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Feature Story March 24, 2006
 
Bribe to Live, Live to Bribe
An eXile guide to who costs what in Putin's Russia By Yasha Levine and Mark Ames with Jake Rudnitsky Browse author
 
 

Recently there's been a lot of fuss over Russia's growing corruption. Supposedly, about 319 billion dollars were diverted into the bribe market last year alone. Did you do your civic duty and make your contribution this year or does the idea of bribing make your butt sweat?

In 2003, the Finnish Chamber of Commerce tried releasing a primer on how to bribe in Russia in order to make their businessmen a little more comfortable, and savvy, while working the Russian market. Unfortunately, they must have paid off the wrong guys, because Russia turned that book into an international scandal. Bribing in our country??? they cried. No way, it hurts our feelings that you'd even think about Russia having institutionalized bribery. They screamed murder and the Finns pulled the book out of production so as not to revisit the Winter War. And they didn't even have to be bribed to do it -- just threatened, you see.

But why did the Russians get so pissed off? Was it show, or just delusional hypocrisy? You don't have to live long here to know bribes are the way that this country operates -- corruption is the grease that not only oils the palm but also the wheels of commerce. Just ask any businessman off-the-record. Otherwise, they might try to keep up appearances -- for the West's sake, the Russian government is trying to hold on to its democratic, G-8-worthy facade as long as it can.

But Russia's had to dodge some heavy blows by some nosy NGOs. Transparency International placed Russia on par with Albania, Niger and Sierra Leone on their corruption index, making it the 126th most corrupt country in the world. Russia takes top prize, though, for having the highest literacy rate in the most corrupt country category.

Ironically, the size of Russia's bureaucracy has doubled since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, there are about 1.2 million officials -- up from 600,00 in 1990. That's a lot of mouths to feed.

According to a poll carried out by the InDem think tank, the Russian bribe market saw an eleven-fold increase from 2001, vastly outpacing economic growth and inflation. It now floats somewhere around 319 billion dollars, annually. That amount equals half of Russia's GDP and exceeds the country's national budget by 2.66 times. The poll also found that something like 30% of all international credit given to Russia goes to grease the palms of the chinovniki.

Mikhail Grishankov, chairman of the State Duma anti-corruption committee, says that the study carried out by Indem is overblown and Russian media's calling this another Western ploy to demo-nize Putin's regime. They may be right.

See, there's another way of looking at this issue. As in, you can argue that Russia's corruption isn't all that sinister. Yes, it has it has some bad moments. Like the fact that little money trickles down from chinvniki pockets to the rest of the population. Russian infrastructure is deadly and it isn't going to get any better soon. But besides that, name another negative? Wait, don't...just hear us out first.

Russia's a semi-authoritarian regime, but is sure as hell feels freer here in so many ways than in America. Bribing not only humanizes '"the system," but it's a way a person can exert direct power over his surroundings, or at the very least, negotiate with and bend power. Don't like a law? Then break it. Just be sure that you'll have enough cash to pay the fine.

Democratic power can be boring and mediocre -- the treasured predictability of "rule-of-law" is exactly what makes it so robotic, so un-human. A culture of corruption means that everything, all power-relationships between state and individual or state and company, can be negotiated for a fee. Bribery, in short, is empowerment.

Imagine you're driving down a freeway in some grim law-abiding state like Minnesota. You're doing a tad bit over the speed limit, but you're definitely not being reckless. All of sudden, weeeeoooo, weeeeeoooo. Red lights flash behind you. You realize you're screwed. If you get another point on your record, there is no way you'll be able to afford your car insurance. You won't be able to drive a car. Now, thanks to the rule-of-law, your commute is about to jump from 20 minutes to an hour and a half of transferring between city buses in sub-zero temperatures.

But if you had the chance, wouldn't you agree that instead of all that, it would be better to just pay that Highway Patrol officer to let you off with a warning, all for the price of a Starbuck Frappaccino? Sure you would.

