If Sunlight Is The Best Disinfectant, Why Is The Russian Mafia State Opening The Blinds?

My latest for the US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel. Also as usual it appears at Voice of Russia. The version printed here is a slightly longer one:

There are already a lot of opinions on the topic of Russian corruption, and I see no pressing need to add more to that morass. I do however think it will be useful to ground the scale and trajectory of Russian corruption in quantifiable facts and statistics.

There are three major ways of measuring corruption: (1) Subjective assessments; (2) Objective assessments; and (3) Opinion polls.

The most famous subjective assessment is Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Russia might go up and down this index across the years, as per the businesspeople and “experts” it queries, but overall it remains consistently stuck somewhere in between Honduras and Equatorial Guinea. Bearing in mind that they also believe Italy is more corrupt than Saudi Arabia – a country that is owned by its royal family even in name – one must ask to what extent this PERCEPTIONS index reflects actual corruption in any particular country, as opposed to the generosity of the expat packages it offers and its friendliness to the international business community. Is it a complete coincidence that Russia’s already low CPI score started plummeting to new depths about the exact same time it jailed Khodorkovsky?


(1) CPI = Corruption Perceptions Index.
(2) WBGI = World Bank Governance Indicators.

Russia does much better on assessments that include precise methodologies for calculating scores, i.e. a particular anti-corruption law either exists – or it doesn’t. On the Global Integrity Index, it scores 71/100, which is comparable to many other middle-income countries like Lithuania (74), Hungary (73), and Mexico (68). On the Open Budget Index, which measures fiscal transparency, Russia improved drastically from 47/100 in 2006 to 74/1000 by 2012, and is now ahead of all the other BRICs, all of East-Central Europe barring the Czech Republic, and even ahead of Germany.

Likewise, widespread tropes of shady siloviki appropriating all the proceeds from the Russian oil industry – typically accompanied by terms such as “Muscovite patrimonialism” or “rent-seeking clans” by those seeking to project an aura of learnedness – to the contrary, Russia is second only to Brazil and Norway in the transparency of its oil and gas accounts, as measured by the Revenue Watch Index.

Now all of this is not, of course, to say that the Germans steal more from their budget than the Russians; that would be ridiculous. These indices try to tally laws that promote integrity and institutional transparency, not corruption per se. It does however mean that Russia releases more information about its budget than a wide array of other middle-income and even developed countries, which – all else being equal – should make any thefts and shady dealings easier to detect. For instance, Navalny’s work to expose corrupt state tenders is hailed in the press – and rightly so! – but had not the kleptocratic Kremlin made those tenders publicly accessible on the Internet, his activities wouldn’t have even been possible in the first place! If Russia truly were the “mafia state” it is frequently painted as by the Western chattering classes, why on earth would it want to shine more light onto its own rotten essence by steadily increasing its integrity and transparency indicators?


(1) OBI = Open Budget Indicators.
(2) GII = Global Integrity Index.
(3) RW = Revenue Watch Index.

The final method of measuring corruption is both the most direct and democratic – asking ordinary Russians how often they experience it in their everyday lives, as opposed to the musings of ivory tower “experts” and limousine expats. Unfortunately, opinion polls on the matter – most of which come from Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, the Levada Center, and FOM (The Foundation for Public Opinion) – are too irregular and differently worded to confidently discern any decadal trend. On average, as we can see from the graph below, about 20%-25% of Russians tend to say they or their families have experienced corruption in the past year or two.


(1) GCB = Global Corruption Barometer (“In the past 12 months, have you or anyone living in your household paid a bribe in any form?”)
(2) Levada – “Did you have to pay a bribe anywhere in the past 12 months?”
(3) FOM 1 – “In the past year or two, have you personally met any state servant who asked or expected an unofficial payment or service from you for doing his/her work?”
(4) FOM 2 – “Have you ever given a bribe to a state official or not?”

In the most comprehensive international survey, that of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, some 26% of Russians said they or a member of their household paid a bribe in the past year. This is directly analogous to countries like Hungary (24%), Romania (31%), and Mexico (33%) – and not far below the worst-performing “old European” country, Greece (18%). This is, of course, nothing to write home about; but neither is this comparable to India (54%), let alone aforementioned Honduras or Equatorial Guinea. Bear this in mind the next time you read some opinion columnist pontificating about Russia as “Zaire with permafrost” or “Nigeria with snow” (for the record, more than 60% of the respondents from those two countries said they or a member of their household paid a bribe in the past year).

If ordinary corruption is difficult to quantify, it is doubly so for elite corruption. And rumors about Putin’s $40 billion dollar Swiss bank accounts – especially if they are sourced from his political opponents like Stanislav Belkovsky and Boris Nemtsov – aren’t going to get us very far. We need concrete sums and figures – say, the total of $100 million or so that appears to have been stolen in the recent Oboronservis scandals. This is an order of magnitude or so higher than the largest corruption scandals in developed Western countries, but on the other hand, it’s unfortunately quite typical of major corruption scandals in places like China, India, and Latin America. (The overall sums are smaller in truly deprived regions of the world because there is far less to steal in the first place).

Case in point. In a Twitter argument about whether it was better to live in Russia or India, the Swedish diplomat Mats Staffansson wrote to me, “India has enormous poverty but has one big advantage. A functioning noncorrupt legal system. Good British heritage… Corruption in India is definitely a problem but on a much smaller scale than in Russia.” In response, I challenged him to find a single Russian corruption case from the past decade that is remotely comparable to the theft of food worth $14.5 billion in India that was supposed to have been sold at subsidized prices to the poor – and the poor in India are really poor, as half of India’s children are chronically malnourished – but was instead looted by “corrupt politicians and their criminal syndicates.”

