Friendly Fistfight, Only In Russia

Friendly Fistfight, Only In Russia

A few years back, I was enjoying a quiet evening meal in the restaurant wagon of a Russian train, its wheels rhythmically clicking across the darkening plains.

There were two other gentlemen in the same restaurant wagon, sitting shoulder to shoulder and enjoying a bit of drink and deep conversation.  By deep conversation, I mean laughing and slapping each other on the back and then alternatively taking sucker punches at the other’s faces.

At first, I was a bit amused, but then again I had come to the restaurant wagon for a little peace and quiet (after all), so in time a bit of irritation began to develop.  Furthermore, the situation was showing clear signs of steady deterioration.

I knew that a policeman is usually on duty on such trains.  So, I suggested to the restaurant manager, who also sat observing this spectacle with a look of pious boredom, that perhaps this situation warranted the participation of the police.

The manager took the voice of a kindergarten teacher addressing the chief of all simpletons: “And then what will happen?  The police will come.  They will kick them off the train.  Then in the morning, they will feel very sorry about what happened.”

He could not have more precisely described the scenario that I was hoping for.  But to the restaurant manager, this option was simply preposterous.

You see, what I’ve learned while living in Russia is that most fistfights are friendly.

Except for those that are not.

I was reminded of this train restaurant friendly fistfight story today as @EnglishRussia1 tweeted this fantastic video that felt so very Russian to me.

There are so many things I love about this video, including the passion of our champion roadside gladiators, the disinterest of the lady walking by, and how after the scuffle, life continues on as normal.

It’s difficult to say what the Russian culture takeaway from all of this.  I mean, we could discuss the fascinating, amusing, and invigorating Russian tradition of  the “wall battle”, most often observed during “Maslenitsa” and aptly depicted in this scene from “The Siberian Barber”:

But I think what we can learn here is that Russians aren’t as easily indignant as you.  As a matter of fact, Russians often see the huffing exasperation of their Western counterparts at the slightest bump in the road to be a bit comical.  In most cases, Russians just roll with the punches.  And if a friend needs to let off some steam with a bit of playful yet energetic sparring, no sense in fighting him over it, might as well just join in.

Because it’s all in fun… right?


You Can Draw Like This | The Russian Art Method

A lot of people have a subconscious belief that artistic ability is based solely on supernatural talent.  But what if I told you that you can draw like this?

Rendition of The Good Samaritan by student of the Academy of Russian Art

Yes, I mean you.  I can hear your guffaws and giggles from here, but give me a chance and keep reading.

You see, the problem with the belief that art is only a supernatural talent is that would mean that it can not be learned… or taught.


The Florence Academy of Russian Art…

  • Is not for Russians (only).
  • Is not for Italians (only).
  • Classes are in English.
  • As a matter of fact, students are from all over the world (a recent guest said it was like the UN, when meeting with students), and very few are from Russia or Italy.


With the Russian art method- there is (perhaps most importantly), a method.  This is shockingly what makes the program different than so much art education that is offered around the world.  And if a student puts in the work, their level will improve, regardless of whether they start out as a beginner or have already studied art elsewhere.  As I heard one student at the academy recently stated: “I learned more in my first 5 days here than in 5 years at my previous institute(!)”.

Although I am not an artist, I was blown away during my recent visit to the academy to see how the students quickly improve their level- growing from learning the principles of drawing a cube to drawing a full figure (like the image above).  Don’t get me wrong, the students work hard.  But the result is clear.

I made a simple video about the experience for the Planet Russia Facebook page:

The academy offers a 3-year degree, but also offers 3 week courses throughout the year, such as the Anatomy Course that will start on January 8, 2018.  It’s pretty cool that you can take advantage of the secrets of the Russian Art Method and improve your level, no matter your background.

And, as I have at least one child who is interested in art, I am also thinking about what their career path would be after completing this type of art training.  The  Russian art education method provides a quality base for many career paths including architecture, design, illustration, animation and more.  That means, that in the modern workplace where careers seem to change as often as the seasons, a graduate with this kind of background and base will be nimble enough to be able to find work in many directions.

