Russian corruption, bribery and graft: traffic cops, visa registration, etc.

Extortion is a part of daily life in Russia.

I hear it from ex-pats, native Russians, and I see it with my own eyes. Last night an American who has lived in Moscow for 14 years told me that, on average, a traffic cop in Moscow can clear a quarter-million USD per year. He'll take in probably one million and pay $750,000 up the food chain. Those who pay up the food chain get stationed on the better corners. Those stationed on better corners pull over more drivers, extract more money, pay more money up the food chain, and so on. Whether or not the numbers are accurate is not really important. Just stand on the street corner and watch it all unfold in front of your eyes. There is no attempt to hide anything.

Traffic cops wave cars to the side of the road, and actually many or most don't even bother with making cars pull to the side of the road. Just stop where you are in the middle of the street; everyone else will drive around you. They stop cars without cause in the middle of Moscow, right by the Kremlin, or anywhere else for that matter, and sometimes in less than 30 seconds you'll see the wallet come out, the money get paid, and then the driver is free to go.

Earlier today outside the Kremlin I saw a Russian traffic officer stop three cars (one Range Rover, two BMWs) in fewer than five minutes. The average bribe I have been told is 1,000 rubles (about $35 USD). One of the drivers, you could tell, had been pulled over just because his car was too dirty. It was the middle of the day and the cop made the driver wipe the front of his headlights, pay the quote-unquote fine, and then he was free to go. Expecting a car to be clean during springtime in Moscow is impossible. You have never seen dirtier cars in your life. The streets are full with a winter's worth of dirt, grime and melting snow.

I asked my friend who lives in Moscow, a native Russian who lived in Russia from 1978-1990 (USA between 1990-2005) and again since 2005, why there is so much corruption. She said there are so many people in positions of nominal power, people whose jobs during Soviet times were truly influential but who today wield little to no real power, cogs in the wheels of beauracracy: visa officials, registration officials, basically anybody who is in a position to rubber-stamp approval. These people often refuse to do their jobs unless money is paid, so she says you cannot do things the legitimate way, because when you need to have your car registered, the man or woman behind the desk will say, I don't feel like signing the paper today so why don't you come back on, say, Thursday. This process will continue until you pay the going rate for whatever service you need. In Russia, grease the wheels or the wheels don't turn.

In Russia it is illegal to not register your visa in each new city; however, I haven't bothered to register it at all, namely because the cost of registering the visa (if you have to do it more than two or three times, and I would have had to do it eight or nine times) is more than jsut paying the quote-unquote fine if you are asked by a police officer for your registration paperwork. Apparently they tend to ask only Asian foreigners or ethnic minorities from former Soviet countries. They rarely mess with European or American tourists, I have been told. They are too busy with xenophobia, racism and profiling to remember the Cold War, and most of these cops are too young to even remember the Cold War, so Americans are left largely unbothered.

In short, if you are coming to Russia, don't bother registering your visa. Save your money.