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Analysis & Opinion
01.10.08 The Bubble Called Russia
Comment by Georgy Bovt

Although I know that this is a rather trite journalist trick, I still use it sometimes. It’s called “talking to the taxi driver.” This technique has proven to be rather useful in finding your way around a strange city or a country you’re visiting for the first time, or when “express-testing” certain actions of the authorities: for example, to find out how the official point of view correlates with the ordinary people’s mentality.

This Moscow taxi driver (an illegal taxi, of course – the type called “gypsy cabs”) obviously came from a location in the south of Russia, although, as it turned out, he’s been working here in the capital for quite a while. We started talking about the road police. I asked him if they pull him over often, how much they ask for in fines and bribes, etc. And I kind of casually mentioned that I’ve been to many countries around the world, and that nowhere in Europe or in the United States do highway patrol officers accept bribes. I also told him a few stories about my encounters with the police in other countries (there have been very few such occasions in my life, and I only had to pay a fine once – for a parking violation on the beach in a small town in Maine). His jaw dropped as he listened, he missed a turn and almost rear-ended the car in front. He did not know! He never knew anything about the fact that highway patrol can’t accept bribes, but can help you with directions instead. Or, for example, that there are few places in the world (I’ve seen it only in Arabic countries) where police roadblock stations are set up to guard all the roads that lead into the city, the way it is done in Moscow.

Of course, a taxi driver from somewhere in the Caucasus is far from the most informed citizen of Russia. However, I have often noted the same uncouth lack of knowledge about the lives and interests of people in other countries in representatives of much better off and much more educated groups of the population. I think that people in Russia in general know very little about this. Television prefers to report only on crises and catastrophes (setting off the fact how everything is so nicely organized and realized in our country). As for the bureaucrats – whenever they refer to some “foreign experience” as an argument to support their innovative idea, they are not completely honest. For the most part, they deliberately hold back some of the facts about how this really works abroad, or they simply lie and distort the facts.

Russia’s citizens themselves do not know much about foreign life from their own experience, because the majority of them do not travel anywhere. In this sense, Russia must be one of the most “un-traveling” post-Soviet states in Europe.

According to a recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation, the number of those who think they can afford a vacation abroad has increased from 13 percent to 15 percent in the last three years. Eighty percent of Russians cannot afford to travel abroad. This doesn’t mean that 15 percent vacation or go on business trips to other countries. In the same three years, the number of those who have traveled outside the CIS at least once was not higher than five percent. No more than six percent have traveled through the CIS. Only 17 percent of Muscovites have ever traveled outside of the CIS. Moreover, according to official data, no more than 12 million foreign passports have been issued to Russian citizens up to date (with an overall population of slightly more than 140 million).

This means that today, in a world that is becoming more and more globalized, Russia en masse is a very isolated, closed country. It is a country where the majority of people live without ever leaving the small world they are accustomed to, which is often very limited. They do not see, they are not acquainted with a different way of life, with other – more comfortable – ways of organizing everyday life. Or other – more open and democratic – ways and forms for the population to communicate with the authorities. As a matter of fact, the numbers of intra-Russian migration – including employment-related migration – are also rather small: according to the estimates of sociologists, employment-related migration inside Russia is not more than six to seven percent. These are absolutely trifle numbers compared to other developed countries (for example, in the United States every able-bodied employable individual moves from one place to another, changing employers once every seven years).

“The reluctance to move” is one of the unmistakable signs of stagnation and conservatism, along with the unwillingness and unpreparedness to make changes. In political and in social spheres, this “seclusion” creates premises both for plain xenophobia (that is, hostile, aggressive unwillingness to accept different people, different cultures, customs and habits) and for cultivation of “fortress under siege” psychology among such an “immobile” population – when the whole world outside is seen as alien, hostile and unintelligible. It is seen as a world Russia will never get along with, and will supposedly never be able to integrate into.

Whenever I get a chance, I always tell any European politicians and public figures I meet: if there ever comes a time when some young couple of lovers from Penza, Saratov or Vyshny Volochok can easily make the decision, organize everything in one or two days over the Internet and take a discount flight to Prague, Paris, Berlin or somewhere else for a weekend without needing to get a visa – then in five to ten years you simply won’t recognize Russia. It will be a completely different country. And it will be a country that you will find much easier to deal and get along with.
Usually they simply reply with polite smiles.
The source
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