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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

You Are What You Earn: Keeping Salaries Secret

Two Westerners, longstanding friends who have had their share of misadventures and heart-to-heart talks, go for a walk after work. They avoid crowded places and steer towards the emptiest streets and paths they can find, finally settling on an abandoned bench in the middle of nowhere. They look around anxiously to make sure no one's within earshot. They exchange vows of respect and take deep breaths. And then they tell each other how much they make.

Ten minutes later, if they're in Russia, they're probably glibly repeating the same classified information to their conversationally-minded taxi driver, albeit with their hand on the door latch, should he suddenly decide to find out whether the entire sum is currently located in cash form in their wallet. The driver told them what he makes, after all, and didn't seem too shy about it. He may also give a rundown of how much he paid for his apartment or his weekly groceries or a new stereo system, and is curious to know how his passengers compare. It's the most innocent line of questioning in the world.

Published lists of Russia's 20 richest businessmen will change all this, of course. Fledgling capitalism has already done its damage. People here are starting to be a little more coy about their earnings. They all used to earn more or less the same thing, after all -- there was none of that "Vanya just moved into the six-figure range" sizzle. Some people were more equal than others, but it wasn't money that made the difference.

Now, for better or worse, it is. And if the secretary down the hall or the manager on the other shift earns more than you, you want to know, although not necessarily by having them puff up their chest and tell you about it. Thus, Russians discover a new twist on an old theme -- spying on their neighbors -- and the evil thrill of exploring the hushed byways of the salary maze.

This is not said with the superiority of one who follows the nobler path. Westerners have been doing this forever, breathlessly digging through off-limit folders and computer files, and gleefully whispering any available gems in the burning ears of co-workers.

Forget outward appearance -- a person is ultimately reduced, or raised, to what they are earning. Salary is everything, a measure of power, prestige, who you are and what you're worth. People can be boorish, stupid, ugly, egomaniacal and -- the worst sin of all -- lazy, but if their salary is impressive, they still get points for craftiness, for somehow knowing, despite their utter lack of faculty, how to play the game. Russians are learning this fact all too quickly, even the humble taxi driver. Maybe the next time two foreigners jump from their abandoned bench into a cab, flushed with the thrill of confession, the driver won't even ask.