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.
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.