In any event, either way you have to pay. In the West, you'd still have to pay a bribe, er, fine. The difference? You'd send in a check in the mail. But the fine would be much higher ' cuz every department -- local, state and federal -- is going to want its cut. In Russia that's called "otkad" but in America it's called "budgeting." You'd maybe feel almost obliged to paying off the HP, if you knew that he couldn't subsist on his salary. The government is paying him too little; he needs your bribe to survive. It's to everyone's benefit.

But if laws are meaningless, what are they there for? What purpose do they serve? That's a perfectly legitimate question. Well, you can think of Russia's laws as the Ten Commandments. They're there for idiots who need moral guidance.

So we say to Russia, throw off those Western chains, take a good look at yourself and come to terms with who you are. Let those 1.2 million government workers take bribes without shame and fear.

The eXile is continuing where the Finns left off and as a service to all foreigners and great Mother Russia, we're offering an eXile exclusive: The eXile's First Annual Bribing Guide to Russia. On these pages you'll find everything you need to know to carry out the bribe that'll propel you to success, and read personal testimonials by people whose lives have been enriched -- spiritually, of course, not materially -- by their experiences with Russian corruption.

Giving birth

Andrei, 29, Sales and Marketing

My wife was pregnant with our first kid and we obviously wanted everything to go smoothly. We found what I believed was an esteemed roddom where things

were done honestly. It wasn't cheap: we paid $1000 up front for the privilege of giving birth at this "state" hospital. Mind you, this wasn't a bribe -- that's what a space at the place cost and we were very clear that we wanted to do everything "officially." Or so I thought. But when my wife went into labor, the delivery doctor told me in no uncertain terms, "Until you bring me another $2000, I can't guarantee the safety of your wife or child."

This was in 2002, and I didn't have an ATM card or a way of getting that kind of money on short notice. It wasn't exactly a moment I felt like leaving my wife alone to cope, either. I mean, she was screaming in pain. No doubt the doctor was counting on the fact that we were emotionally vulnerable, this being our first kid and all. He was right. It never even crossed my mind to try and negotiate. Thank God for my friends, who managed to rustle up the money between them and deliver it to our rod-dom in a couple of hours. It seemed like longer, but I'm told that's all it took. The doctor was true to his word: until the two grand was in his pocket, he didn't so much as check in on my wife. I guess with the birth rate what it is, this guy wasn't counting on any repeat business.

Registering at OVIR

Dave, 38, Think-tank analyst

I came to Leningrad in September, 1991, just after the putsch failed. I loved the place and didn't want to leave. My Russian friends there convinced me to stay a week past my visa expiration, telling me it was fine because there was just a revolution. I paid a doctor-friend something like $12 to get a fake note saying that my back was injured and I had to lay up in a friend's house.

The day before I was to leave, I went to OVIR, the place where foreigners register their visas. I'd heard that you could bribe for things in the Soviet Union, but I had literally no idea how to make a bribe, and as I found out, neither did Igor. We went to OVIR, waited in line, and finally found a severe, gray-haired woman responsible for registering foreigners' visas. She invited us to sit down in her dingy kabinet. I explained my problem, showed her the doctor's note. She said that the note was meaningless.

That's when I pulled what I thought was a smooth, streetwise move. I slipped a twenty-dollar bill -- which at the time was almost two-months' salary -- into my passport, and held it out to Igor.

"She wants money, right? A bribe?" I asked in English.

"I do not know, Dave," he said. "I think yes, but maybe it is not right?"

"So how do you give a bribe?" I asked.

Igor got angry: "I DON'T KNOW. Just give her the passport."

"Okay, I'll give her the passport, and you say something asking her to help me out of this problem."

Igor took the passport from me, and held it out to the old OVIR clerk. She took the passport, opened it, and saw the $20 bill. There was a momentary pause...

Suddenly, she burst up from her chair, red in the face, and screamed at us while shoving the passport into my hands. Igor backed away.

