Yesterday, 12 January, serious snow finally hit Moscow, bringing real winter to what had been an unusually mild season. Suddenly the city is virginal in its snowy gown, but not for long, and the speed with which Moscow returns to normal says something about Russian attitudes to state, society and priorities.
A citizen of the United Kingdom (where infamously trains have been stopped by “leaves on the line”) and who works for the most part in New York (where even the lightest drizzle sees panicked locals donning rubber boots and scurrying under cover, as if convinced they are water-soluble), I have always been impressed by the efficiency with which Moscow deals with snows that would paralyse London or New York. Men and women are out in all hours shoveling pavements, pushing dangerous accumulations of snow off roofs, and operating a weird and wonderful array of machines, from quotidian mini-earth-movers to mechanical beasts built to shovel snow into their maws or mulch down slush with rotating brushes. Icebreakers ply the Moskva, for heaven’s sake!
The very fact that dozens of flights in and out of the city had to be cancelled itself speaks to the conditions. Other airports may shut down at the lightest icing-sugar dusting of snow, but Sheremetevo and its siblings are typically made of sterner stuff.
Of course, a city which faces a lot of snow would be expected to learn how to cope. It also helps having a reservoir of cheap, hard-working Central Asian guest workers on whom to turn. And, needless to say, Moscow is by Russian standards a very rich city (though London and New York are hardly impoverished by any meaningful standard).
However, I think it also speaks to national and cultural priorities and expectations. In the main, the Russians ‘do’ infrastructure. Sure, the national road system is in a pretty poor way; a 6-hour drive I once went on to and from the Seliger lakes probably represents one of the more dangerous and uncomfortable things I’ve undertaken for a while. But in part that reflects the sheer task of maintaining a little less than a million kilometers of road, especially given often-destructive weather patterns and, in particular, the massive levels of embezzlement in the highway building and maintenance sector.
Separate the problems which relate to legacy (cheap, nasty bridges built in the 1960s and 1970s, for example), to a lack of resources, to corruption, and to scale, and Russia’s record is not at all bad. On an urban level, it is actually pretty impressive. Of course, Moscow has its rightly fabled metro, but generally Russian cities tend to a high level of urban public and private transport, are clean, and when one comes to the intangible infrastructures of internet and cellphone, again the country comes out ahead of many richer Western nations.
By comparison, the United States, a country of phenomenal capacities in so many ways, from technological innovation to philanthropy, has rubbish and expensive cellphone coverage, abysmal city-cleaning standards, and a railway system which can politely be described as an embarrassment. Amtrak trains are comfortable, but woefully slow, and delays abound. Why? Many of the USA’s roads are also of indifferent quality, so even Americans’ (in)famous love for their cars may not be answer.
I suspect that in part it may reflect fundamental assumptions about the role of the state and the importance of collective goods. Infrastructure is, pretty much by definition, a common good, and doing it well tends to involve elevating the collective over the local and the individual. Today’s Russians are hardly Soviets, but they have a more European notion of the importance of the former, while the Russian state is much less bound by legal and other constraints in how it goes about doing its job of governing.
Setting aside the military, the US approach is that as much as possible should be handled as locally as possible, and if it can be on the back of sponsorship and philanthropy, so much the better. Hence, Amtrak: the challenge is not buying faster trains, it’s the fact that upgrading the line is a legislative nightmare, not least because of local interests – and I don’t see Bill Gates looking to sponsor a few hundred miles of railway.
If the US approach is to get out of the way and let locals do it – whether or not they can – then the Russian approach is much more to get the locals out of the way while the state does it. Sometimes that works very well, but it’s also, as is evident, a recipe for massive corruption, inefficiency and political string-pulling (Moscow does so well to a considerable extent as a vampire, sucking the blood out of much of the rest of European Russia).
Still, as the snow continues to fall, I’m happy enough to see the legions of city employees out clearing it as quickly. Usually when people are looking for examples of Russian excellence they look to mythologised determination in war, culture (ballet, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, and so on), or maths, computing and hard sciences. But let’s not forget coping with the snow, building metro systems, and operating fast, excellent, cheap internet, too!