Da Tovarich!

Gosh, it's just like Disney World .... with nukes.
Gosh, it's just like Disney World .... with nukes.
Over 25 years ago I had the pleasure of visiting Russia. At that time it still held the whimsical name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. When I got there I had my passport, my travel visa and several other documents that had been deemed necessary to ensure my safe passing. My train crossed into the Soviet territory without incident. The conductor announced this grand moment in Russian, German and English. And it was good that he did since looking out the window I could not tell the difference between the Communist trees and their freedom loving counterparts.

However, shortly thereafter, a nice man carrying an automatic weapon politely asked to see my papers. Since he asked politely, I produced them. He looked at each of them carefully and announced that I would have to be detained since I was clearly a spy. I should note here that I am 6 foot 5 and had a 14 inch high blond Mohawk back then. The mandatory accouterments of ear rings and leather jacket were also on display. In other words, I didn’t exactly blend in.

Nevertheless this wacky little charge, which carried a mandatory death sentence, was easily cleared up by paying another fee at the next station. It came to about $30.00. So, I paid the fee, got back on the train (along with several other dangerous types, including a 70 year old grandmother, who also had to pay a fee) and headed on my merry way.

Yeah, welcome to Russia. Where everyone’s your Tovarich (friend). Well, this is the country where the heavily censored national newspaper is called Pravda. Which means truth. So, you kind of learned to expect irony and weirdness where ever you went.

During my stay I quickly learned that paying a little extra guaranteed you the services you’d already paid for. All of which would be mysteriously unavailable until you ponied up. Rather than get upset about it, I just went along for the ride. It was like being trapped in a corrupt amusement park. You’d pay to get on the ride and then pay again to get off.

Lenny Bruce once said “Chicago’s so corrupt it’s thrilling.” He would’ve loved Russia.

Since then the Berlin Wall fell, democracy came and went and then came back again, kind of sort of, and so on. But, one thing seems to be the same; you still have to pay twice for anything you want or need.

So a bunch of Russian civil servants did what anyone else trapped in a corrupt system would do; they made a music video with a topless woman and posted it on You Tube. As Thomas Grove at Reuters points out, this move has irked Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Wednesday criticized a group of customs officers for a YouTube video celebrating the lavish lifestyle they say comes with their government jobs.

The mock rap video made in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok shows customs officials in sunglasses driving a Rolls Royce and drinking champagne surrounded by scantily clad women.

“You can’t even imagine how the customs officials have fun,” officers sing in chorus as a topless woman clutches customs forms to her breasts.

No disciplinary action has been taken to date against the officers who posted the video, but Putin, Russia’s paramount leader, condemned the bling-filled video’s tongue-in-cheek look at corruption.

“Discipline is needed in several of the divisions, we have to raise it a little,” Putin said at a meeting with the head of the Federal Customs Service.

“I like to joke and laugh a little myself, but this kind of creativity should be saved for a talent show,” said Putin, who has hinted he may run for president in 2012.

The average monthly salary for customs officials — $1,000 — is also the size of the average bribe in Russia, according to a recent report in financial daily Vedomosti.

Russians lament corruption and bribe-taking by government officials to carry out standard procedures and the customs service is perceived as a major offender.

From cars to wine, imports are sought after in Russia and often cost at least twice as much as in the country of origin.

Corruption is also considered the biggest obstacle to doing business in Russia, and investors have demanded more measures to fight the growing problem.

Berlin-based graft watchdog Transparency International ranks Russia 154th out of 178 countries in a corruption perception index, putting it on par with Laos and Cambodia.

Government jobs are among the most sought-after and are often sold for thousands of dollars in Russia, where bureaucrats often supplement modest incomes with sometimes huge bribes.

Some visitors to the YouTube site praised the video, including a suggestion that they should go on tour. Others scathingly mocked the idea and criticized the clip.

“What tour? They make more on bribes than any star. There is a stream of goods flowing in from China through Vladivostok, They are literally raking in the money,” said one person who identified themselves as GiusAppuleiusDiocles.

President Dmitry Medvedev Wednesday sent a bill to parliament increasing the fines on officials caught taking bribes to up to 100 times the size of the original bribe.

Many Russians say paying bribes has become a regular feature in almost every sphere of life, from ensuring attention in the health care industry to getting better marks in university or evading penalties from traffic police. Bigger bribes are paid by companies to secure contracts or other business.

While they no longer take dissidents to the Moscow Electric Company (that was a building the KGB used to assassinate anyone they felt like assassinating at the moment), there still could be career altering fall out from the video. For example, they might have to re-pay to keep their jobs.

There’s another fine, if unintended, Russian tradition on display in the video as well. There are multiple counts of copyright infringement.

If you’re one of those lonely souls, I’ll note that the girl gets topless around the 6:14 mark.

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