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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Society Weakened by Talent

Not long ago a Finnish company received a contract to make a metal door for a Russian defense installation in the far north. For some reason no Russian firm could produce a door of such complexity and such unusual dimensions. The special door was to be delivered by airplane the moment it was ready.

The Finnish workman in charge of loading the door on to the plane discovered that it wouldn't fit in the cargo bay. Following instructions, he removed the foam rubber in which the door was packed and tried to load it onto the plane. However, the door still wouldn't fit. So he once more followed instructions and sent the plane off to Russia carrying just the foam rubber, figuring the door would go out on the next flight.

I have a pretty good idea what the Russian workers waiting to install the door said when the plane touched down. A lengthy investigation followed. The Finnish workman who had followed instructions too closely was reprimanded, and the door was finally delivered.

We Russians love to tell stories about the craziness that goes on around us. But the story with the Finnish door couldn't happen here. If a Russian worker were in charge instead of a Finn, he would have scratched and dented the door, damaged the plane forcing it into the cargo bay or lost the shipping receipt. But it would never have occurred to him to send the foam rubber separately.

Russians and Westerners have an entirely different take on instructions, rules and bureaucracy in general.

In the West, people have come to expect the bureaucracy to be rational. This doesn't always pan out in practice, of course. Franz Kafka didn't write "The Castle" in Russia, after all. Nevertheless, Western culture places a healthy measure of trust in its bureaucrats. Conscientious citizens of Western countries follow instructions almost automatically, often not even trying to figure out what the point is. The Russian, on the other hand, views instructions with a skeptical eye. Experience has taught him that two-thirds of all instructions are totally pointless, that the government is run by incompetents and that rules are created for the express purpose of making life more difficult. As we read government-issued rules and regulations we don't try to figure out how to carry them out, but how to get around them.

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Westerners find it awkward when the bureaucracy makes a mistake and demands the impossible of them. Used to playing by the rules, they find this unsettling. The Russian, by contrast, finds himself at a loss when the rules turn out, for a change, to be justified.

What do you do with unnecessary rules and outdated or reactionary laws? The Western European becomes indignant and decides that the rules must be changed. This reaction is a natural result of abiding by the law. Russians come at this problem from the opposite direction: Why change a law that you don't observe anyway? Civil disobedience is a Western invention. This form of struggle makes no sense to us, because in Russia it's not a show of resistance, just a fact of life. We deceive the boss and avoid cooperating with the government, knowing perfectly well that the boss and the government are doing the very same thing to us.

Russian computer programmers don't merely break into other people's programs; they remove the bugs as well. While supporters of Linux were fighting to introduce open-source software in Europe and pushing for revision of intellectual property laws, Russian software pirates turned Windows into a free program available to anyone who wants it. Hackers in St. Petersburg stole Microsoft's source codes and turned Windows into open-source software all on their own. Why change the system when you can get around it?

In a sense, Eastern Europeans are more effective than their counterparts in the West. More refined, at any rate. If not for our constant readiness to break the rules, we would never have made so many scientific discoveries. We have developed a remarkable capacity for rationalization, and a striking sense of humor that foreigners seem to find touching. Former citizens of the Soviet Union are making successful careers in the West, amazing their bosses with their ability to "think outside the box."

Resisting the established order in Russia is a private, not a public act: a little chicanery, not a political statement. For all the talk of their collective spirit, Russians in practice are committed individualists.

"There are so many talented people here," foreigners often remark. To which I would add: "And such a weak society."

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.