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Bureaucrats Stamping Nyet on Russia Reforms

HOBBLED BY HISTORY. The Obstacles to Russian Reform. Second in a three-part series

August 22, 1994|CAREY GOLDBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ULYANOVSK, Russia — "What beasts our civil servants are!"

--Nikolai Gogol, "Diary of a Madman"

In this birthplace of V. I. Lenin, the most noxious reminder of the Communist past is not the giant bald statue still towering above the Volga River, or the ration coupons still doled out for meat and butter. It is the fact that many people still live in fear.

They don't fear the KGB, they don't fear the Communist Party; those days are truly gone. They fear their own local leaders, the men who hold livelihoods in their hands, and the petty officials with rubber stamps and metal seals who do their bidding.

"In essence, we live under an overblown form of bureaucracy," an Ulyanovsk businessman said. "This power is still extremely strong; it still has the ability to repress and control."

Then he asked that his name not be used, for fear his business would suffer.

As if the entire country didn't recognize the phenomenon he was describing at its most extreme. As if the president himself had not recently growled publicly about "nasty little officials." In the old Soviet Union, the Communist Party controlled nearly everything, and "the apparatus" carried out its orders. In the new Russia, the ideological component is gone, but the overweening power of officialdom remains, embodied in the bureaucratic obstacle course that even the simplest of transactions can often still entail, and in the nearly unchecked power of local bosses.

Where else does a woman need a note from a gynecologist confirming her feminine health to get a driver's license? Where else does the recipient of an overseas parcel end up standing in 16 different lines at the airport customs office to pick it up?

It is a more subtle affliction, this bureaucratic yoke, than the old monolithic Communist tyranny, but it is one of the main reasons--in addition to the generalized lawlessness and old habits of thought--why it will take Russia so very long to make its new society run Western-style. If it ever does.

"We have a very strong bureaucracy and a weak state," author Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn concluded recently after a two-month odyssey across Russia.

Solzhenitsyn would have particularly noticed officialdom's might in the backwaters he passed through. The Kremlin may proclaim privatization and free trade and land reform, but if it then takes years to implement those decrees, it is because greater power than ever lies in the hands of officials "in the places," as Russians refer to their far-flung provinces.

"On the local level, there is dictatorship," said Nikolai Povtarev, former head of the regional council in Ulyanovsk. "If a person suddenly takes a different position, and, say, he's the director of an enterprise, suddenly he's being checked by the fire inspectors, by the tax inspectors, construction is frozen and so on."

If, during the perestroika era, the bureaucracy was blamed for "braking" Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms, now it is reviled for pursuing its own venal interests rather than advancing Russia's transition to a civilized free-market system. In the popular perception, it is slowly giving up its death grip on state property only in exchange for a river of bribes.

The main difference between the old bureaucracy and the new, said Alexei Golovkov, former chief of the Russian government apparatus, is that now, along with the simple pleasure of power, bureaucrats have a tremendous new incentive to keep procedures tangled and difficult: money.

"A class of people have appeared who are ready to pay for everything," Golovkov said, "and if, before, a bureaucrat had a few little privileges, now a normal bureaucrat can afford 10 times more than he did 10 years ago."

The great challenge of painstakingly building a normal civil society, one in which people know and defend their rights, hinges in part on whether Russian democracy can stamp out the trait known as proizvol --arbitrariness, rogue power, clout wielded irresponsibly.

Rooted deep in Russian life, official proizvol is perhaps best depicted in literature by the 19th-Century tragicomic genius Nikolai Gogol. In his classic story "The Overcoat," a timid clerk named Akaky Akakievich is given such a merciless dressing-down by an "Important Person" that the trauma, coupled with the loss of his overcoat, kills him.

"Where do you think you are?" the Important Person demands of Akakievich. "Don't you know how things are conducted here? It's high time you knew that first of all your application must be handed in at the main office, then taken to the chief clerk, then to the departmental director, then to my secretary, who then submits it to me for consideration. . . ."

Soviet founder Lenin ran into what is ironically referred to here as "the deathless bureaucracy" when he returned to work after a four-month illness and found that his 16 government committees had metamorphosed into 120.

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