The Russian art education system has so many incredible things to offer.  And, as I hinted at in the video, Florence isn’t the worst place in the world to take advantage of this world-class education.

And since you have read to the end of this post, here is a bonus video, where you can check out the city of Florence, the academy, and also meet a few of the students and teachers.  Enjoy!

Continue reading “You Can Draw Like This | The Russian Art Method”

Russia’s Simple Small Business Tax System

Russia’s Simple Small Business Tax System

I remember a few years back, an American businessman by the name of Herman Cain ran for president on the platform of introducing a flat tax.

To most Republicans the idea of a flat tax is a pretty progressive idea.  To most Democrats it’s very backwards.  So, if you are a Republican, you might find Russia’s tax law to be an object of envy.  If you are a Democrat, I would remind you that socialized health care has been here since sometime around Woodrow Wilson’s term in the Oval Office.

So, here it goes:  If you open a small business in Russia (sole proprietorship or LLC), you can apply for the simplified tax rate.  I have never heard of anyone being denied such application.  And here are the numbers:  6%.  That’s the flat rate you pay on any income.  The only other “hidden cost” is a payment to the pension fund, which for simplicity’s sake, we will say is about 1% of total income.

If you are a sole proprietorship, the rest of the money (roughly 93%) is then just yours.  You can do whatever you want with it.  I believe this is a fantastic set up, particularly for solopreneurs who are offering a simple service and have few expenses.

However, if your business has expenses, you can apply for a tax rate of 15% of total profit.  This is a situation where you would then go the American route of hiring a good accountant to help you find expenses in order to avoid taxes.

And if you are not interested in registering a business, your personal income is taxed at a flat rate of 13%.

Now to be fair, things change drastically if you take on a payroll or your business grows beyond 60 million rubles per year (slightly north of $1 million).  But my view is that you can cross that bridge when you come to it.

This blog post is not to provide any tax advice.  I’m simply arguing that the Russian government has made it easy to open a small business, and I would like to give them credit for that.  Whenever I need real advice for my business, I go to the Business Development Agency (BDA).  They charge very reasonable rates and are always happy to answer my questions and offer options of real solutions.  This is not a paid advertisement!  I am just letting you know who I trust, in the event that Russia’s siren song of simplified tax rates would encourage you to start your own business here.  Because you would probably then want professional assistance and not just a blog post.

It’s a little humorous how, as an American, I spend time trying to convince my Russian friends how fantastic their tax system is.  And it’s a little baffling to me how unimpressed they are.

Well, I guess I should say I love the simplified tax system for small business.  But particularly as I work in the area of real estate, I would submit that the tax on sales of real estate could use some improvement.  If you are a non-resident, it is a flat rate of 30% of the total sale, regardless of whether the property increased or decreased in value.  Let that sink in for a moment.

Because I really want folks to be encouraged to buy real estate in Russia.

So, start a business in Russia.  And before you buy any property, read the small print.

Because perhaps in comparison to other countries around the world, Russia should not have the reputation as being the bureaucratic one.  It’s quite simple, really.

How To Sell Real Estate In Russia

How To Sell Real Estate In Russia

Ok, I’m learning.  But it looks like I’m on to something.

The RBC web-site states that more than 4,000 real estate agencies were closed in Russia over the past year.

There are good reasons for that.  Many parts of real estate service are becoming more automated, making some realtors go the way of the farmer during the Industrial Revolution.  And construction seems to be continuing at a fervent pace, even as average income seems to be holding steady at best.

I somehow became excited about the idea of so many agencies closing.  Not that I wish my competition any ill will (really!), but the idea of a real challenge somehow energizes me more than any low-hanging fruit that just anyone could pick.

This humble blogger’s real estate agency, Expat Flat, has focused mainly on providing rental options for those foreigners who are moving to Moscow for work for a couple of years.  And as we continue this service, we have also begun to think about sales.

