Postal Service a Dead-Letter Disappointment

Armed with a whistle and carrying close to 20,000 rubles under her coat, Irina Tereshina, 42, heads out with a partner to deliver pensions for the Russian federal post office.

Jobs like Tereshina's are virtually the only legitimate positions left at the post office f and pensions almost the only thing Russians still trust their mail service to deliver.

Postal service has become a never-ending disappointment in post-Soviet Russia. Mailboxes are receptacles for newspapers, phone bills and junk mail f but rarely anything of value.

An intense passion could fade away by the time a teary-eyed girl gets her long-awaited love letter. A distant family could see the ruble plunge to a tenth of its value waiting for the cash their young working son has sent from the city. Andthe package of sweaters and socks that a grandmother spent months lovingly knitting is unlikely to ever reach its intended destination.

"The Russian post office doesn't need to worry anymore about good service, and the customers don't care. They already wouldn't dare use the service," Itogi magazine wrote in a recent special report on the postal service.

Since the early 1990s, the postal service has been in a continuous state of decline. Clients are few, services slow and the processing of mail is archaic and cumbersome.

There is no money to upgrade to computerized systems, and operating expenses far exceed revenues, said a spokeswoman for the main Moscow branch of the post office.

There are only 10,000 official postal carriers f most of them women f in all of Russia. By comparison, the United States employs nearly 800,000 full-time mail carriers.

But while the post office doesn't have money for computers, transportation repairs or official uniforms for its carriers f regular street clothing is handed out so workers at the very least don't have to wear their own f one thing it can afford is guns, which it leases from the Interior Ministry.

Those postal workers charged with delivering thousands of dollars worth of pensions aboard train cars or in postal vans are typically armed with handguns and trained by the ministry to protect themselves and their stash.

Tereshina's 20,000 rubles ($700) in hand-delivered pensions isn't considered enough to warrant packing a gun, however. And Tereshina says she is grateful. "I wouldn't even know what to do with it," she said. "And besides, I would just give up the money right away for the sake of our safety."

In her eight years on the job, Tereshina says she has never had a problem herself, although she has heard of many pension robberies in the past and says the summer months f when carriers tote their money in bags rather than hiding them under their coats f are particularly risky.

But pension deliveries aside, there are no divisions of the post office requiring protective weapons f primarily because people have long since stopped sending anything through the mail.

Distrust of the postal service has mounted both through personal experience and media reports recounting horror stories of mail gone lost.

In 1993, four bulging bags of overseas mail were discovered in a lake close to Sheremetyevo Airport, a mistake a postal administrator at the time blamed on airport employees too lazy to deal with the cumbersome shipments.

According to Itogi's special report, postal workers regularly toss subscription-only newspapers into a big pile on the trains and leave them for the passengers to take, or simply toss them in the garbage.

Russians have found ways around such inefficiency, usually by bringing their more valuable or urgent packages directly to train conductors and offering money f half up front, half upon the successful delivery of the goods.

In Soviet times, 560 Moscow post office branches processed an average of 25,000 packages a day. Today f according to statistics printed in Itogi and confirmed by a post office spokesman f they process just 1,500.

Modes of transportation for mail delivery have also deteriorated. In 1996, there were 420 regular postal air flights to destinations within Russia. Today only 360 remain. The number of postal trains in operation has likewise shrunk, from 513 to 80, with only 15 of those making daily runs.

The post office also has a mere 50 delivery vans at its disposal f all based in Moscow with a mandate to travel only within a 600-kilometer radius of the city.

In an interview with Itogi, Lyudmila, a postal worker who has put in 20 years at Moscow city post office 102, said she used to process 80 packages a day, and now she's lucky if there are one or two.

The responsibility for most postal deliveries has gone to mail couriers and private domestic and international services, which offer guaranteesto their clients. Approximately 50 such commercial firms operate in Moscow.

The rapid growth of the Internet in Russia has also meant that electronic messaging has for many become a convenient and reliable replacement for the "snail" mail system.

Postal services have perhaps most seriously declined in the remote regions, where the existence of a post office was long considered a symbol of civilization. Since the early 1990s, hundreds of branches in the regions have closed.

The problem is mainly a financial one. Because prices are set too low to cover costs f just 6 to 7 rubles (20 cents) for an international letter and 1.3 rubles for a domestic letter f the post office operates at a chronic loss, the Moscow postal spokeswoman said.

In October 1998, the decline in services reached its nadir when the postal system was paralyzed by the Railways Ministry, which refused to carry the mail, saying the post office owed it $15 million, and postal bureaucrats were responsible for pocketing the bulk of the service's revenues.

But despite declining service, low pay and less than prestigious work, Russia's postal workers are no more disgruntled than others. And armed or not, they have yet to "go postal" like their considerably better-off American counterparts, who earn between $9 and $15 an hour. (In 1998, a U.S. commission was created to investigate violence-related issues in the postal workplace in response to a rash of murderous rampages conducted by self-armed postal workers.)

Tereshina, who earns about $20 a month, says she, for one, enjoys her work. "I'm much healthier because of it," she said. "It gives me daily exercise and everyone is happy to hear me knock on their door."