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The High Price of Long Vacations

Published: January 15, 2014 (Issue # 1793)


Russians enjoy longer holidays than people in any of the other 40 countries tracked by the travel website Hotels.com, combining the generous 28-day paid vacation required by the labor law with 12 days of official public holidays adds up to 40 days per year, compared to 36 days off work for second-place Italy.

Some aspects of such long vacations are undoubtedly positive. A long summer vacation combined with more than a week off at the start of the year and a holiday many people create for themselves in early May gives families more time together and allows them to travel abroad. In theory, this should remedy the pernicious effect of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain and make younger Russians more knowledgeable about the world, more tolerant and open-minded. The shrillness of the current xenophobic campaign in the state media, attacking the West in general, may be the Kremlin’s desperate, irrational attempt to stem the tide of pro-Western sentiment among well-traveled Russians.

But many who stay home actually hate the extended New Year holidays. They complain about the hangovers after drinking, wasteful spending and boredom. But there is also a broader economic impact of generous vacations, which is similar to what Russia experienced under communism and which could come to haunt it once again in the near future.

Whether or not people worked longer hours in the Soviet Union is beside the point. Pay was low, but productivity was even lower. “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work,” went the popular saying. Much time was wasted on party meetings and indoctrination, and the system itself was economically inefficient. The Soviets mined coal and ore to make machinery to mine more coal and ore. The added value of such activity was negligible.

Once communism collapsed and Russia became integrated into the world economy, the economic value of Soviet communism was appraised by the market. The result was a sharp devaluation of the ruble. The Soviet ruble went from parity to the dollar artificially set by the state, or about 10 rubles per dollar on the black market, to the equivalent of about 33,000 rubles to the dollar, which is what the Soviet ruble is worth today. This destroyed all savings accumulated during the Soviet era and made a mockery of pensions.

Russia is now relatively wealthy once more. Its gross domestic product is valued at more than $2 trillion based on purchasing power parity, not much lower than Britain. Unlike the Soviet era, it is market evaluation, not an arbitrary figure set by state planners. But to a large extent, Russia’s elevated GDP reflects high commodity prices, notably oil, which in turn have been inflated by the U.S. Federal Reserve’s relentless printing of dollars.

Meanwhile, productivity in Russia’s non-oil economy is generally low. Where productivity is higher, such as in the automobile and food-processing industry, it is also largely a reflection of petrodollar-driven consumer demand. Moreover, even in those industries unit labor costs are high, since employers have to pay for government-mandated fringe benefits and generous vacations.

If oil prices drop, Russia may suffer a decline in wealth similar to the one that occurred after the fall of communism, albeit on a smaller scale. In particular, falling oil prices would require a devaluation of the ruble, with sharply negative consequences for dollar-denominated national accounts.

This is not a far-fetched scenario but something that happened several times to Venezuela, Algeria, Mexico, Indonesia and other oil producers — even to the Saudis in the early and mid-1990s.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, lives in New York. His detective novel “Murder at the Dacha” was published by Russian Life Books in 2013.





 


Times Talk

ALL ABOUT TOWN

Wednesday, Apr. 23


Problems facing the elderly are in the spotlight at Senior Generation 2014, an international forum at LenExpo beginning today that focuses on drawing attention to and providing information about some of society’s most vulnerable members. An exhibition combined with a trade fair will help those interested be better equipped to help this demographic.



Thursday, Apr. 24


Learn more about Denmark during the Danish Business Delegation’s visit to SPIBA this evening starting at 5:30 p.m. at the Danish Culture Institute. Danish Consul general Klaus Sorensen will be in attendance and the buffet following a presentation on Danish companies in Russia will be the perfect opportunity to network with the assembled businessmen.


AmCham’s Human Resources Committee Meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. this morning in their St. Petersburg office. Check their website for more details.



Friday, Apr. 25


Light Music presents the main events for their Cultural Kitchen project at Loft-Project Etagi today. A B2B event that focuses on Finnish food, arts, travel, music and design, the evening will conclude with a dinner by chef Jyrki Tsutsunen and dancing to music by Aino Venna. The event, which began yesterday with presentations by tourism and cultural institutions, concludes today with a preview of Finland’s Flow festival and other musical events. Invitations are available from www.culturalkitchen.fi.



Saturday, Apr. 26


At 6 p.m. this evening, stylist Liliana Modigliani offers 50 simple ways to up your style quotient with beauty tips at the Galeria shopping center on Ligovsky Prospekt. The event is part of the final day of the shopping mall’s Fashion Saturday sales event, this week focusing on top brands located on the ground floor as well as presentation from fashion experts on sprucing up your spring look.



Sunday, Apr. 27


Families shouldn’t miss Childhood Planet 2014, the trade fair that started yesterday and concludes today at LenExpo. Not only will goods and services be provided for children and families but the event hopes to promote Russian brands and eco-friendly products using the latest technology available in the childcare industry.



Monday, Apr. 28


The Hotel Indigo will be the site of SPIBA’s Acting Skills for HR and Other Managers master class this morning starting at 9 a.m. The event will begin with coffee before moving on to the class itself and conclude with a tour of the recently opened hotel. Confirm attendance by Apr. 24.



Tuesday, Apr. 29


Improve your English at the British Book Center’s Interactive English Lesson tonight at 6 p.m. Students at pre-intermediate and intermediate levels are welcome discuss topics that are selected to help learners master the more difficult aspects of English grammar and vocabulary.