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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

At the Mercy Of Russia's Petty Tyrants

As one reporter for this newspaper put it not too long ago, living in Moscow often requires the suspension of disbelief. This is precisely the phrase that came to mind when I was confronted recently with that most absurd of taxes on foreigners, the 60 percent duty on personal possessions.


I had just had a baby and was shipping over a crib, some presents and a few of those contraptions that good baby marketers in the United States convince you that you need (and they are often right).


The stuff, although far too much to fit in our own bags, was still not excessive, and certainly was not worth more than $2,000.


One of the first bits of news I heard when I got back to Moscow after giving birth was not that a huge fence was going up around the White House or that inflation was coming down, but that -- in a general reflection of the absurdity of this place -- foreigners were being charged 60 percent for entering or leaving the country with their belongings. I was suitably outraged, but selfishly did not worry too much because the duty apparently did not apply to accredited foreigners. Besides, there was a $2,000 exemption. About all this new baby stuff, I rested easy.


The baby was six weeks old when the shipment arrived at the Butovo customs house. We were delighted -- it had only taken three weeks from the United States, and there were a couple of things we really needed. Bleary-eyed from nights of dancing around the living room trying to rock the crying baby back to sleep, we were especially looking forward to getting a contraption known to new parents all over the United States simply as "The Swing."


As luck would have it, though, our innocent shipment fell into the hands of one of those low-level customs inspectors whose literal interpretation of arcane regulations can only evoke wonder. About to sign off on our few boxes, he caught himself in the nick of time.


The shipment sat for a month at Butovo while three sides -- the moving company, customs, and yours truly -- hashed it out. We're accredited, we argued: That doesn't matter, they responded. The stuff isn't worth more than $2,000: Maybe in America, but this is Moscow, and that crib alone would cost you $700.


We even tried the soft approach -- the stuff is for a cute little baby. No go. Pay up, they said.


Meanwhile, the crying went on at night, and we took turns dancing sleepily around the living room, wondering why we had wasted the money on a swing that we could not use.


At two and a half months, when the baby was already going back to sleep at night on her own, we finally received the shipment. Several hundred dollars poorer, we set up The Swing, but with the sinking feeling that we were giving our child a bicycle when what she already needed a car.


Waiting for a few baby supplies is not the worst thing in the world. From the stories one hears, others have been hit a lot worse. But the problem is the same.


Foreigners are regularly being hit up by a customs committee that cannot seem to decide whether it is charging this tax or not. Until it does, the myth will persist that this is a culture in which the petty bureaucrat is king.