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Systems

Systems

Most things in Russia, whether it be plumbing, telephones, post offices, trains, buses, trams, metros, rubbish collection, work - up to a point. It may be early, it may be late, it may divert three hundred miles to the west to pick up fuel or (in the case of plumbing) turn out to be a hole in the ground, but Russians get there in the end.

Attempts at reform in Russia often lead to the outcome remaining the same. For example, in the postal service letters used to be opened and thrown away if they contained unacceptable sentiments. Now they are just thrown away.

Peter Ustinov described how a retired German general maintained angrily: "We were defeated by Russian inefficiency! We had the best intelligence service available to any army at the time. I would even say that such quality was wasted on the Russians who talked on their radio telephones without any effort at disguising their intentions, without codes. We knew in advance that they would attack near Minsk with three divisions and air support. We knew the date, even the hour. And we were ready for them! But owing to Russian inefficiency those divisions never reached Minsk. Their trains ran out of fuel, and the local commander told them that he had no food for them and the best thing they could do was to attack the Germans and attempt to capture some supplies. As a consequence they attacked 200 kilometres away from where we were expecting them and by the time we reacted, it was too late."

Telephones

Telephone calls within Russian cities are free. This has led to a habit among city-dwellers of nattering on the phone all day long. You may have to try dialling a number again and again before you get through. On the other hand, an engaged signal or "unobtainable" can mean "you are about to get through". At night, many Russians unplug the phone so as to get a bit of peace.

You cannot make an international call from an ordinary Russian telephone during office hours, and to make a call from a public telephone box you need low-denomination coins which have now gone out of ordinary circulation because they are useless for any other purpose.

In the old days when every call was bugged, a frequent visitor to Russia picked up the phone in Novosibirsk and clearly heard his own voice being played back to him from a previous conversation.

Banks

Russian banks are not regarded as safe places to keep money for the simple reason that they are often reluctant to give it back. Sometimes the government decides to freeze all banknotes above or below a certain value or foreign currency accounts.

In Russia, roubles are known as "wooden" money. Many Russians got into the habit of changing half their salary every month from roubles into hard currency to protect its value, but to prevent this ruse the government stepped in and now controls the exchange rate.

Transport

Getting about in Russia takes patience and ingenuity.

For a start, a number of places have been renamed. Someone born in St.Petersburg at the turn of the century would have seen the city change name three times: to Petrograd (the "burg" bit was thought unpatriotically German in the First World War), then Leningrad, and now back to St.Petersburg again.

Within cities, many streets have also been renamed, as well as metro stops. In Moscow, the famous Metro still works but regular users claim that trains are now fewer and further between and that standards of cleanliness are not so squeaky as before. Buses and trams keep to quixotic timetables.

Taxis have effectively disappeared from the streets of Moscow because they are hired for the whole day by businessmen. However, there are many so-called levaki - private car-owners, often highly-qualified science graduates or redundant senior military personnel - cruising the streets looking for fares to augment their income.

Driving on Russian roads is like piloting a small boat on a choppy sea. Most Russian vehicles are old and much-loved, expelling acrid gusts of heavily-leaded petrol fumes as they trundle or bounce (according to size) along the highway. Russian roads have an air of only just holding back Russia from under the tarmac, and in many places Russia has won through, causing potholes three or four feet across. Roadworks are unmarked.

A certain devil-may-care individualism in the national character governs the Russian style of driving. Close your eyes and try not to think too hard about how old the brake mechanism might be in the car you are travelling in so fast. When it is very cold, the windscreen freezes on the inside as well as the outside, so you may be kept busy if you are sitting in the front. Petrol must be paid for before you fill the tank - if you can find a station. More likely it's a "flying petrol station" - a tanker lorry parked in a lay-by.

Passenger trains are popular, whether they are the local elektrichka or the long-distance Trans-Siberian railway. Russian trains run on wider-gauge track and are therefore wider inside than those in Western Europe. Groups of carriages on long distances are served by a stewardess whose main job is to stop the passengers opening the windows in summer and to keep a pot of tea permanently on the go. People on long journeys settle down to tell each other their life stories and packages of sausage, bread and bottles of vodka are brought out to make the atmosphere cosy and festive.

Flying in Russia has a piquant flavour of its own. Passengers on the state airline, Aeroflot, are not allowed to smoke on board and alcohol is not served. The seats are made in such a way that they tip all the way back to a horizontal position unless the person behind exerts an equally firm pressure to prevent them doing so.

