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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'You're the Boss and I'm a Fool.' And Vice Versa

Here's a familiar story. About a year and a half ago I was walking along the Arbat with a visiting colleague from South Korea, who was trying to change some money. We stopped in two or three places and at each one the story was the same: They carefully examined his bill and refused to take it on the grounds that it was issued before some particular date -- 1985, I think. They referred to some order by either the Central Bank or the Finance Ministry, but they didn't show us anything in writing. "This just couldn't happen anywhere else," said an exasperated Professor Lee. "If I tell people at home about this, they just won't believe me."

I, on the other hand, was not surprised in the slightest. "Anything can happen here. So you just have to be ready for it," I told him.

The vast majority of my fellow countrymen, I think, share this principle. They may not agree with it, they may get upset or protest, but when it comes right down to it, there is nothing one can do when the next "authority" spontaneously decides to infringe upon your interests. To try to fight would just mean wasting your time, exhausting your nerves and getting drawn into a conflict that you cannot hope to win.

Here's another example, which happened only a few weeks ago. My wife and I were planning a 10-day trip to Paris to visit some friends with whom I had worked in the 1970s. It had been more than three years since the last time I went abroad and my wife had never travelled, so we both needed new passports. These new passports, by the way, still bear the official seal of the Soviet Union, which means that even though they are issued for five years, the government will have a nice excuse to force people to pay for new ones with Russian decorations in the near future.

We filled out the forms for the new passports, paid for our French visas (about a month's salary), shopped around for the cheapest airfare (about six months' salary), bought insurance, arranged for a driver to take us to the airport (a week's salary), bought a load of gifts and souvenirs for our friends and, finally, sat back to wait for the big day.

Just two days before our departure, however, I happened to find a magazine called Money in our mailbox. It was a nice, glossy edition and turned out to be pretty interesting. That night, as I was laying in bed, I was flipping through this magazine when I came across an article about various types of illegal and false passports that are made these days, especially when someone needs one immediately and cannot wait the usual six weeks.

The article also reported that even if you get your passport through the proper government agency, you have no guarantee that the passport control at the airport (which is part of a completely different agency) won't stop you and claim that there is something wrong anyway. One example the article gave was the story of a man who was not allowed on the plane because he had not signed his passport, even though no one at the passport agency had told him to. Indeed, an official of that agency was supposed to witness the signature.

My pulse was racing as I leapt out of bed and found that, sure enough, neither I nor my wife had signed our passports either. We did so immediately (without an official witness, of course), but I was stunned by the realization that it was completely by chance that I had stumbled across that magazine in the first place.

And what would have happened if I hadn't read that article? If we had missed our flight, would anyone be interested in our little personal tragedy? Would anyone have compensated us for the time and the money that we wasted? For the mental anguish and anxiety we suffered? Any Russian bureaucrat would just laugh at these questions: They are not interested in our mental anguish.

These are just a couple of episodes and I know that anyone out there could easily continue the list on into infinity. And although such stories may seem like petty annoyances, I think that they have a direct connection with some more serious questions: Why is it that the majority of Russians do not even make an effort to be law-abiding citizens and, a related question, why do Russians generally hate authority?

Readers may well respond by asking, "Who doesn't?" True enough, but it seems to me that in developed countries there is a relatively calm, stable relationship between citizens and the authorities. In such countries, social institutions are highly developed and people go about their business relatively independently of the whims and moods of particular authorities.

But we Russians are afraid of authority. We do not trust it and we are always expecting traps and dirty tricks. This is the normal state of mind of the Russian citizen. This despite centuries of propaganda (pre-Soviet and Soviet) assuring us that the state and the people are a single entity, that the state is constantly caring for the people and that the two share a sincere love for one another.

Behind these ideological claims stands a mutual estrangement that is reflected in the countless jokes that Russians produced under totalitarian regimes and their generally malicious attitude toward their rulers. Boris Yeltsin played perfectly to this when he first came to national prominence by campaigning against the "unjustified privileges" of the old Party bureaucracy.

However, it is equally typical of the relationship between the people and the authorities that all such declarations were quickly forgotten and the very same cars, dachas and apartments suddenly became essential to the new authorities as well.

"You're the boss and I'm a fool; I'm the boss and you're a fool." This brilliant formulation of folk wisdom precisely sums up the Russian attitude. It's roots, perhaps, are in the relationship between a landowner and his serfs, but it has come to be applied to an entire gamut of situations.

But what can be concluded from all this? The most important thing, it seems to me, is that if some authority feels free to not live up to its obligations to me and if it is not interested in my rights and interests and if it is capable of changing the rules of the game without any warning or explanation, then how am I -- an ordinary citizen who in principle would like to be law-abiding -- supposed to react? I will do everything I can to get around the authorities and to avoid their rules and their taxes. Moreover, I will not even be ashamed that I am being dishonest. On the contrary, I will feel a distinct moral satisfaction that I was able to repay them in the same coin they gave me.

All of this makes me terribly pessimistic when I think of the future of Russia. Somehow these problems must be recognized and overcome, but I honestly don't even know where to begin.

Konstantin Zuyev is a senior researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.