Drunk on corruption
Vladimir Voinovich Author, 'The Life and Adventures of Ivan Chonkin' Project Syndicate
My friend Boris was leaving my house drunk. So I suggested that he not drive. He asked why. "You are under the influence," I said. "Aren't you afraid of the police?" "No," Boris replied, "I have a document with Benjamin Franklin's face on it. This always helps me." He showed me his driver's license with a US$100- dollar bill tucked beside it.
Obviously, I knew that the police take bribes, but was concerned that Boris might bump into one who wasn't corrupt. "No way," argued Boris. "To be a traffic policeman you must pay off your boss. If you don't take bribes, how can you pay off the boss? Half of Moscow's drivers use licenses bought illegally. Idiots who try to do things honestly drown in bureaucratic minutia. Pay $100 bucks and you can drive around with no brakes!"
Bribery and embezzlement have always existed in Russia, before Lenin's October Revolution and after. But never at so titanic a level as today. Bribes are taken by everyone, everywhere, and for everything. Only those not offered bribes, said Boris, don't take them.
Bribery flourishes in most institutions, and the fight against it always ends in disaster or surrender. Police, prosecutors, and customs officials, even the Kremlin: No one and nothing is immune.
Recently, I visited a dacha village in one of Moscow's prettiest suburbs. It was luxurious, but similar to a gulag with its high perimeter fences and guards. Examining the pretentious homes so tastelessly decorated, I asked who owned them and was told that one house was that of a deputy mayor of Moscow, another housed a famous singer, another the son of the Moscow prosecutor. But the most eye-catching estate belonged to a modest officer from the tax services.
Corruption now threatens Russia more than the war in Chechnya. In fact, the Chechen war would not have lasted as long as it has if it weren't for corrupt generals, officers, clerks, and policemen who sell weapons and supplies to the rebels.
Russian TV recently showed a bus shuttling from Grozny to Moscow, the very bus that brought to Moscow the 120 kilograms of explosives used in the siege of the Dubrovka theater where so many died in the attempt to rescue the hostages.
A female bus passenger kept the explosives covered with an acid-dipped cloth to prevent inspection sniffing dogs from sensing it.
An unnecessary precaution. No one checks buses nowadays. The driver, who didn't know what he was carrying, said that he was stopped 50 times on the journey. But it was always the same. A policeman would ask, "Do you know the price?" "Sure I do," the driver would reply, pay the bribe, and go on. Without the bribe, the bus would have been delayed for hours at each stop, days for the whole journey.
The Chechen War goes on and on not only because the Chechen rebels have al-Qaeda and the whole "Terrorist International" as allies, but because they have an ally in Russian corruption. Policemen, military and civil bribe-takers and thieves, who first tax the Chechen civilians or simply steal from them, sell arms and explosives to the terrorists, reveal military maps of mine fields, and supply the rebels with fake documents.
In May this year during the Kaspiisk city explosion terrorists used arms that were purchased from Russian Army officers.
The rebels have modern weapons. From where? In the mountains, where the rebels hide, there are no gun-shops. But the 80,000 Russian soldiers opposing the rebels do have ammunition warehouses, from which arms are stolen and sold. Not only arms: some junior officers sell their own men into slavery.
Russian corruption has reached catastrophic levels, yet no serious fight has been launched against it. Harsher punishment for bribery? This merely brings higher priced bribes. The harsher the punishment, the more you pay to avoid it.
No official wants to fight corruption because they are themselves corrupt. So the "simple people" look at this phenomenon with understanding. They say of their mayor: Sure he steals, but look how much he has done for the city!
Ordinary people also dislike honest workers. Why? A train ticket costs 100 rubles. But if you pay a small bribe, you travel for 50 rubles. Both passenger and conductor profit. One honest babushka once told me that she bought a ticket and tried to board the train. The conductor stopped her, saying that ticketed passengers were not allowed on the train!
For millions of Russians corruption is the normal way of life. If you don't want your son drafted into the army, pay off a military registrar and he will cross your son's name off the list or bribe a doctor to file an "unfit for military duty" certificate. For a price you can get into any college, no matter your credentials. You can drive drunk, speed, ignore red lights -- provided Ben Franklin is there to be given to the police.
Alexander Menshikov, Peter the Great's minister, understood the impossibility of winning the fight against corruption. When Tsar Peter, sickened by Russia's corruption, decided to hang his bribery-taking officials, Menshikov said, "Your Majesty, you risk losing all your subjects."
In the centuries since then, the situation has become ever more grim. Uprooting corruption may leave a state without subjects. But if we don't stop the march of corruption, the subjects will soon be left without a state.
The writer is one of Russia's acclaimed novelists.