I am still waiting for an answer from him

As for Vlad Sobell’s question of whether corruption in Russia can ever become “the exception rather than the rule”… Well, where precisely is this threshold? Corruption is part of a continuum, not a set of discrete states. I will venture to say that with the correct incentives and cultural propaganda, it is certainly plausible for Russia to reduce its levels of corruption from the levels of Romania or Mexico today… to the somewhat better levels of Italy or Poland. I do not know if improvements beyond that are possible. Whether it was due to Protestantism, or the out-breeding fertility patterns specific to family life within the Hajnal Line (which according to some theories promoted altruism), the peoples of north-west Europe seem to have reached a level of very low corruption that has been equaled by very few other societies. In Russia’s case, just converging with Mediterranean and Visegrad corruption norms would be an adequate achievement.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. John Newcomb says

    Global Financial Integrity (Ford Foundation funded) just released its 60-page report, “Russia: Illicit Financial Flows and the Role of the Underground Economy”, downloadable at: http://russia.gfintegrity.org/index.html
    Brief overview of GFI report (but without critical comment) at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-02-12/russia-illicit-outflow-reached-212-billion-study-says.html

    • Great, but mostly irrelevant to this post. Do you have anything of substance to add to the discussion or are you going to just cower under the bridge again?

      • John Newcomb says

        Thanks for your reply and that you think the information was great, but am confused by your statement that I am cowering under a bridge. Grateful you clarify?

        • It means you are a troll.

          • John Newcomb says

            JLo: Thanks for clarification of your previous reply. However, I’ve now seen wiki on Troll (Internet) and I’m disappointed that you believe me to be a troll because I did post under my name and I do believe the GFI report is germane to topic (corruption in Russia) of this DR blog. Please inform if I have missed something that might otherwise have led you to lable me as troll?

            • Posting under your real name doesn’t disqualify you from being a troll. Incidentally, though, I have seen you post under Juan something-or-other on different forums. But, to get to the meat of the matter, please explain how the GFI report is germane to the topic of corruption in Russia. Also, please do share, if you’re not simply a troll, what is your own personal interest in Russia? When was the last time, if ever, you were there? Thank you in advance for your forthcoming answers.

              • John Newcomb says

                I did post on this forum under my own name, but I do not necessarily post under my name on other forums.

                Karlin suggests that corruption may be assessed in several ways, including “objective assessments” , and since the GFI report appears to evaluate financial flows in/out of Russia, I thought it would relate to “objective assessments”.

                Not having been to Russia, I have no anecdotes (“subjective assessments”) to share about corruption in Russia. My personal interest is to understand about current events that involve Russia.

              • Unless you wish to isolate which of the financial flows are specifically a result of corruption, the GFI report is not relevant to the discussion. What it does mostly discuss is the gray economy, specifically money that has been earned via legal means but is diverted to avoid taxation. Of illicit money, you have garden variety organized crimes like drugs, rackets, extortion, etc. and also corruption.

                I know already that you have a personal interest in the current events in Russia. I was asking what, exactly, that personal interest was. Just a hobby? The reason I ask is that you often go to great lengths to paint Russia in the worst possible light and I’m rather curious as to what drives this. I’m even more curious now that you admit to never having been there. Has the country or its people wronged you in some way? Frankly, I find the whole situation bizarre.

    • I agree with JLo that this does not seem to be awfully germane to the discussion at hand (though I’m not going to raise a hue and cry about it).

      First, we are interested primarily in trends, but only the flat $200 billion from 1994 to 2011 figure is given. Second, of course these figures will be higher for later periods if only because the Russia of 2010 has much more money (that can be taken out) than the Russia of 1994 in the first place.

      • John Newcomb says

        JLo and AK:
        Regrets that my posting of the GFI link was not so great after all. I confused the notion of underground economy, corruption and illicit money.

        It is just a hobby as I don’t earn money from posting my comments on social media.

        My postings are comments on articles that I believe inaccurately paint the West “in the worse possible light” for that topic. With audience being usually non-Russian readers, my object is to provide a counter-point to misleading or inaccurate information provided by those sources or by other commenters.

        Neither the government of Russia nor the Russian people have “wronged me” personally in any way. Part of my concern about Russia stems from social contacts and friendships with Russian people in Canada who have expressed their concerns to me about the Putinist regime and with whom I have participated as an ally for public actions in Canada criticizing the Putinist regime.

        • You might want to consider that the “Putinist Regime” happens to be quite popular with the citizens who live under it, and with good objective reason. The Russian people with whom you’ve had contact presumably present a rather one-sided picture. Furthermore, I suggest you visit the country about which you’ve decided to be an activist. My own personal experience is that many stereotypes are shattered the moment you step off the plane. Finally, I don’t know what you are talking about concerning articles that “paint the West ‘in the worst possible light'” and what that has to do with the price of tea in China on this blog.

  2. I’ve made this comment in other threads before and I shall make it here again: I have lived in Russia for almost 20 years and have never paid a bribe to anyone, nor have I ever been asked to pay one.

    Several years ago I made this same comment on redtape.ru, an expats’ site in Moscow, and was immediately set upon upon by expat businessmen, who accused me of being a sock puppet and not an expat.

    I should add that I am not a businessman and I earn an average Moscow income, paid in rubles.

    A contributory factor to my never having had to pay a bribe is probably the fact that I do not drive, so I have never experienced the charms of the local traffic cops at the scene of a breach of traffic regulations.

    I have expat acquaintances here who also tell me that they have never paid a bribe.

    I always think as regards this matter of bribery that “it takes two to tango”: both the demander and giver of a bribe are, in my opinion, just as guilty as each other in the degree of their unethical behaviour.

    Some would perhaps argue metaphorically against this proposition, saying: if there were no prostitutes, there would be no punters. However, I would argue that the corollary is valid as well: if there were no punters, there would be no prostitutes.

    So, using the German Siemens company as an example: who is the most guilty party in the alleged payments made by that respected and prestigious company in Russia in order to win lucrative contracts there: the Russian party or Siemens?

    Siemens, by the way, has already admitted its guilt in paying bribes in many other countries besides Russia.

    • Bribery is sometimes optional. One can choose to wait for hours and days at government offices such as Ovir or make the process much quicker with some money in the right hands.

      • But I’ve never had to wait for hours and days at OVIR.

        About seven years ago I underwent the lengthy process of becoming a permanent foreign resident of Moscow, which meant my having to visit several “dispensaries” in different parts of the city in order to undergo medical tests. It was all time consuming and tedious and involved pages of documentation, but nothing untoward.

