Thinking About the Deal

Congress could not get out of DC fast enough after passing the debt deal, although it is hard to imagine why.  I am not sure that anyone would want to go home and answer the questions of constituents.

It is also hard to declare a winner here; first, who knows what either party really stands for; second, even if you could identify the teams from their uniforms, it is not clear if anyone prevailed.  Politicians call such a result a “compromise.”  Real people have a compound noun for that result, the first half of which depicts a bovine male.

How do you parse the alleged business slant of Republicans with the negative business effect of cutting expenses and hence jobs?  How do you parse the alleged liberal slant of Democrats with offering up for cutting the social programs (the requirement to share cuts between domestic and military budgets runs out after two years)?

The answer may be the removal of traditional political perspectives from the process we call politics.  Debate used to be about the social compact; how should government function in discharging its duties and inspiring the wealth and happiness of the population?  Now it is governed, overtly and implicitly, by social agendas.  How do we feel about poor people?  Foreigners?  Abortion?  Religion?  Is this a “good” development?  It certainly curtails civility and fosters the kind of intransigence we witnessed in Washington.

Democratic U.S. Representative Mike Capuano (Massachusetts) is what I call an old-fashioned liberal (it is amazing how that word – liberal —   has become pejorative; and I do not know why), and his tortured explanation of why he voted against “the deal” is full of factoids that are really make-weights on a troubled path being trod by a troubled soul.  But one such irrelevancy also was startling: only two countries, the US and Denmark, even have debt ceilings.  The stopping place of our debt ceiling is not designed with economic or social theory in mind, it just happens to be the number de jour.  Why do we have it at all?

Meanwhile, we look forward to this Fall’s mandated $1.5 trillion of additional cuts, per the wisdom of the joint Congressional committee.  I am preparing for this by getting new tires for my car and selling my convertible; there are going to be an awful lot of potholes and falling bridges on our highways in the near future.

Unless the unemployed volunteer to fix them for free.

All in the Family

A brief article in the recent press reports that George Soros will convert his $25B hedge fund into a family office to avoid newly enacted SEC regulations affecting hedge fund advisers.  There are reports that many other hedge fund managers are considering following suit.

We must assume that surrendering a $25B business, and returning investor capital, is not a decision lightly undertaken.  Why would a smart guy like Soros do that?

Simply put, under Dodd-Frank the typical exemption from regulation under the Investment Advisers Act enjoyed by hedge fund managers was repealed.  The effect is to require hedge fund managers to register and be regulated.  However, Dodd-Frank mandated an escape clause from regulation for any fund that qualified as a family office.

New SEC rules, effective August 29 of this year, establish a formally defined family office exemption from the effect of Dodd-Frank under the Investment Advisers Act.  (Historically, the SEC would consider exemptions from regulation for family offices on a case by case basis.)  The exemption is not so broad as some commentators had hoped; a family must wholly own and control the office and run money only for “family” as closely defined.  But for families of wealth, the exemption creates a business model that works well enough.  And seemingly, regular hedge fund managers of great personal means, such as Soros, can appreciate the continuation of freedom from regulation that until now they have so profitably enjoyed.

For policy wonks, the SEC adopting release, which explains all this in great detail, is at  the SEC website.

We are left to ponder whether heightened regulation of hedge fund advisers, regulation that drives a successful adviser such as Soros who has created substantial returns to investors over the years, constitutes good policy.  Or does it just satisfy a desire to punish people who are getting “too rich” while many in society are struggling or sinking?  Is this SEC regulation just another facet of a social reaction, another aspect of the dynamic that also seeks a higher income tax treatment for the carried interests of the hedge fund managers?

In the unresolved debate between heightened regulation and the “free marketplace,” Soros’ decision marks the location of one of the minor battles, and it is unclear which side is the winner.

The Law of Clemens-y

When the Rocket testified a couple of years ago before the House Committee on Governance, in-person observers were suspicious of his credibility. Boston fans were suspicious before that; after four very mediocre years at the end of his Sox career, Roger went on to forge a spectacular coda to his 192 Boston wins.