"We better go," he said, grabbing my arm and pulling me to the door.

"She won't take the bribe?"

"She said we're setting her up, that she can't take hard currency. She says we're here to ruin her life. Really Mark, we must leave now, in a hurry!"

The woman literally drove us out through the door screaming and hollering. It was my first bribe, and I'd failed completely.

It wasn't until a bit later that I understood why. Had we offered her candies,

chocolates, or cognac, she could have accepted it. But hard currency? It was like giving her good, clean heroin right during her office hours. Tempting, nice... but way too dangerous.

Getting out of military service

Vasya, 28, Advertising

When you're going to bribe a doctor to get you out of conscription, you have to go to someone you know. Otherwise forget it. They'll either refuse out of paranoia or jack the price up so high that you'd reconsider opting out of the military. In that sense, I was lucky. My dad's best friend was a doctor. He treated me for as long as I can remember, so there was no discomfort there. I think my dad bought the doctor's wife a pair of golden earrings as a show of appreciation, but that's it. Today, I'd probably have to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 for the same service. At that time, I wasn't leading the healthiest of lifestyles and actually had a tiny ulcer that would bother me from time to time. That made my doctor's job easy. He just had to blow my condition way out of proportion and diagnose me with a life threatening form of ulcer. So he put me in a clinic and started carrying out the necessary tests. All of it was purely an act, but I had to spend three days there to make it look authentic. At the end of my term, my diagnosis came out as predicted. I had degenerative form of ulcer the size of a 5-ruble coin. Under no circumstances was I to be allowed into the military. They'd have a corpse on their hands in a few months' time. So I went to the military recruitment office with my papers. They read the verdict, looked at me and decided that I did not need to undergo an independent evaluation carried out by military doctors. I really fit the bill of a young man suffering from an ulcer: thin and sickly. If they thought that I was lying, I'd have to dish out a bribe to them as well. From what I know, ulcers are the best condition to diagnose. It's easy to prove that they exist, but almost impossible to prove that they don't. I would know. They're sneaky little bastards. Just when you think, you're cured, they pop right back out.

Advertising illegally

John, 35, Cafe manager

The biggest headache in the restaurant business is bribing all the inspectors before you open up. But the most novel bribe I ever paid was to a middle-aged woman from the agency that regulates outdoor advertising in the city. I forget what the exact name of the department was, but this is Moscow. They've got a department for everything.

This woman comes charging into my internet cafe flashing her udostov-erenie [verification]. It was the kind of document that could be anything from a library card to proof that she worked for the FSB. Those little cardboard booklets all look the same, with a grim looking photo, some stamp and the holder's first name, patronymic and last name scrawled in handwriting. I bet Putin's got one to get into his office in the Kremlin.

Apparently, we'd violated some sort of city ordinance by placing a sign for the cafI outside. What nerve, huh? But fixing it wasn't as easy as just slipping her an envelope. This woman was more than happy to explain the nature of our violation to me, but she'd get terrified any time I tried to ask her how to resolve it "po-chelovechesky." It seems that she was convinced that my club's high-tech interior meant that everything she said was being recorded. Not only did she have the nerve to shake me down, but she was terrified that I was setting her up!

Instead, we had to take a bit of a hike, presumably to get out of range of my cafe's sophisticated listening devices. Even outside, she never mentioned the word bribe, payment, or fine. She just gave me a large envelope and backed away, telling me it contained papers that explained the nature of our violation in more detail. I don't know; I didn't bother to read them. Instead, I stuck 500 bucks in the packet, went back up to her and made the hand-off. I guess it was enough, because we never heard from that city department again.

Getting an education

The eXile's handy, pocket-sized bribe chart will help you navigate the Byzantine world of bribing people in Russia. Use it and you'll be able to skip the bargaining phase, cutting straight to the payoff! That's right, with this reference you can take the guesswork out of corruption. You'll never pay too much for a bribe again!

