Artemy Lebedev

§ 172. Comfort zone

September 23, 2011

The author is pretty well-traveled, having visited over five hundred locations in more than 120 countries. Such extensive traveling left no chance to ignore the difference in look from place to place. It was hard not to notice how some countries are good to be in, while others are plain bad. It’s good in Europe. Bad in Africa. Good in Asia. Bad in Russia. The conclusion came naturally—the way a city looks depends on its people’s attitude.

Russian-made electric stoves and gas ranges are not something you want to have at home. They are simply bad, while they might have all the physics laws applied properly, convection working and be engineered right. The same stands true for Russian vehicles, buildings, hotels, any service industry business—the list goes on and on.

Other countries have better vehicles, better magazines, TV sets are better, etc. Pick any object and you’ll find European or Japanese specie desirable, but not the Russian.

We all have our comfort zone wherever we are. Even a homeless has one: it’s defined by the edge of his fridge box. The author believes that comfort zone to be a greater factor in a country’s standard of living than its general state wealth.

Europeans extend their comfort zone beyond their apartment threshold to include the stairwell, courtyard, street, the block and the downtown. (Which leaves European cities’ outskirts just as bad as Russian: those miserable bedroom communities do not differ much country to country and a miners town in France is very similar to the depressing Donetsk suburbs).

In Russia one’s comfort zone is traditionally marked by the front door at home. The padding on the outside of the door is still within the limits, but one cm off the threshold is where the owner draws a line. He does not care what’s out there: walls coated in horrendous oil paint, someone’s bike, or a box from the fifties put out by the neighbors.

It’s a rare occasion when someone fixes a stairwell in his apartment building. He starts off by going door to door asking the neighbors to help finance the project, only to hear “no money.” There is a chance to run into another oligarch who’ll pitch in. And here they are, two people (in the best-case scenario) fixing the communal entrance, while the rest of the tenants are actively hating them and trying to fuck up the project: say, paint over or break something. Or just leave the entrance door unlocked, thus welcoming a homeless party. Russians are not open to widen the horizons of the comfort zone.

Saint Petersburg is a good example of how Russian thinking is different from European. It’s a city built from ground up according to European model and to nowadays is, in fact, a European city, despite its century-long isolation from European civilization. The city’s got a good scrub down and underneath all that patina it appeared preserved quite well.

Today Peter is far ahead of other Russian cities due to doing things the European way. There’re summer cafes with outside seating—a novelty even for Moscow, since the bribery “fees” in the latter are too high to be encouraging.

The second thing keeping Peter apart is no asphalt on sidewalks. All sidewalks in Russia are historically encased in asphalt together with the roads. Must be they started to lay asphalt on any surface they could get a hold of as soon as this material became invented. No other country in the world has asphalt-covered sidewalks, only Russia. Peter does not have those because it belongs to Europe; and even the walls of the city influence the atmosphere and the roads in particular. It means Petersburgians have their comfort zone slightly extending beyond the house threshold, therefore giving city a good chance to leap forward.

This section is based on the presentation given by the author at the International Economy Forum in Saint Petersburg in 2010—a year before they started paving Moscow sidewalks with planks. Unfortunately, the planks on Tverskaya street are eating dust in comparison to stone pavement on Nevsky prospect.

I definitely wish this for other cities as well.

What else a Russian embraces in his comfort zone? For certain, it’s clothing: people love to purchase nice apparel. Even walking out of the house on wooden planks over mud puddles is always performed wearing the most beautiful shoes, pants, or dress. It must also be very expensive and bought with the last pennies.

The vehicle is certainly in as well. One takes great pleasure in buying a very costly car. It does get tricky at first to figure out how he managed to earn full 150 thousand dollars to afford this car, while the restrooms in his business office are poorly equipped with some joke of dividers between stalls, eliminating any privacy whatsoever.

The owner of a 150-grand car is not ashamed to also own a company where his colleagues and employees have to work in such conditions. He does not care, because it’s business. Business is not a part of the executives’ comfort zone. This is true for most Russian companies.

This is the main difference between Russia and the West. In the West people will happily provide a decent restroom even if they’re never going to use it themselves. But they will rest assured they did something good for others, strangers or no strangers. The Westerners will enjoy paving a walkway, planting a tree, etc.

The author does not know of a single example of a Russian municipality building a park with people’s comfort in mind. I am not asking for more than a bench and a shady tree. Some monumental parks are mandatory and memorial complexes are a must. However, it does not occur to people to place a simple sitting bench, because it just does not cross their mind as an option.

It’s very easy to practice expanding one’s comfort zone: start by allowing in someone else besides the self.

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