And it is hard to believe that a disgusting bag of blood and drugs did not prove his sins, although perhaps any person we believe capable of saving that bag could perhaps be capable of concocting it from unrelated elements.

Along comes a much-reviled prosecutor who presents hearsay evidence, on film no less, which the judge believes is prejudicial to the point of mistrial. We don’t have the benefit of a transcript and, well, it would take a bunch of lawyers to figure out whether the judge was correct or just didn’t want this tawdry but fundamentally irrelevant procedure on his docket. What we do know is, in common baseball and legal parlance, that Roger walked.

We now await early September when the judge decides if a retrial is even possible, while Rocket’s counsel ponders double jeopardy as a defense. If an impartial jury could have been found for the first trial, it is hard to understand why an impartial jury could not be found for a second; after all, the jury pool will not include anyone present at the first trial who viewed the offending film. If Rocket’s case was sufficiently non-topical before that a dozen people could honestly say they were fundamentally clueless, surely another dozen can be found who missed the Rocket’s red glare in the heat and blazing sun of their summer vacations.

We are left to ponder why the House of Representatives stuck their noses into baseball steroids in the first place. Today we have proof positive, on Capital Hill, that there were more important things going on in American governance and economics than worrying whether baseball players were shooting up. It may be that baseball is America’s game, but it is alas only a game.

Numbers, Baseball and Being American

Much no doubt has been written about statistics and baseball. I think baseball is the National Pastime only because it is rich in numbers, has so many years of numbers to draw upon, and therefore reinforces the American passion for putting numbers on everything.

Look at grade schools: we teach reading and numbers. It is a very human thing. Our street games and our formal games are all shot through with numbers.

So Jeter is now a king of an important number, and gets all this adulation. As one of the Sox was quoted in the paper, Jeter is actually (now here is big surprise to all) a pretty great ballplayer and “there is a reason he has 3,000 hits.” Imagine, up to now I had sort of thought it was random, like getting a free cola from an occasional screw top soda cap.

I look forward to the Yankees coming to Fenway as I plan to stand up and cheer for Jeter because I love numbers too and think I can remember the batting averages of people from 60 years ago when I used to study the backs of chewing gum cards. I believe that most people at Fenway will do the same, particularly if a) the Sox are still in first place, and b) the Sox continue to own the Yankees, as they have all this year.

Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated, about the only blog I read (and only because one of my partners forwards his stuff to me), has had a lot of fun messing with numbers and their anomalies (things like Jacoby Ellsbury having many times the number of steals as Jackie Robinson or some infield substitute accumulating over a long and dolorous career more hits than Ted Williams). His piece on Jeter’s 3000th hit touches upon the simultaneous importance and irrelevance of the statistic. Real merit in a ballplayer has to do with integrity and grace and the occasional ability to pick up a team and carry it up a big hill all alone (and then in the locker room babble about how it is a team sport).

Which leads to a final melancholy; whatever the statistics, what can one really say about Manny Ramirez? That can be printed in a blog that my kid may read….

First Blog: Explanation and Apology

I am continuing my blog (originally started with the limited focus on my law teaching trip to Russia) midst mixed feelings. As many know, I write continually about law, baseball and life’s incessant anomalies. My law writings typically get published somewhere. My baseball writings go to friends who are fans. My observations on life go selectively to friends who I think will gain wry recognition from particular circumstance.

I did enjoy blogging about Russia; many of you were kind enough to tell me you enjoyed reading those blogs, and those posts are stored on this site. But I have renamed the site and broadened the scope in hopes that some folks will enjoy, and join in, occasional discussions of interesting topics.

I do this with trepidation; in considering whether or not to proceed, I asked numerous friends, family and clients their views. My concerns were two-fold: that it is presumptuous to assume that which strikes me as worthy of comment would be of interest to other people; and that joining the flow of unedited content flooding the internet is more disservice than benefit.

I received many replies (thank you, all who replied) and the majority were positive. Additionally, by and large the younger the respondent the more enthused the support. Now one can say, it is the age of communication and of course younger people are more comfortable with the effort and less disturbed by the presumption. That is, however, too glib. I am of the view that as thoughtful people age, they continue to learn and further gain experienced judgment. On that scale, rather than dismissing older respondents as merely dated, one would weigh those responses more heavily on the merits.