ZhEK slesser fixing toilet: R300

Fire inspector for trade expo: $300

Paying off fire inspectors et al for a stadium-sized concert/event: $60,000

Paying off referee in a professional sports game: $100,000

Real estate agent bribe to do paperwork on a $100,000 apartment (without knowledge of seller): $2000

Right to pick the date of your wedding at ZAKS: R6000

Illegal left turn: R500

Outdated tekh-osmotr card: R500

Driving without translation of license/improper registration: R300

Running over a pedestrian: $300

Drunk driving: $750

Registering late at OVIR: R3000

No passport during document check on Red Square: R500

No registration as a khachik: R200

Getting out of drunk tank: whatever's in your pocket

Illegal sign on restaurant: $500

Torturing a whore: $1000

Torturing a whore and then tellingpimp to fuck off: $10,000

Importing Brazilian beef: $175 a ton

Draft dodging: $5000

MGU admission: $30,000

Minor surgery: $300

Giving birth: $2000

Appointment to become Federal

Minister: $10 million

Governor seat: $8 million

Senator: $2 million

Duma Deputy: $2 million

Judge: $200,000

Drafting a law: $500,000

Reviewing that law: $500,000

Each vote on Duma floor: $2000

Suing competitor: $100,000

Tax inspection and search of competitor: $50,000

Victory in arbitration: $50,000

Unfreezing your assets: $30,000

Resolving back taxes charge: 10% of charge

Dima, 22, Mechanic

My dad's a successful business man who had the misfortune of having a total moron for a son. See, I just wanted to work on cars, but that's not really an option in for a member of the Jewish intelligencia. So dad decides that I'm going to become a dentist, goddammit, no matter what it costs. It's not the easiest proposition out there; while admissions to Russian schools are notoriously corrupt, you're still supposed to have some base knowledge. But I knew nothing. The way it works is there's sort of a sliding scale: the smarter you are, the less you pay. Dad dropped $50,000, enough to everyone at all connected to admissions to solve the problem. That was four years ago, when that kind of money got you much further.

Applications in Russia are done in person, sort of like an oral exam. The applicant writes down the answers on a specially stamped and numbered form that's theoretically used to preserve anonymity and make sure everyone gets a fair shot. Of course, the examiners all know which numbers paid to get admitted and pick the students accordingly. Dad coached me: all I had to do was write some BS, any BS, on the exam sheet and I'd get in to this prestigious medical institute. Instead, I panicked during the math exam and ran away. I just walked out the door, leaving a blank sheet behind.

Dad's a persistent guy, and doesn't like to take no for an answer. He spent another $50,000, which was enough to get the professors to rifle through the archive, fill out the answers themselves, and make me look like some sort of child prodigy. For that kind of money, they'd admit a monkey with steady hands to a surgical academy. Not surprisingly, I didn't last a year before dropping out to pursue my dream of being a mechanic. That's my dad: investment guru who doesn't have a clue on how to spend his money.

Traffic accident

Dima, 27, Developer

It was summer time and I was riding around St. Petersburg on my a Honda Rebel. Just as I was approaching this one intersection, the light started to turn yellow. I gassed it to make the light, but as soon as I cleared the intersection, this short blur stepped out in front of my bike. Wham! I hit it. I go flying in one direction and the blur goes flying in the other. Fuck, I remember thinking to myself, did I just hit a kid? Amazingly, he only scarped his leg. The cops came checked my documents, but I didn't have any. They hung out by their car, waiting for the ambulance to give the kid a check over. They bandaged him up and sent him on his way to school. I still can't believe he just walked away. I must've hit him at 50 km/h! The cops then took me to their uchastok and without wasting anytime, told me I have to pay up $500. I don't have that kind of money, I told them and asked them to lower it a bit. We all agreed to $300. I had to hand them the money in 1 hour. I told them that I had to borrow the cash from a friend who lives across town and I won't get back in time. The cops told me to ride my motorcycle there. But what if I get stopped by other cops, I asked. They told me that all I'd have to do was give the cop their badge numbers and he would know that I was already spoken for. I got back on my bike and rode back home to check the law books. The maximum fine for my infractions equaled $50 dollars. Those bastards were trying to rip me off. I returned to their station

