Betsy Gidwitx Reports







Report of a Visit


September 7-24, 2008



The writer visited Russia in September 2008, spending 12 days in Moscow and five in St. Petersburg.  The visit occurred as financial markets encountered major crises throughout the world.  Notwithstanding its massive oil and gas revenues, economic conditions in Russia were beginning to deteriorate as well.


To a seasoned visitor, contemporary Russia appears to be a study in contrasts.  The streets of its major cities are clogged with vehicles, many of them large and of foreign lineage.[1]  Traffic conditions are horrendous.  New construction, although subsequently tempered due to the economic crisis, appeared to be ubiquitous.  Real estate prices are exorbitant, and a large number of luxury shops cater to a smaMoscow cityll, but highly visible group of indigenous wealthy families.  Moscow is the most expensive city in the world for expatriates, according to a re-spected study.[2]


Traffic gridlock is common in downtown Moscow.  Some sources estimate that four million cars attempt to traverse its streets daily.



Retrieved  October 3, 2008.

Although different observers have different estimates, it is likely that about 40 percent of the population of Moscow and perhaps one-third of the St. Petersburg population could be considered middle-class in mid-2008.  Consumer credit was available for the purchase of automobiles and housing, and use of computers and cell phones is widespread in major urban areas.  Whereas good restaurants, especially for casual meals, were difficult to find as recently as five or six years ago, respectable cafés and bistros are commonplace in downtown Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Well-stocked shopping malls exist in many cities, perhaps in as many as 100 locales across Russia.  Travel abroad is broadly accessible and inexpensive; tourism along a major stretch of Turkish beachfront caters almost exclusively to Russian-speaking vacationers.


Nonetheless, the economic outlook in Russia was not entirely bright.  Its foreign trade overly dependent on international sales of energy and commodities, Russia is vulnerable to the volatility of world markets.   Export earnings were beginning to decline, and capital flight was accelerating.  Liquidity problems were causing major problems in the construction industry and for small businesses. International investors were becoming skittish about the lack of economic and legal reforms.  Pressure for devaluation was beginning to build. 


Inflation probably was about 15 percent at the time of the writer’s visit and has risen since then.  Corruption is “staggering,” according to one well-qualified foreign observer, whose views are supported by articles in the Russian press.[3]  Few areas of the economy are left unsullied.  Graft is commonplace in construction and in small businesses, where officials must be bribed for a multiplicity of permits.  The court system is notoriously corrupt, and higher education is now considered the “fastest growing area of bribery.”[4]  Hospital personnel must be paid under the table for services routinely provided to patients in the West.  Port and customs officials must be rewarded with private commissions to assure delivery of goods.


Russian infrastructure is poorly developed.  Outside major cities, the transport system is exceedingly deficient and distribution of common products (for example, office supplies) often is inadequate, even in Moscow.   The public health infrastructure remains decrepit and is a major factor in the low life expectancy of Russian citizens.


However, inadequacy in public health infrastructure and corruption in the delivery of health services are but two causes of Russian low life expectancy, which stands at 59.19 years for males and 73.1 years for females.  The Russian population, estimated at 140,702,096 in July 2008, continues to decline, with a negative growth rate estimated at –0.47 percent expected in 2008.  (The birth rate is estimated at 11.03 per 1,000, and the death rate at 16.06 per 1,000 in 2008.)[5]   HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, alcoholism, cancer, cardiovascular and circulatory diseases, suicides, smoking, and traffic accidents all are cited by a leading international scholar as leading causes of the “appalling deterioration in the health of the Russian population.”[6]


The decline in population amid an expanding economy has led to significant mobility in the labor force at middle and upper employment levels.  Concurrently, a serious labor shortage at lower compensation levels has created many job opportunities for poorly educated workers from former Soviet republics in Central Asia, especially impoverished Tadzhikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps 850,000 Central Asians work in Moscow alone and smaller numbers are resident in other Russian cities.  Tadzhiks are ubiquitous at construction sites in European Russia, and ethnic Chinese are prominent in service industries, such as the hospitality sector.  The influx of non-Russians into major Russian cities is carefully controlled by Russian authorities, who withhold residence permits and effectively confine Asians to overcrowded, substandard housing in deteriorating sections of the city.  Some have no access to conventional housing at all, but “reside” in improvised shelters at construction sites.  Working conditions for Asians were described by one observer who monitors migration as “voluntary slave labor.”[7]   Unable to find work in their Central Asian homelands, such migrants suffer multiple indignities in large Russian cities in order to support families at home through the transmission of wages to relatives in Tadzhikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other countries.


