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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PTT nightmare Life inside a Central Telegraph

What sort of demon decreed that my link to Moscow would be here, in this musty Central Telegraph office somewhere in Russia? My eighth grade math teacher?

I mention my math teacher because of an algebra problem I came across as I stood in front of a pay phone in the Russian Far East. I needed to call Moscow, and I pondered how I could put this phone to my advantage.

Here was my problem: If a phone call to Moscow costs 35 rubles per minute, how many 15 kopek coins would you need in order to make a 10-minute call, and how fast would you have to drop them into the pay phone?

The answer is 2, 333 coins, with a new coin deposited each 1/4 second.

Not trusting my math, always a wise step, I made the attempt anyway. My math turned out to be right: The hungry machine sucked down 15-kopek coins faster than I could feed them in. Fortunately, the machine did give a five-second grace period during which I shouted my story's word count as well as my flight number back to Moscow.

Of course, the deeper meaning to all this was that I needed to find the local PTT.

As communications all across the former Soviet Union have broken down, in many small- to medium-sized Russian cities. Central Telegraph offices are now the only places from which a traveler can place an intercity or international phone call.

This only exacerbates the situation inside these overcrowded, understaffed, thoroughly detestable pieces of former Soviet infrastructure. For starters, they all look the same -- 1960s linoleum floor, benches with foam padding extruding through any of a dozen slits, several fake plastic plants, a row of wooden booths along one wall, on another wall a green number counter no one has used since Nikita Khrushchev was general secretary and, finally, three cashiers seated behind waist-high holes cut into scratched Plexiglas.

One of the cashiers gets the plumb job -- she staffs the window for war veterans and the sale of taloni for settling hotel phone bills. Since nobody ever needs these services, her real job is to roll her eyes and sigh while she gives people the bad news that they need to stand in one of the other two enormous lines.

Once your call is placed and you've prepaid, then you take a seat on the extruding foam padding and strain to hear the loudspeaker that announces when your call is dialed and to which booth.

If you only used a portion of your ordered call length, then you may -- if your time is worth less than 15 cents per hour -- get back in line and retrieve your change.

This system is a reflection of nothing right or wrong about Russia. But please forgive me if, in line at a Central Telegraph, I occasionally I pine for the orderly days of communism.