and told them that I could only scrape up $200. They laughed and threatened to impound my bike. I told them that it broke down on the other side of town, I lied. At that point they got furiously mad and told me that if I did not have their $300 in one hour, I'd have to fish my papers out of the river. I needed my papers for a job I just got. They called my bluff and I coughed up $300.

Printing pornography

Tanya, 26, Magazine editor

Pornography's illegal in Russia. Technically, no "sex acts" can be shown in print. It doesn't stop magazines like Hustler and Penthouse from publishing, but they've got a lot more money to grease the wheels than we did at Playgirl. As such, we had the misfortune of being the only officially registered erotic journal in Russia.

That meant each issue needed the seal of approval from an ad-hoc committee of sexologists certifying that it never crossed the line into pornography. But the law's very vague on what exactly pornography is, so it was just their subjective opinion as professionals.

From our very launch, we'd agreed with the leading sexologist on a $500 bribe to get the needed spravka, or pass. He still had the right to refuse us, but as long as we stuck to the rules -- no penetration, a maximum of six large dicks per issue, that sort of thing -- it was cool.

Only problem was he took a vacation when we were preparing to distribute our second issue. He'd approved the proofs, but left a huge 50-year-old Armenian sexologist in charge while he was gone. It took the Armenian about five minutes to declare he'd found a sex act and we'd be breaking the law if we hit the stands.

The picture in question was a guy with his head between a woman's legs. This picture was tamer than stuff you see on billboards -- her butt was the only skin you could see -- but the Armenian said it was clearly oral sex.

I asked him what it'd take to get approval. "Well, I've got three kids to feed," he told me. I was a little slow on the uptake, so I asked him what it cost to feed three kids. He waved three fingers at me, and I gave him three bills.

Excess baggage on Aeroflot

Lana, 17, Student

When I was a child, I bribed the girl at the Aeroflot desk so that she'd reduce the extra weight of my luggage, which was expensive. Actually, she asked for the bribe herself. I was really shocked. It would have cost something like 80 dollars for me to pay above-board for the extra weight. So the Aeroflot woman said I could either pay 80 dollars with the receipt or 40 without.

Hint-hint!

It took a while for me to catch on to what she was talking about. Then once I figured out what she was getting at, it turned out I didn't have dollars, only pound sterling. She thought about it a bit then said I could pay in rubles. But I had no rubles either, just these fucking pounds. Meanwhile, I just can't believe how open this transaction is.

So she asked me what the exchange rate was for pounds to dollars. It was something like 1 to 2 at that time. She said fine.

I tried handing her the 20 pounds over the desk but she shhhsshed at me, saying I'm doing it too conspicuously, and she could get in trouble since there are cameras around. I wouldn't have noticed given how open she was. Anyway, I put the 20 pounds into my passport and handed it over. It was scary. I felt like a criminal, especially since I had another extra bag at my feet that she didn't even notice. I guess she just really wanted that 40 bucks.

Fire inspections

Vlad, 36, Event promoter

My company was holding an event at Moscow's Expo Center, which maintains a weird system of payoffs, even for Russia. Most places you rent have an all-inclusive fee, meaning they take care of the necessary bribes on their own.

But when you book space at the Expo Center, you have to negotiate the bribes on your own. It's all very well organized, and the fire marshal maintains an office onsite.

He's a jolly guy, probably content with the fact that there's not even footwork involved in getting his payoff. There was nothing sinister about this guy; I mean, he wasn't even fat! Just a nice guy in a snappy military uniform.

