Friday, June 24, 2011

On Russian Bureaucracy

"If you tell my story, make it funny. Don't make it pathetic, like the way it was..."

Lovers of Tsarist or Soviet literature will be relieved to know that Russian bureaucracy isn't dead. Take the experience of a friend who wants to go to St. Petersburg for an academic conference in late July. This woman, let's call her Madame S in the spirit of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, realized that she's required to secure a visa. This seems like an odd request: Americans and Canadians rarely need a visa to travel anywhere, and certainly not anywhere in Europe. Still, the visa request is reciprocal; and one can't quite blame Russia for demanding that foreigners are treated as poorly as its citizens are treated abroad. But see how difficult the request can be. When my friend went directly to the Russian consulate to secure this visa, she ran intro trouble--nothing dramatic, just low-level bureaucratic noise. The consulate, beautiful and stately on the outside, is dim, windowless, and unadorned on the inside. On Madame S's first visit to the consulate--and the forlorn guests of the consulate told her nobody ever avoids at least a second visit to the consulate before securing a visa--she encountered an old woman who refused to answer any questions, and a skinny, pale-faced man with sad eyes, black hair brushed down over his sickly forehead, and the general countenance and demeanor of a serial killer.

This insouciant and sickly man, who became Madame S' bureaucratic tormentor, spoke neither English nor French very well, and took frequent smoking breaks. While never overtly rude, his mournful eyes seemed to mask a simmering anger. The play between tormentor and tormented occurred in four acts. In act one, Madame S was informed that the consulate did not have any visa applications and so applicants needed to go home first to print one off. Fortunately, one of the consultates supplicants, who had her own tale of woe predicated on the fact that her bank couldn't issue an acceptable certified check or something similar, offered Madame S an extra visa form to fill out. But even this didn't do the trick: Madame S' passport photo was deemed too large to qualify for the application and she was sent back out into the street.

Almost two hours later, our heroine returned to the consulate with a completed application and new photo. Fortunately, even with the absence of nearly two hours, her number hadn't even been called yet. When it was called, Madame S dashed up to the Russian official but, alas, he strode out of the room without apology to smoke. Upon his return, he announced that the new passport photo was not valid either; apparently propriety demanded a different ratio of head to background space. As the workday was ending, Madame S left the consulate and returned the next day, but sadly there was no way to know that the consulate was now closed for two days on account of a national Russian holiday. On her fourth visit to the consulate, Madame S arrived forty-five minutes early but this time was told that, contrary to previous information she had received from Russian academic authorities, she could not easily receive a tourist visa since she was, at least partially, traveling for business reasons.

Not even the required hotel "invitation" was enough to satisfy Official Russia. Madame S did what many of us would have done: she cried like a baby and left the consulate, and Montreal, without a visa. The story isn't unusual: nobody in the consulate had a more satisfying encounter with the visa process. Moreover, while waiting in line, Madame S learned from ethnic Russian travelers that she should expect more of the same, or worse, in Russia itself. Apparently the land of the Hermitage was no tourist paradise. One needed a minder, or guide, to navigate the city. One shouldn't even talk in public for fear of letting others know one's vulnerable status as an outsider.

If Russia has such esquisite appreciation for bureaucracy, its no wonder that she also has connoisseurship in the art of the queue. During the Soviet era, people lined up to wait for goods and services with superhuman patience, as if people could receive religious absolution at every store, government depot, or street corner. Vladimir Sorokon's novel captures the spirit and existential meaning of the Soviet queue. According to Sorokon, Soviet citizens spent, on average, about one third of each day waiting for something. In such conditions, money was meaningless: only time, and your place in the line, mattered. As Sorokon points out, both Russia's private and public history is related to standing in line. In 1896, Nicholas II was coronoted but 2,000 people were crushed to death as a monstrous line for "coronation gifts" spun out of control. At Stalin's death in 1953, history repeated itself, although nobody can be sure exactly how many Soviet men and women died in the orgy of mourning. Russians are accustomed to waiting in line. As Orthodox believers, they stood for services that could last several hours. As Soviets, they waited for "food, goods, tickets, vacations, toilets" and even prison beds.

In Montreal, Madame S experienced the queue as a demeaning expression of the bureacrat's power, and certainly Soviet citizens felt demeaned by the scarcity that pervaded their lives. In Sorokin's fictional queue, Russians resent the store employees who are lackisasically distributing the goods, hate those who precede them in line and therefore diminish their chances for receiving anything,, and despise those that enviously follow them and watch for opportunities to cut in line. On the other hand, Sorokin's queue isn't without merits. At the local level, those in line help each other by trading information--or at least wild rumors--and holding places for comrades who wish to step outside the line to buy alcohol or even simultaneously take up a place in a second line. The line was also a place for political or philosophical discussion. As one person in the line reminds those around him, one shouldn't be so quick to admire either the American economic or political system. In America, one can criticize Ronald Reagan freely but be fired for critizing his boss. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the hegemony of the queue collapsed. Now people were confronted with radical consumer choices. Where once people made due with three types of sausage, they now had 333 sausage selections. The downside to this consumer paradise is that many people can no longer afford that which is theoretically available to them.

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