Ronald Reagan loved to tell jokes about the Soviet Union. One of his funniest went like this:
“In the Soviet Union there was a ten year wait to buy a car. And you had to put up your money first. So a Russian guy goes to buy his car. The apparatchik takes his money and tells him to come back in ten years to pick up the car. The buyer responds, “Morning or evening.” The official said, “It won’t ready be until ten years from now. What difference does it make?!” The guy said, “Well, the plumber is coming that morning.”
It is not that bad now. I have briefly discussed many of the changes in the economic and social aspects of life in Russia over the last ten years or so. The economy is clearly better. I see nicer automobiles, more restaurants, bigger and nicer grocery stores. And people are friendlier. Okay, “friendlier” may be an overstatement. They are more helpful in the shops and stores. There is more pride in the appearances of buildings, lawns, and public squares or parks.
There are still remnants, however, of the old days. In one of my earlier blogs I mentioned local bureaucracies. Anything to do with local government is frustrating. You can never be sure that you got all the information you need prior to taking your documents. But this is not just true of government offices. Today is a good example of what one faces here. We shipped one pallet of boxes from the US to Russia. We used a company that specialized in personalized, international shipments for some of our winter clothes and a few books. International shipping is expensive so we could not afford to ship a crate or anything large. We first were notified the pallet had arrived to St. Petersburg, then later told that it was still in Hamburg, waiting to be cleared through the customs. But we were told that the custom fees are four euros per kilogram, which DOUBLED the cost of shipping for us: something we were not prepared for at all! Had we been told that when we were getting the quote, we would not have shipped it and purchased what we could here. We were also given a mound of paperwork to fill out. So we contacted our shipping agent in the US and were told they updated us to an “express release” status, so we should not have to pay anything or fill in any extra paperwork. The response from the Russian officials to that was, “the Americans don’t understand how things work here.” I have a friend from America moving to Russia and she and her husband ran into the same kind of problem. You end up paying more than the cargo is worth. But the Americans companies do not disclose that information to you when you place your order.
So after many emails and phone calls with the receiving organization in St Petersburg we finally had a list of papers we needed to take care of, the most important and urgent of which was the power of attorney that we needed to sign over to the director of the company, so that his people could start moving our cargo through the customs. This will enable them to handle all the paperwork to get it through customs and prepare it for our driver to pick it up and deliver it to Luga. I handled logistics at my former job and knew this requirement is not uncommon for international shipments. My wife called a legal notary, which is located not too far from our apartment, a couple of days ago to get our paperwork for the power of attorney in order. She was to receive a call back from the company in St. Petersburg handling our cargo giving her full information on their director – a requirement for the POA. The call never came and no one answered when she tried to call them. This is one dimension of Russian life that is so frustrating. Hours for those dealing with anything official are seldom posted and one never knows when they will be at work. No message is left informing you of when you can contact them. So Oksana decided to walk to the notary anyway, hoping the information she did have would be sufficient. However, contrary to what she had been told earlier, they said she had to have more information to allow them to notarize the power of attorney. Their computer system is automated now and they have to have all necessary information for their computer to allow them to print out the POA form. They need the director of the company’s passport number, his date of birth, license number and a few other details. (As an aside, all Russians have to have a domestic passport. This is just like a regular passport, but it shows you are legal in this country. It functions somewhat like a driver’s license in America except you are required to have this picture ID with you at all times.) So she had to walk home, contact the transport company, get more information from them and walk back to the notary.
In the meantime I’m stuck in our apartment waiting for the computer technician to come and upgrade our internet with a wireless access. After much investigation we realized the router we brought with us from America was too high-tech for Luga, so we couldn’t use it here. So Sergei, our computer guy, will come and put in an old spare router he has “hanging in his trunk” until Luga modernizes, which is supposed to be in two months. And then he’ll take his old router back and we can use our own again. He said he’ll charge us five bucks for BOTH, his visit and the “rent” of his old router, by the way!
This may not be a normal day in Russia, but it is not an unusual day either. Anytime something comes up that requires more than one office of any kind getting involved you need to count on confusion and more than one trip.
