The Russian bureaucracy is, admittedly, a lot better than it used to be. In comparison to the state of affairs even just a decade ago, there are fewer papers to fill out, staff are more courteous, and many more tasks can be done online.
The contrast relative to the 1990s is even starker, when outright bribes were not infrequently required to carry out routine services. This is now most definitely a thing of the past.
A large number of “My Documents” centers have been built across the country under the philosopher of making a large variety of different services available under the same roof. They are located in large, modern buildings, tend to employ younger people, and advertise hotlines for reporting unprofessional or corrupt conduct.
These improvements are reflected in Russia moving from around 120th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings a decade ago, to 40th as of 2016.
Which still makes it a horrendous nightmare by American/British standards.
Say what you will about the Eternal Anglo, but they have really figured out this bureaucracy thing. Even the Germans that I have met in the UK consider their bureaucracy slow and capricious by comparison, to say nothing of Mediterraneans or East Europeans.
All bureaucracies make mistakes, lose papers, muck up appointment dates, etc. But this is where the similarities end. In Anglo world, staff apologize for any mishaps and devote extra attention to making things right, possibly because they actually feel guilty before the client (the very possibility of “bureaucrat guilt” is difficult to even process for those born behind the Hajnal Line). In Russia, they don’t give a fuck about your travails – at best. At worst, you will meet rudeness (hamstvo) the likes of which someone who has only dealt with Anglo bureaucracies can barely imagine, as the bureaucrats try to unload the blame on you for their own incompetence.
Personal anecdote from the past year. When I was returning to Russia in December 2016, I had a minor problem; my foreign passport (zagranpasport) had expired. No worries, in such cases you can get a Return Certificate (svidetelstvo na vozvrashenie) that confirms you as a Russian citizen; after that, you need to go back within a certain number of days, after which you will have another few days to apply for a new passport. I managed to do this through the Russian Consulate in London, though it took a few more days that it should have thanks to an appointment scheduling mess-up on their part, which they naturally blamed on me (I was somehow responsible for them associating a wrong day to a date).
This is where I encountered my first serious issue. I had already booked my flight back with a Spanish airline with a stop-over in Barcelona, but then the Russian Consulate in London informed me that it needed to be a direct flight. When I asked them why they hadn’t informed me of that earlier, before my booking, they falsely insisted that they had. After a lengthy argument, I got them to submit – I had no intentions of wasting ~$500 booking another flight – but they warned me that I would not be allowed to fly onto Russia in Spain and that all consequent problems would be my problem, and got me to sign a declaration to that effect (!).
As it happened, the Spaniards themselves were entirely cool with my Return Certificate, and gave it no more than a glance when I was boarding; this was evidently a routine process for them. More curiously, at the time I also discovered that this seemed to be a “hard rule” only at the Russian Consulate in London; the one in Marseilles listed a direct flight as only a recommedation. Clearly the guys in London were (rudely) incompetent at best, or perhaps had an “arrangement” with some booking agent or the airline itself. Who knows.
But my problems hadn’t ended there – now that I was back in Russia, I needed to get my domestic passport, also expired, replaced. And I needed to do it pretty fast, since the passport is central to Russian life – you can’t get a cell phone number or even visit some museums without one. (I suppose that the lower trust societies are, the more they make up for it with papers).
So I went down to the local documents center. Since my case – both foreign and domestic passports expired – wasn’t the most routine one, I was called into the office of the head honcho there, a corpulent, middle-aged, heavy-browed man with that distinct chinovnik racial phenotype who proceeded to give me a crash course in Russian Bureaucracy 101.
Instead of getting to work on my problem, he decided to give me a lengthy interrogation.
“Why didn’t you renew your passport?” he barked.
“You can only renew it in Russia, I wasn’t in Russia.”
“Why didn’t you return to Russia?”
“Because I was busy. Could you please tell me how is this relevant?”
“Why did you return to Russia?”
“Why not, LOL. Also, may I inquire what business is this of yours?”
“The hell it’s my business! Why didn’t you renew your passport in time?”
It went on around in circles like this for several minutes, but the best was yet to come.
“If you didn’t renew your passport you obviously didn’t care about it, so why don’t you fuck off back to America?” (sic)
Sensing that things were rapidly heading to an ignominious conclusion, and by this point thoroughly pissed off, I grabbed my documents, told him he was a fat, useless cockroach who had wasted enough of my time, and wheeled out of the room before he could sputter out a reply.
The next place where I tried to get my passport issues sorted processed my problem quickly and professionally, which I suppose goes to show that the quality of bureaucratic service remains… quite uneven.
Rules of thumb for dealing with Russian bureaucrats:
1. Don’t. Do as many things online as possible.
2. Never take the information that they put on the Internet at face value. It varies department from department, Consulate from Consulate. They don’t always even get their opening times right.
3. The starting assumption should be that they have zero interest in helping your resolve your issue. Base your actions on this assumption.