How (NOT) To Bribe In Russia

A gift given in secret soothes anger, and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath.” -King Solomon

It appears that bribery is an ancient art.  And there was a time in the distant past when bribery existed not to grease the wheels, so to speak, but apparently was a system set in place to prevent your ruler from going postal, if you will.

Russia is famous for corruption.  And for airtight proof, just watch any recent Hollywood action film.  You will quickly notice that the villain is from this great nation, rampant in all things distasteful- and must be terminated by the American superhero.  As a side note, that appears to be because in the mind of the American moviegoer, termination of Russians, in general, is necessary and enjoyable entertainment.

At the same time, some Russians’ impressions of the US of A, is also based on Hollywood, that Americans struggle with racial issues and upon occasion are a little too loose with the assault weapons that they just so happen to have laying around the house.  Oh, wait.  What?

So, where do Russians bribe?  Well, I’ve heard of plenty of examples:

-At the doctor, dentist, etc.  The word on the street is that this can be the difference between a tooth repair and a tooth removal, for instance.
-At school.  This is apparently because capitalism is a part of the educational process.
-At the fire department/sanitation department/zoning department, etc.  It’s kind of like sending your less favorite acquaintances Christmas presents so that they won’t feel like they need to pay you a visit.
-The police/traffic police.  “Did you see that sign?” they politely inquire.
-And so on.  And so forth.
And so if you are planning on a visit to Russia and you have been “reading up” on how to blend in like a local, chances are, you are expecting flashing the cash to become a way of life.  But, I contest, that you might find yourself becoming quite disappointed because in 16 years of living in Russia, I don’t remember anyone ever asking me for a bribe.
Now, I’m not saying that no one ever hinted around about a gift concealed in my cloak, but I never remember directly being asked for a bribe.
So, here are my tips so that you never have to pay for a bribe while in Russia:
1) Become very American and become oblivious to hinting.  I remember a doctor once came to visit our children.  That’s what we love about Russia: the doctors still make house calls.  After chiding us for allowing our children to walk around inside our home with bare feet and shorts on in complete defiance of the chilling draft, she began discussing the rising costs of groceries and the fact that you can’t get out of the store without spending 1000 rubles anymore.  I watched in glee as my dear wife (How would King Solomon describe her?  Ah yes, “a graceful doe… her neck is like the tower of David.”) stood there and simply agree at the high cost of foodstuffs.  We never saw that doctor again, but we didn’t pay her anything on the side either.
2) Continue to be American and smile with what they refer to in Russia as “the square eyes”. You know: “the lights are on but nobody’s home”.  I have a friend from an Asian country.  One time when she arrived at a certain passport control, she was scolded by the border control officer that her passport only had 28 pages.  She didn’t get it.  And if you don’t either, there is a good chance you are a foreign person and they will pity you for your irreparable mental thickness and just let you go.
3) Make an Absurd Counter Offer.  One time many years ago I had a certain law enforcement officer ask me a question: “What are we going to do?”.  He presented me with this curious inquiry again and again.  I looked at him with the square eyes.  He pulled out the protocol and held his pen menacingly above it and asked yet again, “What are we going to do?”  I queried as to the amount that I would be fined for my alleged transgression.  “50 rubles”, he said.  I explained that although this amount was certainly within the boundaries of reason, paying it would take me half a day and I really didn’t have any free time.  “So, what are we going to do?” he asked.  “I have an offer!” I confidently stated.  “What is your offer?” he eagerly demanded.  “I offer that you let me go home now”, I replied.  I think the blend of bluster and idiocy provided an emotional roller coaster ride of sparring sorts that deep down inside we both enjoyed.
4) Play the Long Game.  If you’ve come to Russia as a goal-oriented foreign person on a time schedule, good luck.  Just kidding.  The word on the street is that you might not need luck if you can produce the cabbage.  If you know what I mean.  But if you’re in more of a “long term relationship” with Russia, like this blogger, and you understand that life is more about the journey than the end, then you can pretty much get out of any bribe situation.  Like the time I pretended to fall asleep on a chair in the middle of the night.  Or the time I handed them my documents and then went to my car to take a nap (It brings me great pain that I will never know the content of their conversation as I lay in my car pretending to doze away).  Eventually, I have found that I will be informed, in no uncertain terms, that they do not wish to ever see me again.  Because there are easier fish to fry, methinks.  Now granted, sometimes this patience might mean many hours, or even months, or years, depending on what you are hoping to achieve, but there is a special feeling to doing everything right and somehow outlasting your opponent in this extended game of cat and mouse.  

