We returned home Saturday evening, April 2, having left the US on the 4th of March. Over the course of four weeks away, three spent in Belgorod, Russia, we developed some perspectives about the differences between our two countries:
*The general standard of living in Russia for people we can fairly identify as middle class is vastly improved since Soviet times. Goods of all sorts are freely available. There is no sense of scrambling for items of consumption, be they food or anything else. And there must be a sufficient sense of well-being that people seem settled in, not tense about their economic status or the continued available of “stuff.”
*The middle class general standard of living in Russia is not as robust as in the United States. The households are just not as fully “equipped” as here. Although everything is available, there is clearly not enough liquidity to acquire it all. Consumption is selective; obviously food and basic clothing is purchased freely. But then choices must be made. Housing is smaller and less “decorated.” Bathrooms remain rarer than here; one is enough for a household. Cars are small, older and one to a family; children living at home don’t seem to have one even if they also work. Households seem to spend money on updated computer equipment, but not on kitchens, TVs, etc. Camera and basic cell phone equipment seems state of the art, but state of the art pdas, Kindles and the like are virtually nonexistent. Babies have deluxe prams, but there are no “baby transportation systems” where carriages break down for use as baby chairs and car seats. There are plenty of parking spaces on the streets even though there is great housing density (apartments are the rule here); just not a lot of cars around per capita.
*There is a remarkable paucity of print media. Now it may be true that the younger population of a Univerity town lives on the internet, but I never got the feeling that any of the students or graduate faculty, or full faculty for that matter, were news hounds getting updates from their computers. It is eerie to be in a city of 450,000 for three weeks and to never once have seen a newspaper blowing in the gutter, or sitting on a table in a home or in the student areas.
*On the other hand, televisions are everywhere. They have invaded restaurants and cafes, even the best restaurants have a TV overhead in virtually every room with music videos playing continuously, and mostly in English. Of all the places in which we ate over three weeks, only ONE (the dining room of the fanciest hotel in the City) did not have TVs blaring in the dining room (although even there I think I saw a screen lurking on a back wall). When I met the chief judge of the arbitral court in his modern courthouse and luxurious offices, he sat at his desk and his eyes drifted often to the television, playing during our conversation, on his credenza over my shoulder.
*People don’t eat out much. There is no restaurant scene. The best food (outside homes) may be fairly characterized as “average.” People do not drink wine and such wine as exists is served warmish and sweet. People don’t drink vodka in restaurants, although the vodka selection on store shelves is vast and low-priced; I am not sure who drinks it all, where and when, except at “celebrations.”
*But vodka IS a ritual drink. Toasts to guests are with vodka. Celebrations involve vodka. We have stopped for an early lunch with our hosts, on an outing somewhere, and have been presented with vodka by the bottle at 11am. The other day I was invited to the 55th birthday party in the University of a senior law professor, and at 10:30 am his office was filled with pastries, sliced cheese, luncheon meats and vodka glasses. I sure hope it is true that you cannot pick up vodka on the breath, because a lot of those folks went out to teach class after the half-hour celebration.
*There is substantial interest in and ignorance about the US. This applies to our life styles generally (people understand we are “richer” but aren’t sure what that translates into, in practical terms) and our legal system in particular. Questions from students, faculty and the judges of the arbitral (business) courts indicated that they just don’t understand our basic legal mechanics, for example. The judges asked me (in my presentation to the assembled court) to please explain how a trial works in the US. Jokes about LA Law and Boston Legal and Perry Mason to the contrary notwithstanding, people don’t even seem to have a popular misconception of our trial system and the jury process. It was explaining something not to the misinformed so much as to the clueless.
*The students were courteous, friendly and some were always interest and all occasionally interested. But I would not say that as a group there was great focus on learning the specifics I was teaching; it was more an opportunity to absorb a different world view than a true academic experience. If I were to give an even simplified exam to the group of students, I am sure that 8 or 10 of them would nail it, but that the vast bulk of the class would earn a C or a D (the grade range that one sophisticated teaching assistant suggested as the level of achievement she would expect from these students if tested on a Western scale). Since there was no text book, no assigned reading (we were told they wouldn’t read it anyway), and since the school declined to post my lectures in Russian or English on their website, and further since attendance was not consistent (not terrible, but not universal) and only about half the class seemed to take notes, these would have to be extraordinary intellects to come away with what a US lawschool would consider to be a workable knowledge of the subjects presented.
*My last lecture was on how to design a legal system most favorable to business. I did not sense an entrepreneurial spark being lit. One student, among my best, ventured that people should be paid based on excellence of their performance of whatever they did: the best President should be paid more than other Presidents, and the best craftsman of chairs should be paid more than the other chair makers, but the best President and the best craftsman should be paid equally. This is not a socialist observation, it was a logical moral expression. When I countered that under such a system we would end up with many perfect chairs but few viable growth companies, I was answered with a smile and a timid statement that we just were not going to be able to agree. In sum, the legal system (at least to my limited experience) is not turning out Russian lawyers who are prepared to grow an economy in an entrepreneurial manner with legal support. I don’t have enough data to draw any conclusions more broadly, although certain unfortunate conclusions are available for consideration: if there is to be business growth it must come from business people unaided by lawyers, yet we here believe that lawyering helps shape business growth; if business people are unlawyered, the lack of rule of law in business will continue and by definition impair business development; the society at large does not see the rule of law as part of the business of law schools. Or perhaps I am too harsh in making this list, perhaps this is just the way it is with 19 and 21 year old students in an emerging economy, and that to expect too much too soon is to experience disappointment.
*Finally, on a personal note: our flights could not match up on our return to the US and we founds ourselves in an airport hotel room at the airport in Moscow at 10 pm Friday night, with our flight West scheduled for 1 pm the following (Saturday) afternoon. A quick internet search uncovered an English speaking guide who picked us up at 6 am, drove us to Red Square (40 kms from the airport), walked us around, took us on a tour of the incredibly beautiful subway system largely built by Stalin, and several other stops before dropping us back at the airport. Moscow is totally changed from my last visit (1977, heart of the Cold War); it is a huge city (12,000,000+ people), very cosmopolitan, full of people and bustle, bright lights, stores, etc. I suspect that our experience in living and teaching in Belgorod would have been somewhat different if I had been posted to Moscow and Moscow State University (the country’s most prestigious school and law faculty). The degree to which our limited Belgorod experience can be generalized to larger Russian cities, or indeed to the plethora of small towns that make up most of Russia today, cannot be measured by us. We enjoyed our experience, enjoyed the people, came away convinced that people ARE the same everywhere, and that only the external happenstance of their lives creates the impression of distance. Hopefully we did some good; surely we had a blast, and we consider the experience a great education, if not for Russian lawyers, at least for ourselves.
To any lawyers following these blogs, I recommend your teaching our law overseas at some point in your careers. I would be glad to provide further detail if you have an interest, just feel free to email me directly.