        The whole process had to be repeated three years later as the so-called permanent residence permit for a foreign citizen is only a probationary one of three year’s duration.And even then, the “vid na zhitel’stvo” that I have now has to be reprocessed every 5 years and each year I have to register my place of residence at my district (Taganka) OVIR.

        I’ll be doing this shortly, and when I do, it’ll take half an hour at most. Yet I hear tales off others of how awful Russian bureaucracy is.

        I don’t think it is: it’s just bureaucracy. I’ve experienced similar tedious bureaucratic processing in my home country. I suppose some people don’t want to wait, but even if I’d had to wait for lengthy periods in the past, on point of principle I still would not have considered giving someone a “present” to speed things up. Furthermore, such an option has never been hinted at by any of the many Russian “chinovniki” that I have had to deal with.

        Perhaps I have just been lucky.

        • Is the Taganka OVIR near the Proletarska station? I wasted almost a week of my life waiting there during one of my summers in Moscow. It was ridiculous. Maybe you have been lucky, or I have been unlucky. On later trips, for a couple hunded dollars, I did everything through agencies so I didn’t have to wait anywhere; this, I assume is a type of bribery (someone gets that money).

          Prowling outside ovir were cops asking for documents. I suspect – but do not know – this was a good hunting ground because some people would want to get a break for fresh air or a bite to eat at a time when their documents were in the building. Caught without docuiments, they might pay a bribe to avoid further trouble. I dont’ drive in Moscow so this was the only time I’ve ever dealt with the police (fortunately, at the time, I had my passport and travel documents on me).

          • That’s the one! Five minutes’ stroll from my house and I’ve never spent more than half an hour there, probably because of the proximity of my house to the place: I get there before it opens at 10 o’clock.

            The place is always packed out with Caucasians and Central Asians, but every time I’ve been there they’ve been on other business than mine – probably applying first time for a Moscow residence permit.

            You have to apply for that at least 6 months in advance, as such permits have a quota that changes year in year out. Being married to a Muscovite, however, I am exempt from the quota. I should imagine that dodging the quota is the purpose of most bribes.

            I applied for my first three-year probationary “permanent” residence permit, 9 years ago, then, 3 years later, for my “permanent” one, and then last year, for my renewed “permanent” residency permit. You have to reapply for a new “permanent” permit every 5 years.

            After my visit there 9 years ago, when I started the ball rolling in order to get my probationary residency permit, I then had to traipse around Moscow visiting assorted “dispensaries”. The whole operation took a couple of weeks as I had to visit these places during windows in my work schedule. Just over a year after my application, I got my “vid na zhitel’stvo inostrannogo grazhdanina”.

            The reason why so many cops are apparent in the vicinity of the Taganka OVIR is because there is a big cop shop across the street from it.

            Funny thing is, I’ve never heard my wife talk about paying bribes. She was born in 1965 and graduated from the Bauman Moscow State Technical University in the late ’80s. She was a member of the Communist Party for about a year – and then it all ended. In short, she was a child of the Soviet Union. I shall ask her how often she paid bribes. As far as I am aware, she has never paid a bribe to anyone during our 16 years of marriage.

            • I was in Moscow for an extended (over 3 month) visit. I would go there at 10:00 AM, and spend the day there until 3 or 4 to obtain a document. I had to take this document to another office in another part of town to get a stamp on the document and return to ovir with that stamp, wasting another day at ovir. This was repeated. The entire process took 4 6-hour days (once after a day at ovir they never got to me so it was a wasted day and I had to return). It wasn’t even terribly crowded when I was there. I’m amazed that you were able to do this on your lunchbreaks. Perhaps it was a time-of-year thing. It was quite stupid of me to do go through that lengthy process, of course – in future trips for a couple hundred dollars an agency would obtain a business visa or something like that with zero wait time for me.

              My wife getting a foreign passport was similarly a pain; fortunately a friend of a friend worked in the foreign ministry and she got a passport through them without spending a week of her life in the bureaucracy (and within a month rather than after six months or whatever). This wasn’t free.

              I would say that in day-to-day life my friends and in-laws in Moscow don’t pay bribes (most of them don’t drive). Enough are in medical fields that they don’t need to pay money for access to good healthcare, and the kids are smart enough to do well on their own merits although they have to work a lot harder than do those who bribe. The ones in academia don’t take bribes, they have economic means outside their professions (giving conferences abroad, publishing books, renting out flats downtown that they inherited when the Soviet state disappeared, and supplementing income with private tutoring). The in-laws are very principled – they even paid their taxes in the 90’s, when the tax collector himself told them that they really didn’t have to do that.

              • This business you did at Taganka OVIR was such a pain because, I presume, you had to get a temporary residence permit quickly.

                When I have had to go through this residency permit malarkey, I’ve had all the time in the world because I live here with my Russian wife and family.

                I used to get a multi-entry visa every year, but the rules concerning this procedure kept on changing so frequently that in the end I decided to go for the full residency permit for a foreign citizen. The reason why I had not decided to do this earlier was simply because of all the tales I had heard about the tortuous nature of the bureaucracy involved in getting such a permit.

                The first thing I had to do in this respect 9 years ago was to apply at Taganka OVIR for the necessary documentation and prove to them by my tax returns that I was earning at least the minimal income as set annually by Moscow City Hall or that I had in a Russian bank account no less than £17,000 (quoted 800,000 rubles) – a sum which, it seems, varies year in year out. This was to convince them that having received permission to be resident here, I should not be a burden on the state. This money had to be transferred from my account in the UK. I contested this rule with the Taganka OVIR director, asking her if all the Tadzhiks lined up outside in the corridor also had to prove that they had £17,000 in the bank. She got rather irritated at my temerity in posing such a question, but then pulled out a file that contained details of all the foreign residents in the Taganka Moscow district who had permanent residency permits. She pointed out that they all had had to prove their solvency in this way. (Interestingly, I noticed that very many of them were Italian.)

                Getting this money transferred from the UK was a pain – and it cost, of course.

                Then I had to start a trek around Moscow to prove that I was sound in mind and limb.