You see, my prediction is that as real estate prices fall, property investment will become more attractive to international investors.

But how to attract international investors?  Well, we decided to do what no one else is doing, and start a Russian real estate video blog, in English, entitled “How Much Does It Cost?”

There are quite a few really good Russian real estate video blogs… in Russian.  But as far as I know, this is the first Russian real estate video blog in English.  We aim to make Russian real estate available to the world.

Here is the first episode, highlighting some offices right across the street from the Kremlin:

After putting the video out on YouTube and also the Facebook page, it was cool to get strong positive feedback both from Russia and a few places around the world.

We already have a few more spots lined up for future episodes that we are beyond excited about, but for those of you back home, I have a question.  What kinds of places would you be interested in having highlighted in such a video in the future?  Please comment and let me know.

We would love to show you around Russia, and maybe you will begin to not just enjoy the entertainment value of such a video, but also begin to see the opportunity for investment.

How To Sing Happy Birthday In Russian

How To Sing Happy Birthday In Russian

Ok, there are actually two ways to sing Happy Birthday in Russian.

The first is something close to what you would expect:

“С днём рождения тебя” (S dnyom rozhdeniya tebya)

Literally translated, this means “With the birthday, to you” and it is to be sung to the tune of the English hit “Happy Birthday”.  Here’s how it goes:

S dnyom rozhdeniya tebya! (With the birthday to you!)

S dnyom rozhdeniya tebya! (With the birthday to you!)

S dnyom rozhdeniya! S dnyom rozhdeniya! (no need to insert the name you Western self-centered indvidualist!)

S dnyom rozhdeniya tebya! (With the birthday to you!)

I honestly have no idea why they say “With the Birthday” or “With The New Year”.  I am no etymologist, to be sure.

The SECOND way to sing Happy Birthday is much more Russian.  Also, the name of the song is something like “I Play on the Accordion“.  Here are the words:

May people run clumsily through puddles
May the water flow like a river down the street,
And may people passing by not understand why
I am so happy on this sad day.
And I play the accordion for all to see
It’s a pity that (my) birthday
Is only once a year
Suddenly a magician arrives in a blue helicopter
A shows (us) movies for free.
He wishes a happy birthday
And he’s likely to give me 500 ice-creams (as a present)
And I play the accordion for all to see
It’s a pity that (my) birthday
Is only once a year
It’s a pity that (my) birthday
Is only once a year

Fortunately, the Happy Birthday song that includes the word “pity” is sung to an upbeat melody:

To add further confusion to a situation in which a nation refers to this as a “sad day” and mentions that we should be mournful since we can not celebrate more than once annually, my understanding is that this song was originally performed by the critically acclaimed Crocodile Gyena.  Here you go:

I sort of feel this explains why Russians don’t smile.

Of course I’m joking.  Russians sometimes do smile. 

And lest I leave you worrying about a magician arriving in a blue helicopter, I can say that there is a third more modern and happily upbeat option.  Here it goes, together with random Russian cartoon footage.  You are welcome.  Now choose which one to sing, the next time you are invited to a Russian birthday party.

American Cafeteria Closed For Lunch

American Cafeteria Closed For Lunch

I walked up to the cafeteria in Perm, Russia.  It was the mid-nineties and Russia was bursting with optimism for the future.  I was bursting with desire for lunch.  Unfortunately, the cafeteria in Perm was closed… for lunch.

That’s when I learned some important words of wisdom: “You can not understand Russia with your mind…”  There are different endings to that proverb, such as “you just need to love her” or “you just need to observe”.  Both of those endings are pretty good, I think.

And so, now after more than 18 years of living in Russia, there are many things I don’t understand, but I still love and observe.

For example, it’s still difficult for me to understand how the short version of the name “Aleksandr” in Russian can be “Shurik”.  Also, the short name for Evdokiya can be “Dusya”, but I digress.  Because in English, we can call Margaret “Peggy”.  So, get over it.

