Daily Archives: April 26, 2006

So Much for the Vaunted Russian Education System!

Moscow Times columnist Georgy Bovt lays bare the tragic state of the Russian education system at every level in the following brilliant and breathtaking column. Remember, it’s never to the advantage of a dictator like Putin to have a well-educated, independent, free-thinking population. The other kind is much easier to control. And if the economy suffers as a result and people are poor? Empty bellies are also much easier to control!

C Students and Dilettantes

A salesperson in a computer store couldn’t help me configure my new cell phone. Since this isn’t my forte and I was too lazy to figure it out myself, I left the phone with the store whizzes. When I came back in three hours I found them clustered in a group in the center of the sales room, ignoring the other customers and discussing how to set GPRS on that phone model. They didn’t know how to do it. No one had trained them to deal with the electronics they were selling.

The nice young woman in the travel agency where I bought airline tickets didn’t tell me that the sign for the credit card on the door meant that they would take the card — and an additional 2 percent of the ticket cost. Nor did she mention the day before when I was in the office that someone had to go out for my tickets and I’d have to wait a half hour. And of course she didn’t think to write down the time of arrival and departure terminal number. To my astonished exclamation, “But it’s done as a matter of course!” she replied that she did it only if the traveler requested. It took no more than 30 seconds. Why not do it right away?

Even in Moscow’s most expensive boutiques the salesperson will not always come up to you with the standard question, “How can I help you?” Here the saleswomen may look like top models, but they’ll chat with each other and not pay any attention to the customers

In appliance stores the salespeople can’t explain the advantages and drawbacks of various models and brands. Barmen in Sheremetyevo International Airport often can’t speak a word of English — and the same for the staff in almost all Moscow’s hotels and restaurants. This list could be continued endlessly.

All these people have one thing in common: They’re dilettantes.

This dilettantism is a disaster for the Russian economy. Top and middle-level managers tell you this as soon as you raise the subject. Every editor-in-chief screams about how poorly qualified most new employees are. Although they can’t even write correctly in Russian (not to mention all the other necessary skills and knowledge), they start salary negotiations with figures that may be realistic in Europe or the United States, but not here. They get hired, because there’s no one else, and the mass media are growing by leaps and bounds.

The retail sector, which is growing as rapidly, is also reeling from unqualified employees. Some stores try to train their staff, but it’s virtually useless, since the staff knows they can get another job if their present one doesn’t suit. It’s the same story in the restaurant business and in the service sphere in general.

At this point someone will say: But the provinces are full of people eager to come to the city to earn money. That’s utter nonsense! They won’t come! They’re living in squalor and don’t want to do anything, even for money. A major automotive company wanted to build an assembly plant in the Pskov region. The managers went to the area and were horrified: There simply wasn’t anyone to work at the factory. Most of the men were drunks. This is typical for many Russian regions.

Company directors complain that there are no qualified bookkeepers, lawyers or personnel directors. Fairy tales about “computer geniuses” who could fill two cities of Bangalore are just that — fairy tales. These people may be talented, but they are self-taught and usually never had a systematic professional education. The country’s education system fell apart — in every sphere.

Have you ever heard of training for cashiers, salespeople, electricians, travel agents, train conductors, secretaries, plumbers or other low-level white- and blue-collar workers? Typically there’s no competition for them; friends of friends or relatives without special training get hired.This dilettantism and disregard for standards of service has become the norm in the Russian economy. If you think this is only happening at the low end of the business ladder, you’re wrong; it’s the exact same thing at the top. Professional training and experience is nothing compared to being from St. Petersburg or political loyalty.

As a result, decisions are ill-considered and sometimes unwise; half-baked laws that don’t anticipate the consequences are drafted; and ill-conceived systems are implemented on a nationwide scale.

Sometimes it seems that the country is being run at every level by C students.

Georgy Bovt is the editor of Profil . . . and a genuine Russian patriot!

Thesbian Putin Hams it Up, Fools Nobody

The New York Times reports that Vladimir Vladimirovich has suddenly become a bosom friend of the environment . . . or has he?

President Vladimir V. Putin declared today that an oil pipeline being built across Siberia should be rerouted significantly further away from the northern shore of Lake Baikal, one of the world’s natural landmarks.

The pipeline’s route, coming so close to Baikal, had raised concerns that any accident in a remote, seismically active region could send oil spilling into a lake holding more than 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen fresh water and an abundance of unique species of wildlife. Not only environmental groups, but also Russian scientists opposed Transneft’s planned route. Mr. Putin’s decision today was an unexpected reversal, one that appeared highly choreographed for state television networks.