But how wrong can I go, after all? Embarrass myself a bit in public? Not the first time. Take a false start? I have had many. Reveal an inflated ego? Join the list of those who have accused me. I have renamed the blog to take it away from its Russian roots, sent notice of it to friends and clients, and will see where it takes me. If posts are mundane then the trip will be lonely as no readers will go there with me. If otherwise, we will have some fun. I can only promise to try to avoid the one-liners, screeds and smarmy inside references that have made me a non-reader of blogs of others.

We shall see. My first substantive pieces, one on law and one on the relationship of baseball and human obsession with statistics, are linked to this post.

Out of Russia: Last Thoughts

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.

Judges, Jews, Soccer and Revolution

Judges: today I addressed all the judges of the Arbitral Court of Belgorod. Belgorod is not only the city we are in, it is also the name of an entire region in Southwestern Russia, bounded on the South by the Ukraine, on the West by Belarus, and on the North and West by other regions of Russia. Each region is roughly akin to a State in the USA.

The Arbitral Court has a chief judge and sixteen inferior judges. They adjudicate all business disputes (other matters go to the “common courts”). Their system of resolving business disputes involves one to three judges (depending on case complexity) hearing evidence and rendering a written opinion on both law and fact; no jury. I spoke about our jury system and our progress in alternate dispute resolution (mediation, arbitration) before an audience of about 40 people, the judges and their staffs. My remarks were predictable, the questions were not.

First, they were without a clue on how a trial proceeded. I outlined a typical trial. They wanted to know how long we afforded judges in trial courts to render decisions; I reminded them that the jury did most of that, and that most written decisions in our courts were at the appellate level. They inquired as to how we enforced decisions of the court; apparently their courts decide, and then little happens by way of enforcement. After that, the questions got a bit weird:

*Who pays for postage? Apparently the courts here have run into issues in paying for the mailing out of decisions, particularly if to foreign jurisdictions (hard to answer; in 45 years, I never ran into postage as a significant issue in the administration of justice in the US).

* Civil courts enforce the fundamental rights of man; did I view this as an appropriate matter for courts, or should courts restrict themselves to matters of contract or treaty?

*How long do we give trial judges to write decisions? (Seemingly they just missed the point that the juries decide and that trial judges don’t write many decisions; I attempted to describe the process for a judge preparing a charge to the jury, an effort that fell on what I perceived to be uncomprehending ears.)

It is pretty clear that the judges lack an understanding of our system of justice. One could be judgmental about this, except that their system came as a total surprise to me. Points off for both sides here.

At the end I got a standing ovation (I suspect it is Siberia if you failed to applaud), and I was presented by the chief judge with a color photo of me and my translator Katya on the podium, underneath the flag of Belgorod, all in a frame. Nice touch, it goes up on my office wall; 25 points of bragging rights, after all I WAS sweating profusely under my three piece suit when I was finished with the presentation.

Jews. Interesting discussion with a faculty member who is extremely bright, well-read, and traveled within the former USSR and present day Russia (among other things, she was an army brat under both the USSR and the present regime). On the way to the restaurant, she pointed out a school and noted it was on the site of a former Jewish burial ground. I asked about Jews in Belgorod (there are NO houses of worship except Orthodox Eastern, as far as we could see). Seems there are some Jews, numbers unknown at least to her. (“One of my friends is Udish.” Have I ever heard that one before ,I wonder?) I have no sense of any bias by the way, just neutral reporting of neutral facts. I noted that the Nazis were assiduous in this part of the world in deporting and killing Jews (and lots of other people) during their occupation. (See The Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, a dynamite download on Kindle.) Where did the local Jews come from? We were told they returned after the Great Patriotic War; some had fled to Eastern Russia to escape the Nazis, some had emigrated to Israel and found it distasteful and had returned. There was no sense of awareness of there being a “Jewish issue;” seems the Germans and Soviets had killed so many people around here for so many reasons that Jews were just part of the incredible mix of barbarity. It was noted, in response to our thought that Stalin had starved to death millions of Ukrainians in the collectivization of 1930-32 (we are 20 miles from the Ukrainian border), that Stalin starved millions to death in lots of other places also. I conclude that when you kill 14,000,000 civilians in a small area during a decade, the identities of the killers and the victims lose historical relevance in the face of human values, and then human values lose relevance in the face of incomprehensible numbers (was it not Stalin who said that the death of one person is a tragedy, and the death of a million is just a statistic?). In any event, it is a good thing we did not look for a Jewish service here in Belgorod during our visit; wherever the nearest Temple might be, it sure as hell ain’t in walking distance.

