Doing Battle With Russia's Phone Culture

Whenever people ask me what permanent damage I may suffer as a result of living here, I always answer simply, "the telephone."

A strange answer, you may think, given all of Moscow's potential hazards, environmental and otherwise, but it's true. It is the telephone that has left its mark on me more than anything else. I often wonder if I will ever be able to have a normal, pleasant phone conversation again.

You know what I'm talking about. It goes something like this: Allo. Click.

Or, Yevo nyet -- perezvonite chut pozzhe (he's not here -- call back a little later), followed by a resounding bang of the receiver.

Making a phone call in Moscow is like going into battle. You have to pretty much assume that you have intruded on someone's life by making their phone ring. Suspicion is the order of the day, and hanging up is de rigueur.

I used to be perfectly pleasant on the phone. I was polite and relaxed with the person on the other end of the line. When I asked to speak with someone, I would not be overbearing or demand to know exactly when they would be back. When I was told the person would return my call, I was sure I was being told the truth and did not express my doubts out loud. And I never, ever, hung up without saying good-bye.

That was then, of course, and this is now. At this point, I am a lost cause. When I am told to call back later, I breathe fire. At the end of a conversation, I rarely say good-bye. When I am told that the person I want to speak with will call me back, I laugh (to myself -- I haven't lost all sense of propriety).

Then there is the shouting. I have one of those phone lines that crackles constantly. Whenever I am conducting a phone interview, the line inevitably crackles at the most important moment. I was talking to one official recently, for example, and I was sure I had a scoop when he said something like "the most scandalous thing is..." and then all I heard was fuzz. So much for the scandal.

Compare this with the call I made to an 800 number in the United States the other day to speak with a customer service representative for a credit card company. The short, clear conversation was peppered with phrases like "how may I help you" and "is there anything else I can do for you today?" I had to catch myself before almost hanging up without delivering the customary friendly goodbye.

But things are changing here slowly. Two people called me back last week. A few others have been answering my calls in such a friendly manner that I have been embarrassed at my grisly tone.

Even the most vexing telephone tales can have happy endings these days. A friend of mine was trying to reach a Russian journalist. The first few times he called, an officemate simply said "Nyet" and hung up. Finally, exasperated, he called back and immediately asked if he could leave a message. The officemate answered da -- and hung up.

My persistent friend called back and just started dictating the message. After connecting several times, he finally managed to get his name and phone number across.

Believe it or not, the journalist he had been trying to get a hold of actually did call him back -- eventually.