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The Hundred-Headed Monster

Slaying the Hundred-Headed Monster

In a Journey From St. Petersburg to Moscow (1790), Aleksander Radishchev referred to Russia’s autocratic system as a “hundred-headed monster that gulps down the food prepared for the people’s gen­eral sustenance.” For most Russians, whether under Tsarism or the Soviets, the heads of that monster were decorated with the stony face of the bureaucrat, or chinovnik.  And be sure, a hundred heads is far too small of a number to capture the enormity of the Russian bureaucracy.

While Radishchev’s reference was to the ancient Greek monster of monsters, Typhon, the image is antiquated in capturing the present day Typhon inhabiting Russia.  Indeed, Russia’s Typhon still has one body, but the heads number well over a million. According to Rosstat, the number of bureaucrats in 2010 at the federal and municipal levels was 1,648,400, or an average of 25 bureaucrats per 1000 people.  In the belly of the beast, i.e. Moscow, there are over 78,000 alone, or 12 per 1000 people.

This wouldn’t be such a problem beyond the inevitable red tape if Russia’s chinovniki weren’t also known to be horribly corrupt. Here are some choice comments about Russians’ attitude toward chinovniki from interviews complied by Anne Hamiton for her article “Radishchev’s Hundred-Headed Monster Lives! The Role of the Bureaucrat Symbol in State-Society Relations in Russia“:

“[Bureaucrats] are people who start to gnaw at you for every little paper”; “they are also vulture-like, in the sense that they grab everything and pig out”; “Any leader is a hero in my eyes, but these [biurokrat, chinovnik, apparatchik] are reptiles, rats, nits—rotten”.

Even those who do their job are viewed as lacking any morality, and even a soul:

“You have good chinovniki, those who worked normally, fulfill their jobs, do everything quickly, but they are lacking soul, they are cold, chilly in general”; “I don’t know why [they treat people poorly]. Maybe they pay them poorly, most likely, it’s … immorality, lack of soul”

You get the point.

Granted, Russians’ poor regard for their civil service is entrenched in the culture. Just think of the enduring legacy of Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich. But this is not to say that Russian bureaucrats haven’t consistently provided kindling to keep such deleterious views burning bright. Two recent articles, one from Gazeta.ru and the other from Vedomosti, provide key reasons why.

The first article from Gazeta concerns Chief State Prosecutor Yuri Chaika’s annual report to President Medvedev.  There was little in Chaika’s report to celebrate, and if its results don’t end his career as Russia guardian of the law, I don’t know what will.  It certainly puts Medvedev’s campaign against corruption into perspective.  Medvedev can raise the penalty for corruption as high has he wants.  He can also point ad nauseum to the endemic problem of corruption.  And even if the “real” Medvedev stands up, be sure the political reality that is Russia will strap him right down.  After all, you can’t punish if the very organs of punishment are unwilling to. Here’s what Gazeta has to say to this effect in Chaika’s report:

There were 40,600 crimes “against the government, the interests of civil service, and the employees in local government offices.” That is 12.2% less than last year.  In the past year the Investigative Committee initiated 13,500 criminal cases involving corruption and refused to carry out investigations in 21,500 cases. But in the last year and the number of investigations on bribe taking shrunk by 2%, on abuse of official authority by almost 6%.  There was an insignificant growth in the number of investigations against commercial bribery.

In manufacturing, investigators had 18,000 criminal corruption cases, but  investigations were completed in less than half of them.  The courts tried 7,300 criminal cases, of which 2,400 were about giving bribes, 1,400 for taking bribes, and even 1,100 for fraud.  The courts tried 2,200 cases under other “corruption” statues.

And when it came to the people who were prosecuted, they tended to be rather small fries: “doctors, teachers, and low ranking police.”  “Cases involving sums more than a million rubles totaled around a hundred.”

So much for Medvedev’s campaign.  Even if he was serious, and I think he is as serious as he can be without undermining his support among the elite, the hundred-headed monster has more domes than a mere gnome can lop off.

Bribes do pay. Quite well.  And their costing the vast majority of Russia a whole lot of cash.  The costs, however, are not just from individuals paying bribes, but in the price of doing business.  These costs were the subject a recent article in Vedomosti on the impact of ineffective and corrupt bureaucrats on the cost of commercial property, goods and services.  Among many things, the business daily reported:

Poor institutions are responsible for 25-30% of the cost of residential and commercial property (in Moscow up to 60%), a 15% extra markup in retail goods, and 10% in telecommunications service.

Bribes to get the necessary permits for construction amount to 5-15% of the cost of the project, and 7-10% for hooking up utilities.  All of this at the end of the day gets passed on to the consumer.

Then there is this:

The cost for permits from various government levels can consist of 30 to 60% of the cost of construction of buildings depending on the region and difficulty of the project,” says Dimitry Potapenko. Permits can drag for years, like for example, it’s turned out for IKEA in Samara.  The Swedish retail store began its construction in 2006 and has yet to get the permission to open. In addition to the planned 4 billion ruble investment in the project, IKEA is forced to put in twice more.

Not the best way to court foreign investment.

With findings like these, each head of Radishchev’s monsters is living quite well on the food prepared by the Russian people.

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