Also, I don’t always understand my wife, but that doesn’t mean I can’t love, observe, and still build relationship with her.  But that’s a different story… right?

I was asked to go on a political talk show on Russia’s NTV channel.  I had received some invitations before and never thought I would go on a political talk show.  Some people think that NTV is a government controlled propaganda channel.  Some people frown upon those people who go on political talk shows in Russia.  Other folks have their views of Fox or CNN.  But I went anyway.

We should look for any opportunity for dialog, even if it doesn’t fit our personal concept of an ideal conversational format.

The political talk show seemed surprised when I shared my view that America has made many mistakes in foreign affairs.  The audience also seemed to like my point that sanctions are pointless and will not change Russia’s politics.

I then explained that Russia is speaking in a language that the American people don’t understand.

A security guard in Russia asked for my paperwork so that he could fill out the forms for my car to be parked in his jurisdiction.  At the time, I didn’t have my Russian license, so I offered to help him fill out his papers.  He said that this would not be necessary since he was studying English to which I could only reply, “Great!”  There was then a long pause, and he asked, so your name is “Driver’s License”?

It’s hard to understand each other when we don’t speak the same language.  Although perhaps the misunderstanding is on a level deeper than Russian or English.

This is what a Russian political talk show looks like:

By the way, America, you also are not speaking to Russia in a language that it understands.  But I haven’t been invited to any American talk shows to explain that important point.  In this instance, my task was to explain how the Russian people could speak to the American people in a way that would be understood.

“Why not form a group of volunteers and show the goodness and might of Russia by sending them to Houston to assist with hurricane relief?”

That’s what I suggested on the Russian political talk show.  I must have explained myself poorly because I think I was completely misunderstood.  They thought I was talking about a government relief program.  I was thinking of Russian businessmen supporting a project, because I think Russian businessmen are interested in improved relations with America.  I was picturing personal initiative not a government committee.

But the fact that I was misunderstood shows that we don’t understand each other.  Will we ever understand each other?  I honestly don’t know.  I was raised, for example, to never expect money from the government, so it didn’t cross my mind to explain that my idea was not a government project.


My dear Russian friends, you live in a great country.  Your cultural history and education are beyond anything that I have seen or experienced in America.  You don’t need to have a complex about your nation.

And I have seen many examples of the might of Russia over the past 18 years.  I remember in 1999, I was in a remote village in the Urals and hungry.  There was no store in the small village.  A local village woman pulled a large sack of potatoes out of her underground winter storage.  These weren’t potatoes that she had bought, of course.  These were potatoes that she had grown for her family during the short summer months.  She handed me the sack.  When I started to hand her some rubles she shook her head and said, “Have you lost your mind?”  That’s power, and that’s Russia.

It seems I’m asked almost every day why I chose to live in Russia.  Usually, I just say, “America has smooth roads and everybody is always smiling.  Totally boring”.

Dear Russian Patriots, I would remind you that you live in Russia because you were born here.  I live here because I love it here.

If I had a dollar for every time I was asked if my wife is Russian I could move from Mytischi to Rublevka (if you know what I mean).  No she is not.  The next question (or comment) is always, “Well then, you must be a spy?”

I then say, “Is Russia a great nation?” The answer is always, “Yes.”  To which I reply, “…well if you believe Russia is a great nation, why don’t you believe that someone would want to come and live here?”

Speaking of drivers’ licenses, I have no idea why the American driving test is so easy and the Russian test is so difficult.  For example, in Russia, you need to know what is the correct color of a rear anti-fog light in a motorcycle (and in what conditions you may turn it on).  And then you get a driver’s license that gives you the right to drive a car but not a motorcycle.  These are some of the things that I do not understand.

The sanctions aren’t working, but the USA seems to be following the principle “of doing the same thing and expecting a different result”.

