim is not to put America in an unnecessarily bad light, but to show how the western press constantly holds up Russia as a bad example, and twitters on endlessly about its shortcomings as though such a rotten, savage, despotic regime had never been seen before. Bad things happen everywhere. But nobody talks about them the way they do when they happen in Russia.

        I doubt many of the Sochi inhabitants will benefit much from the new road, because most of them can’t afford the facilities they will service. Still, it was a nice thought. Tourists will likely be the biggest beneficiaries.

      • Julia Ioffe says:

        Cost of Vancouver 2010: $6 billion
        Cost of Sochi 2014 in 2010: $33 billion
        Did inflation suddenly get really bad?

      • markchapman says:

        Russia cash reserves on hand: $400 Billion
        Canada cash reserves on hand: $56.027 Billion

        Who can best afford to spend like a drunken sailor, to use a metaphor of which I’ve never been particularly fond? We came out of the recession better than most, but we’re currently cutting all over the place to save money, and our reserves contracted by $816 Million in the last few months.

        I understand what you’re saying, and I’m not attempting to downplay corruption in Russia – simply to show that it is depressingly ordinary and widespread. Very few can be trusted with other people’s money, and some just seem to blow it as a matter of pride. Kim Jong Il, for example, who in 1998 (when the United Nations was appealing for $600 Million in food aid to avert yet another famine) spent $20 Million on 200 new S-500 Mercedes limousines. How many people dedicate blogs to running down North Korea, or suggesting his people must be stupid to put up with him? I’ve never seen one, and as best I can tell, NorthKoreaPhobia is non-existent. Yet the guy is a gazillion times worse than Putin in everything except height.

        I meant to point out earlier that your headline is misspelled. It’s obviously a typo, as you’ve spelled the word correctly directly below.

      • carcando says:

        Oh come on Julia! I know your angle is to rip on Russia as much as possible, and God knows they often deserve it, especially in the corruption arena. (just today, I tried to help a friend file a police report in Peter so they could file an insurance claim for their I-Pod stolen on a bus, and the police demanded 1000 rubles for the report – yeah that’s good for tourism)

        But seriously, you can’t possibly compare the total costs of the Olympics between Vancouver and Sochi without comparing the starting points and what was already in place, and what needed to be built. Try to have some context in your criticisms please.

      • Julia,
        No-one is denying there’s a lot of corruption in the Russian construction sector, but your inflation quip is a strawman and I think you know it. Whistler was already a world-class resort and Vancouver was already a world-class city, so Canada didn’t have to do much about the Olympics except organize it. Neither can be said of Krasnaya Polyana or Sochi.

      • zed244 says:

        I wish the Russians finally stopped pointing to US or the “west” when it comes to corruption but compared other achievements instead. Yes, they “caught up and overcame America” in this one. Corruption is an absolute problem & does not need comparisons with other countries.

      • markchapman says:

        Ummm….where, exactly, are the Russians pointing to the west when it comes to corruption? That was largely my point – you won’t find any mention of the extravagant largesse associated with the Big Dig project in the Russian press (or blogs), or any cutesy comparison studies of how they could have paved it instead with the skulls of endangered animals or rare peppercorns from Borneo, or any of that diverting twaddle.

        In my experience, which is certainly not all-encompassing, Russia points at western corruption when prodded by western accusations of Russian corruption, and generally not otherwise. Always willing to have my mind changed.

      • zed244 says:

        Well, Mark, I could’ve said that I had mistaken you for the 13th Russian spy, but I’ll be honest – I used a generalization applicable to the type of argument, but not necessarily to you personally- the comment just got in to your “branch”.

        Your last paragraph, though, indicates that you understand perfectly well the intended meaning of what I had said, so, perhaps, everyone reading the comments will be better off if we will not burden it with the excessive & unnecessary linguistic equilibristics.

