Cross Currents

A cross cultural blog
MAY 13, 2011 3:38AM

Building a Road in Russia

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The village, Timeless Russia


Our dacha is in a little village with the famous Russian roads that slowed Hitler’s tanks and preventeda blitzkrieg.  They are dirt and in the spring and fall, turn into muddy ruts.  Some springs we couldn’t get to the house, but had to park some distance away and trudge through the mud with our stuff, often making several trips. 


All government is so corrupt and inefficient that none of the villagers or dachniks even bothered to petition for a paved road.  Then, the federal government repaved the nearby international highway --- one of the main routes West.  Homeowners got together, coughed up money to bribe the highway builders to pave the short main street in the tiny village. It wasn’t enough to pave the whole street, but there’s pavement over the worst spots and you can now drive the whole length of the road in any weather.  The locals paid, the government paved, but the whole thing was arranged under the table. 


              Roadbuilders at work


By contrast, commercial products and services work pretty well. Eighteen years ago, when we first came to Russia, that wasn’t true. GUM, the famous department store on Red Square, was a bleak outpost of cheesy metal kiosks selling dingy Soviet underwear.  We bought a clock there and the clerk took it out of the box and plugged it in to see if it actually worked. It didn’t. Back on the shelf it went. She took down another clock. It didn’t work. The third clock worked and she sold it to us for five dollars. Now, GUM features stores like Hermes, Dior and Louis Vuitton.


I got rear-ended this winter. My insurancecompany took charge of extracting the cost of repairs from the driver-at-fault’s insurance company. They arranged the repair. It was smooth, swift and efficient.  The repair matched the paint flawlessly.  When we picked up the repaired car, the repair company sent a mechanic out to start the engine, heater and defroster, so by the time the paperwork was done, the car was warm and defrosted --- a nice touch on a very cold, Russian winter day.  


Now Russian expect quality. Even kiosk operators in the bazaars need to provide effective guarantees of the goods they sell --- and sell decent quality stuff. Russians expect decent services, too.    


The contrast with the government is striking. Government is still at least as corrupt and inefficient as it was in Soviet times. But a generation of Russians is growing up with completely different expectations of what good service is. Why can’t roads be paved over a hundred years after the invention of tarmac and 2,500 years after the Romans managed to pave their roads?  Why does everyone who hears “the party of crooks and thieves” immediately know it refers to the ruling United Russia party?


Why are there two standards; one for private business and one, immeasurably lower, for government? Russians are asking themselves these questions. 

Following the turbulent Yeltsin years, Russians were eager for stability. They were still accustomed to Soviet low standards, thus willing to accept lousy government in return for stability. Now, crap government is looking less acceptable. 


How it will play out in the 2012 elections is not predictable, but Putin is worried and quite unwilling to relinquish his grip on power.  















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Odd as this sounds, the U.S. is starting to look very similar. If roads were left in the hands of the current government to create, we'd have a thousand new billionaires and dirt roads too.
You make a compelling point about how progress in the commercial sector is now affecting expectations for government. However, will these changing expectations really lead to government improvement or just lip service and promises during the coming election year? If Russian politics is anything like U.S., there might be more rhetoric than action . . .
The US has a responsiveness to local concerns that maybe you have to live in a country like Russia to appreciate. It's a lot easier to understand local gov't --- does your trash get picked up or not --- than to understand complex long term issues like the economy or national security. When Americans can't get their cars inspected without forking over a bribe, no matter in how excellent shape the car is in, you will hear howls.

But, yeah, some Republican will surely decide road should be privatized, some day. Maybe that will finally be the death knell of the Republican party.
Elizabeth ---
It's very hard to predict when discontent will grow into action. People are no longer happy with the status quo. However, I don't have a great deal of optimism for what kind of choices will be offered and there's tremendous pressure to ballot-stuff.

I've noted that no one can predict what is going to push popular discontent with a kleptocratic regime that has overstayed it's welcome into revolt. Certainly few of the Kremlinologists foresaw the end of the Soviet Union, nor did Middle East experts predict that the Arab world would rise this spring.

If I was forced to predict anything, I'd predict growing discontent that might simmer for a long time before some seemingly trivial incident sparks massive rioting. Kind of like the suicide of the fruit-seller in Tunisia sparked the simmering discontent across the Arab world.

When will this happen? Soon, or in another decade?
Interesting post about the divergence of the public and the private.

I find Bobbot's comment interesting but I don't think the American and Russian phenomena are the same. American government isn't as inefficient and bureaucratic as it used to be. However, we are headed for more billionaires and more dirt roads because tax policy is resulting in more income polarization, which is moving us in the direction Bobbot describes. There are a lot of people who say that small government will improve this but they have it backward - small government means a government not big enough to keep our roads paved and help with expenses that average Americans can no longer afford.
Part of the growing pains. Here it's just the opposite. We are privatizing government services like road building and the public is being taken to the cleaners will tolls.
You speak of the contrasts here between govt and private very clearly and well. I suppose it is not a huge surprise that the "private" sector would have a different feel that the government engine considering the history...and your town works it as well as you can.
Thanks for visiting. I'm convinced that America can solve the debt problem with sensible cuts. 1) our health care costs around 17% of GDP, few other countries top 12%. Think about the growth engine cutting 5% off expenses across all industries would be.
2) We are spending billions battling terror in the Middle East. Since the war on terror started, we've done more to destroy America's reputation and make the world less safe for Americans. End the wars, spend the money on infrastructure, health and education.
3) Stupid earmarks and bridges to nowhere.
I don't think tolls are coming to Russia. The city of Moscow tried parking meters in Yeltsin's time, but the currency depreciated and the meters only took kopecks, so when there were 5000 kopecks to the dollar, the meters filled up and the city spent more money on gas collecting the meter payments than they got from the meters.

Ten years later, they tried parking attendants, the prices for prime spots were high, there's a tremendous shortage of legal parking spaces, but too little of the fee collected made their way to the city coffers --- the parking attendants pocketed the money and fake parking attendants monitored many spots.

So, now, parking is free (and a free-for-all). I don't think the gov't is going to spend the money to put up toll booths without being sure the toll money will make its way back to the gov't.
I didn't quite get what you said. Could you clarify?
So that's why things work the way they do in Chicago!
I would give Puting a lot of credit though for stabilizing things in a near disastrous situation, if the methods he used trapped him in terms of the siloviki.
The problem it seems to me, and a lot of other people, is that the siloviki are security people, not business people, and so they aren't going to have a high upper bound on their efficiency. If, as to be fair, Putin could get Western Europeans to invest even more, which would be a return to roots a la Peter using Germans, then you would see even more improvements, although there you have the problem of who he relies on in United Russia, which is too much of the former apparat, and the fact that Volodya is ... controlling :). But, compared to 1998 and that collapse, whatever was all behind that, which may have been the siloviki, to do what they wanted to do anyway and have a strong man, you point out good progress. I like to think Russia still has a bright future, if they see that Europe is its future, especially Germany, but also France and Britain, in terms of methods of doing things, which would be the case for much of Eastern Europe.
The problem is corruption and that is right at the heart of the gov't. The mayor of Moscow amassed a fortune worth $2 billion US in his 10 years in office. Putin's been rumored to have far more carefully hidden. This loot comes from milking everything that can be milked. That's what's preventing foreign investment. The worry that your hard work and investment might end up as some Silovik's cash cow.

Sure, Russia would like to imitate France and Germany, and lots of rhetoric is produced to that effect, but the bottom line is that Russia's top level politicians expect to live like hedge fund superstars and not like well-compensated Western politicians.