Travel Plans

For the next week I will be in Atyrau, Kazakhstan and Baku, Azerbaijan on business.  Partly because of the distances and partly because of poor planning on my part, the journey there is looking to be a nightmare.

I leave Sakhalin at 15:00 on an 9-hour flight to Moscow, where I land at 17:00 local time, midnight Sakhalin time.  The plane I will be travelling on is probably some old Air France thing with tiny seats, but hopefully I can get a friend of a friend at the airport to get me an exit or bulkhead seat.  Naturally I am flying in economy class, all 6 feet 4 inches of me.

I then have to wait seven hours in Domodedovo airport, where hopefully I can check into an airport hotel for a few hours, before I take a 4-hour flight to Atyrau on what I am sure will be an ancient plane with seats made for pixies.  I land in Atyrau at 04:00, whereupon hopefully I will be met and taken to a hotel, where I can rest until my 13:00 flight to Baku, which will be on an aircraft from which spare parts were nicked to to keep the plane I took between Moscow and Atryau in the air.

By the time I get to Baku, it will be 20:00 Sakhalin time, 29 hours after I left.  I will be there for a day and a half, before I fly back to Atyrau.  At least once I’m there, I’ll be staying 3 days before I go anywhere else, whereupon I must catch a 07:10 flight to Moscow and then wait a full 12 hours to get the 9-hour flight back to Sakhalin.

I’m banking on a large bottle of vodka before each flight compensating for the lack of in-flight film and leg room.  But I’ve never been to Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan before, and if nothing else I’m looking forward to seeing these places.  If I can get a hotel with a decent internet connection, I’ll write some stuff while I’m there.  Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until I’m back.  

A Russian’s View of Britain

In the comments section of the post immediately below, frequent commenter L.S. points me towards an article in the UK’s Daily Mail regarding a book written by a young Russian woman about her experiences living in London.  I had a look, and normally I’d not bother writing a post about it, but it’s melt season here in Sakhalin, the place is under a foot of mud, everyone is either bored or depressed, and there’s not a lot to talk about that I didn’t already say last year.

So let’s take a look.

A young Russian woman’s book about the pitfalls of living as an immigrant in Britain has become a surprise best-seller in Moscow … and it paints a distinctly unflattering portrait of the natives.

The biggest surprise for me in this passage is that the book’s popularity in Moscow came as a surprise.  Lots of nationalities enjoy reading one of their own slagging off another place and its people, and Russians are no exception to this.

Instead of finding London the city of her dreams, 23-year-old Olga Freer moans about the shopping hours, the public transport and the bad manners she encounters.

I don’t know what her complaint is about the shopping hours, but I’d agree with her on the public transport and bad manners.  But how naive can you be to arrive in London expecting it to be the city of your dreams?  A cursory 2-hours reading a UK newspaper would tell you as much as you’d need to know.

In a litany of complaints about her adopted country, in her book The UK For Beginners she claims that Britons:

• Habitually scratch their bottoms in public places;

• Never remove the price stickers from the soles of their shoes;

• Fail to iron their clothes; and

• Are obsessed with TV programmes about buying and selling houses.

If these are examples of the complaints she has with the people of London, I’d say she’s got off lightly.  Every country has its quirks and unsavoury habits.  Would an impartial observer think that the public behaviour of Russians, their approach to clothes and fashion, and their TV preferences are any better than those of Britons?  I doubt it.

She says the country is full of “prudish, arrogant people who eat healthy food for breakfast – porridge or bacon and eggs. But in reality the nation suffers from obesity”.

Well, London is full of prudish, arrogant people.  And the nation does have a lot of fat people in it, which is a sign of wealth more than anything else (I didn’t see too many fat people in Cambodia).  But I have to laugh that a Russian considers bacon and eggs a healthy breakfast.  No doubt she considers a healthy salad to consist of a jar of mayonnaise with a pea dropped in it.

Some 60 per cent of the female population wear size 22 clothes, she says.

