There are any number of paths and initiations into sistema, the liquid mass of networks, corruptions and evasions – elusive yet instantly recognisable to members – which has ordered the politics and social psychology of Russian civilisation since tsarist times. When I arrived in Moscow to work as a TV producer my initiation took the form of a driving test. I would never pass, my instructor explained, if I didn’t pay a bribe (500 dollars, but soon to double; I should get a move on). When I protested that I wanted to pass the test for real he said the traffic police would fail me until I paid up. He was a friend of a friend of my parents and I was told by everyone I knew that he was trustworthy. I gave him the money and he made the deal. I had assumed I would receive the licence in an envelope. To my surprise he told me to go to the traffic centre to take the test along with everyone else. The theory exam was held in a large, bright room with brand-new computers. There were around twenty of us working through on-screen simulations of various driving scenarios. I now decided, rather relieved, that my bribe had been lost in the works and set about using my common sense to get through the test. I got a handsome 18/20, enough to pass. Later I realised that every computer in the room had been rigged for an 18/20 result: everyone had paid.
Then came the practical, which involved a sequence of manoeuvres round cones in a car park. I got into a car, an instructor’s model with two sets of pedals, next to a traffic cop in uniform. He told me to start the car. I was so nervous, and had completed so few lessons, that I couldn’t master the pedals and kept stalling. The traffic cop smiled, glanced over his shoulder, and took control of the car. ‘Put your hands on the wheel and pretend to drive,’ he told me. While he ran the vehicle from his set of pedals I cruised around with an inane grin. After a while I thought: this is almost like driving. It was the system in miniature – the strange intermeshing of corruption and scrupulousness (you did have to go through the motions of the test), the role of officialdom as both obstructor and enabler, the co-option and the simulation.
Everyone talks – we all talk – about sistema but the first person to pay it attention and try to define it academically is Alena Ledeneva in her book Can Russia Modernise? Towards the end, a sistema player recounts a formative experience:HT: naked capitalism
I was about 12 and went to a sports camp. My friends were fishing near the camp and wanted to cook fish soup on the fire, so I went to the kitchen to ask for a saucepan and a couple of potatoes. I knew a girl in the kitchen and she gave me a saucepan and told me to pick up some potatoes from the cellar. As I was coming out of the cellar with four potatoes in the saucepan I bumped into the director of the camp. He decided I was a potato thief at once. Everyone was scared of him and I guess the kitchen girl denied her involvement. I was grounded to ‘think about my behaviour’ but remained fairly confident that I had done nothing wrong. By the evening of that day a man passed by, flipped his ID and introduced himself as a security officer. He threatened to lock me away as a young offender if I didn’t confess to the wrongdoing. I cried through the night and into the next day. Others were instructed not to talk to me, until one morning, an elderly trainer came over and spoke to me like a good cop. He said he understood I didn’t mean it and I didn’t do it, he said, the man who threatened me was only some friend of the director; and he said it would be easier for everyone if I simply apologised – then everything would be back to normal. He looked old, wise and trustworthy, and I couldn’t bear my isolation any longer, so I gave in. My memory blocked how exactly the apology went, but I felt shame, fear and disgust when I saw the director in subsequent years. This was what sistema did to ‘initiate’ people – it made them lie: to accept responsibility for what one didn’t do and vice versa; to compromise oneself by wrongdoing in order not to get others into trouble, to apologise for what one didn’t do in order to be allowed to break free and enjoy life. Yet one never breaks free from sistema.For many young men initiation comes through the army, the subject of one of my documentary projects for Russian TV. A year of national service is in theory mandatory for males between 18 and 27 (with some exceptions), but anyone who can avoids it. The most common way out is a medical certificate. Some people play mad and spend a month at a psychiatric clinic. Their mothers bring them in. ‘My son is psychologically disturbed,’ they say, even though they know the doctors know they are pretending....MORE