  6. I made a post on this: The Red Slope to Caviar Road. Thanks to the commentators here for many of the links!

  7. yalensis says:

    I believe Russians should engage in “tit-for-tat” blogging. Every time an American Russophobe like Julia exposes something corrupt or ridiculous going on in Russia, then a Russian blogger should post an equivalent expose about America. So attaboy to those ripping on the big dig and the Iraq boondoggle. Bring it on, Julia!

    • Just to clarify – it wasn’t my intention to target Julia, who I do not think is a Russophobe, but the coverage of the subject in general. Her post exposed me to what Esquire & Other Russia had written, and which sensationalist media were reprinting without examination. Calling a road-rail-bridge-&-tunnel complex, a highway, is a pretty major twisting of facts that needs to be corrected.

      • kovane says:

        http://larussophobe.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/editorial-lr-rates-the-russia-blogs/

        Quote “Only one blogger in our top ten — indeed, as far as we know, only one blogger on this planet — has the guts to openly blog against the Putin regime from a position on the ground in Russia. In the tradition of Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estimirova and Galina Starovoitova, it fills us with pride to know that blogger is a woman, Julia Ioffe, a woman born in Russia, raised in the USA, and now returned to her homeland as a journalist documenting the rise of the neo-Soviet state. Blogging as “Moscow Diaries” on the TrueSlant website, Ioffe boldly goes where no man (or woman) has gone before. Right onto Vladimir Putin’s doorstep. Of all the Russia blogs in our top 10, Ioffe’s has the most promise, is the most likely to move up should we repeat this exercise one year from now. That is, if she lives that long and can stand being in Russia for such a prolonged period. We congratulate Julia on her recent column in the Washington Post, which we republish in today’s issue.”
        -larussophobe-

        Some people clearly disagree with you, Anatoly. As Russian saying goes: “a fisherman sees another fitherman from afar”.

      • Julia Ioffe says:

        All right, Kovane. You got me. I hate Russia. I just hate it. That’s why I uprooted my cushy life in New York to live here, in Moscow. Because I hate it so much. And to think that I had everyone fooled but you. Foiled again!

      • kovane says:

        Julia,

        why do you think someone like larussophobe spends an enormous amount of time blogging about Russia and arguing all over the Internet? It doesn’t work as simple as that, I guess.

  8. yalensis says:

    I’ve been examining my own feelings and trying to figure out why Julia irks me so much. I don’t really think it’s an issue of whether someone “loves” or “hates” Russia. I personally love Russia, for example, I felt a humiliating pain when Russian Olympic team performed badly. But I am smart enough to know that my love for Russia is just an irrational, emotional thing, like love for a parent, and I fully accept that many other people in the world will feel completely differently and have negative attitude about Russia. And that’s okay, really, it’s their right.
    So, what bothers me about Julia? I think it’s her dishonesty. She passes herself off as a quirky journalist working the trenches, “just the facts, ma’am,” but she won’t come out and state clearly what her political views are, what is her political agenda? Does she see herself as a neo-Cold Warrior? As a missionary of western values? Before we even continue any discussion of corruption in Russia (which is a highly legitimate topic), I think we need full disclosure from her. That way we can put her research into the appropriate context.

  9. zed244 says:

    @Julia >I uprooted my cushy life in New York to live here, in Moscow.

    It should’ve become obvious by now that the Russians won’t buy this – even if it were true, already because it means that for the author, her “cushy” life in New Yourk is by definition cushier than it can possibly be in Moscow. Besides, on a more general note, if one has the intention to *help*, she is expected to do just that – help others and do not try to lead them.

    “I wanted more excitement in my life and..”, “I thought I found a perfect combination of my career perspectives with my background and ..” , or even “This “Russian” part of me had bothered me for years and with the Fulbright stipend I saw a perfect opportunity to comfortably sort it out once and for all..”

    As for La Russophobe’s praise…Does anyone always sure of her motives and is it wise to believe everything she writes – especially in her opinion pieces?