He walked out to check out the space we'd rented and surveyed it with a knowing eye. Then he dropped something I'll take with me to my grave. He wanted to know if we had a "climbing permit." That's right -- we needed a climbing license. Maybe guys hanging stuff above a certain height have a propensity to burst into flames? Or else they could... actually, I don't know what they could do. I'm not even going to pretend it makes any sense.

That's just the way this country is: there aren't any rights or freedoms, only permissions. Why do you need permission to climb a ladder? Because it's something you can do. And if it's something you can do, it goes without saying you need some state body to give you permission to do it. A normal country has laws that make actions illegal; Russia has permissions to make everything legal.

Anyway, the fire marshal took me back to his office and I asked him what sort of fines we were looking at. He wrote $500 on a piece of paper and handed it to me. I wrote $200 and handed it back. He lowered his bid to $400 in the same way, and I passed it back with an offer of $300. $300 it was.

Pissing on the Kremlin

Tod, 29, Banker

I'm not sure I'd advise anyone to try this one under the Putin regime. This one took place back in the heyday of the Yeltsin era, in fall of '97, long before Russian nationalism became modny. Everything from Yuganskneftegaz to thrills could be had cheaply. I'm not staying this stunt wouldn't be possible now, but it'd cost you plenty.

There's really not much to tell. Me and some buddies in my study abroad group were enjoying the Indian summer and the fact that a bunch of underage kids could drink 40 cent beers in public. We'd just arrived in Moscow and hadn't yet discovered that the city suffered from a public toilet deficit. By the time we were on our third Baltika, we knew better. My bladder was reaching critical mass. Someone suggested the Kremlin. We were in the far corner of Aleksandrisky Sad, near the Lenin Library, and I was just drunk enough to try. Hell, if a guy could land a plane on Red Square, what should I worry about?

I'll be honest, my urine didn't actually hit the bricks. I stopped at the nearest tree maybe 10 feet from the wall and unloaded my stream there. I tried for distance, squeezing my abs down on my bladder hard, but it remained just out of reach. When I zipped up and turned around, I saw to militsia guys be lining towards me. Not running, but they definitely had a sense of purpose in their step.

Right about then, I felt ready to take a shit. Could I really have been so stupid? If that'd been the White House, they'd be collecting pieces of me in Virginia.

My friends were laughing their asses off and not much help in the negotiations, which took place in my pidgin Russian. But amazingly, the cops seemed more amused than anything. They'd seen some stupid tourists, but nothing like me. When they told me it'd cost me 200,000 rubles, which was less than $20, I didn't even try to haggle. I was honored for the privilege.

Importing banned meat

Bob, 38, Import-Export

The customs racket in this country is totally institutionalized. While there's no price list, as such, everybody in the business of importing stuff knows exactly what everything costs. Brazilian beef's the perfect example.

Some disease turns up on some farm in some Brazilian province. Now, an uptight country with strong institutions, like Japan, bans all Brazilian imports. For a less watertight country, it'd make more sense to just ban that particular product. Not Russia, though. Russia banned all Brazilian meat, too. Then, like mushrooms after rain, an entire system to bypass the ban sprung up over night.

Some guy tells you that he knows Ivan, and Ivan can get you a permit. For this beef, there's an off-shore bank account in Brazil that charges $125/ton and then an onshore account here in

Russia that collects another $50/ton. Together, that's nearly 10 percent of the cost of a ton of beef. And all that money goes towards bribes.

The way it works is Ivan's company has a "spets-razreshenie" or special permission to continue to import beef. We wire the bribe money to Ivan's Brazilian account and, once deposited, the beef gets permission to get shipped to Russia. When it gets here, the Russian account needs to get its share.

People still buy Brazilian meat here because Brazilians are dumping their meat at low costs to whoever will buy it. But the consumer doesn't see any benefits because all the savings get swallowed by corruption. I'd say that, since the ban in October or November, Russia's imported something between 50 and 100 thousand tons of beef. That means up to $17.5 million in bribes in less than six months. In Brazilian beef alone.

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