To which I can only suggest that my Russian friends remember that “You can’t understand America with your mind… just love and observe”.  Maybe the American cafeteria is closed for lunch.  Just shrug your shoulders, smile, and don’t take it personally.  And who knows, maybe you will get a new idea, like sending a group of volunteers to America.

Because like with my wife, you don’t have to always understand in order to find new ways to build relations.

Did Russia Meddle With US Elections?

Did Russia Meddle With US Elections?

Probably I shouldn’t blog about politics ever.  And usually I can hold my peace.  Because I believe 99% of it is hype to fill up the time between commercials on the 24/7 news channels.

But I have been thinking about this blog post for a few months now, so here goes.

Did Russia meddle with the US elections?  Here is my answer: I have no idea.  And neither do you.

But perhaps a better question would be “Would Russia meddle with the US elections if it had the chance?”.  Um, well, if given the chance, I wouldn’t put it past them.

And I am quick to add, I wouldn’t put it past the United States of America to meddle with nearly every significant foreign election in recent memory.

The second question would be “what is Russia trying to communicate to America?”.  I will take a stab at that in a moment.

I was convinced Hillary would win.  I didn’t think for a second that Mr. Trump had a chance.  Shows how well I understand politics.  Even with my misguided views, I was invited to do an interview on the eve of the election with Russia’s Rossiya-24 channel.

After the interview, I was heading home on the commuter train when I received a mysterious invitation to “An event at an undisclosed location.  The location would be announced only immediately before the event was to begin.”  I sort of thought that the “event” might include me digging a shallow hole in the woods.  But my wife said, “That’s cool.  You should totally go”.  So, I did.

It’s sort of difficult to describe what the event was.  I guess it was like a pro-Trump/pro-Kremlin election watch party.  The speeches seemed to be very pro-Trump and anti-American government.  But the main idea was a simple belief that Trump was the one who could improve Russia-US relations.  I was asked if I would like to give a speech.  I explained that, uh, I felt that probably nobody there wanted to hear my opinion on Trump. Although I was no supporter of Hillary either.

This painting was one of the main features of the Trump watch party

It was an interesting couple of weeks around the elections.  It seemed the Russian people were euphoric about Obama’s exit and were convinced that Trump would improve the relations between our nations.

During that time, I talked to a lot of folks.  And I guess I could say this is a list of things, in no particular order, the Russian people would want America to know (now that we have your attention).

Not saying that I agree with all of this, but I think it is helpful for Americans to understand.  Because I have heard many of these points not just from Russians, but from folks I’ve met from many nations around the world.:

  1. Russians want better relations with the United States.  It also seems they want it on their terms, just as America (1st) wants these improved relations on its terms.  Not sure how that is supposed to work, but I believe there is a real desire for improvement of relations.  Even at the awkward pro-Kremlin watch party, I sensed a sincere desire for improved relations, and a real concern for America.
  2. It’s strange for you to be indignant about any meddling in your elections.  No one outside of the United States believes that the US isn’t getting their fingers in all of the pies.
  3. 800 Foreign Military Bases is a slight overdo.  Maybe we could tone it down just a bit… and save some cash!
  4. The price of oil being attached to the dollar is unfair.  That’s a really long conversation.  Google it, if you’re interested to learn more.
  5. America’s democracy isn’t really a democracy.  Elections are controlled by corporations, etc.

And maybe this is the moment when I can mention perhaps the one thing I don’t love about Russia.  That is, I don’t love it when Russia blames America for things.  I don’t love it, because I believe that Russia is a powerful nation, so the actions of other nations shouldn’t affect it.  And in years past when my Russian friends would ask me “what Americans think about Russia”, I would shrug my shoulders and say something like “usually they don’t”.

But now, America, a superpower, and maybe we could say the superpower, is doing the same thing- blaming Russia for its own problems.  Maybe we could pause for a moment and look at ourselves, instead of Russia.  And maybe, just maybe, we can stop pointing fingers at Russians, Republicans, and Democrats.

Because although we are all sinners, if we make a little effort, we might just be able to begin working together again.