                My first port of call was Bolshaya Tartarskaya St., where I had to prove that I was employed and had a work permit. I had to take to this place documentation from my employer. I then received a stamped document. It cost me a couple of hundred rubles I think – as did all the subsequent stamped documents. All the fees had to be paid in first at a local Sberbank and the receipt of payment shown in order to receive the appropriately stamped document.

                On another day I went to a dispensary at Bolshaya Gruzinskaya St., where they did blood tests to find out if I had syphilis, if I was HIV positive etc. Again, a stamped document was duly paid for and received a few days later at the same place.

                Another day – another dispensary at Radio St., where I had chest x-rays to prove that I was not suffering from TB. I received a stamped document there right away.

                Another day – yet another dispensary – this time at Bolshaya Ordynka St. to prove that I wasn’t a junkie. (I did not make these diispensary visits on consecutive days, by the way: the whole business took several weeks.) The doctor asked if I was drug dependent. “No”, I replied, “apart from ethyl alcohol”. He just laughed and stamped the document. He seemed more interested in finding out if there were such places in the UK as I found myself in then: outside in the corridor there were lines of youths waiting for their freebie methadone or whatever. I assured him that there were.

                Another day, and again another dispensary – this time on Tatarskaya St. and almost facing Paveletsky Vokzal; its purpose: to find out if I was crazy. The shrink just asked me if I or any of my family were nuts. I said no. He gave me the appropriately stamped document.

                Then on yet another day back to the place on Bolshaya Tatarskaya, where I handed in my collection of stamped documents. In return, I was given a master document, as it were, multi-stamped to show that I had been cleared by all the dispensaries that I had visited and that I wasn’t, amongst other things, a crazy,TB-suffering, HIV-positive syphilitic.

                Then I had to visit a hell-hole on Pokrovka St. in which I seemed to be the only European present. There I had to hand in my master document and my passport. I was told I would be informed in due course concerning my application for a full residence permit for a foreign citizen.

                I received my “Vid na zhitel’stvo inostrannogo grazhdanina” almost 9 months later at the Taganka OVIR. In all, the whole process took me the best part of a year, most of which time being spent in waiting for the announcement of my having been granted a residency permit.

                Three years later I had to undergo the same process once again.

                Last year, I had to re-register my residence permit. I expected to have to undergo the same old trek around Moscow once more. To my great relief, this proved not to be the case. Apart from my having become a father yet again, my circumstances had not changed: they didn’t ask me about my finances either.

                In February 2012 I handed in my documents at OVIR, which documents I had downloaded on line (progress!), and received my extended by five years full residency permit for a foreign citizen last June. On being handed my permit, I told the girl in the office that I hoped to see her in 5 years’ time.

                On no occasion during the processing of my application for a full residency permit was it suggested that there were ways of speeding up the whole procedure. And even if it had been suggested that I make a payment to hurry things up, I should have refused.

                Perhaps they realized this whenever they saw my British passport. Matter of principle, old boy!


              • Wow – I had thought about staying in Moscow for a couple of years in order to get a Russian passport without seriously looking into the possibility, but you’ve proven to me that this would have been impossible (in-laws have some connections, maybe it would have been easier for me, but we never got to the point of looking into it). Congratulations! I love that city and am envious of you.

    • A contributory factor to my never having had to pay a bribe is probably the fact that I do not drive, so I have never experienced the charms of the local traffic cops at the scene of a breach of traffic regulations.

      That sounds correct. It is also, in principle, pretty easy to solve (e.g. make any fines for traffic violations easily payable via Internet), but no-one has come round to doing that.

      I always think as regards this matter of bribery that “it takes two to tango”: both the demander and giver of a bribe are, in my opinion, just as guilty as each other in the degree of their unethical behaviour.

      I completely agree. The only problem is that you are the exception, not the rule, among ordinary Russians. That is because many Russians want to think up excuses for their own myriad moral failings instead of doing something about it.

      • I should just like to comment on my experience of Russian education as regards the education of my three children.

        My 13-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter attend a local state secondary school (that’s “middle school” in Russian and “high school” in US English) and the youngest, my 4-year-old daughter, goes to a local state kindergarten.

        I have no complaints whatsoever about the standard of education that they receive and the professional competence of their teachers. (The director of the school, by the way, is from Dagestan.) In fact, I am of the firm conviction that were they attending school in my home country, the standard of education that my children would be receiving there would be much inferior to that which they now enjoy in Russia.

        As regards the kindergarten that my youngest child attends, on several occasions American colleagues of mine have voiced their amazement at finding out that I have not paid a bribe to ensure my daughter’s enrolment there. It seems that they have all done this in order to have their children attend kindergartens. I suspect that the kindergartens that their children attend are so-called elite ones for expatriates’ and New Russians’ offspring.

        The fact is, I have “gone native” and live as a local does. My children attend a state school and, as the case may be, a state kindergarten. If need be, I go to my local state polyclinic for medical and dental treatment. Again, my colleagues often voice their amazement on finding out that when I speak of treatment at a clinic, I do not mean a “foreign” one.

        I have state insurance and get “free” medical treatment. Soon I shall receive a state pension as well.

        I have also been in hospital three times whilst resident in Russia (diphtheria, pneumonia, broken arm) and did not pay for my treatment. I did not pay any bribes there either, nor was it suggested that I do so.

        • My brother-in-law’s experience with his kid was that teachers expected bribes and those that received them spent extra time on the kids, tutoring them if need be, etc. His child is very bright (and both parents, professors, could tutor on their own) and ended up earning a place for a special math secondary school, one of the top in the country, so the extra help wasn’t needed. However, for average kids it makes a big difference because there was a very huge discrepancy in how the kids were treated based on whether their parents gave “gifts” to teachers.

          That school and neighborhood has gone Azeri.

          • How did he know that teachers “expected” bribes?

            I have never expected bribes to be asked of me by my children’s teachers nor have teachers ever asked me or my wife for bribes: my children go to school, get taught, do their homework, get their marks. This has been the routine for the past 6/7 years – no veiled suggestions, hints, signs or signals that certain payments may be necessary.

            Perhaps some parents are more than willing to offer money to teachers for extra tuition or for the preferential treatment of their children?

