Oh to make a phone call in this country! I spent six tokens on Saturday
trying to make one phone call from a public phone. See the phone system
here works a little different than in the states. We have public phones
(coin & card), private phones (if your lucky), business phones (if your
really lucky) and cellular phones (if your a New Russian), but no phone books,
operators, or modern phone lines.
There are public phones in every metro station, and
once every few blocks, that come in two types, coin and card. The coin
phones use a little brown plastic coin sold at the metro station for $0.35,
but don’t think your call is gonna be that cheap. First you pick up
the receiver, dial, then when the party answers, you drop in the coin. Now
is where the fun begins. If your coin goes in to quickly or slowly
or not at all, the phone will hang up. If you drop your coin in at
a weird sound on the phone, and not actually when someone picked up, too
See the Russian phones don’t have a coin slot, so you cannot get the token
back, and there aren’t any operators (more on that later) to give you a refund.
About 80% of the phones do not work, either there is no dial tone,
or they will eat all your tokens. I ran into a few of the latter last
Saturday. Now if you actually get through on the coin public phones, you have
three minutes to talk before you have to put in another token. Sometimes
the phone will warn you, but most of the time, the line just goes dead.
Now there are new card phones which are a joint
venture with France Telkom, that work on prepaid cards like the French phones.
The card phones work all the time, every time, with only the poor Russian
phone lines to hold them back. I love the phones, no waste, but they are
expensive, $0.35/min and only in the metro stations. Ugh!
To get a phone installed in your house, you must have mafia connections or
wait up to 10 years for the phone technician. Because of this, if you
have a phone, it is cherished, and the phone bill is almost religiously
worshiped. I have seen grown women break down and lay sobbing on the
floor when told that their phone was going to be turned off because they
were late paying the bill. Once you have a phone, you get to deal with
the crazy system where you can only make calls of 1/2 hour or less. At exactly
1/2 hour the phone will go dead. Either that was the length of the
KGB recording tapes, or the state figured you had talked long enough and
it was someone else’s turn.
Businesses have a hard time finding phone lines in all this mess. It
is common to see a business advertise three or four widely scattered
phone numbers (for example: 245-9345, 567-4563, & 945-3123) because
they were the numbers they could get, unlike the states where it is usual
for a company to have a block of lines (for example: 833-5740 to 833-5745).
I know that Price Waterhouse, a company with enough money to make anything
happen, has only one phone line, but a whole team of operators and a big
switching box to keep the line free.
The New Russians, tired of all the hassle, usually have cellular phones.
They are much easier to install in these countries than any other type
of phone, but they are still expensive. Every time I go to a bar or
club, there is a crowd of people in the bathroom or just outside the door,
screaming into cellulars over the noise. I sometimes think I should
get one, then I come to my senses. It is nice being in a country where
“I couldn’t find a phone,” is a solid excuse.
trick, after you find a working phone, is to have a number to call. There
are no operators here, and no phone books, so you had better know the number
already. There are actually a few business phones books, but they are
really large advertisements, only listing paying businesses. Now once
you have a phone, and the number, you hit the biggest problem of all, the
phone lines themselves.
I remember my first day at PW, when I used
the phone I was so impressed because it was touch tone instead of pulse.
The entire Russian phone system is pulse, so finding a touch tone,
and not a rotary (yes, rotary) phone is quite rare. Our touch
tone phones must have something to do with the big switching box in the Admin
Department. I figure the box converts the touch tones into pulses
for the Russian phone system to recognize.
There is also a extreme lack of phone lines in this country. Something
like 1/5 of the number of lines per person vs. the States. Busy signals
are quite common, not became someone is on the phone, but because there isn’t
an empty line for your call to go on. International calls are especially
bad, with all of them going through one switching center here in Moscow.
Before 1990, it was customary to go to the post office and place a
request to make an international call, and then wait up to three or four
hours for a line to be free for you to use. Thank God for AT&T
So now you have a phone, a number, and a line, and your busy chatting away.
If you can actually hear your party, feel good. I am used to
yelling on the phone now, just so the other person can hear me. Then,
without warning, you may hear another call on your line. I have heard
the person pick up, dial, talk, and then start chatting with my party as
they wait for their party to answer the phone. True party lines!
In the end, phones here are a nightmare. Now you know why I email so
much. It is the only realistic way to go.