Soccer: Matthew has been starved for contact with kids. He has said he prefers Austria because he had people to play with, even though (frankly) Russia is incredibly more fascinating and exotic. Over the last week, our next to final week, we have finally located a few children (Russian) who live near our dorm and who play daily in a nearby small playground. Children here study English as a routine matter, and it doesn’t take much by way of common language to get kids into a social situation. Now Matthew meets with these boys daily around 6pm to climb monkey bars, horse around or play soccer with a tennis ball. Notwithstanding that these kids are European and Matthew’s soccer is restricted to a couple of session of Newton junior league, I am (to my own surprise) happy to report that he is as good as, indeed better than, his Russian brethren, having been at all times on the winning side (today’s score: USA 10, Russia 8). Verdict from Damon the Russian: “football play well.” On three please pick up the chant: “USA, USA, USA….”

Revolution: Wholly anecdotal but fascinating perception on Russian politics and the future of the Russian State: Putin remains in charge; he committed incredible crimes and everyone knows it; as a personal observer of the most recent elections, it is clear there were violations of law; people know this and freely talk about it, there is no risk to say it, but everyone accepts the fact that they are powerless, there is a controlling oligarchy, Russia is an authoritarian state and not a democracy. This will continue for a while, the Russians are patient people, but someday we will see a return to 1917! Question: is this not a radical and irrational prediction? Answer: no, we expect it, there is no other way. This from a faculty member of some judgment and credibility. How to evaluate such a “revolutionary” perception, particularly in light of what is a clear passive acceptance of the political status quo today (Belgorod, capital of the region that it is, to the outside observer shows ZERO political unrest or indeed interest, it is all about the business of life as usual here)? We are unable to evaluate this view, and lack access to people and adequate time to weigh its prescience. Let’s just call it a random factoid, but when comes the revolution, comrade, remember that you heard it here first.

This is possibly my last blog from Russia. Laura and I teach the next two days, we get out of Dodge late Friday night, we have to pack and sign diplomas and say our goodbyes, we are being taken tomorrow to a dolphin show (as the comedic columnist Dave Barry was wont to say, “I am not making this up”), I am to be interviewed by the local newspaper (must be a total dearth of news, they obviously have not heard of the upcoming revolution), and I suspect that my final wrap will come in the form of a blog posted on my return to the US. This trip has been, well, a real trip. Hope you all enjoyed the reportage.

A Weekend with Two Russian Families

We are in our last week here; I taught today, will teach tomorrow and Friday, and Laura will teach on Wednesday and Thursday.  This post reports on our weekend activities, which were fascinating and elucidating; while it would be wildly presumptuous to claim any real knowledge of “Russia” based on such brief anecdotal experiences here in a small corner of such a vast and complicated country, we do feel that we have been given at least a glimpse of some of the nature of things Russian.

We spent Saturday at the home of the Professor on the law faculty who has principal responsibility for our scheduling here in Belgorod.  We were driven by a family friend, in a small Ford, to a somewhat rural setting about 20 minutes from the University.  In Belgorod, you go from town to country pretty fast; no suburbs such as surround Boston.