5)  Expect Not To Pay Bribes.  You see, Hollywood’s depiction of the US and just about any other nation, including Russia, is equally fair all around.  It’s not entirely baseless, but it is grossly exaggerated.  So, if you come with the basic understanding Russia is not just one  giant boiling melting pot of criminal overlords, but in fact is full of folks just looking to live normal lives and provide for their families, you will not ever expect to pay a bribe.  And therefore making the square eyes will be easy, because you won’t understand any level of hinting.

Again, in none of these examples did anyone ask for a bribe.  And the truth is, every single time that I remember being denied by a government official, my paperwork or application did indeed have an error.  Now, in my mind the error might have been incredibly minuscule, or the law behind the error might have escaped the boundaries of my limited understanding of basic common sense.  And perhaps I might have had an inner feeling that the official in question could have been more helpful to begin with to help me understand the error of my ways.  But none of this changes the fact that I had indeed transgressed the written law and therefore I must start over whatever particular process I was entangled in.  But if you never give up and keep on filling out the forms in triplicate and then eventually reach the end result you were looking for, the sense of accomplishment is like no other.  And you will have a sort of miniature Russian law degree in that particular area that you were working in, which although absolutely non-accredited, will give you real street cred with those who have yet to fill out said forms correctly.

The other truth about bribes is, and perhaps this reflects somehow on my socio-economic class, that I have never seen a situation where a bribe would actually save money.  I remember one time we took our four children to the government dentist.  Because it is free and although the quality is lower than a private dentist perhaps, it is free, and it’s just baby teeth, right?  And we have four of them.  Kids not teeth.  In any case, after this thrifty dental visit, our neighbors asked us how much we paid.  Naturally, we had no idea what they were talking about because, as we told them, it was free.  “Oh no,” they said,  “you must pay something!”  When we inquired as to the amount, it turned out it is almost as much as you would pay for a private dentist.  Another time, I was in a super long line and met a young man who told me he was standing in line for the first time.  Until then he had been paying to not have to wait in line.  The amount?  Thousands of dollars.  Granted, the line was super long and I understood he had done this in a different region where the line might be even longer.  But maths would seem to indicate that if you were to take the sum and divide it by the hours it would seem to be an unprofitable business, even if you carry the remainder.  If you know what I mean.  This young man was sort of proud of himself, but I was just sort of standing there doing arithmetic in my head and questioning this young man’s educational background.

And please, I beg of you, never offer a bribe.  That’s a bumbling foreigner thing to do, and I expect you will make a terrible mess of things and indeed you can get in real trouble.  And you will be shocked to see the reaction of the person you have made the offer to.  It’s kind of like a steroidal version of asking a Russian if they want something to eat.  They will say “no” because you don’t know how to ask.

And isn’t it great that in the West there is no corruption or bribery?  There are just legal vacation packages for business partners and donations to political causes in order to help them know how to correctly represent the people.  But that’s different, right?

The truth is, corruption isn’t a laughing matter and I’m thankful that my life, for the most part, has been happily free of real trouble with it, but I do know that’s not true for everyone.  And wherever your opinion falls in the conversation about bribery it’s easy to develop sort of a cavalier attitude about the whole thing, so you might do well to remember this mysterious morsel from good old King Solomon:  “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?”

Just something to chew on the next time you’re waiting in line.

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