It’s a truism that if you want to know how a culture works, you should join in with it.
The Soviet Union’s application of its laws to the people was no different to the way many other countries operated, and still do today i.e. in a black economy. In my law student days, a senior barrister who specialised in white collar crime told me that we liberal democracies had a “rather naive and quaint notion” as to how the rule of law should work in most parts of the world.
When compared to other countries and continents e.g. South America, the Middle East, Asia, the USSR/Russia and Africa we’re in the minority of the world’s population who swear by the importance of this basic concept. Don’t get me wrong, the barrister was pleased that we lived that way but he wished we wouldn’t keep asserting the moral high ground whenever confronted with other cultures which had a different view of the law’s purpose.
This was brought home to me in Moscow in 1987. A Russian friend of mine, Mikhail (not his real name), who educated me on the real facts of life in the USSR, told me about his Czech friend, Pavel (not his real name), who was involved in an amicable divorce with his Russian wife. She’d agreed that he could take their only child, a three-year-old Russian born daughter, to Prague for six months, to see her Czech grandparents for the first time, one of whom (the grandfather) was dying of cancer.
The bureaucrat in the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was in charge of granting exit visas (as rare as hen’s teeth for ordinary Soviet folk) told them that he’d issue the documentation if they would get his son an electrical chess set from Selfridges in London. He’d seen it in a magazine (no internet in those days). It cost £200+ – and the hapless couple would have to pay for it.
Mikhail asked if I could help Pavel’s baby daughter to see her paternal grandparents for the first, and may be the last, time.
My barrister’s words came flooding back to me. Though loathe to break the laws of any country, especially as I was working in Russia trying to teach them the overriding importance of the principle that nobody was above the law, I felt an overwhelming compulsion of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. The more so, because bribing officialdom in the Soviet Union was an everyday and accepted practice. If you didn’t join the black economy you wouldn’t get your child into a decent university, get a new car – for which there was a five year wait – or get a rasher of bacon which contained less than 90% fat.
So, a few weeks later I lugged the chess set from Oxford Street to Mikhail’s small apartment at the back of Gorky Street (now known as Tverskaya Street), fearing that it would be damaged in transit and a Czech grandfather would never see his only grandchild.
Mikhail couldn’t contain his excitement and suggested we play a few games before he was due to give it to Pavel the next day. I was reluctant because my chess skills were at ground zero level and Mikhail was an area champion – weren’t all Russians? But I agreed, and drama ensued, not because I lost three games in as many minutes but because the chess set was faulty: each square’s contact points should have lit up red whenever a piece moved to it, one didn’t. I had visions of an angry bureaucrat not only refusing to issue the exit papers, but shipping Pavel off to Siberia.
Always the practical one, Mikhail said it was probably a loose wire and told me not to worry as he had another friend who could fix it. I told him that it was a sealed unit and if we tampered with the inside we would lose the warranty protection and I wouldn’t get my money back. He laughed at the thought of warranty protection and getting a refund. They had no such concepts in the Soviet Union. It wasn’t a case of caveat emptor (buyer beware), but rather “buyer, screw you!”.
‘Trust me’, he said. I had no real option, bearing in mind time was against us. I didn’t care about losing the money – Pavel needed every rouble he had to fund his bribes and Mikhail never had any money.
Much to my relief, the following day Mikhail produced a fully-functioning chess set, no evidence of a break-in, and a beaming Pavel expressing his eternal indebtedness to me.
‘As a matter of interest,’ I said to Mikhail. ‘Where does this computer genius friend of yours work? I haven’t seen any electrical equipment shops here in Moscow.’
‘He’s a street vendor,’ Mikhail replied. ‘He sells fake Soviet military medals to gullible foreign tourists on the metro,’ he replied.
Seventy years of austerity under communism – when the largest spend was on military hardware and next to nothing on consumer goods – had taught the Russian people how to build and repair things with a toothpick and elastic bands.
Look out for tale 4 “Lost In Translation” to find out how Scotch Whisky and tri-lingual interpretation helped round off a heavy business lunch – and secured my client’s deal!