I am back in the States. Now that I have rested for a few days, I wanted to pass on some of the last things that I saw before I forget them.
I had to pay a bribe to leave Russia. When we got to the airport, everyone had to show papers to get in. The ranking policeman recognized that I was a strange American who probably had some money. He invited Larisa and me into a private office where he explained that I was not legal because of a technicality in my papers. I was legal and Larisa kept trying to explain that.
When the officer asked what time my plane left, the play was obvious. I was legal and could demand a hearing, but the airplane would be long gone by then. I suggested to Larisa that we apologize for our accidental error and ask if payment of a small fine would clear up the matter. I knew enough Russian to understand the answer “pyat sot” – 500 rubles – about $14. I handed the nice man a 500 ruble note and it disappeared under a book on the desk in a smooth gesture that would have made any magician proud. The nice officer smiled broadly as returned my passport and wished me a good trip – in English.
By the way, everyone pays bribes. The high patrolmen stand by the side of the road with wands that look like small barber poles, “fishing for rubles”. If they think you are going to fast, or have to much money, they wave you over to the side and charge you 100 rubles for speeding or 50 rubles for not storing your jack properly, or 40 rubles for not having a good spare. I paid twice for my drivers.
To get on an airplane, you either purchase a ticket or bribe the stewardess. The two suicide women who blew up Russian airplanes last year got on the airplanes by bribing the stewardess’. You can purchase a bus ticket at the station, or wait about a block away from the station where the driver will stop to pick up additional passengers at a real discount rate. When we took a bus to Nalchick, the nearest big city, it filled up with ticketed passengers at the terminal. Two blocks from the terminal, the driver stopped and REALLY FILLED the bus with discount passengers. The bus was then crowded way beyond “standing room only”. More like “breathing room, with effort” only.
Even the teller at the bank where we paid some taxes demanded a 30 cent bribe (ten rubles) before she would stamp the receipt.
Russians see this as the biggest problem that they face in trying to build a modern economy, and they are right.
But it’s a great country.