What? You think people follow the rules here?
The Moscow Times, Tuesday, April 21, 1998
A Culture of Disobedience
By Jean MacKenzie
Nothing is certain in life, they say, except death and taxes. Well in Russia,
even that truism is not necessarily so. Death, of course, is still a constant
threat, but the taxman seems to be a very occasional and capricious presence.
“Russia is a much freer country than America,” laughed a colleague of mine,
Sasha. “We are free not to pay taxes, not to obey traffic laws. Not to obey
laws at all, really.” Sasha’s robust cynicism is an odd fit with his background
He did time in
the old days for distributing samizdat, but this
does not keep him from making a little money in the new Russia by working
with the Communist Party.
The sign says, “No playing in the fountain.”
Sasha was amused that foreigners, myself included, seemed to be taken in
by the “pay taxes and sleep soundly” ad offensive launched on Russian television
in the weeks before April 1. “Do you really think the sight of a bunch of
clowns is going to scare a Russian into handing over his money?” he asked.
“I tried to pay taxes once, the company I was working for insisted on it.
But when I went to the tax office, they looked at me as if I were crazy.”
When I first returned to Russia, in January, I loved the brightly colored
billboards, with pictures of expensive cars, luxury boats, and exotic vacation
locales. If you like to have a good time, learn to love paying taxes,” ran
the caption, in my very loose translation.
I had to laugh – I knew that campaign would never work. Then came the television
spots, threatening taxdodging Russians with everything from impotence to
prison. This seemed to have a bit more punch – although Russia’s tax police
have a long way to go before they have the dread cachet of, say, the U.S.
Internal Revenue Service.
I’m not sure what the final figures were. Last I heard, President Boris Yeltsin
was boasting that the number of Russians paying their proper taxes had quadrupled
– to 5 million. In a country of 150 million, this did not seem too impressive,
but 1 guess it’s all relative.
But I must confess that I am a bit relieved that the Russian penchant for
anarchy continues to flourish, This comes as no surprise to anyone who has
spent more than a minute in a moving vehicle on the streets of Moscow. People
who blithely ignore “do not enter” signs, drive on sidewalks, and park their
cars in traffic lanes are unlikely to he cowed by a few regulations. Russians
seem to have a healthy disrespect for the law, acquired over centuries of
I think it is a self-protection mechanism that stemmed from a feeling that
the law was so arbitrary that you had just as great a chance of getting into
trouble whether you did anything bad or not.
Someone, I think it was Alexander Herzen, said that the severity of Russia’s
laws was compensated for by the fact that absolutely no one pays any attention
to them. Herzen does not work for the tax police – he was a 19th century
philosopher. Ordinary Russians put it more simply.
“If it’s forbidden, but you really want it, then it’s allowed.” It sounds
better in Russian, of course, as most things do.
Breaking the rules and mayble their necks!
This attitude may have stood the Russians in good stead in tsarist times,
or during the harsh years of Soviet rule (aside from landing more than a
few of them in prison, or worse), but it seems a poor premise for the development
of a responsible, democratic society.
On the other hand, if we wanted a responsible, democratic society, we could
all move to Switzerland. Herzen did. Of course, he was bored stiff, and set
off for untidier pastures within a short time.
Perhaps this age-old reluctance to submit to law and order helps account
for some of the brash, in-your-face quality of the new Russia. I sometimes
get the feeling that the country is being run by school kids who have somehow
gained access to the principal’s office and are having a whale of a time
with the loudspeaker and the cash box. I do not mean to suggest that the
problems of a huge, powerful, cultured land like Russia can be boiled down
to “Fast Times Ridgemont High.”
And I am tired of people trying to explain Russia’s glitches and excesses
as adolescent growing pains. But if the past 1,000 year’s are anything to
go by, it will be quite a while before graduation.