The Parallax Brief


Unrepentant Subjectivity on Economics, Politics, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Russia

Moscow on Ice

Moscow’s refusal to use salt or chemicals on the pavements in winter to aid deicing and snow melting is crazy. These proven and safe methods would make a huge difference to the walking conditions in Moscow, which have at times this winter become so impassable that good old treacherous becomes a halcyon memory.

Yet despite knowing that each year the streets will be covered in snow and ice for a large portion of the six-month Russian winter, and that only a very small number of days will be too cold for salt and chemicals to work, the city still refuses to bow to common sense. Why? Well, of course, because salt damages shoes.

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Mayor of Moscow the King Canute of Real Estate

I had an argument lively discussion with my landlord on Sunday. I was pitching for a rent reduction because (1) I pay in euros, meaning that in only a few months my rent has increased by 30% in ruble terms, and (2) this significant increase has happened in the face of a steep decline in Moscow real estate value; she was resisting in the strongest terms.

Her response to my forex argument was predictable:  something to the effect of, “It’s not my problem you agreed to pay in euros and the ruble has crashed.” But her second rebuttal was quite a shock (and I quote) “I know you think that property prices should go down with this economy, but it isn’t and won’t. This is Moscow.”

A-ha! So this is what happened to all those bankers who believed bets on sub-prime mortgages would pay a return because real estate values would appreciate in perpetuity.

But joking aside, what kind person would believe that real estate values will stay at current levels when this view flies in the face of common sense and a stack of cold, hard evidence that is telling us that Moscow real estate is, in fact, doing exactly what common sense tells us?

Why, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, of course. “No matter how much we would like [for apartment prices to fall], we need to look truth and reality in the face. Right now, it is impossible,” Luzkov told ITAR-Tass, according to a story in the Moscow Times.

The argument Luzhkov and my landlady would probably make is that supply still has a long way to go to catch up with demand in a city simply not designed for its post-soviet population explosion.

But this ignores a salient fact: I might want to buy a new house, but if I can’t get a mortgage or don’t have a job, I can’t buy one. With the mortgage market frozen and jobs simply evaporating, supply and demand becomes irrelevant.

And sure enough, prices are plummeting.

According to Bloomberg:

“Moscow residential property prices fell 2.3 percent to $5,972 a square meter in November. By December 15, prices had dropped another 6.9 percent to $5,558 a square meter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.”

The Moscow Times ran a story January 21 said:

“Rental prices have fallen off, with apartments plummeting in cost from 20 percent to 30 percent since July, depending on the class of apartment, according to Penny Lane Realty”

Apparently, prices fell by just under a 1% in the first week of January alone this year.

The market has passed its judgment on the conditions real estate firms are operating in, savaging their stock prices by 90% since last summer.

Of course, like my landlord, Luzhkov (allegedly) has a fairly large incentive for maintaining high property prices. Certainly, there must be some motivation for making such an absurd statement when evidence to the contrary is slapping him in the face, and for the asinine accusation made by two of Luzhkov’s deputies that media “disinformation about the fall in prices is inciting people not to buy apartments.”

As a deeply religious man, perhaps Luzhkov should learn the lesson of the pious king of Denmark, Norwary and much of the British Isles, Canute the Great, who, after failing to turn back the prevailing tide, said: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”

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Icy Moscow Streets Cause Break in Coverage

Readers of the Parallax Brief may have noticed that there have been no updates since Thursday night. Alas, my beloved slipped on ice near our apartment in Moscow and fractured her right fibula in three places, so I’m sure you’ll all understand if I confess that my priorities lay elsewhere over the weekend.

Ironically, I was actually considering writing about the situation on the pavements (sidewalks) here in Moscow, which of late have left treacherous a distant speck in the rear view mirror on their remorseless drive toward impassable.

Moscow seems to have entered a climatic netherworld too cold to melt the ice and snow completely, but not cold enough to keep it frozen all day. We have a slow, incomplete melt during the day, exposing a core of perma-ice made diamond tough by four months of compacting, which is then lubricated with a thin film of water from the day’s melt.

Walking becomes an exacting challenge, to say the least.

Yet shockingly for a country where this happens every year, the authorities – certainly in Moscow – refuse to put salt on the ground. Salt would allow the ice to melt at temperatures below freezing. Mixed with grit, it would provide grip, too. But instead, the Moscow City Government has an army of workers put down grit only, along with the occasional blob of what looks like wet aggregate, to provide grip. Of course, even in the center, it’s woefully inadequate.

Why no salt, I hear you ask?

Unbelievable as it may be, the Moscow City Government does not salt the pavements because it believes salting would ruin shoes.

As reasoning goes, that is one of the most risible lines of thought I’ve heard in a while – even by the standards of Russian bureaucracy – but it seems the authorities actually wear their refusal to put salt on the streets as a badge of pride. If you shoes get spoiled, a Moscow official apparently told the Moscow Times last year, bring them to us and we’ll replace them.

So, hey, you may need to have a gymnast’s balance and the reactions of a mongoose to escape the Russian winter without a tumble or seven, but at least the damage to your shoes will be restricted to that caused by water, grit, and massive amounts of slush and mud.

Are they insane? Have they never heard that a spoon of vinegar in a cup of water removes salt stains from leather? And quite apart from the whys and wherefores of old wives’ tales about shoe care, surely public wellbeing takes priority over shoes?

When my girlfriend was admitted to hospital, she was told by an administrator that already that day that one facility had administered treatment for over 160 fractures – and it was only 3pm. Imagine how much it costs for the x-rays, bandages, casts, beds, hospital utilities, and staff wages to cope with that volume of traffic.

Even if one is immoral enough to believe that shoes are more important than the misery, pain and suffering caused by slipping over, surely the cost to every tax payer of treating all those fractures (and probably strains, sprains, bone chips, bruises, cuts and ligament damage, too) that would be prevented had pavements been salted is greater than the cost to the same taxpayers of replacing the shoes that wouldn’t have had to have been replaced without the supposed salt damage.

It’s a simple equation: cost of treatment minus cost of shoe replacement equals START SALTING THE STREETS, LUZHKOV.

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