“But being overweight doesn’t stop red-faced English women wearing minis and shaking their haunches at discos – some spectacle! It’s a nation with girls, debauched girls to the last degree. The only sacred thing for them is Christmas, for which they wait 364 days a year.”

It is true, that Russian women are usually of a smaller dress size than their English counterparts, but if we’re going to have a competition to see which women dress and act as the more convincing slappers when they go to a club, then there’ll be no clear winner. 

But there is a crucial difference.  Overweight English women go out and act in an unrestrained manner because they can, as appearance and attracting a man is not especially important to the current generation of twentysomething English women.  As I once commented to a young Russian woman, why does an English woman need to dress up every day to impress men when she earns £40k per year, owns her own apartment, and drives an Audi TT?  She doesn’t.  British society has advanced equality to the point that many women can get by just fine on their own.  By contrast, much of Russian society remains in the 1950s timewarp of male-dominated chauvinism, whereby women feel – usually egged on by ill-informed female friends and relatives – that their sole purpose in life is to find a man, get married, and raise a family, all before they are 20 years old.  Correspondingly, most Russian men value appearances much more highly than education or intellect, the women realise this, and dress up accordingly.  Russian women physically present themselves better because that is their only method to achieving their lifetime goal.  British women are busy achieving their lifetime goal, which is irrelevant to their looks.  This is a simplistic explanation I know, and exceptions abound, but you get my point.

Olga, who faked her CV to find work as a pizza-leaflet distributor, nightclub hostess and shop assistant in Oxford Street, is particularly damning about the “lazy” British working class.

“Every second immigrant achieves much more here than the ordinary Brits,” she writes.

This is true; but it applies equally to Russia. 

“The ordinary Brit, having a choice between education and a job on one hand, and unemployment on the other, would always prefer to live on the dole.”

And this too sounds awfully like Russia.

“Then all they have to do is send £10 notes through the mail as birthday presents for their various children who they don’t see. The greed of these islanders was a real shock to me.”

I wonder how many absent fathers in Russia send money to their children on their birthdays or at any other time?  And isn’t there something ironic about somebody complaining about the greed of others whilst dismissing a £10 gift as being unsatisfactory?

Olga came to Britain in 2002 when she was 18, and married a year later. She now has a son and secured British citizenship.

I’m sure this is doing wonders to improve the image of Russian women who arrive in the West.  What’s the betting her husband is considerably older and rather wealthy?

She writes: “By settling in England I made my dream come true. The only plan I had since I was about 13 was to come here as an immigrant. I had no idea how it would work, but I knew that one day I’d become a UK citizen.”

But by finding a husband within a year and getting up the duff she soon found a way!

“I was so taken up with this idea that it never occurred to me that living in a foreign land, without friends, without mum’s cooking and Latin American soap operas on Russian TV in the evenings, may not make me happy but rather vice versa.”

Latin American soap operas?  And she criticises the viewing habits of Britons!!

“I’m not surprised any more how awful the free health service is.”

Poor though the NHS is, I doubt she was surprised by how awful it was if she’d spent any time at all in the Russian free health service.

“Like everybody else, I curse unreasonably high taxes. I’ve got accustomed to Indian cuisine, which seems to have replaced the traditional fish and chips that I used to dream about.”

She came to work as a nightclub hostess aged 18 and dreamt about fish and chips?  Remember, some people take it as given that Russian women are classier than Brits.

She told The Mail on Sunday last night: “Russian people are more heartful and soulful. I was bought up in the centre of Moscow, but here things are much worse.

“Here, for example, you switch on the water in the kitchen and the water in the bathroom goes off; here the central heating sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. At home it is always warm because the Government takes care of it for you.”