In the old days you could handle it much easier. As I mentioned in my second blog, bribery was common. Back in 2007 when we went to Moscow to get our marriage license we checked the web-site, got all our information, and arranged all our documentation. We went to the American Embassy. They looked at our documents, and a Marine staff sergeant asked me to raise my hand to certify all I had written was true. I confirmed it and we got our American approval and left. We then went to the Russian Office of Foreign Ministry. It was very crowded. We got in to see the official about 11:45. He looked at our paperwork, said everything is in order, come back in five days and he will have it ready. “Five days!” I said. “The web-site said 1-2 at most.” He replied, “The web-site is not correct.” I said, “I can’t afford to stay in a Moscow hotel for five days. And I have job in St. Petersburg I have to get back to.” I received a very blank and unsympathetic stare back. My wife leaned over the desk and now spoke in Russia (we had been speaking in English), “Can we come to an agreement?” He turned to me and said (in English), “Yes, you give me one hundred American dollars and I will have everything ready after lunch.” So I gave that man $100, we went to grab a bite to eat, came back, picked up our paperwork, and left for St. Petersburg.
My Facebook friends know that after I wrote the above I had an accident. My wife was pulling out a plastic folder of documents from the desk at which I was typing and somehow hit me in the eye with the plastic document. I never saw it coming and did not blink. Pain seared through my eye to my brain and back. After two hours of horrible pain we decided we needed to do something. The pain was getting worse. She called her mom, who made some contacts. Turns out there was a “Polyclinic” around the corner from us we did not know about. We had to take a taxi because I could not walk. They said the eye-doctor was there but preparing to leave. By the time we got there he was gone. The reception lady immediately looked me over and assured us she’s had “experience” working with the eye doctor. So she wrote down the name of a cornea crème to relieve pain and promote healing. It was an OTC drug (a lot of them are here). We went to the nearest pharmacy and paid $6.50 for the crème. Actually we didn’t have the correct change so we paid less. The clinic charged us nothing. As we were walking back to the apartment Oksana said, “So what do you think it would cost in America to go to the emergency room after working hours without any insurance?” Several hundred dollars to be sure. It was an awful experience. We paid a dollar and a half for a taxi and $6.50 for special eye anointment.
The day went horribly in general. So do days in Russia like that leave me discouraged? Yes. The laziness and lack of accountability in some “official” workers is more than frustrating. Why don’t you write a note on the door when you will be there??? But through all these negative experiences no one was trying to exploit us. Even the folks at the shipping/customs office have a set price that most international shippers just do not tell you about. We got our power of attorney documents sent 90 miles for $12.00 (some university student volunteered to do the courier job to make a little bit of money). The paralegal notary charged us $30.00 to notarize all our POA documents. I really do not want to turn my blog into a political commentary, but the underside of capitalism is showing through these days in America. It is not that these things are a “bit cheaper” in Russia. There is no comparison. I will say what I think of health care: the Obama health care legislation was the most heartless piece of legislation I have ever seen. It essentially left us with no health care after one year. We, as lower middle-income folks were left to the greed of both government and huge health care organizations. Some of my friends will say that this points to the positive aspects of socialized health care. In Russia there are two “tracks” of health care, social and private. Private is more expensive and generally better. For problems like mine, the public health care if far better and obviously way cheaper. But Russia went through an awful time after Communism fell. People learned to get by as best they could. A lot of them also learned not to exploit each other. The problem with the system in America is that the greed and selfishness are so deeply entrenched that no system works well. It is not “socialized health care” when you have to pay an arm and a leg to the government for care you still have to pay for at the doctor’s office or emergency room. Our government pretends that if they take a lot of money from us then that makes it socialized health care. No, it makes it exploitation.
The positive side of American health care is that in a real emergency you have firemen, medically trained first-responders, and many volunteers who will be there in an instant. You don’t have that efficiency in Russia. If my eye had been seriously damaged then in America a qualified ophthalmologist would have come immediately. The health care workers in America, as far as I can tell, are among the best trained anywhere and are quite focused on being helpful. My complaint is that government and health care corporations have corrupted it. But that is a part of my “Distributist” mentality I suppose.
So, yeah, it was a bad day in Russia. But from where I’m standing the horizon looks better here. Inefficiency and irresponsibility in details can be fixed. I’m neither “a prophet, nor the son of a prophet,” but the systemic flaws and greed in the American system will take a lot more work. My own hunch is that the cloud on the horizon is not dust being created by a brave and selfless Lone Ranger who will save us come November.