    • zed244 says:

      apologies – hit the “return” to soon – the quoted text in the middle of my previous comment was what would be an acceptable “motivators” & not a quote from Julia

  10. yalensis says:

    Okay, so Julia’s on a Fulbright scholarship?I’m impressed. That’s no small potatoes, those grants are issued by the U.S. State Department, and are hard to get: The competition is fierce, the applicant has to prepare a major grant application and propose an important project in the host country. (I doubt, however, if hanging around on a Moscow bridge, cheering on as anarchists paint penises, qualifies as a legitimate Fulbright project). I also note that the “Russia” section of the Fulbright grant recommends that the grantee go to reside in some region of Russia other than Moscow or Petersburg. (So they get the “real” flavor of Russia.)

    I hasten to add, there is nothing sinister about this, this is a legitimate and open grant issued by the U.S. State Department. The purpose is to build a core of U.S. citizens who are fluent in foreign cultures. The hope is that the best of these students will eventually join the diplomatic corps.

    For more information on how to apply for a Fulbright grant, see the link:

    http://fulbright.state.gov/fulbright/become/howdoiapply

    A couple of quotes from the website:

    THE FULBRIGHT STATEMENT OF GRANT PURPOSE (PROJECT)
    ________________________________________
    The foundation of a U.S. Student Fulbright Grant is the Project and the related components described below.
    Consult the Country Summaries for country specific information.
    What is the Fulbright Project?
    • The PROJECT is the principal activity of a Fulbright grant.
    • You will describe your proposed PROJECT or grant activities in your Statement of Grant Purpose.
    • Developing a strong, feasible and compelling PROJECT is the most important aspect of a successful Fulbright application.

    Your first step should be to familiarize yourself with the program summary for the country to which you wish to apply. The program design varies somewhat from country to country; some countries encourage applicants to incorporate coursework into a project, while others prefer independent research. Please ensure that your project design fits the program guidelines for your host country. Click here to view the Country Summaries.
    It is important that you have adequate formal training for the study that you wish to pursue and that your language skills be commensurate with the requirements of the project.
    Graduating seniors (those who will receive a bachelor’s degree by the beginning date of the grant) and recent graduates applying for Study/Research grants:
    • Will generally be expected to attend regular university lectures
    • Should be prepared to supplement lectures with an independent study or research project
    • Should describe the study/research programs they wish to follow in terms as specific as possible
    • Should develop plans that can be completed in one academic year in one country
    • Should not expect close academic supervision

    • grafomanka says:

      Guys, what do you want from Julia? Everything you’re looking for is in „about me” section of this blog. Haven’t you read it? „For reasons of sentimentality and an abiding fascination with the absurd” Isn’t it clear enough?

      • zed244 says:

        a good question ..I cannot say for “we”, but I probably, want Julia *not* to become the sort of “expert” in Russia Dr. C. Rice was, or most US-educated “experts” in Russia always have been. The ones, who don’t understand or even feel, but simply “know” & conform.

        Otherwise, I sincerely wish Julia success – and to have time to think, analyse & then write great blog entries or articles (which she definitely is able to do when she wants) – doing it without expecting the Russians to be thankful for the attention:))

  11. yalensis says:

    Sorry, grafomanka, I was too lazy to read the sidebars… Okay, I just read her “About me”. Our Julia promises to blog in a “death_defying” manner, from a country that is almost as dangerous as Somalia?? Methinks the lady doth protest too much… and hath an inflated view of her own importance… Or maybe a martyr complex?
    Besides, isn’t her Fulbright grant almost over now? My understanding is that it’s a one-year gig. So I guess soon she’ll be returning to her “cushy” life in New York, where she can write anti-Russian propaganda for the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal.

    • grafomanka says:

      yalensis you are being too harsh.
      Julia sees Russia as ridiculous and absurd. She picks up more interesting tidbits of ridiculousness and absurdity of life in Russia and exposes them here. There are certainly many absurd things in Russia and Russia is a very authoritarian country (and Julia is allowed to see things that way). But this blog is meant for foreigners and it seems not fair that all they get is (sometimes spiced-up) examples of absurdities. You could say Julia’s at fault here but it’s her own choice as a journalist.
      The blog makes an entertaining read though… meh.