L.S. had a good cackle at this in the comments.  Where to begin?  The problem she describes with the water in British houses is well known, and it is the result of a trade-off between physics and economics.  Why pay for a higher-pressure water system just for the odd occasions when it would be handy to use water in the kitchen and the bathroom?  It can be a pain, but it isn’t half as much of a pain as the water system in Russia, whereby the authorities inexplicably turn off the water to your apartment whenever they like.  Currently, I cannot get cold water between 12 midnight and 6am.  My friend is not so lucky, she can’t get water between 8am and 6pm.  I grew up in rural Wales, and never once suffered an unscheduled disruption to our mains water supply.  People in even semi-rural Russia have standpipes at the end of their roads and lug buckets around.  And they shut off your hot water supply all summer, deeming it unecessary.  As for the home always being warm, it is true provided the government has been kind enough to turn on the heating for you.  If they mis-time it and you get a cold snap, you’re left sitting at home freezing your arse off.

“In Britain if it is your birthday, people send you a £10 or £20 note inside a card – like they can’t be bothered with you.”

Still moaning about the paltry value of gifts in Britain?  Why do I get the impression she spends a lot of time in her husband’s wallet?

“In Russia 99 per cent of people have been to university.”

WTF?!!  This is utter nonsense.  Not anywhere near this percentage has been educated past high-school, never mind gone to university, even in Moscow.  She’s living in cloud-cuckoo land.  Bear in mind that this is the woman who left Russia when 18 to work as a nightclub hostess and deliver pizza leaflets, and you have to wonder what contribution she has made to the educational prowess of Russians.

Here you get on a bus and the way people talk, you can tell they aren’t interested in anything other than football.

I must have missed the intellectual conversations which take place on the mashrutkas across Russia.

“I used to go to the theatre in Russia with my family a lot. But here I went once with my then in-laws and in the interval people were bringing in beer – were they there for the performance or a pint or what?”

My then in-laws? Don’t tell me she’s divorced already?!!

She added: “Britain has a lot of exhibitions from abroad here, but English people don’t seem to appreciate it. I go to museums or exhibitions twice a month and apart from a few Britons, most of the others are Chinese tourists.”

This is probably true.  Russians do tend to appreciate museums more than Brits, especially the young ones.

Olga did concede one thing: “You can cook – I quite like Sunday roast dinners.”

But she added quickly: “When you come home here, you open the fridge and what do you see? It’s all supermarket food or half-cooked stuff. Do Brits ever cook from scratch?”

From one of her earlier sentences, it seems it’s her mum that does all the cooking back in Moscow.  But she’s right, few young Brits cook from scratch compared to young Russians, and I’ve already touched on the reasons why.  Young British women do not see their only role in life as looking after a husband, hence they often have demanding jobs which leave them little time for cooking meals from scratch.  By contrast, a Russian man expects their woman to be slapping a hot meal in front of him on his return from work, and if a woman can’t manage this, she’s probably not going to be seeing much of her husband.

“It is not because your society is incredibly advanced, it is because it is lazy.”

Actually, it is because our methods of food production and distribution is incredibly advanced.  The reason the use of ready-made meals is not widespread across Russia is because few supermarkets are able to sell them, as Russian supermarkets outside a handful of big cities are bloody awful.  I’ve been to the new supermarkets in Moscow, and they are quickly catching up on the sale of ready-made meals.  It’s my betting that once Russian women have the option of cooking from scratch or buying stuff ready made, within a generation they’re going to be doing a lot more of the latter – particularly if their husband is still sat in front of the TV, beer in hand, demanding his dinner.  

Ironically, though, Olga is no fan of the British Government’s immigration policy. She says: “I am against it. You should close your borders.”  

That a Russian is anti-immigration is about as surprising as daybreak.

As I said at the beginning of this post, it is little wonder that her book is popular in Moscow, as thousands of Russian women will be reading with glee about how fat the British women are and how awful their cooking is.  But I’d also hope that plenty of Brits get around to reading it, because the book – coupled with its popularity in Moscow – will almost certainly reveal as much about Russia as it does about Britain.

International Womens’ Day

It’s a day late, but congratulations to all my female readers on International Womens’ Day, which means next to nothing to a Brit.

