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Greasing my way on Russian Airlines

That day which started with my infamous detention for video-taping local police headquarters, continued with various amusements on my subsequent trip home1.

I was already well-conditioned to the pervasive expectation of monetary “incentives” exhibited by everybody in the service sector. Truth be told, with the exchange rate of about 25 rubles to a dollar, I could safely dispense bribes left and right and pretend they were simple gratuities, so little it cost me in absolute terms. Plus, of course, I was more than willing to “smooth” my passage out of the country as much as I could.

I had a huge and heavy suitcase to check in, full of gifts and souvenirs. At the airport, the woman behind the check-in desk eyeballed it as I was approaching her and adopted a constipated facial impression of someone stoically prepared to fight against any blatant disregard for airline regulations.

And then she saw my American passport.

It was as if a big neon sign screaming “Easy Money!!!” just lit up above my head. Her face rearranged itself into an ingratiating smile and she proceeded with exceeding politeness to inquire whether I spoke any Russian and then through whatever pleasantries an airline agent normally has in stock for persons of importance.

When I put my suitcase on the scales, she almost apologetically stated that it was grossly overweight (six or seven kilos, if memory serves me right), and she could not allow it to be checked in. But, she quietly confided to me, if the chief baggage handler agreed to load it, she would be able to make an exception. There would be, of course, a fee.

“How much?” I ask.

“Two hundred”.

“Ok”.

“If you give the money to me, I’ll go and ask him”, she suggests.

So, I give her two hundred rubles. She disappears through the back door, comes back out in a minute, and ushers me to follow her through the same door. A middle-aged guy wearing work overalls and a thoughtful expression of someone attempting to string a single coherent sentence together offers me his dirty hand, while the woman retreats back to her check-in counter. The man explains the difficulty of my case to me:

“With that weight… who’s got the strength to lift it… we’d have to take special measures…”

“How much?” I pull out my wallet.

“Two hundred, and we will take the best care of you suitcase”, is the answer.

What the hell, let it be four hundred in total! I give him the money, he escorts me back to the check-in area, gives a permissive nod to the woman behind the counter, and my bag is slowly carried off by the conveyor.

It dawns on me that I paid the first two hundred to the check-in agent for the sole privilege of getting access to the luggage guy, who likely has no idea about it and probably would have to give her a half of his own two hundred as a kickback, but, on balance, 15 dollars is not something I’m going to worry about in this situation. Predictably, the bunch of people who came to see me off are appalled at the amount of money I dispensed in quick three minutes, but I just shrug it off.

(As an aside, the suitcase arrived in Moscow in pristine condition. Whether those few dollars contributed to the positive outcome or not is anybody’s guess.)

As I say my goodbyes and proceed to the security controls, I have two pieces of carry-on luggage with me. One is my regular backpack, with reading material, documents and whatever other stuff I prefer not to check in. The other is a not very large cardboard box containing a china tea set that my brother-in-law sent as a gift for Natasha.

There aren’t any x-ray machines. All hand luggage gets a superficial rummage-through by the security agents. My box presents a problem, as it is expertly closed, wrapped and tied with strings. One of the agents, accompanied by a “border guard”-type private with an AK-47, takes me aside to a screened-off cubicle.

“What do you have in that box?”

“A tea set.”

“What kind of a tea set?”

“A standard tea set: Cups, saucers, sugar bowl, tea pot…”

“Are you sure?”

I pause for a second searching for an answer, but cannot come up with anything better than “If you want to check, let’s open the box and take a look… I’ll figure out how to close it back afterwards”.

“Maybe you don’t want to open the box.”

The guy speaks with just the right inflection between a statement and a question, and a light bulb comes off in my head.

“How much for not opening the box?”

“However much you can spare2.”

The two guys are unaware of the fact that I have already considered whether I overpaid for the previous “service”, so I manage to extract myself from the situation with comparatively little damage.

“A hundred is ok for the two of you?”

“Very generous of you. Have a pleasant flight.”

Forty minutes later, the plane is ready to board. The passengers exit the gate waiting room (known in Russian laconicly as накопитель, “accumulator”) and get on a bus, which drives us all to the plane parked not a hundred meters away. As the people in front of me are climbing up the steps of the ladder, everybody is herded into the rear main cabin, but I notice that a couple of men, with an aura of VIPs about them, are deferentially ushered into the front cabin. As I approach the flight attendant who is greeting everybody, I suddenly have an idea:

Excuse me, miss, is it possible that I can sit in the front cabin?”