The Professor lives in what he describes as a modest or typical home and while we suspect his circumstances are not wholly typical, the house was not lavish.  It was however multi-faceted and warm and wonderful to visit.  We were met by the Professor, his wife Lena (a chemist), and several younger friends and a nephew, his wife and two small girls.  The house is not imposing, indeed its facade does not even stay in my memory.  We walked around back and the richness of home life started to become apparent.  We walked past some grape vines (the Professor makes his own wine), past a pen of chickens (maybe a dozen, with home-grown eggs of rich yellow yolks as we learned when we cooked our gift of eggs the next morning), to one of several small out-buildings in the small back yard.  The building, open at one side facing the house, had a shelf set out with salad and cold fish and of course vodka and wine and juice; we stood covered from the  light snowfall drinking vodka and watching the Professor feed the grille with wood and corn cobs until the fire was ready for an appetizer of grilled pork loins and ribs, eaten with fingers and washed down with (too much) vodka.  Further exploration led us to a two-part structure with a cot and a stove, a curtain separating a back room, I believe a Russian bath house.  Somewhere in there was a small underground wine cellar with brick arched ceiling. In the rear, a large open field owned by the Professor, an acre or more of open space up to an edge of woods.  It was explained that in summer a greater number of chickens were kept here.

Into the house for lunch, with two large tables set with benches and chairs in a relatively rustic room, long and wood-panelled running along the back of the house.  Numerous dishes with salads, blinis, cold fish, breads with black cavier, and much more vodka.

To visit the toilet, at this point you take off your shoes, which are pretty caked with the ubiquitous muddiness of a near-rural spring landscape, and step into a small, cozy and modestly decorated living room off which is a small bathroom.  I believe this is the only toilet in the house, and that of the three houses we have visited as of this writing each had only a single bathroom.

After much discussion and revelry and too much food, we were driven back the our dorm (6 hours later) with a supply of fresh eggs, a large portion of stuffed fish prepared by the Professor’s wife that to my best recollection we never even got to start to eat, and the welcome comfort of at least my own bed; I am told by Laura that she and  Matthew stayed awake, skyped with family and friends, etc., but I can only report that I fell immediately asleep and stayed that way for a mere 13 hours.

Sunday: always get back on the horse that threw you.  We are off to Elena’s condo.  Elena is the sister of Olga, one of our English guides at whose parent’s house we were guests last weekend.  Elena, who (as I had reported previously) has had a career as (among other things, she is a university trained manager) a singer in Dubai, had cooked some of the great food we had eaten  at her mother’s house that last weekend, and we were invited to her condo on Sunday for a relaxed afternoon of Russian cooking.  We showed up, arriving by cab at a modern apartment complex about 15 minutes from the university, bearing a gift plant and a box of chocolates; the condo is in a five or six story building, no elevator (as is typical), a bunch of brick buildings surrounding a muddy play area with a few pieces of schoolyard equipment.  Up the four flights, into a “mud room” leading to the apartment itself.

Let me pause to make a point about what we observed about Russian houses (remember please this is anecdotal, I don’t presume to set forth a universal description of Russian homes): the inside of the homes are modest but very warm and personal, but the entry ways are more like the front porch of a farmhouse.  Perhaps the rough-cut general exterior landscape has leaked over into the entry ways, but there is no pretense to establish a grand entrance.  Elena’s mud room held boots, slippers to put on when you take off your boots, some large jars of preserves on the floor, some tools, a couple of boxes of stuff, a metal ladder, etc.

Off with the boots, on with the slippers, and you step into a condo that is modern and decorated in the style of Ikea (it turns out that there is an Ikea presence in some Russian cities, an an Ikea catalog in Russian sitting on a table in the living room).  Elena’s husband,  an attorney and a building contractor of sorts (this partly illuminates one of the questions one of my students asked me, as to what other job I held in addition to being a lawyer, in order to support the family), had moved some walls, installed wooden floors, modern doors and fixtures, and was working on the enclosed front balcony (a ubiquitous fixture in all Russian apartments we have seen); the brick walls were partly covered with drywall, plaster patches,  and there was a smattering of construction tools in one corner).  There were nice Oriental rugs just about everywhere, a bedroom with modern furniture and a TV, a living room with an upright piano and a couch and tables and a large desk with an array of modern computer equipment, and in the middle the kitchen table had been relocated to serve as our dining table in a larger space.  On the walls: one small painting (no house we were in had what we would call any real “art”) and a wall clock.

