28 July, 2007

A mosaic of observations of life in Kazan

I have a few "short" observations I wanted to share, but if I develop them all I'll never finish any, so I'll recount them as briefly as possible. You should never take too seriously anything I write about Russia; these are all personal impressions of course, not the carefully thought-out memoirs of a savvy traveler. Even if I were so qualified, they won't let me out of the house, so I can't talk to random people on the street even if I were so inclined, which I never am. Although I have talked to a few people on trains and some taxi drivers, both here and in Italy, and they're usually quite nice.

Russian investments: I'd be tempted to open an account in a local bank if my wife didn't forbid it. A number of banks, such as Энергобанк, "Energobank", advertise interest rates of 12% for a year-long deposit called Перспектива, "Perspektiva". Really! I have here beside me a glossy pamphlet that I interrogated my mother-in-law on (don't laugh; she manages the finances, and has done remarkably well). Check at the link if you don't believe me, although as with all banks it might change after the date. I thought my credit union was a good deal with an interest rate somewhat above 4%, but 12%, WOW!

Of course, that's if you deposit 1,000 rubles, equivalent to $40. If you deposit actual dollars (at least 100), the rate goes down somewhat, to 8.25%. I don't feel insulted; for the Классика package ("Klassika") the corresponding rates are 11% and 6%, but the equivalent in Euros only gets you 4.45%. Rates for Euros aren't given on the Perspektiva. If I had money lying around, I might actually run the numbers and try to convince my wife.

Her objections are essentially related to the habit the Russian government and, by extension, the banks here have of pointing to rules that you don't remember in the original contract. (I wrote about this earlier with the Ипотека program.) Worse, the Russian economy collapsed ten years ago, and many Russians, including her grandfather, saw their life savings evaporate from their bank accounts. Many Russians continue to distrust the system, just as I read that many Depression-era Americans refused their entire lives to open a bank account.

You might wonder how Russian banks can pay such rates. I recently came across a glossy pamphlet for Kazan Bank that advertised rates for loans, primarily mortgages. These rates were along the lines of 17% and 18% for a 20-year mortgage. Really! You can look them up at Kazan Bank, and perhaps at Energobank, too. (Look for a word that resembles Ипотека or Ипотечний.)

I heard that such rates existed maybe—maybe—thirty years ago in the States during the years of stagflation. These days, that's the standard rate for a credit card, essentially a loan with zero tangible collateral and no serious payment schedule.

I have read, and heard, that the rate of inflation in Russia is somewhere around 7% or 8%. That goes a ways toward explaining the rates. But what, precisely, is doing the inflating? I don't know. I also wonder how the currency has managed to hold steady in the range of 25-28 rubles to the dollar, with prices of consumer electronics going at the appropriate rate in rubles that you would expect from their price in the States. Economics is a lovely subject, but it doesn't always follow rules that I would consider common sense, especially if the Russian government tries to peg the ruble to the dollar (and I suspect strongly that they do).

Russian videos: I once read an internet forum discussion where people talked about dubbing vs. subtitling. Many European countries tend to subtitle foreign films; one Norwegian commented memorably that he couldn't imagine that Darth Vader would be intimidating in a Norwegian voice. His opinion was that he would more likely be comical. Americans, if they'll watch European films at all, typically dub European films with English-language dialogue. (I seem to recall that Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful was subtitled, however, and I can't bring to mind any such redubs at the moment. Strange. Maybe I'm wrong, or maybe we've changed.) Other European countries, like the Italians, redub American films.

I certainly never heard of the prevalent Russian practice, which is to keep the English-language soundtrack, lower the volume on it, and superimpose a louder Russian-language soundtrack. I saw it most recently this evening on Home Alone 2, broadcast on a local channel. They made absolutely no attempt at lip-synching, and I could usually catch the first few English words. If you've seen documentaries or watched the news, where the first few words of a foreign speaker are left intact, and then an interpreter's voice is superimposed, that is exactly the same technique. I find it irritating in a movie, even though it doesn't bother me at all in documentaries or news reports.

Cartoons, on the other hand, are redubbed with the original language excised.

Russian advertisements: Three advertisements from tonight's viewing struck me.

  1. A man sits at a table with a bottle of vodka and a plate of food of some sort. He pours a small amount of vodka, picks up knife and fork, and prepares to eat. He stops, puts his silverware back down on the plate, and rises, returning with a giant metal container marked БЕНЗИН in red letters (benzine, or gasoline). He pours that into the glass, too—a lot of it. The commercial ends with the image of the glass, showing the vodka and gasoline separating. I was a bit slow to decipher it, especially since I didn't catch what the announcer said, but my wife explained it to me: Drinking and driving don't mix.
  2. In another public-service message, a cartoon shows several brightly-colored balloons passing by, city buildings in the background. You hear, but do not see, the sound of children. After several balloons pass in a group, a last balloon begins to cross by itself. As it nears the right hand side of the screen, you hear the squealing of tires. The balloon goes down and right, off the screen for a moment, then reappears and floats up in complete silence, no one holding the string. It broke my heart, because I knew exactly what it was about, and this time I understood the words onscreen:
    (Children are on the road: be careful!)
  3. The last one is one of my son's favorites, to my chagrin. Worse, it looks like it was originally American, although I can't say for sure. The actors certainly don't look Russian.

    The advertisement features a group of horror shows, and there appear to be several versions of the ad. My son saw a naked woman in one, but I missed that one. That doesn't bother me much, but one version of the commercial appalled me. I originally described quite a few excerpts, but I'll restrain myself to this: while a man is talking with his face towards the viewer, it jerks back as a chunk of the left side of his head flies off, exposing his brains. The special effects make it look quite real; I saw it at least twice and had a good view both times. That's one of the milder scenes.

    This isn't cable; it's broadcast television. Russia does not appear to have an equivalent of the American FCC, or if it does they're accepting some serious bribes. Say what you will about the FCC, but after that last advertisement, my appreciation for its work (if one can call what they do "work") went way up.

On the other hand, right now Channel 1 is broadcasting a genuinely hilarious circus and we're enjoying it.

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