            • The children of parents who gave gifts (money) to teachers got extra attention in school, and after school; those who did not were largely ignored by the teachers. If the kid is smart and doesn’t ever need extra help, or has parents with time and ability to tutor them, this doesn’t matter. But otherwise, if a kid is struggling with a subject and his parents don’t give a gift to the teacher, while the parents of another kid do, the latter gets the extra help.

              I wonder if, not being a native, you are automatically (informally) excluded from this system.

              • It’s not a system. It’s what corrupt people do. My wife spends a lot of time at the school that my children attend. It often seems to me that there is a concert there every month for some “day” or other. The next concert coming up is for “Defenders of the Fatherland Day”, February 23rd. She also goes on school excursions. Last week she went to the Pushkin Museum with my elder daughter’s class. Other mothers and fathers do this voluntary work as well. My wife does not pay the teachers bribes and it has never been suggested that she do so.

              • moscowexile says

                All men are corruptible; the least corruptible have the highest price.

    • I think your experience is the exception but also important proof that one can indeed live and function in a bribe-free Russia. Anecdotal evidence is fairly important in this case because corruption is so difficult to quantify. FWIW, I believe you.

      I’d like to say that I’ve never paid a bribe in my close to twenty years in Russia, but it wouldn’t be the truth. I do take responsibility for my actions and, in most cases, it was for my own expedience and not because I had to (I’ve owned a car for almost the entire time I’ve been here.). The one exception, and where I always had the biggest problems and complaints, was at the airport in Sochi where I am a frequent traveler. The cops would systematically extort money from foreigners for registration violations even in cases where there were none.

      All this being said, it’s been several years since I’ve paid a bribe. The situation in the Sochi airport was eliminated and the cops there don’t even check everyone’s passport anymore like they used to (Russians were checked to see if there were any warrants outstanding). The traffic police have largely been replaced by speed cameras (try paying THEM a bribe). They do check for drunk driving but from what I hear you can’t pay your way out of that for any amount of money. When the traffic police do pull you over, everything’s on video camera and the discussion simply doesn’t come up. Of course, I’m not suggesting that corruption in either the regular or traffic police has disappeared, just that my own anecdotal evidence suggests a real improvement and effort. Even my most hardcore liberal friends grudgingly admit that law enforcement professionalism has gown by leaps over the past several years.

      • I think your experience is the exception but also important proof that one can indeed live and function in a bribe-free Russia. Anecdotal evidence is fairly important in this case because corruption is so difficult to quantify.

        I actually disagree. IMO, anecdotal evidence is of very limited value, because of the extremely wide dispersion in experiences (e.g. ME has a talent for avoiding corruption, while AP seems to run into it the moment he steps outside the door. You seem to be somewhere in the golden middle))). That is the main reason I tend to avoid personal anecdotes. While privacy is one reason, the main reason is that statistics are far superior anyway.

        • I haven’t run into much myself, actually, because I don’t study, teach (I gave a lecture once, that doesn’t count), work, rent, nor drive in Russia. I was asked for documents by probably a bribe-fishing cop once in the various summers vacations I spent there while I was a university student with luxury of spending summer abroad. I just hear a lot of complaints from those who do these things; the things I’ve heard from very credible sources are epic by Western standards and corroborated by some of the artiles I linked to.

        • Of course I agree that statistics are always superior and I’m surprised at how often I have to explain to people that their personal experience should not be mistaken for empirical evidence. However, I still stand by what I said, namely that corruption is very difficult to quantify, your own excellent analysis above notwithstanding. Things like economics, standards of living, demographics, etc. are much easier to prove.

          I remember the blogosphere was all a flutter recently when a statistic was released showing that the average bribe in Russia had increased some thirty times. “You see,” it was shouted, “corruption is increasing!” I had to point out that conventional wisdom holds that bribes become more expensive when they become more risky for the parties involved. Hence, the conclusion should be just the opposite.

    • @ME,

      Out of curiosity, what’s stopping you from going the full 9 yards and getting Russian citizenship? I know that there are zero problems with having dual UK/Russian citizenship and plenty of benefits e.g. much easier to visit “rogue” countries like Iran, Syria, Cuba, etc.

      Obviously feel free not to answer this question as it’s a bit personal.

      • Anatoly, I can answer this question for myself as an American citizen who has their temporary residence permit and is now waiting on the “Vid na Zhitelstvo”. Btw, my story is similar, though not the same, to ME’s. According to the Russian constitution, anyone who wishes to receive Russian citizenship must first renounce their current citizenship. As an American, there are a long list of reasons why that is simply not feasible. In practice, many people get their Russian citizenship while performing a fake renouncement of their original, but this practice is also fraught with problems for those of us who try to be as law abiding as possible.

        • I see. That explains things then. Color me a hypocrite, but in the case of pointless laws like this, I think slipping past the cracks is quite justified. 😉

          • It’s not just a law, it’s written in the damn constitution! I’ve often wondered what the rationale was behind this particular article and hope that some day they get around to removing it. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to get citizenship if this barrier didn’t exist. As it is, I may consider it when the time comes or if something in particular motivates me. Curious to hear ME’s thoughts on this topic…

      • moscowexile says

        In answer to that question, I should first like to say that the circumstances that led to my taking up residence in Russia were rather unusual: in 1992 I was unemployable in the UK (blacklisted), had recently been awarded a degree in Modern Language studies (German and Russian) and had been offered work in Russia by acquaintances whom I had met whilst studying in the USSR.

        When I took up a teaching position in Moscow 20 years ago, I had no intention of returning to the UK: I do not call myself Moscow Exile for no good reason. I was also no youngster in 1992: I was 43. I met my wife in 1997 and married her three months later in the same year. Our first child was born in 1999 when I was 50.

        At the time of my son’s birth, there was, in so far as I had up to then been led to believe, no British/Russian dual citizenship. By British law, my son became a British citizen at the moment of his birth. At the time of the registration of his birth, I had to decide which citizenship he was to have. It was the British consul who told me that, as regards Russian law, I had only an “either/or” choice in this matter. He told me that if I wished my son to have both British and Russian citizenship, then I had to make a statement that I was willing that my son be given Russian citizenship and then, after having him registered, I should bring all the Russian documentation concerning his registration and paternity to the British consulate, where he would be registered as my son and he would be granted a British passport if and when I applied for one.