The influx of numerous non-Russians, many of whom differ in appearance from ethnic Russians, into Russian metropolitan areas has exacerbated Russian nationalism and xenophobia. Several observers noted growing use of the exclusionary and more nationalistic term русский (Russkiy) in both public discourse and private conversations in place of the more embracing term россиский (Rossiskiy) to describe citizens of Russia.  Whereas the former suggests exclusion of individuals of non-Russian ethnic background, the latter includes all citizens of Russia and has been the politically correct term among educated and sensitive Russian-speakers.


Escalating Russian nationalism has generated a proliferation of hate crimes, many perpetrated by organized groups of skinheads, neo-Nazis, and other extremists.  Although few statistics are available, it is commonly agreed that Roma (gypsies) are the most oppressed minority,[8] followed by individuals from Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tadzhikistan, Kyrgyzstan) and the Caucasus Mountain area (Daghestan and adjacent areas in southern Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaidzhan).  Human rights groups assert that 57 members of minority groups were killed and many more injured in unprovoked attacks in Russia during the first four months of 2008.[9]  Skinheads blame migrants for stealing jobs and for “polluting Russian culture.”[10]  Even educated Russians use condescending lan-guage when speaking to Central Asian laborers.


Uvaido Shirinbekov, left, a carpenter from Tajikistan, was fatally stabbed in Moscow while out with Amid Nasratshoyev, second from left, on Valentine's Day.Uvaido Shirinbekov, left, a carpenter from Tadzhikistan, was fatally stabbed in Moscow while out with Amid Nasratshoyev, second from left, in February 2008.


Photo: Salim Simonov in The Washington Post on April 8, 2008.  See Finn article in footnote below.


Russian nationalism has not led to radically increased antisemitism, a singularity attributed by some to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself -- a complex figure with no known record of anti-Jewish bigotry, although he is among the public figures who has used the restrictive term русский (Russkiy) in public discourse in which the more inclusive россиский (Rossiskiy) might have been more appropriate.  Nonetheless, many individuals with whom the writer spoke expressed concern about the Jewish future in Russia, usually noting one or more of three areas of unease.


First, notwithstanding the reality that Central Asians and individuals from the Caucasus mountain area remain the primary targets of Russian nationalist wrath, antisemitism and fear of antisemitism remain powerful catalysts in suppressing active Jewish identification.   Russian history is not encouraging in this sphere, and existing Russian nationalism, some suggest, could escalate into antisemitism.  Russian Jews, said one observer with a broad perspective, will be the “victims” if “things go wrong.”[11]   Even now, many Jews request that Jewish organizations use plain envelopes in their mailings, not printing return addresses of Jewish groups.


Second, many individuals cited the demographic decline of Russian Jewry, observing that the Russian Jewish population continues to lose many of its members through emigration, a low birthrate, high mortality among its disproportionately large number of elderly, an intermarriage rate that may be as high as 90 percent, and assimilation.  Estimates of the number of Jews in Russia range from 500,000 to two million.  A firm number is impossible to determine and depends, in large part, on defining Jewish ethnicity.[12]  Whatever population estimate is used, few challenge the conclusion that the Russian Jewish population is in catastrophic demographic decline.


Third, active identification as a Jew is low, reflecting in part a very small number of Jewish institutions or programs, i.e., a severely limited Jewish communal infrastructure, in which Russian Jews feel comfortable.  Ingrained apprehension dating from the Soviet period deters middle-aged and older people from affiliation, whereas younger Jews find few Jewish activities of interest.  No one with whom the writer spoke in Moscow estimated that more than 25 percent of Russian Jews are associated with Jewish community institutions – and all acknowledged that a large proportion of the 25 percent are elderly people dependent on Jewish welfare organizations for various forms of personal assistance.


Apart from issues related specifically to Jewish lineage, a number of individuals expressed apprehension about the apparent return of Soviet custom to post-Soviet Russia, that is, a return to the intrusiveness of government in one’s personal life and severely tightened state control over the Russian press.  Others cited the corrosive effects of constant corruption.  Many educated upper-income individuals have acquired apartments abroad as “safe houses” should they feel the need to leave Russia quickly.  In the meantime, they send their adolescent children to foreign universities in which degrees are untainted by bribes and students learn the ways of life abroad.



