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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Are Bribes a Great Deal?

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- We were rushing through the airport in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to catch a flight for western China. But when we reached customs, an official flipped through our passports and shuffled our documents with gestures of bewilderment.

"Where are your customs forms?" he said. He showed us a sample: a slip of paper identical to those that visitors to Russia fill out upon entering, stuff into a drawer for months and produce upon departure.

"Your colleagues didn't give us one when we arrived," Nonna said. "We came by car from Bishkek."

"Ah," the customs officer said, more in sorrow than in anger, "I'm afraid the fine is $60 apiece."

Nonna protested that it was their fault, not ours. The officer assumed his kindliest expression. "Tell you what," he soothed. "Why don't we solve this on a personal level? As Russians, you two" -- he gestured at Nonna and her son, Sergei, who was traveling with us -- "are members of the customs union, and so we won't fine you. But your American will have to pay $20."

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We exchanged glances. The customs area was crowded with veiled women trying to catch a flight to Pakistan. What would they think? I shrugged and handed over the bribe, and we headed on. Somehow we were pleased with ourselves. We had committed a crime, and the transaction was conducted in the most forthright and businesslike fashion. It felt like a bargain.

Venality has a bad name these days. Bribery leeches the capital of a hard-working citizenry and places it in the hands of the powerful, the slothful and the uniformed. So why did the two bribes I paid on my trip to Siberia, Central Asia and China last month feel like such a great deal?

The other bribe had happened not long before. When Nonna, Sergei and I applied for Chinese tourist visas before leaving Vladivostok, the consulate approved theirs but not mine. Were they suspicious about any American who would want to come a fourth time to a place where people eat sea slugs and fried rat? Or had that mirthless, suspicious reporter from the government-run China Daily finked to consulate officials that I was taking advantage of tourist visas to do reporting in China.

At any rate, we tried again elsewhere along the way. We went through a local tour operator, who demanded $150, twice the normal price. We didn't give ourselves much of a chance -- after all, this time we planned to head to the restive Moslem region of Xinjiang. But I was surprised when he came back the next day with a visa.

"How did you get it?"

"Bribes," he said with a shrug.

Naturally, I was shattered to learn of the corruptibility of the diplomatic corps of the People's Republic of China. But it was money well spent. I'm sure the bribe-taker thought so: He gets to take home a few extra matryoshki and a samovar, and I got to go to China.

I was particularly pleased because I have failed in past attempts to do my patriotic duty in bribing the respected officialdom of Russia. When we were (again) stuck in the Kuril Islands in June, the airport refused to honor our tickets until another planeload of people -- left over from the canceled flight the previous day -- departed. I had to get to Sakhalin and catch a plane to Japan. "Don't worry," I told Nonna as we waited in a fall-of-Saigon crush of passengers. "I'll bribe the pilot."

Out on the forlorn runway I boarded the propeller plane, wondering how much I should offer. Five hundred rubles? Fifty dollars? But a stewardess barked, "What are you doing here?"

"I would like to talk to the pilot."

"Get out."

"I think he will be happy to see me."

Somebody tapped me on the shoulder. A border guard. "What are you doing on the plane?"

"I need to talk to the pilot."

Now an airport worker stuck his head in the door. "What's he doing here?" He appealed to the border guard: "I already told him, he can't leave until yesterday's passengers go."

Now I was in a bind. Whom to bribe? The border guard? All three of them? "Get off," said the border guard.

I skulked back to the ramshackle airport. I felt somehow soiled. I was eager to pay a bribe. And nobody wanted my money.

Russell Working is a freelance reporter based in Vladivostok.