Back in the 19th century, three talented Russian writers got together and invented a fourth Kozma Prutkov. The fictitious Prutkov became famous for his parodies written in various genres, but above all, for his aphorisms.
"If you have a fountain, turn it off; let the fountain also rest," was one of his aphorisms. Another went: "If you read the word buffalo' written on an elephant cage, don't believe what you're seeing."
Over a century has gone by since then, but every time I come up against the rough edges and sharp angles of Russian life, I always find myself remembering Kozma Prutkov.
Just recently, for example, an old school friend who now lives in Israel sent me some money through the international money-transfer agency Western Union. I called the bank closest to my home and was told that to collect my transfer, I'd have to come to the bank in person. But the bank didn't have particularly convenient working hours.
It was open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed on weekends and on Fridays was open only until 1:30 p.m. This is despite the fact that most Muscovites' working days last from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. True, it turned out that the bank was actually open until 7 p.m., but it didn't bother to tell its clients this and in the evenings was therefore empty.
It was about 4 p.m. when I came to the bank. There was a colorful Western Union ad at the entrance but the doors were closed. I saw a buzzer, telephone and some other mysterious button, which turned out to be the real buzzer, though I worked that out only through a process of trial and error.
Finally, the door opened and I was greeted by a policeman wearing a bulletproof vest. I told him what I wanted and he yelled into the depths of the bank, asking if "that woman who came for Western Union had gone yet." Seeing as he told me to wait, I deduced she hadn't gone yet. The door closed and I found myself back on the fortunately not-too-cold street.
At last, I was invited to enter the holy of holies, with the policeman on my tail the whole time. As if under escort by an honor guard, I entered a large foyer with at least a dozen armchairs for clients, of which there were none in sight. An armchair by the cashier's window would have been nice, but there was no such luck and I filled out my forms standing up. Instead, I had the joy of being coughed on by the sniffing cashier.
I was tempted to rest a few seconds in the inviting armchairs on my way back out, but resisted, afraid I'd be suspected of terrorist intentions and not wanting to keep other clients waiting in the street. As it was, there were two of them already standing outside the door. When I got home, meanwhile, I read in the advertising brochure I'd picked up at the bank that for a certain sum, I could have collected my transfer without even leaving my house.
A few months before the bank episode, I found in my letterbox a brochure from one of Russia's oldest newspapers offering a week's free subscription. I filled out the form and waited for the free week to begin. On the Monday of that week, I did indeed get the newspaper in my letterbox along with a letter assuring me that I'd get my copies for the rest of the week. But no such luck. I had no paper on Tuesday, when I wanted a particular article from the paper, and none on Wednesday. I called the distribution service, which promised to sort the situation out.
The rest of the week, I bought the paper at a kiosk and on Sunday, I again got it in the post along with another letter in which the editorial team told me they'd given me a whole week's free papers to get acquainted with their work, and hinted unambiguously that it was now time for me to make a contribution to their noble cause.
These examples are sadly typical of modern Russia. Anyone here can come up with dozens of them. What they all show is that this country has no real competition and no normal market. Business success doesn't depend on the ability to attract clients, but on the ability to find large sums of money, stake out one's territory, obtain the blessings of bureaucrats and come to agreements with criminal bosses.
Business here pretends to do everything "like in the civilized world," but everyone knows that behind this facade of advertising is a banker with no interest in ordinary clients or a publisher with little concern for the real circulation of his newspapers and magazines. Big bucks and power are the only things that count here. As for ordinary people, they are just pawns in this game and only merit any attention when there's a risk they could become queens.
But I still can't resist making a Prutkov-style appeal: "If you have a fountain advertising a cage with an elephant, on which is written buffalo,' turn it off let people rest a while."
(Tatyana Matsuk is a regular columnist for The Russia Journal and a former researcher for the Russian Academy of Sciences.)