Alex Stephenson, on a year abroad in St. Petersburg, provides an insider’s view into the personal elements of Russian corruption.
Within academia there remains a debate about the positive and negative effects of corruption. The debate can perhaps be summed up by social media icon, Dril: ‘drunk driving may kill a lot of people, but it also helps a lot of people get to work on time, so, it’s impossible to say if it’s bad or not’. This is a somewhat facetious summary of the argument but nonetheless represents its crux: corruption gets stuff done in a world of overweight yet underfunded bureaucracies whereby legitimate channels of business are often so cumbersome as to render ideas dead before they’ve begun.
This idea is often rejected by those whose life hasn’t had corruption woven through it, and almost certainly haven’t taken the time to consider whether more brazen forms of corruption go unnoticed, or even celebrated, within their own respective countries. Thus, our understanding of corruption should be humanised; we should view it not only as a misappropriation of resources but also as a means of making life easier for one another. With such an understanding it seems fitting I should find myself living in Saint Petersburg, a city, in Dostoevsky’s words, ‘of half-crazy people’ that inflicts ‘gloomy, harsh and strange in influences on the soul of man’. It’s also in St. Petersburg that I find myself not only experiencing but also perpetuating corruption.
Or not quite. The events begin in a student accommodation block in the outskirts of St. Petersburg and an upcoming ‘cleanest flat competition’. In the run up to said competition I found myself debating with my flat leader about what prize we might want to receive. ‘Receive’, as opposed to win, seems the appropriate word here, because it turns out that the flat leader was putting in the request for our prize before the competition had begun. The competition duly goes ahead, the flat is cleaned and inspected, and the presentation about how our multinational flat succeed in living together is presented to the judges and, lo and behold, we win the prize previously requested.
This might not seem like the gritty corruption of police extortion, authority bribery and asset stripping that comes to mind when one thinks about Soviet, or post-Soviet, life. Indeed, to have tried to bribe any of the judges would almost certainly have resulted in a formal reprimand – it’s just not the way things are done. Yet the rules and criteria of the competition were so opaque as to be meaningless. Moreover, and more interestingly, despite the guaranteed outcome, the cleaning and presentation went ahead and not without an insignificant amount of effort.
This event, it seems, is almost a microcosm of business – and to an extent all – life in Russia. Whilst procedure and operation might be adhered to on the surface, interpersonal relations continue to play a huge role in shaping interactions. The stark proceduralism that represents everything from health and safety to education with British institutionalism has made things run smoothly yet feel disjointed. Within Russia it’s often the ceremonialism – politely saying good morning, or remembering small details about people – that determines how strictly rules are enforced.
This selective application of the rules and favouritism often entrenches in-out divisions – those who know the rules of the game always have a head start and ultimately amount to all the small actions that make a country less than transparent. Yet it was also an eye opener to corruption – not the state capture that you see so brazenly enacted by Russian oligarchs, or the corrupt asset stripping of the 90s – but how rules are bended to allow room for the familial, to allow human interaction to permeate the bureaucratisation of procedure.