THE BLOG

Of Russia, Figs and Boarding Passes

21/11/2014 11:47 GMT | Updated 21/01/2015 10:59 GMT

One can expect surprises, both pleasant and less so, when travelling in Russia. Curious experiences can provide a more complete view of a Russia that is multi-faceted and sometimes contradictory - and may even bring you closer to comprehending the country; and while I agree with the great poet Tyutchev that Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone, I have not yet decided whether to believe in her.

Waking up on a sunny morning in the ancient and welcoming North Caucasian city of Vladikavkaz, where the streets are alive to stylish blues playing over the local radio, I decided to walk to the pleasantly named Green Market to buy fruit and hot lavash bread. Most of the traders had not yet arrived, and others were bringing in new produce. Sumptuous fruit was displayed in beautiful rows, covered with plastic sheeting. I was surprised that the sellers do not pack up their produce at night, and asked the saleswoman if she didn't worry that it would be all gone in the morning. In response to her answer that the place is guarded, I boldly pressed further out of curiosity: "Don't the guards and their friends like fruit, then?", to which she answered that there are video cameras too.

The abundance of fruit is matched by the ethnic diversity of the traders. Scrutinising faces in order to try to determine origins was not always successful. The most reliable indicator was accents, which seemed incongruous with stereotypes, as despite ongoing conflicts Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Georgians, Ossetians, Cossacks, Chechens, Ingush and so on worked together in one small, enclosed space.

Walking down the aisles, I saw my beloved figs, piled high like an Egyptian pyramid. However, they were still covered - a sign that the trader had not yet arrived. I sought another fig stall, but it was clear that I had arrived too early. On my way out, I asked a peach seller at the exit if I could buy figs, pointing at a stall where the figs of my dreams were stacked. He called out to a woman from a neighbouring stall that here was a customer and she waved me to come over, already uncovering the figs brandishing a plastic bag, waiting for me to tell her how many to put in. I asked her to weigh up a kilo, and found in my purse the 200 roubles on the price tag - but the purchase came to 1.02 kilos and I did not have the small change to pay for the extra. Therefore, the woman started to exchange larger figs for smaller ones, until they came to the exact weight, apologising meanwhile that they were not actually her figs or she wouldn't have thought twice about giving me the extra. We finished the transaction, I thanked her and she covered up the figs, reporting to her neighbours that she had sold one kilo, placing the money under the table cover.

This market experience puzzled me for a long time. I could not understand how it is possible to have this kind of relationship to a neighbour's business and to the customer, and to have cooperation between small businesspeople of different ethnicities based on trust and mutual support, particularly in the North Caucasus, where corruption is virtually legal at the state level. Then, at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport on the return journey to London, I encountered an altogether different reality.

Having passed through passport control I headed towards security, whereupon examining my passport and boarding pass, the officer responsible for my line stated in a strict voice that he could not see a stamp on my boarding pass. "What do you mean?" I asked. He answered: "You cannot board your flight - go back and bring me a boarding pass with a proper stamp." I glanced back and realised that all the passport booths were closed, and that going out through the gate, which rotated in the wrong direction, was physically impossible. I argued with the officer, telling him that the absence of a clear stamp on the boarding pass was not my responsibility, in answer to which he retorted, surprised, "Well, whose responsibility it is then?" I answered, "It's yours - the airport's - and I would expect that you to be able to resolve it." He was extremely indignant at this and, raising his voice, said rather rudely that it was my boarding pass, not his, and I should take responsibility and be more alert, while "in any case, I am just doing my job, so if you want to get to your plane you should bring me a boarding pass with a clear stamp".

By this time, the queue that had built up behind me was starting to get irritated. In order not to hold them up and to get away from the rude officer, I left the queue and started trying to work out how to get a visible stamp. I went up to a young man in uniform with a walkie-talkie who was walking around behind the passport control booths, explained the problem, and asked how I could get a stamp for my boarding pass. I could not remember exactly which passport control window I had passed, but indicating that it was close to the corner, and that a young brunette had been sitting there. He started to open the rear doors of cabins, asking whether each woman was the one who had checked me. The girls turned around, surprised and annoyed. Having looked at the backs of six young women and two men, and not finding the right one, the officer asked in a suspicious tone why I could not remember which window I had passed. In a deadpan tone, I retorted that I had not actually passed through passport control, but just materialised on the other side. Silently taking my passport he went through a nondescript door, and I saw how, using the stamp in my passport, the officer sitting there was able on his computer to determine which window was mine. Problem resolved.

Having finally boarded the plane, I remembered what had happened at the market with ordinary people, in a place considered by Moscow to be the wild, terrorist North Caucasus, where inter-ethnic and inter-religious intolerance are perceived as exceeding the permissible, and where Moscow tries to restore order through punitive military operations. I compared it to the airport, which vividly revealed the 'efficiency' of the Russian authorities. And I finally understood that the trusting and honest attitude in a small community like the Vladikavkaz market is created to provide protection from the state. In this situation, people create their own small worlds, where they try to preserve their integrity, satisfy their societal needs and defend their interests. I interpret what I saw at the market as revealing that significant social capital had been accumulated and that this could lead to growth in civil society activity.

The level of mistrust of the state is catastrophically high and people minimise their dealings with it. However, the paradox is that when they have to interact with it, they act in just the same way as the authorities do with them, rather than by the social rules that they have created for themselves and use in the North Caucasian market. For example, most find it easy to accept the bribing of officials to avoid paying taxes to the state treasury, or using the services of 'engineer magicians' who work for state companies and can reduce electricity and gas bills to pennies by reversing the direction of meters, for example. This not only suits the authorities but also, to some extent, the population. The authorities understand that while this set-up is in place, there is little chance of conflicts or protest movements emerging among the population. However, this system does not strengthen collective responsibility and public awareness. On the contrary, it is highly likely that the potential for protest could accumulate in such close-knit communities. Moreover, in this context the current Russian strategy, based on the principle that people can do whatever they want as long as they do not become socially active or meddle in official policy, could backfire. Rupture of the social contract between the people and the authorities could eventually lead to destabilisation.

It is interesting that the authorities, who are so frightened of NGOs that they create enormous obstacles for them, and even in public call their actions a betrayal of state interests, do not suspect that their policy of crude pressure, lawlessness and division of society by ethnic, religious and other grounds, is gradually causing people to self-organise. In places like the Vladikavkaz market, informal communities who have no idea what NGOs are may prove themselves much stronger and more dynamic in the defence of their interests than the marginalised NGOs themselves, which Russia attacks in a Cervantian manner reminiscent of tilting at windmills.