        One year later I applied for a passport for my son and took him and my wife to the UK. When I was handed my son’s passport at the consulate, I was warned not to present it at passport control on leaving Russia lest Russian officials try to seize it, as according to their reckoning he was not a British citizen but a Russian one. My then one-year-old son left Russia on his mother’s Russian foreign passport. She, of course, had applied for and received a British visitor’s visa in order to accompany us to the UK; my son had no need for a British visa because he is British. However, in order to satisfy demands from Russian passport control that he have a UK entry visa, my wife was given a document by the British consul on which was stated that my son had the right of permanent abode in the UK. In other words, he did not need a British visa even though he was a Russian citizen.

        It was all a bloody silly bureaucratic game, I know: the Russians knew he was in reality a British citizen as well as a Russian one, but the demands of the Russian law concerning the non-existence of dual British/Russian citizenship were satisfied.

        Our second child was born one year and four months after the birth of our first, and the same old silly rigmarole was undertaken as regards her registration as a Russian citizen and her acquiring a British passport.

        The reason why I kept my British citizenship was so that my children could acquire it as well. Having a British passport allows them to travel freely throughout the EU and negates visa requirements in many other states, e.g. my children are rather pleased to know that they need no visa in order to travel to the USA to visit Disneyworld. And when we all went to Eurodisney last year, my wife needed no visa as she is the wife of an EU citizen.

        So I hung on to my British citizenship in order to widen the options for my offspring. And having married late in life, and having also decided to do my little bit in alleviating the Russian demographic crisis, I decided to father as many Anglo-Russians as my wife would allow me.

        Our last child was born 4 years ago. However, when our youngest child was given a British passport before we set off on a visit to the UK in 2010 (my fifth of very short ones there in the course of 20 years), I asked if it was still necessary not to show it at Sheremet’evo passport control, only to be told that all that silly playing around had long ago ceased. So we now travel as a family with a bundle of passports: four British ones and four Russian, and use them where appropriate. Whether this means that there now exists dual Anglo-Russian citizenship, I do not know.

        The strange thing about all of this – and it is the British that are to blame for this stupidity – is that although I and my family can all move to anywhere in the EU to live and work (my children because they are British citizens and my wife because she is married to an EU citizen), my wife cannot move to the UK to live and work there: to do that, she would have to apply for British citizenship. However, if she lived in another EU state for 6 months – and this she can freely do if in my company as my wife – she would then be allowed to live and work in in the UK.

        So although there are plenty of Russians living in the UK who are citizens of the Baltic States – not to mention Berezovsky and Abramovich’s divorced wives, who are British citizens because their former husbands are fat cats – my wife is not allowed to live in England because she is a damned foreigner and a bloody Russian to boot!

        Notwithstanding the fact that I possess a British passport, I have no plans in the foreseeable future for returning to the UK in order to live there with my family, though I do often tell my folk “back home” that I shall return when England is a republic.

        In any case, I much prefer living in Russia and I have never been as happy in my life than when I am living at my dacha in summer with my wife and children.

        Freedom is an attitude of mind!

        • PS I’ve just checked it out and the Russian state now recognizes dual British/Russian citizenship.

          I remember now that that “right of abode in the UK” document that I mentioned above and which was granted by the British consulate to my son in 2000 was, in fact, a stamp that they put into my wife’s Russian foreign passport next to my son’s name and which read “Indefinite leave to remain in UK”.

          We were told to use my wife’s stamped passport for my son’s Russian exit and his new British passport for entrance into the UK at Heathrow. I remember walking through “UK & EU Citizens” gate there with my son in my arms whilst my wife had to wait in line for ages with the “aliens”.

          When returning to Russia, my son left the UK using his British passport and entered Russia using his mother’s. That was in August 2000.

          In August 2007 we paid our next visit to the UK, but this time with my elder daughter in tow. I remember now that when I asked at the British consul about the indefinite leave stamp, they just said that that there was no longer any need for one. It was the same when we next visited the UK in 2010 with our younger daughter. As for myself, I just present passport control with my residence permit together with my British passport whenever I come back “home” to Russia.

          The last time we all did this multi-passport and, in my case, passport/residence permit travelling was last November after visiting Euro-Disney near Paris: no problems whatsoever, and our outward bound journey was via Riga.

          So the law in Russia as regards dual British/Russian citizenship must have changed between 2000 and 2007, as did the law concerning Russian passports and the issuing of them to minors as well as the removal of the “nationality” entry from them.

        • Your kids are lucky. A British passport without having to actually live in the UK is like the Holy Grail. It’s second only to a US passport in access to countries without a visa. A US passport, on the other hand, is more like a curse. You are taxed on global income no matter where you live and now, with FATCA, it’s impossible to even open a bank account.

          Thanks for sharing that story, I personally found it fascinating. Not to be too prodding, but you never answered the original question as to why you, yourself, don’t get Russian citizenship. Is it the same reason I have?

          • It’s the relinquishing of British citizenship if I accept Russian citizenship that deters me from becoming a Russian citizen. If I became a Russian citizen, that would mean that any future children (unlikely, but a possibility) would not be British citizens; more importantly, it would mean that after my death my wife would, I should imagine, find it difficult to get a visa to visit the UK – even if my children should choose to live there.

            British bureaucrats make her jump through hoops as it is before granting her a visa whenever we visit the UK as a family, which is the main reason why we seldom go there. They demand to know who her sponsor is (I am) and what relationship, if any, she has to her sponsor (they know full well of our relationship – I had to swear an affidavit at the British consulate and in the presence of the consul during the bureaucratic rigmarole that involved marrying her), how long this relationship has existed (I once angrily told them that I hadn’t picked her up the night before in some bar), how much money she plans to take with her and a full itinerary of her intended travels in the UK and the addresses of the places where she will be staying.

            This interrogation always infuriates me! She is, after all, the wife of a British citizen and the mother of three others. They make it perfectly clear to her that if she overstays the period set by her visa, she may be refused any further issue of one.