The reversal underscored Mr. Putin’s highly centralized power and his penchant for dramatic gestures. Wielding a pen in front of an oversized map of Baikal, he swept aside the decisions of several government agencies, as well as those of Transneft, which had warned that finding another route would be prohibitively expensive.

So is Mr. Putin, who presides over one of the world’s most environmentally filthy countries, standing up for his own personal power or for the environment? You be the judge, dear reader:

Mr. Putin’s decision came as Russia, along with Ukraine and Belarus, commemorated the 20th anniversary of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. In a sign that public protests have their limits, the authorities broke up a demonstration against nuclear energy in Moscow, briefly detaining a dozen Greenpeace activists who had chained themselves to a fence in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square.

Who’s Afraid of a GPS?

As the Moscow Times reports, the KGB is afraid, very much so in fact:

Although satellite navigation systems are widely available, their legality remains unclear, with some industry players insisting they are legal and others calling them illegal. NavMaps negotiated permission separately for the use of the maps for BMW.

Nine years ago, the Federal Security Service detained a U.S. engineer and charged him with espionage, saying he had taken land surveys of restricted sites using illegal satellite receivers and brought the equipment into the country without disclosing it to customs inspectors. Richard Bliss had a GPS unit with him for laying out a commercial phone system in Rostov-on-Don for his employer, Qualcomm.

Almost a decade later, the law, a holdover from Soviet times, still forbids determining location to an accuracy of more than 30 meters. This means that getting into trouble for using highly accurate GPS equipment is not improbable, although it is becoming less likely as detailed maps are now available on the Internet and Russians are becoming increasingly technologically savvy.
A Western European biker, who asked that his identity be withheld, said he had to hide his GPS when he traveled through Russia recently.

“I didn’t want any troubles,” he said.

The Defense Ministry, keen to further develop the Global Navigation Satellite System, Russia’s answer to GPS, said in March that it would ease restrictions on location determination by year’s end. The industry hopes that will further boost the use of the navigation equipment in the country.

La Russophobe and Le Language Hat

La Russophobe recently had an interesting e-mail exhange with the linguists at the Language Hat blog. Not being a linguist herself, she queried them about her post on Mark Twain, to see if her points were well made and find out how they might be improved — and got a fascinating response.

Language Hat told La Russophobe that her post was not revelatory, as she thought, but old news, and of no interest to them. To quote Language Hat directly:

“Virtually all Russian translations are terrible in many different ways; translating is regarded in Russia as journeyman work and very poorly paid, and it’s a miracle if the basic meaning is conveyed. To make a big deal out of something as relatively recondite as not reproducing bad grammar is, to my mind, straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.”

And there’s more. Language Hat informed La Russophobe that her concern about possible politicization of translation may be overblown. Language Hat says that Russians mistranslate not necessarily because of anything as sensational as political bias, but simply because Russian translators are simply not willing to do the “hard work” that would be required to make such translations (i.e., the stereotype of Russia being a nation of slackers is perfectly true, it appears). What’s more, according to Language Hat as quoted above, Russia is a nation of anti-literary morons, who assign their very lowest common denominator to the task of translating foreign literature. (This does make some sense, given the pathetically low wages Russia pays to teachers, doctors and policemen.) Of course, the butchery is very convenient for political purposes even if it is not intentional.

And there was poor, confused La Russophobe thinking that Russia was a nation with a great literary tradition, and a population that worshipped the written word! She thought that perhaps Russians were unaware of how they were butchering foreign literaure, and might want to do something about it. Come to find out, perhaps the whole world already knows that Russia is a nation of slack-jawed xenophobic simpletons who haven’t the faintest idea about the literature of other countries. And Russians themselves may indeed be very well aware of this fact; after all, they certainly know about the ridiculously low quality of medical care, police protection and education they receive, so it stands to reason they may also know how wretchedly they butcher foreign literature. And they just don’t care.

In other words, not only isn’t La Russophobe not too hard on Russia, she’s way, way too soft!

In future, La Russophobe promises to buck things up a bit.

Still, La Russophobe is willing to bet that there are at least one or two myopic, rabid Russophiles out there who think Russia has a grand literary tradition and translates wonderfully well. For them at least, La Russophobe remains convinced that her Twain piece will be revelatory.