It means plenty to a Russian though.  On Friday and yesterday, every flower shop or kiosk, large or small, was packed with Russian men of every shape, size and form buying flowers of some sort.  Most of them looked more than a little panicked, all of them shook their heads in resignation, either at the queues forming outside the shops or at the price they had to fork out for the flowers.  This husband of a Russian girl was no exception.  A single rose cost $8, and there was no discount for volume, so you ended up paying an odd multiple of $8 for your bouqet (the number of flowers given must always be odd, unless the recipient is dead.  Or you wish them to be.)  Anyway, whoever decided that the day on which flowers will be given en masse across Russia should fall in early March was either a complete idiot or a flower merchant.  Flowers are pretty hard to grow over a Russian winter, so they were all flown in from abroad.  We have had a load of Mitsubishi parts on order from Moscow which were supposed to be delivered this weekend, but the freight handler told us the plane was full of flowers and there was no room.  If the green movement wants us all to stop making unnecessary flights in order to save the planet, they’re first going to have to convince a nation of Russian women to go without flowers on Womens’ Day.  Good luck with that.

Looking at what I paid, I was pretty stupid.  It is quite easy to get flowers for free in Russia.  For example, on the main road between Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Korsakov there is a particularly nasty bend beside a steep embankment where black ice normally forms.  There is a tree nearby which always has a nice bunch of fresh flowers propped against it, with nobody guarding them or anything.  They’re there for the taking.  Next year I’m gonna nab ’em.

I’m romantic, me.

Exxon Strikes Back

Amongst the recent activities of “energy nationalism” by certain governments around the world, by which ownership of large or high-profile oil and gas projects is transferred from private companies to the state by fair means or foul, there has been a consistent murmur of often sneering voices who largely approve of what is going on.  These sounds usually originate from embittered natives or (largely clueless) sections of the western political left, who see development of a country’s reserves by a foreign company as tantamount to theft, and only a national company holding the monopoly of power can deliver what is fair and just to the citizens of any given country.

Russia is one such place where the government, with much support from the populace, has made giant strides to wrest control of its flagship oil and gas projects, notably the Shell-managed Sakhalin II development, away from foreigners and back to its own bosom.  The method employed is usually to use the power of the state to cite dubious environmental or financial concerns which prevent the further progress of the project unless control is ceded to the state, at which point all concerns miraculously disappear.  There is a general feeling amongst Russians and foreigners alike that, since the Russian government holds the monopoly of force in the country, there is little that can be done to stop the state helping itself to the ownership of foreign projects if they really want to.  The foreigners (the aforementioned lefties excepted) are mostly resigned to being able to do nothing about it.  Most Russians are typically apathetic towards the whole issue and most others outside personal economics and wellbeing, but there is a sizeable minority – particularly amongst the more educated, who tend to have opinions on these things – which sneers triumphantly at the plight of the foreign companies, who are now powerless to stop the Russian government renege on the deals signed by their predecessors, contracts they view as bordering on treasonous.

They’d do well to stop and think more carefully.  On the face of it, it does look as though Shell had no choice but to cede ownership of their project to Gazprom, as they had no recourse to arbitration which was independent of the Russian government.  But the exporting of oil and gas, upon which most of Russia’s economy depends, is an international business and therefore much of it lies beyond Russia’s control.  As such, international oil and gas companies are not as completely helpless in the face of politically contrived domestic disputes as most would think.  ExxonMobil is currently demonstrating rather effectively how an international oil company can remove the dispute from the domestic arena into the international, where the national government does not hold a monopoly on decision making and cannot order the use of force whenever it likes.