            They mean what they say. They did just that to a former girlfriend who applied to stay with me for 3 weeks in the UK but only returned with me to Russia one month after her arrival with me in the UK. She was never given a visa again, even though the visa with which she travelled to the UK with me was valid for 6 months: they said, when refusing her next visa application, that she had lied to them when stating that she was previously going to stay in the UK for 3 weeks. And I have a Russian acquaintance who lives in England and who is married to a British citizen; this person’s mother was refused a visa to visit the UK: she wanted to travel there in order to attend his wedding.

            In short, there would be problems for my wife and me if I relinquished my British citizenship as regards travel to the UK and Western Europe. These problems would mostly stem from the British side. When I explain to other Westerners that I have not applied for Russian citizenship, they always assume that this is because I would become a “prisoner” in the “Evil Empire” if I did so. You see, everyone knows that Russians have no freedom of movement both within and without the Mafia State!

  3. Corruption in Russia’s educational system is breathtaking, although I’m not sure how it can be measured. I know of one case where a paranoid schizophrenic (I’m not using this term pejoratively) with a history of inpatient hospitalization who thought of himself as an “unrecognized genius” (with a degree from a provincial institute where his family has a powerbase) was given an entire academic department at a well-known Moscow institute (whose rector was in trouble for massive bribery. The schizophrenic’s close relative was an important person in the Duma, and after the hiring the bribery problems disappeared…). The department’s staff, many of whom worked for decades, left or were forced out, the students of course were now learning nonsense and ramblings invented by this guy and taught by his 20-something friends with similar backgrounds.

    More typical than the example above, people with dubious degrees, who know little, from the Caucuses muscle in, hiring their friends and relatives, leaving only a small number of few native Russian and Jewish instructors who actually know something to barely keep the institution functioning. I know one member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, brilliant, passionate about his academic work and totally non-corrupt, who suffered a heart attack during the process of trying to stop such a takeover in the department where he had worked for over twenty years. It was no use – he has been forced out, his life’s work finished, while some semi-literate Armenian uses his position to farm out jobs to friends/relatives and as a means of collecting bribes from students who otherwise would have been unqualified to enter that institution. The corruption works for a lot of people though – the university administration makes money, unqualified people with money and connections buy the degrees they want, etc. Pure capitalism.

    • Dear AP,

      I seem to remember that we’ve discussed these cases.

      Firstly, there’s no doubt that corruption exists within the education system. However a friend of mine who is a British academic has regular contacts with Russian higher education institutions and she does not think the problem is quite so disastrous. Secondly my own impression of people who come out of the Russian educational system is that they are very well educated, which does not correspond with a system that is simply a morass of corruption. Thirdly, as I am sure I have told you before, things are far from perfect in the British higher educational system and I suspect if I thought hard enough I could match your stories. I seem to remember my telling you how some years ago I had dealings with two of Britain’s top legal schools and was utterly astonished with the open cheating and plagiarism that was going on and with the way examination questions were being openly bought and sold on college premises and how certain favourite students were given steers to help them pass exams. I am also familiar with some very troubling cases involving academic appointments where senior positions were filled on the basis of what appeared to be pure favouritism. Obviously I am not suggesting that the British higher educational system is completely corrupt or even that it is as corrupt as the Russian. My point is that things are nowhere perfect and that we should keep things in proportion.

      • A lot of my in-laws in Moscow work in academia and whenver I visit them or some of them visit us I hear over-the-top horror stories about corruption. They are convinced that the next generation of Russians will be in real trouble. To paraphrase a member of Russia’s Academy of Sciences (who achieved this honor in Soviet tiems when it meant something) “what the Azeris did to the Russian grandmothers who used to come to markets and sell strawberries [Moscow’s markets are run by Caucasians] the Armenians are doing to Russian and Jewish professors. This is no longer our country but everyone else’s.”

        A few examples of corruption on a level that is mindboggling for someone not from the formwer Soviet Union:

        At one (previously very respectable) institute where I once gave a lecture 80% of academic departments are now headed by recent arrivals from Armenia and Dagestan. Are these arrivals really smarter than native Muscovites or is it corruption? Imagine if, all of a sudden, the chairs of almost every department at the University of Chicago was suddenly occupied by someone from Sicily with a degree from some obscure SIcilian university. This would ave been unheard of even in Al Capone’s time.

        Kids from Moscow are having trouble getting into universities now because entrance, based on exam results, skews the chances of acceptance in favor of those students from corrupt regions where they can buy better results. Moscow is less corrupt than, say, Dagestan so Dagestani students perform much better on entrance exams.

        Russian secondary schools compete in science and mathematics olympiads. Recently it was decreed that the winners of such olympiads bypass a lot of the application process an earn automatic acceptance into top univeristies. Guess what happened? The schools with the top math students in the country stopped winning Olympiads, while private schools with politically connected kids started to win them…

        MGU has a satellite campus in Switzerland. Do you think average Russians who are very bright and hardworking study there? Do you think that anyone is going to dare to fail the students who DO study there? An interesting article about those students:


        Note that they are not ethnic Russians.

        AK, if I recall your father was an academic in Russia. Does he keep in touch with old friends? What do they think is happening there?

        • Something from RT:


          I can’t imagine 75% of applicants at a Western medical school being “dead souls.” This is epic, only represents a scandal that has been revealed.

          Another article, which is quite realistic (although predictably the small fish – professors – seem to be targetted while the real problem is higher up):


          • I can’t imagine 75% of applicants at a Western medical school being “dead souls.”

            I can imagine it, there are for example tons of phantom universities in Britain set up for the express purpose of bringing in Indians who pay for fictitious courses but actually join the labor force. 🙂 However, you are correct that it is unimaginable for this to happen at a “top” or even middling university.

            Saying “the real problem is higher up” is quite meaningless, the fact of the matter is that money is exchanged between students and professors, i.e. ordinary Russians. And most ordinary Russians for all their fake outrage wouldn’t hesitate to do the same in their place. To the contrary many Russians are if anything most eager to punish those who expose their corrupt schemes. Basically in my opinion the Russians state has to make the best it can of a rotten culture and a pathologically dishonest people.

