A recent chat with Russia Experience’s Odette Fussey set me thinking about the devaluation of the ruble; the inevitable knock-on effect of recent international sanctions following Putin’s incursion into Crimea and his role in the current Ukraine crisis. Currently the British pound is worth 100 times its Russian counterpart – making the stereotype of the ‘Rich Westerner’ truer than ever.
Of course, this says little about relative worth when we are talking about two countries where the cost of living is poles apart. It’s difficult to appreciate just how little the average Russian wage-earner brings home on a monthly basis – and how far it actually goes in supporting the worker and the family behind him (usually him). It’s around the equivalent of 400 GBP – a figure riding deceptively high (believe it or not) due to the recent burst of sanction-induced inflation.
Reports before (and now, during) ‘Ukraine’ confirm that things are still tight, with statements like “barely enough to live on” figuring prominently when Russian incomes are discussed. By contrast, the average UK wage is currently riding the 2200 GBP mark (which frankly, would be rather nice).
This of course highlights two important issues: the skewing of figures by a relatively small number of well-off earners, and marked regional differences. An ‘average’ Russian’s entire monthly wage wouldn’t even get him an empty room in London by comparison, except by the most fortuitous of circumstances. Factor in the positive off-setting by a small number of Oligarchs (and friends) and the fact that the vastness of Russia encompasses elements of both the first and third worlds. Suddenly it’s clear that a great many people aren’t even scraping ‘barely enough’ on a monthly or even daily basis.
Here in our relative comfort – yes, even unemployed – most of us cannot understand the extremes of such an existence, even if we ‘know’ them intellectually. For instance:
I’ve argued, even pleaded with contacts in former Russian states to go and buy ‘expensive’ antibiotics when they are ill, with no NHS to support them, rather than just weathering out the disease until it runs its course. Consider a situation where medication is a relative luxury – of course, USA residents who can’t afford health insurance may know exactly what I mean!
An interviewee of mine witnessed an elderly Moscow woman dragging half a dead dog down the street, much to his surprise. Upon relating this to his Russian hosts, they revealed nonchalantly that the former canine would end up in her cooking pot.
Whether the increasing financial gulf negatively impacts native/foreigner relations on the ground is unclear. I certainly have not heard of many hostilities aimed at Western travellers, but in recent times the numbers of said travellers are down anyway – reducing the chances further. Do I have to say that flaunting your comparative wealth around the locals is a disrespectful, ignorant, and in the wrong circumstances, an extremely dangerous thing to do? Yes, I’m sure I do. Think of the stupidest thing possible and someone, somewhere is bound to be doing it.
The paradox is that whilst we are staying away, there has also never been a better time to go, financially speaking. The stalls are laid out but the market is empty. This is likely to continue as forecasts for tourist figures are down for 2015, with the American sector particularly reluctant since the international response to Putin is largely driven by American policy. I can understand the fear on the latter side and the animosity on the former, though it seems that the bulk of the ill-feeling is directed at the administrative level for both nations.
There are, of course, good reasons for Russia to positively welcome rich foreigners, particularly in these lean times, and to encourage them to keep coming back – particularly the traders. As Rasputin once said with regard to his ‘questionable’ external behaviour and simultaneous relationship with the Romanovs: “You don’t **** where you eat”.