National Public Radio journalist Anne Garrels has momentarily left her fantastic coverage of the Iraq war/occupation to do a week-long series on life in the Russian boondocks. She’s been reporting from Chelyabinsk, 1000 east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains, where she spent much time while covering Russia’s economic and social upheavals during the 1990s. Garrels has gathered a short but sweet collection of stories covering Chelyabinsk’s economy, health care, and Russian Orthodox faith.
Today’s report brought to the fore the never-ending depressing fact of Russian life: bribery and corruption. It doesn’t matter whether the country is living under subjugation to religious-fanatic tsars, religion-hating Stalinists, or religion-of-the-free-market governments of the 1990s. A little grease seems to be required to keep the country’s gears turning. Garrels’s report addresses the hard side of this fact of life, the stranglehold that corruption places on entrepreneurship and the development of an educated and well-fed middle class.
The report dampened my holiday mood for two reasons. First, many of my good friends, and an immediate family member I won’t mention, have suffered disastrously from Russia’s endemic corruption, and Garrels’s report hits the problem smack on the head — in short, that the demand for bribes comes from the top down, starting with the highest levels of government. That makes any reform, and hard work from any honest-minded businessperson (or single mother just trying to make a better life for her kids), virtually impossible.
Second, the reporter covered some confusion she had at the airport, when it took her some time to work out that she was meant to be paying a bribe to set aside a massive excess baggage charge. Now, if it takes someone who’s lived in a country and has experience with these problems, not to mention speaking the language, a little while to work out that she’s expected to grease a palm and work out how much, what hope is there for the casual traveler? I’m all for taking cultural experiences completely in stride, but I’ve heard from more than one friend that traveling to Russia and about 10 Central and South American countries is something they’ll avoid in the future. The difficulty of working out bribes, and the disillusionment for a liberal-minded Westerner inherent in dealing with a black market system, just ruined the travel experience for them.
Maybe guidebooks should start incorporating large box-out stories and advice about how to deal with bribes: who, when, and how much. At least then the casual, average traveler will know what to expect and can get on with enjoying the sights.