            • “Saying “the real problem is higher up” is quite meaningless, the fact of the matter is that money is exchanged between students and professors, i.e. ordinary Russians.”

              It’s not necessarily so simple. For example, a wealthy parent spends $50,000 or whatever (all of it going to administrators, not professors) to get their unqualified kid into a university. The kid often refuses to study and skips half the classes. Some profesors will take a bribe, but some won’t. The parent is outraged and approaches the administration – “I paid $50,000 and I demand results.” This results in pressure on the professors who are “troublemakers” by refusing to accept bribes for grades (such people have a bit of a stubborn and proud dissidant mentality).

              One solution to the problem of profesors refusing to comply with the corrupt system is to hire “outside” examiners. Officially they are there to prevent professors from being bribed by their students, but in reality they are there to help bad students get grades that honest professors wouldn’t give. In this system, the students who don’t show up to class and are dumb as rocks get “5”s while the brightest hardworking but poor people in the class get “3’s.” A less humane solution is to find a student willing to issue a false accusation against an honest “troublemaking” professor, ruining their career.

              I know of one tragicomic case (well, more tragic) where a handful of professors were fired and faced legal consequences over allegations of $200 bribes; meanwhile one of the administrators acting shocked and indignant about this corruption ws building himself a villa in Cyprus.

        • At one (previously very respectable) institute where I once gave a lecture 80% of academic departments are now headed by recent arrivals from Armenia and Dagestan. Are these arrivals really smarter than native Muscovites or is it corruption?

          Of course not. The average IQ (as derived from PISA tests) is about 1 S.D. higher in Moscow than in Dagestan, so any such patterns would be strong evidence in favor of corruption.

          Kids from Moscow are having trouble getting into universities now because entrance, based on exam results, skews the chances of acceptance in favor of those students from corrupt regions where they can buy better results. Moscow is less corrupt than, say, Dagestan so Dagestani students perform much better on entrance exams.

          I heard this is a problem before and it’s quite credible, but I don’t think the scale is overwhelming. There are two objective reasons for this. First, while unfortunately Russia does not release USE stats by region – I suspect because of PC considerations – it does release the numbers of maximum-scoring pupils in USE by region (see “Количество участников ЕГЭ в регионах России, получивших 100 баллов по ЕГЭ в 2012 году”).

          Now to take one example, Dagestan in 2012 only had 7 max scores (3 in Russian language, 2 in chemistry, 2 in biology). Moscow had 654. In general, my quick observation is that they seem to correlate well to the expected number of very high IQ people (based on both total population and average IQ) you have in any region.

          Second, the federal level graphs for USE results are, for the most part, nice bell curves. And as we learned from electoral fraud, if there’s a bell curve, it probably means there aren’t too many shady dealings going on! 😉

          The schools with the top math students in the country stopped winning Olympiads, while private schools with politically connected kids started to win them…

          Statistically this does not seem to be a huge problem, at least from the ethnic angle.

          AK, if I recall your father was an academic in Russia. Does he keep in touch with old friends? What do they think is happening there?

          Sorry, but these are details I would rather not discuss on a public forum. What I will say, for myself, is that I do have a relatively privileged position for following the state of academia in Russia – and I can freely confirm that it has many problems, first and foremost of which are salaries which continue to be relatively low (and the resulting ebbing of human capital from the sector, as competent professors age and die out, and are replaced by incompetents). You are literally the first person with links to Russian academia whom I have heard complain of ethnic mafias taking over departments. While I don’t doubt the integrity of what you say, I have a hard time believing it is all that prevalent – if only because, well, as per above, mainstream Russian academia simply isn’t all that lucrative in the first place! Or in other words, the ethnic mafias in Russia have plenty of real pork to chew on, e.g. Skolkovo, or the Sochi games which are conveniently taking place right at their doorsteps…

          • Thanks for the thouightful and informative response. I don’t want to get too specific for reasons of privacy but the ethnic takeover of departments that I’ve heard about involves those that are lucrative in nature; nobody is bothering to muscle their way into control over departments of medieval literature (although, it very possible that if someone’s wife or girlfriend or daughter fancies herself a literature professor she’ll get her position at the expense of a qualified instructor and the next generation of students).

            • Out of curiosity – what sort of departments are you talking about – IT/Physcis/Maths/Engineering/Medicine? Or Social Sciences?

              • Sorry, I don’t want to be too specific..other than saying that it is those schols or departments that have economic value – so not the humantiies. Although even the humanities are not completely immune if they are in a professional school (a hypothetical made up example – imagine the outrage of a parent who paid a lot of money to get their kid into, say a law school and the history teacher refuses to pass him in exchange for a bribe)….

    • I seem to remember that we’ve discussed these cases.

      We have indeed.

  4. Dear Anatoly,

    An excellent article as always.

    I am by the way incredulous that Mr. Staffanson thinks that India has a functioning non corrupt legal system. I don’t how great his experience of the Indian legal system is. Possibly his experience of the Indian legal system is better than mine.

    Obviously my impressions and Mr. Staffanson’s impressions are anecdotal but there is now statistical data from the World Bank based on methodology prepared by Harvard University that provides a direct comparison of the two legal systems. In the 2013 World Bank Ease of Doing Business Survey Russia ranks 11th in the world for enforcement of contracts (the key indicator of efficiency of a civil and commercial law system) whilst India ranks 184th.


    I suppose it’s possible Mr. Staffanson is comparing respective criminal law systems but even here and based purely on political news Russia’s surely scores much higher than India’s. A friend of mine recently visited Bombay and described a city controlled politically but powerful criminal gangs that seem to operate with total impunity whilst there is simply no comparison with the way prominent politicians in India are able to engage in sectional violence without being called to account.

  5. Anatoly,

    You can always refer Mr Staffansson to the I Paid A Bribe website http://www.ipaidabribe.com/ to see the extent of legal corruption in India and how it affects people in their daily lives. The website encourages people to report examples of bribery and provides a snapshot of where corruption is occurring in India. Similar and linked websites have been established in Greece, Kenya and Zimbabwe.