The kitchen was wholly slick and modern, built to Elena’s specifications by Nikolai her husband.  Laura, Elena and Elena’s sister Olga began cooking several Russian dishes, with Laura taking notes as to ingredients, amounts, etc.  The kitchen had a US brand refrigerator, a Bosch stove and oven, a microwave, and although reasonable compact it was efficient and fully equipped.  No dishwasher or disposal (we did not see a one in the houses we visited).

We started the visit with hot borscht and wine; it was explained to us that borscht is not a soup.  The explanation made no sense to us, so I won’t repeat it. I think it is a distinction merely of nomenclature.  What is clear is that, once you add cabbage to a base broth made with some/any meat or poultry (ours was lamb based), you can add damned near anything else by way of vegetables, potatoes, etc.  You just have to cook the heck out of it.

While Matthew read and I took pictures and just relaxed, Elena and her two helpers then prepared a couple of salads, a chicken dish with vegetables and cheese baked in small pots, some ancillaries.  They cooked for a couple of hours, we walked around the neighborhood for some air, and returned to a delicious meal.  The meal they cooked was supplemented by a rabbit in sour cream sauce, prepared by Nikolai before he left for a business trip.

After dinner, a brief concert on piano with Elena singing, and then a pretty spiritual conversation about people, life, Russia.  At the end, we were presented with a triptych of Jesus, Mary with the infant Jesus, and Saint Nicholas.  Although Elena and Olga described themselves as (in substance) not very observant, they were fervent in their admonition that we display the triptych in a prominent place in our home, and travel with it, and draw from it peace and happiness.  Afterwards, Laura and I agreed that this gift encapsulates our general observation about the role of the Eastern Orthodox Church at least here in Belgorod: it is the only Church (the population, unlike the US, is of course, “native” for thousands of years), people are quietly respectful of the Church, everyone who discusses it expresses fervent belief, and the iconography of the Church is indeed everywhere: in each taxi we have taken, on the walls of virtually all the Court offices I have visited, in the statuary in front of this government-run nonsectarian university, in wallet pictures I have observed when several different people have gone to pay for their food or purchases and I am behind them on line, even in the explanation our principal guide gave to us for choosing not to read The DaVinci Code (its irreverance).  I have read of the deep unbreakable unity between Slavic peoples and the Eastern Orthoodox Church, an affinity that 70 years of Soviet rule did not shake, and it is clear that the sense of separation of religion and government that is an element of at least the Eastern US establishment is not going to be understood by the people here (I had an interesting time on the US Constitution in class, describing the anti-establishment clause to my totally Russian-ethnic students).

One might speculate that indeed the Soviet attack on the Church did nothing except to culturally strengthen it; there are many new Churches we have seen, and whenever someone describes an old Church they seem to apologetically describe its misuse during the Soviet era for some secular purpose.

Bottom line: to our limited experience, the stereotype of the warm and effusive Russian family, welcoming a stranger into the home in complete fashion, driven by not only a desire that different peoples be friends but also by a desire that specific people also be friends– they personally and YOU personally — is not just a stereotype, but rather something that is just plain true.

While I think it important not to get  carried away here — many people are warm and caring when it is one-on-one in many places I have visited, and people as a polity have been able to muster great inhumanities when roiled by politics or religious bigotry — there is no doubt that the Russian people we have met have universally been almost unbelieveably warm and accepting.  It is making our visit memorable in a dimension we had by no means anticipated.

Students, the Town and the Russian Courts: Update

Russia surely is more complicated and multi-faceted than I expected.  This blog post is an amalgam of some further observations of the students, of the town, and of the judicial system here.

The students:  I met with about 80 law students (most not in my class) in a large classroom for an open discussion unrelated to the course I am teaching.  The idea was to allow the students to ask questions on any subject including personal subjects.   Very interesting;  at first the students were reticent to talk and my translator suggested that I simply describe my background, job and

family which I did.  From there the students asked questions galore; here are a few, which I think demonstrate the open scope of the discussion, the concerns normal to all students, and some cultural differences:

*How much does it cost to go to a US law school?  Can you get a scholarship?  Does the school get you a job?

*What job do you have other than lawyer to make money?

*What country has the prettiest girls?

*Prettiest boys?

*What was your most interesting case?  (They were disappointed; my law practice is not like a TV show.)

