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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Now, a Little Tip With Your Tea

"Tips -- that's their happiness. We don't need to take someone else's happiness away from them."


These words, recalled by historian Vladimir Gilyarovsky in his 1926 book "Moscow and Muscovites," were spoken by a Mr. Savostyanikov, allegedly the only restaurateur in late 19th-century Moscow progressive enough not to require his waiters to divvy up their tips at the end of a working day.


Over 100 years later, chayeviye -- literally "tea money" -- is still a tricky business. With more and more restaurants cropping up in post-Soviet Moscow, a common question now asked by visitors and foreign residents alike is: "How much should I leave?"


In many parts of the world, waiters and waitresses depend almost exclusively on tips to fortify their otherwise meager salaries, an agreement implicitly understood by the restaurant and clientele alike.


In Russia, however, the protocol is unclear, and apart from the restaurants who gleefully tack on their own gratuity charges, there are no specified rules. "It doesn't depend on the bill," said Oksana Safronova, a waitress at the Italia Restaurant on Ulitsa Arbat. "It depends totally on the person, not even on the service."


Although she wouldn't say how much she earned in total, she did say that at least half of the sum comes from money left na chai. "Once I was left 50,000 rubles ($25), but that's rare. The average is about 10,000," said Safronova, 20, who has been waiting tables for a year.


For a country just getting over 70 years of an unsmiling, less-is-more approach to the service industry, chayeviye has long been in the Russian vocabulary. After the 1861 emancipation, Gilyarovsky writes, many former serfs fell into an oppressive waitstaff culture, moving from floor-sweeper to cook to busboy to waiter as their lives progressed at the restaurant. Their wages, if any, were meager, and to survive they were dependent on their tea money, or what was left of it after the owners took their share.


During the Soviet regime, the practice of leaving money for tea continued, although it was considered illegal to accept money outside of one's salary. "Officially, tips were never allowed," said Lyudmila Ushakova, an official at Moscow's consumer market and services department.


She added, however, that seven years ago the Trade Ministry began to allow certain restaurants to take an additional 5 percent of the bill for quality service. The money would then be divided up throughout the restaurant, from the busboys to the waiters to the advertising staff.


Alexander Klimenko, a waiter since 1987, who now works at the joint-owned Tren-Mos Bar and Bistro on Ulitsa Ostozhenka, said that tipping has only become substantial with the advent of Western-style service. At the Soviet restaurant where he had worked earlier, he said, the customers "really left nothing. Here they leave much more."


As more Russians adjust to the new protocol, however, tipping may become more common practice. Klimenko, 27, himself recited a common waitstaff vow: "The times when I take someone out to a restaurant, I try to leave more, because I know the work."


Asked who the biggest tippers are, Safronova was to the point. "The Russians are the best, and the Americans," she said. "The worst are the French, Italians and the Germans, and especially the French."


A waitress at the Guria Georgian restaurant on Komsomolsky Prospekt, who asked not to be named, agreed, although she added Arabs to the ranks of the worst and put the Mafia at the very top of the best tip-givers. The waitress, who depends on her tips to beef up her 43,000-ruble official salary, said she is worried that Yeltsin's intensified war on crime and the Mafia will ultimately affect her income.


"I saw my tips diminish during the first and second coups," she said. "The Mafia didn't come around as much."