The italics emphasize the fact that I actually spoke those three words in my best English.

There registered a hint of recognition in her eyes.

“Ah, you are the American that is flying with us?”

“Yes, I am”, I beam at her.

“Certainly, pick any seat you like.”

There has never been much of a cabin service or personal attention on internal Russian flights (the flight attendants curtly dispense water and ginger ale in plastic cups once during the flight, and caramel candies on another pass-through, and that is pretty much the extent of their responsibilities), but the same stewardess leaned over me in a short time.

“Are you comfortable here?”

The expectation was very clear in her face.

“Yes, thank you very much”, I smiled and slipped her a hundred.

The other two VIPs turned out to be local deputies to the Duma. And so we traveled, just the three of us, two “legislators” and a foreigner, in a relative comfort in a cabin that could seat at least 30 people. It was not an upper class experience by any stretch of imagination, but it was infinitely better than being stuck in the rear cabin, where I am sure the only empty seat was the original mine. Worth four bucks easily.

When we landed in Moscow, a curiously weird thing happened. Everybody was supposed to present their passports for review at the security desk when entering the airport building. Upon seeing my passport, the guy at the desk pointed me to another desk, several meters away, occupied by a bored girl in an army officer uniform puffing on a cigarette. I presented my passport to her, she looked through every single page, then marked some fields in a diagonal line on the form in front her, not taking the cigarette out of her mouth, gave me back my passport, got up, and left without saying a word. When I expressed my confusion with that procedure to the guy guarding the exit from this control room, he simply waved me through. The bureaucracy was satisfied that the only foreigner on the plane has reached his destination, and that was that.

I spent the night over at the apartment of my brother’s then-future father-in-law, who drove me to the airport for my flight to New York next morning. This time around, I did not have to bribe anyone in regards to my suitcase. Instead, Aeroflot decided that it was easier to rob me in an official way. And that was considerably more painful in terms of the amount. I’d rather I had to bribe someone. Something like a hundred dollars – the truth is, I don’t remember exactly, – were required in payment to the cashier in a different part of the airport for the right to have my overweight luggage transported. In rubles. Which I did not even have anymore, thoughtfully having exchanged all my remaining Russian currency for dollars before leaving for the airport.

I ended up asking my Moscow host to empty his pockets so that I could pay the fee.

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1 Rostov-na-Donu is certainly not a destination major enough to have direct air links with America. It used to be that you inevitably had to travel to Moscow – by plane or train – and board a US-bound flight there. In the last 10-15 years, various flights to European destinations – Vienna, Dusseldorf, Prague – became useful, if expensive, alternatives for the continental leg of the trip. In 2000, they already existed but followed infrequent and inconvenient schedules.

2 My translator’s skills come up short here in properly relaying the careless beauty of Russian “Да сколько не жалко!”, which softens the blow for the victim of such extortion by dressing it up in handout-to-the-poor clothes.

Posted in Memoirs, Russia

7 Comments

  1. Brian Greenberg

    As the years go by, I start to believe that the effects of 9/11 and all the subsequent security measures at the U.S. airports have begun to subside. And then I read something like “Maybe you don’t want to open the box?” and it makes me shiver.

    The list of things you could have had in the box if you were the type to cause trouble in an airplane…

    Different world, different time…

  2. Ilya

    Definitely a different place and time, Brian. There were one or two terror acts on Russian airlines in the intervening times. I don’t suppose my situation can be repeated even with the most greedy of the security agents nowadays. Maybe, they’d extort the money for the promise of being very careful with my stuff instead…

  3. jason

    I’ve heard many stories about bribery being a necessary fact of life in certain countries. I’ve never doubted them, but I do have trouble understanding it, or how you know that’s what’s being asked of you, or how you haggle for an agreeable amount without some overzealous security guard cleaning out your wallet. The whole concept intimidates me, to be honest…

  4. Ilya

    As ridiculous as it sounds, practice makes perfect in these matters. People who are constantly faced with that become quite adept in recognizing the balance between extortionist’s greed, his desire and ability to cause you trouble, and the his perceived probability of not getting anything out of the “transaction”. The correct response (acceding, bargaining, pushing back, even refusing in appropriate circumstances) comes out of that recognition.

    This is the prime reason why I strongly recommend against any Westerner traveling in the former Soviet Union today without an able local guide. Russian corrupt officials see any foreigner as made out of pure gold, and the language barrier will exacerbate any situation.

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