The row started last year when PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company, seized control of several foreign-owned heavy oil projects as part of President Hugo Chavez’s socialist crusade against foreign companies operating in the country.  Four foreign oil companies agreed to a minority share and a compensation package, but ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips refused to budge.  Finding themselves physically booted off the project and knowing they’d get no fair hearing in a Venezuelan court, Exxon moved the dispute into the international arena where Hugo Chavez does not enjoy the monopoly of power he does back at home.  They appealed to courts in the US, UK, the Netherlands, and Netherlands Antilles to freeze $12bn of PDVSA’s international assets in advance of a compensation claim by Exxon against PDVSA.  The freezing of assets is designed to guarantee payment in the event Exxon’s compensation claim is successful. As Upstream Online describes:

ExxonMobil knew where to hit PDVSA hard, and hit it hard it did.

The “fair market value” of the frozen PDVSA assets are likely to be worth far more than any compensation ExxonMobil could win from eventual arbitration proceedings.

ExxonMobil’s move sparked a sell-off in the Opec nation’s debt bonds this week and prompted government officials to tell Venezuelans to remain calm.

The court rulings in several countries mean state oil company PDVSA – Chavez’s main income source – cannot sell certain assets or move some funds while the compensation case is reviewed.

Investors worry the court orders could limit its activities, make it more difficult for PDVSA to raise capital and affect its cash flow.

Wall Street economists and industry analysts have mainly focused on the effect the court orders have on Venezuela’s fixed assets such as refineries.

It was also known the court rulings froze $300 million in a US account.

But on Saturday, the extent of ExxonMobil’s attack appeared wider – targeting more of PDVSA’s cash held abroad.

A central bank director in Curacao said ExxonMobil lawyers had told banks that one of the court rulings meant they had to at least maintain the current level of money PDVSA holds in any account on the Caribbean island.

Exxon did not become the world’s most successful oil company operating in dozens of countries and in places of extreme political and environmental difficulty by being thick.  On the contrary, they have years of experience successfully playing political games within and across international boundaries.  Exxon is unlikely to recover everything it lost to PDVSA, but it is not the sum of compensation which is the issue here.  Exxon is making a stand that international oil companies are not completely powerless to retaliate against arbitrary state action by making life more difficult abroad for the government in question.  In moving the dispute into foreign waters, Exxon has found itself with a clear advantage, having experience and knowledge of the foreign courts which Hugo Chavez lacks completely.  It is clear that the Venezuelan government is way out of its depth:

Oil Minister and PDVSA president Rafael Ramirez described the ExxonMobil court moves as “judicial terrorism” and PDVSA said it would no longer sell oil to the supermajor, which quit the country last year following the equity spat.

You have a multinational, imperialist company trying to damage our flagship company,” Reuters quoted Chavez as saying at a meeting with farmers. “But this ship will keep sailing and sailing full of oil.”

“PDVSA will not sink. Venezuela will not sink. This revolution will not sink,” he said, in his first comments on the legal move by the world’s largest oil company.

This might go down well with an audience of Venezuelan farmers, but it probably isn’t going to convince a British court that Exxon is not due some hefty compensation and to rule to unfreeze the Venezuelan assets.  Going to court in the west is going to require the Venezuelan government to understand how the laws and judiciaries work in the west and how they are independent of the government in charge, a task which requires a calm, sensible approach without room for fiery rhetoric.  I’m not convinced an appointee of Hugo Chavez is capable of this.

It is unlikely that either PDVSA or Exxon will come out as winners of this dispute, nor will it adversely affect either company too much.  But it has assuredly come as an embarrassment for the Venezuelan government, who have found themselves wrongfooted and forced to fight on unfamiliar territory where their usual rules of combat count for nothing against an opponent who is better prepared and quicker on their feet, with the whole battle being done in full public view.  It is not a situation which a government used to making its own rules and controlling the media would be in a hurry to find itself in.

With Russia increasing its foreign investments, many through the state-owned energy companies Gazprom and Rosneft, I wonder if the government in the Kremlin is taking note of Exxon’s dispute with PDVSA and the position in which the Venezuelan government now finds itself.  At the very least, they should be preparing to tread far more carefully over the issue of Exxon exporting gas from its Sakhalin I project than they did when they gained control of Sakhalin II at the expense of Shell.