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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Telegram Business Humming Right Along

In less than five years, Russia's sprawling capital has gone from a place lacking a telephone directory to a city in which cell phones ring with a cacophony of Russian folk songs, e-mail is routine and even grocery and clothing stores sell pagers.

But if you want to reach someone in one of the 54,000 Russian villages without any telephone service — say, an anthropologist in a remote village of 33 homes — there is but one reliable way.

Her name is Larisa, or Yelena or Margarita, and you get her by dialing 06.

They are Moscow's telegram dispatchers — a shrinking but by no means dying breed in a nation that has a long way to go before reaching the digital age.

The telegram may be obsolete in the United States and throughout much of Europe, but it remains a vital means of communication in Russia, where there is only one telephone for every five people and vast rural stretches are not wired, and probably never will be.

To send a telegram to any destination in Russia is cheap — 63 kopeks, or two cents, per word. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, you can pay a little extra — 10 rubles, or about 33 cents — for the convenience of calling in your message, instead of showing up at the post office in person and writing it on a form.

And the service is, mostly, reliable. Larisa, Moscow telegraph operator No. 42, said telegrams within the capital are guaranteed to arrive within six hours. For roughly 50 cents, a postman will notify you in writing precisely when the telegram was delivered.

Telegrams to villages are riskier. "You know how people drink there," said Larisa, pausing to take down a phoned-in message on her video display conveying good wishes to the family of an injured soldier in a village northeast of Moscow.

"If their postman is under a table," said Larisa, "and sleeping there for a week, well … ."

In 1999, Russians sent 59 million telegrams, domestic and international. That's one-fifth as many as in 1990. Every year, the number sent in Moscow falls by about 5 percent.

Meanwhile, use of the Internet, e-mail and mobile phones in Russia is doubling annually, according to the Communications Ministry.

Yet the Russian telegram will survive for years, says Konstantin Solodoukhin, director of business development at the state-controlled Central Telegraph, because so many people depend on it. Even just an hour or two outside the capital, the equipment needed for ordinary telephone service still does not exist. Six million people are on the official waiting list for telephones. But there is plenty of service for those who can pay. At least in rich villages outside Moscow, $500 will buy a telephone line to a dacha.

Solodoukhin says it just isn't profitable to string lines to many villages, and telecommunications analysts say the government has yet to set aside funds to subsidize the investment.

In December, the government set a goal of a 50 percent increase in the number of telephones in Russia over 10 years, to be financed by profits from urban communication services and private investment.

"Russian telegraph service is on the edge of profitability," Solodoukhin said.

"But we continue to provide this service because it is socially meaningful. The telegram will remain. I just don't know in what form," he added.

Moscow telegraph operators work from a grand building with 3-meter-high wooden doors on Tverskaya Ulitsa, the city's best address, just blocks from the Kremlin. On the side of the building, in huge, gold Cyrillic letters, is the word 'Telegraph."

Inside, 20 bank-teller windows stretch down a marble-floored room open for public business. Only five are still dedicated to telegraph service, and only one of those is open. Other windows are for air-parcel services and express mail.

Margarita Novikova has worked at her window for about 20 years. No one comes to her to wire money, now the core of Western Union's business in the United States.

Russians who need to send money to another town typically entrust their envelopes to train engineers. They are usually viewed as more reliable than banks.

Novikova's customers come with messages. One was a birthday greeting. One wanted to be picked up at a train station in Ukraine; and another, at Krasnoyarsk station in Siberia.