*What is viewed as the most useful and important profession in America?

*Are either of your older sons married (from a vivacious young woman who said she intended to become President of the Russian Federation)?

*What courses and qualifications do you need to get a job in a law firm?

*If America has one million lawyers, what do the law graduates who cannot get a law job do for a career?

*What are your hobbies?

*How old are you?

After  the meeting, various students brought their cell phones forward to have a picture taken with me, and many asked for my autograph.  A bit embarrassing I thought, and Laura (to whom I recounted this later) groaned that the last thing I needed was something else to feed my ego.

The town:  My last blog discussed our walk around part of the town near the University, that I described as a bit shabby.  There is another part of town, on a hill, visible from the University (the University  is down by the rive)r.  The buildings are large and seem modern from a distance.  We took a public bus (small, blue curtains in the windows, ten rubles (40 cents) fare), to the top of the hill.  This is a newer and much fancier part of town.  The buildings are in excellent repair, we are told they are condos and expensive.  The broad shopping street is full of attractive shops, some sculpture, trees in the middle, restaurants, a movie theater showing the US cartoon feature “Rango.”  This could be a middle class apartment area anywhere in the US.  Although the area is by no means the largest neighborhood in town, it demonstrates a significant middle class and a reasonably affluent life style by American standards.  We had dinner in a very credible sushi house, located on the second floor of a four floor mini-mall with high end shops; but for the verticality of the space, you would think you were in Cambridgeside Galleria (if not Chestnut Hill Mall).  Lots of signs in English, lots of English language packaging.

The Courts.  Today I had two exposures of different sorts to the court system in the Belgorod region.

First, I attended the first sessions of an “international conference” on criminal justice held at Belgorod State University (where I lecture).  Although it turned out that there were basically three nations represented (at least in the first half day of remarks), Russia and Belarus and Ukraine,  the meeting was otherwise impressive on two levels.  Physically, the meeting was held in a large ultra-modern conference space on the top floor of the main University building, in a large well-lit room with an oval of about forty desks for delegates, and “grandstands” on either end for students and faculty to observe.  All proceedings were in Russian.  There was  a large contingent of professors from various schools in Moscow.  I can provide details of the remarks for anyone interested (just email me), but the themes were very interesting: how do we combat computer crime when our investigators are young and ill-trained?; how can we tolerate having legal investigators without legal training?; how do we establish a system of qualifying expert witnesses in criminal cases so we can be sure they actually are experts?; how do we fight against forged credentials available on the black market which are utilized sometimes to obtain jobs in the judicial system?  The discussions were generally erudite, the participants serious senior people and the conference was (excuse the implicit air of superiority) fully up to Western standards for such events.

Second, I was given a tour by, and meeting with, the head of the Belgorod regional Arbitral Court this afternoon.  This court sits without juries to deal with business law cases (jury trials occur in the “ordinary” courts for non-business matters).  I saw the court rooms and chambers of the judges and met with the chief judge for about 45 minutes in total.  Some observations: this is the nicest courthouse I have ever seen, fully modern and well appointed; there are 18 courtrooms, each with electronic support; the building cannot be more than a few years old, and there is not a single grey or green metal cabinet in it; each judge has a clerk; the computer system can be accessed by anyone at terminals built into the walls, and you can get the docket and pleadings of all active cases right there; you can get a computer disc of each proceeding in a case right then and there, everything is recorded and public and available and also archived on the internet; the courthouse is treated, I infer, as a showcase but frankly it IS a showcase, with exercise facilities and recreational facilities for the judges, a chess table set up in the hallway outside chambers, etc.  I will lecture to all the judges and I believe the staff of the court next Wednesday night on some aspects of the US judicial system, and I look forward to the experience.  I have explained that I am not a litigator, but given the level of information seemingly possessed by the lawyers and judges here I am sure I can provide some useful information, albeit not in great detail.

Personal PS: raced home from dinner and symphony tonight to beat the 11pm shutdown of the elevators in the “dorm.”  The good news is we got here by cab with 15 minutes to spare.  The bad news is that they decided to shut down the elevators at 10:30.  Up 9 floors with a tired kid and a belly full of bad warm wine; welcome to Belgorod.