      • kovane says:

        grafomanka,

        if you don’t see the author’s extreme bias – well I guess I can only recommend to start wearing glasses. You can’t cover it up with some word juggling like “Julia is interested in absurdity of life in Russia”. As well as she can’t get away with her racist remarks by saying “Oh, that’s OK. I meant not ethnic Russians but the citizens of Russia”. Point to a SINGLE post, where Russia depicted in an even remotely positive way. I mean there must be some sweet eccentricities in Russia, right?

        But on the other hand, Julia is a smart girl. We live in the bizarre world where the US President’s adviser Michael McFaul makes statements which can be refuted by 1 minute or so of googling, or the famous nutcase Garry Kasparov has an op-ed in the WSJ.

        http://fkriuk.blogspot.com/2007/12/brave-kremlinologist-too-bad-for-him.html

        So, she’s moving in the right direction. Russia – United States relations are in safe hands. I already see her, shouting something like “How you can say that, I was there, I saw everything”. She already began practicing it, by the way.

        So, I don’t want anything from her. If she can refrain from blatant lying and any racist remarks – that would be simply grand. If not, I can sleep at night knowing that. But I reserve the right to point them out in any case.

    • zed244 says:

      re: anti-Russian propaganda.

      “The learner always begins by finding fault, but the scholar sees the positive merit in everything.” Hegel

      While the Russians must be glad to see so many Americans trying to learn about Russia, they are understandbly dissapointed to see that almost none of the students graduates to become a scholar…

  12. yalensis says:

    To zed244: It’s fabulous when foreigners want to learn about Russian culture. They should be greeted with hospitality and helped in every way.
    I am friends with a wonderful African-American lady who, already in her 50’s, decided out of the blue that she wanted to learn Russian. She has been studying very hard, spending her own money to take Russian lessons, reading books about Russian art galleries, etc. She has no ulterior motive other than an inexplicable (for her ethnic background) love for Russian culture.
    Then there are people who want to “learn more about” Russia in the same way that a wolf wants to “learn more about” a sheep that it hopes eventually to consume…
    It’s an ancient distinction, as old as Alexandr Nevsky (“guest” arriving in peace vs. “enemy” arriving with upraised sword..)
    In the modern world, enemy soldiers aren’t always blatant (or honest) enough to arrive with an upraised sword. Sometimes they arrive with an upraised pen (or laptop computer). Their function is to ideologically discredit the host country so that when the real bombs start falling, American citizens have been so blasted with propaganda and so brainwashed that they will enthusiastically support whatever new war is presented to them. The brainwashing consists of legitimate, true facts along with exagerrations. (For example, Iraq, the demonization of Saddam, who truly was a bad guy in many ways; same deal with Milosevich and Serbia.)
    The opponent country is demonized to the point that the ordinary American feels like, “Well, that country sucks so much, their government is dictatorial and corrupt, the common people live in misery, so we’re actually doing them a favor by dropping the bombs on them…”

    • “I am friends with a wonderful African-American lady who, already in her 50’s, decided out of the blue that she wanted to learn Russian.”

      Does she, by any insane coincidence, live in the Bay Area?

      • yalensis says:

        No, Anatoly! My friend lives in New England.
        Sounds like you know somebody like that too from the Bay Area. What a wonderful coincidence!

      • I wouldn’t have been surprised, though, if we were talking about the same person. :) There are stranger coincidences than that!

  13. zed244 says:

    to yalensis: interesting argument. But I would not describe Julia as a “soldier” of American Imperialsim (although who realy knows? :) More likely she is a normal young woman with ambitions and a great deal of common sense. She won’t make a living and especially career in US politics writing how good Russia is.

    This was not to say that Russophobic remarks (which I saw none) or substitution of personal motives with claims of sacrifice for the common good is something I like to read, especially from an obviously intelligent author.

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