A chronic shortage of fuel can lead to eccentric changes in routings. A customer boarding a plane for a three-hour flight in a northwesterly direction to Moscow from (say) Mineralnye Vody in the northern Caucasus might find himself landing after an hour in Grozny some way south-east to take on fuel. These re-fuelling stops are an opportunity for all the passengers to get out and smoke on the runway not too far from the plane. The mechanic carrying out the re-fuelling is also quite likely to have a lighted cigarette dangling out of his mouth.

Live animals are occasionally carried on board and fighting has been known to break out between passengers. Western oil men working in Siberia claim to have noticed Aeroflot pilots sharing a bottle of vodka on the way back to Moscow. Sometimes the pilot and co-pilot get off the plane, leaving their passengers sitting in their seats and disappear without explanation for up to seven hours. Sometimes the seats in the W.C. are sold to paying passengers who then resent having to move to accommodate the calls of nature of fellow passengers.

Winter

One thing the Russians really have got taped is winter. Russian houses are supremely warm and cosy. When you go into a Russian flat in winter, you take off your outside boots or shoes and put on a pair of tapochki - open-backed slippers, of which a supply in various sizes and states of ancient disrepair is kept by the front door.

All Russian coats have an intact hook at centre back of the collar. This is because you conventionally hang up your outside coat when you get indoors, whether it is a private house, restaurant, concert hall or university department. Every public building has a cloakroom by the front door manned by brigades of fierce elderly ladies or the occasional ex-army sergeant major. Woe betide you if your coat hook is broken or missing. They will look at you with a mixture of exasperation and pity. How could an otherwise respectable-looking and intelligent person have come to such a pass? No coat hook? Dear, oh dear. You'll be molesting small children in the street next, mark my words. The mutter, mutter, mutter, and shaking of the head goes on until even the most hardened non-possessor of a coat hook makes a mental note to get out a needle and thread the moment they get home.

Other features of the Russian triumph over winter include a range of crazy-looking machines with friendly nicknames such as "the lobster" which beaver about in the streets clearing the regularly-falling snow. Any excuse (such as British Rail's "wrong sort of snow" for failed points or cancelled trains) would be met with barely-concealed disbelief.

The Russians like a good hard winter with plenty of snow and frost so that they stay nicely frozen up from late October to March. In recent years the weather has let them down a bit, and thaws have been known in December, a phenomenon attributed variously to the use of atomic power stations or the mood of the Almighty.

Given a good hard frost, nothing could be more beautiful than motoring across the flat snowy wastes of Russia in winter, the firs and birches glistening white on either side. Or, to walk through quiet city streets in deep snow and experience iney - when the air appears to fill with sparkling tinsel as it freezes.

Education

There has been a complete revolution in Russian education as in so many other spheres of life in the past few years. School uniform has been reintroduced and each school is free to invent its own design.

There are many new private schools and universities. It used to be difficult to gain entry into institutes of higher education, but, once gained, educational qualifications counted for a great deal in terms of future salary and prospects. Members of the Russian intelligentsia are ferociously well-read and multi-lingual. But now someone can earn more in two days cleaning car windscreens than a university professor does in a month.

Almost everything in Russia used to depend on blat - whom you knew and what your connections were. Over many years of a non-monetary economy strange equivalencies evolved. A famous opera company had a special arrangement with a chicken farm outside St.Petersburg. The farm workers got tickets for the Kirov Opera and the singers got eggs. What could be more logical?

Conscription

Theoretically conscription into the Russian army exists. Every boy aged 18 could be called up to serve for 18 months (or 3 years in the marines), but there are certain exemptions for further education or, for instance, professional musical training. In any case an estimated one in three does not respond.

The Russian army, like British public schools, has a fearful reputation for bullying and violence, including male rape. It varies in quality from world-class excellence in some units (the spetsnaz, commandos) to laughably bad (those sent to keep the peace in former Yugoslavia, who dealt in aid packages on the black market and whose commander drove round in a white Mercedes bought with the proceeds).

The military is in the gradual process of converting itself into an all-professional outfit, and jobs are being sought for the 400,000 spare officers due to be demobbed under various troop reduction agreements. The Minister of Defence is said to be open to any suggestions.

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