More Observations on Teaching and About Russia

  1. The students have asked for a couple of hours of my time out of class on Tuesday afternoon to discuss issues unrelated to the course work. I have been politely warned, or perhaps I should say alerted, to the fact that the questions may be “inappropriate.” On inquiry, I am told that in the past they have asked visitors political questions about foreign and domestic policy. What about Iraq? What about native Americans? I expect inquiry about Libya, as to which my data is limited to day-late Kindle downloads from the Boston Globe, which is not exactly the news source one would want to rely upon. There is no TV in the room, nor in the dorm common areas (which are sparse anyway), nor in the teachers’ lounge. TVs in restaurants play Madonna, Michael Jackson, rap, mostly English music videos.
  2. Today we took an hour walk from the campus into the area of town marked by row on row of medium-rise apartment buildings. The level of maintenance is pretty low. There are missing stones from facades, no grass in front (mud), play areas have broken equipment, and there is clearly no pooper scooper for the numerous neighborhood dogs. Doorways are sometimes missing brickwork. Most apartments have glass-enclosed balconies which seem to be used either for storage or lines to dry clothing. There is modest trash in the street, nothing serious and no newspapers blowing around (come to think of it, the kiosks we have seen on the streets have magazines and chocolate, no papers even in Russian). The buildings are 6-8 stories high, no noticeable architectural interest, flat facades of gray or dark brick; there are rows and rows, streets and streets of them. It is all pretty unattractive. There are cars, but not that many; parking is on the street and there are plenty of open spaces. There are few children outside, none in the play areas; it was about 40 degrees and gray, but certainly the streets felt deserted of kids.
  3. So we sort of looked into the windows of a few lit apartments on lower floors. Not much to see; small kitchens, hanging chandeliers that were really sort of ornate for an apartment; no light fixture seemed to have all its bulbs, which reminded me of our rooms, where fully half the sockets in the two chandeliers in each of our rooms are empty. Electricity usage under control again.
  4. Ate dinner tonight in an Italian restaurant. About 20 kinds of pizza, 10 kinds of pasta. Also chicken wings and some sushi. Ice cream, coffee, lousy wine (all sweet). A few Russian dishes mixed in. Although about a half mile from campus, it was full of students. Only one or two families with kids. Big take-out business for boxes of small pizzas. A word about the pizzas: they aren’t. Flat soft dough, no tomato sauce; cheese including soft slightly sweet cottage cheese. All the pictures show various toppings of differing colors (picture menu). Doesn’t matter, no matter what you order you seem to get the same thing. Dinner (if you can call it that) for three, with 3 wines and one large beer, 2 small milk shakes: $30 including 10% tip. Note on tipping: while all restaurants (and stores) seem to take Master Card and Visa, the charge slips in restaurants do not have a line for a gratuity. We inquired of our keeper: we are told it is indeed expected to leave a 10% tip unless it is a buffet.
  5. Daily super market stop: careful review of the shelves is interesting. Foods have Russian labeling by in large. Cleaning supplies, diapers, female hygiene items bear US brand names and English labels. In toy shops and sporting goods shops, a reasonable portion of the stock bears English labels/brands. You can get several types of English language Monopoly here, a Sherlock Holmes mystery game, etc. There is far far more English on the shelves here than Russian in the US.
  6. I have been asked to address a dinner meeting of judges about dispute resolution for corporate clients. I have told them I am a business lawyer but it seems any American lawyer is presumed competent to talk for a half hour on just about any US law topic. I will give it a try, from the standpoint of a business lawyer who tries to bridge the communication gap between our litigators and our business clients. I am reminded of the axiom: in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king.
  7. They want me to give an exam to my class; I have told them no. I cannot give an oral exam to 50 people. If I give an exam to 50 students in Russian, how do I grade them? I like to think that multiple choice is not really the right way to end off a law class. I have offered to provide a signed certificate of attendance, albeit not likely “suitable for framing.” We will see how this all works out.
  8. Lastly, I was invited to go ice fishing. I have noticed that the ice is rapidly melting on the river here. I wonder if I am overstaying my welcome….