With New Year's day out of the way, Americans have gone back to work--in mild weather in the East, blizzards in the center and rain in the west. Meanwhile, Russians are collectively giddy as they are in the middle of what has become a tradition, a ten-day holiday that begins a few days before New Year's and ends with the Orthodox Christmas on January 7.
This has been proclaimed the Year of the Red Fire Pig and Russians have gone wild buying pig toys, pig calendars, piggy banks, wooden pigs, velvet pigs -- many of them made in China. The streets of Moscow and other cities were jammed with pig buyers leading up to New Year's Day, probably the Russians' favorite holiday. At 10 p.m. on Tuesday before New Year's Day, a commentator on radio's Echo Moscow proclaimed "The city is at a standstill. Traffic jams on all roads."
One polling firm found that 79 percent of its respondents said their holiday table would be graced with tangerines and 76 percent would include sparkling wines. Both commodities have been favorites for years, but were scarce and expensive in Soviet times and now are plentiful and more readily affordable. When it comes to gift-giving, another pollster found that Russians planned to spend, on average the equivalent of about $500.
Legislators in the Duma, themselves awash in perks, came up with their own "gift" to the people in the Year of the Fiery Pig: a new annual celebration, the Day of Victory Over Militarist Japan. Memories being what they are, the legislators have apparently forgotten that Russia entered the war against Japan six days before it ended in 1945.
Why all the optimism, free-spending and pigmania? Russians seem to have embraced what had long been an exclusively American characteristic of believing that tomorrow will be better than today; that the best is yet to come. This faith in the future has been discovered by independent pollsters, not the State Statistics Service (over many years Russians have developed the habit of not believing officials statistics). The optimism is fueled by several factors:
* Seven years of economic growth (the World Bank predicts 5 percent to 6.5 percent annual growth over the next several years. It was 6.9 percent in 2006);
* Real cash incomes were up in 2006 by 11.5 percent and pensions up by 5.3 percent;
* The stock market grew by 65 percent last year;
* Foreign and national investments increased sharply, despite the Kremlin's threats against some foreign oil companies doing business in the country;
* Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov announced that the number of people living in poverty had been cut in half in 2006.
In New Year's remarks to his cabinet just before the holiday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia could "look confidently into the next year and...draft new plans for the country's economic development, for upgrading its potential and for raising well being for our citizens."
Putin has bet, correctly, that Russians want, more than anything else, stability and economic growth that affects positively their personal lives. He has given them that. We and others on the outside see mostly centralization of power, muzzling of news media and reduction of legislative autonomy, ignoring the fact that Putin's popularity ratings remain very high.
While Russians are in a celebratory mood, two dark clouds loom. One is the low the birth rate (below the replacement level), with the probable result that population of about 145 million will fall to 100 million by mid-century, with all the social and economic problems that will entail.
The other is that much of the economic prosperity has been built on the high price of oil and the extraction of other minerals. What is needed is robust development of the manufacturing sector and export of products.
Like our Congressional Democrats and Social Security reform, however, the Russians take the Scarlett O'Hara approach to these problems, to wit: "I don't want to think about that today; I'll think about it tomorrow."
Meanwhile, the Red Fire pigs are flying and the bubbly is flowing.
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