Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came into office promising, at last, to deal with the corruption in Russia. But so far, he has made little headway.
Russians aren't sure how he can rid the country of something now so ingrained.
In Chelyabinsk, corruption has worsened in the past decade. Ask anyone in the city how much he or she makes, and the likely answer is somewhere between $200 and $600 a month.
Russia is expensive — really expensive — even in remote areas, so how they live on that is questionable. People usually say "krutitimsa," translated as "we hustle." Few live on their declared salary. People get paid an additional amount under the table, or they take bribes.
Inescapable Corruption In Daily Life
This endemic corruption has bred bitterness and cynicism. Mark Kelleher, an American teaching English in Chelyabinsk, was astonished at his students' behavior.
"Not all, but a large number — they just cheat like crazy," he says. "And blatantly. It's accepted."
Cheating, bribery — it's the name of the game. Bribes can get you out of the army and, if you pay enough, into universities — especially in highly competitive fields like economics, law and medicine.
Genrikh Galkin, a local investigative journalist and editor of the newspaper Evening Chelyabinsk, believes corruption starts at the top. He describes an impermeable web of leaders in security services, government and business.
"There are a few people who hold power, and they also hold power over the courts," Galkin says. "And they use their power to earn millions of dollars and make sure court cases go the way they want."
Investigating Questionable Practices
If trying to figure out how ordinary Russians get by is difficult, try finding out where officials get the money to buy their mansions. Medvedev is pushing legislation that will eliminate blatant conflict of interest and improve transparency.
But for now, as Galkin has learned, asking those kinds of questions can be dangerous. Six years ago, when he wrote about a vice governor's questionable practices, Galkin was charged with slander and sentenced to one year in a labor camp. Russian and foreign human rights groups raised the alarm. The charge still stands, but his sentence mysteriously disappeared. He believes he was saved less by the public outcry than by support from the mayor, who is in his own battle with the governor's office. He says neither the sentencing nor his reprieve were legal.
He recently investigated another corruption scandal involving top officials.
"It was clear hospitals here had noticeably less money to work with than neighboring regions," Galkin says. "It turned out the regional medical insurance fund had not been disbursed — as much as $10 million."
After Galkin once again raised some uncomfortable questions, the money was allegedly found, but there was no official investigation and no one was prosecuted.
Galkin has generally backed off of corruption cases. He admits that he's frightened, in part because he now has a wife and child to worry about.
"It's important to write about it," he says, "but it's not worth getting killed for."
Corruption Hampering Businesses
Endemic corruption is killing off incentive and hampering the development of a real middle class, according to Vera Sokolova, 37, who owns a chain of plant stores.
"You do everything right to develop a piece of property," she says, "but if you don't bribe the right official, you won't get it through. Suddenly, you find someone else has the land. For $100,000, you can do anything here without any permission."
On a visit to Chelyabinsk, Medvedev and his staff asked local business leaders to write to him, anonymously if need be, with their concerns. Sokolova did — naming names, and citing all of the corrupt practices she has seen.
"I pay taxes — not on my income, but on the square footage of my stores — but I still have to purchase an expensive meter for each of my cash registers each year," Sokolova says. "For the maker of these meters, this is super business, mega business. Someone got the federal government to sign off on this. It's corruption, plain and simple."
She suspects this scheme is uncomfortably close to some in the Kremlin. She hasn't heard anything back from Medvedev's people. This mother of five is not easily defeated, but her frustration is clear.
"I just want my children to have an easier way than I have had," she says. "I want life to be legal, to be normal."
Sokolova is outspoken. She recalls how Russians were silent in the 1930s during Stalin's reign of terror. She remembers asking her parents why they never fought back. She says she doesn't want her children to one day ask why she never raised her voice.