The writer interviewed 51 individuals in Moscow and 26 in St. Petersburg, including seven diplomats attached to official foreign representations.  The diplomats are not quoted by name in this review.  Additionally, the remarks of two prominent indigenous Jewish interviewees are reported without attribution.


[1]  A number of foreign automobile firms have opened production facilities in Russia, among the most recent of which is a new General Motors plant outside St. Petersburg.  The writer’s drivers in Moscow and St. Petersburg drove a Ford and Chrysler respectively,

[2]  The study was done by Mercer Human Resources Consulting and was reported in Interfax of July 24, 2008, and Forbes (; retrieved October 8, 2008).  The Mercer survey covers 143 cities throughout the world and measures the comparative cost of more than 200 items in each location, including housing, food, and transport.  New York is used as the reference point and is assigned a value of 100 points.  Moscow scored 142.4, followed by Tokyo, London, Oslo, and Seoul.  New York, the most expensive city in North America, ranked #22 globally.  (The rating of New York was affected by the declining value of the U.S. dollar at the time of the study.)

[3]  See Время Новостей, #180 (September 30, 2008) for an article entitled “Чиновничьи аппетиты” (“Bureaucrats’ Appetites”).  The article quotes an advisor from the Interior Ministry declaring that one-third of the Russian federal budget was embezzled by corrupt state officials; further, said the official, bribes to state officials cost businesses $33.5 billion annually and general corruption cost Russian citizens $3 billion annually.

            See also “Private Sector Under Attack” in Moscow Times, October 9, 2008.  The article states: “Today, Russia's private sector lives in constant fear of the government. Small and medium-sized businesses are throttled by rules and regulations whose sole purpose is to make it easier for officials to collect bribes. Well-connected bureaucrats set up businesses that unfairly compete with genuine entrepreneurs and confiscate companies from legitimate owners”

[4]  For an English-language article, see “Higher Education Fastest Growing Area of Bribery” in St. Petersburg Times, July 8, 2008.  The article states that $520 million was “paid in bribes” across Russia in 2007 for admission to universities, and that $100 million was paid to professors to enable students to pass exams “more easily.”  See also “A Crisis Brewing in the Classrooms,” Moscow Times, September 5, 2008.  The writer also heard several anecdotal accounts of routine bribery to teachers in elementary and secondary schools for superior grades.

[5]   All statistics are from the CIA World Fact Book, updated October 9, 2008, available at  Retrieved October 10, 2008.  Murray Feshbach (see below) notes that male life expectancy in Russia ranks 166th among countries in the world, one notch above Gambia.  The longevity gap (14 years) between men and women, he observes, is the highest in the developed world.

[6]  Murray Feshbach, Behind the Bluster, Russia is Collapsing,” Washington Post, October 5, 2008.  Dr. Feshbach is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a research professor emeritus at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.  His article states that: three times as many Russians die from heart-related illnesses as do Americans or Europeans, per each 100,000 people; tuberculosis deaths in Russia are about triple the World Health Organization's definition of an epidemic, which is based on a new-case rate of 50 cases per 100,000 people; average alcohol consumption per capita is double the rate the WHO considers dangerous to one's health; about one million people in Russia have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, according to WHO estimates; and using mid-year figures, it is estimated that 25 percent more new HIV/AIDS cases will be recorded this year than were logged in 2007.

[7] Leonard Terlitsky, Director for Countries of the Former USSR, HIAS (Moscow office), September 21, 2008.  See pages 85-87 for additional comments by Mr. Terlitsky. 

[8] Время Новостей, #179 (September 24, 2008).

[9] Комсомольская Правда, April 29, 2008.

[10] See Peter Finn, “Moscow Killings Blamed on Racism,” The Washington Post, April 8, 2008. 

[11]  Antisemitism, although currently tempered in its expression in Moscow and St. Petersburg, remains much more visible in such large regional centers as Samara and Novosibirsk.  Jews have been attacked and buildings have been daubed with antisemitic slogans in a number of Russian secondary cities.

[12] Most individual Jews with whom the writer spoke used self-identification as the major criterion.  Most Jewish organizations referred to the Israeli Law of Return, which offers Israeli citizenship to people with at least one Jewish grandparent.  Obviously, both of these definitions would include individuals who are not Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law), which identifies a Jew according to matrilineal descent, i.e., as someone whose mother is Jewish.



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