European Times: Moscow - A Dickens of a job for the apparatchiks

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The Independent Online
THOSE WHO worry that the culture-loving Russians, amid the post- Soviet mayhem, have lost all interest in art and literature need fret no more. They are as keenly interested as ever and, I can reveal, particularly in the works of Charles Dickens.

More than 20 years ago, I bought a copy of Nicholas Nickleby in a second- hand bookshop in London for no better reason than that, as a student, I couldn't afford the couple of quid demanded by Penguin for a new edition.

It is a battered old book, published by Odhams Press at the turn of the century, which cost three shillings (15p) at the time and has, to the best of my knowledge, remained more or less valueless ever since. Although, over the years, it has sat unopened on different book shelves in different parts of the world, it is a possession I am pleased to have.

Or, at least, I was. Now that the movers have arrived - spiriting off our goods and chattels from Moscow to Israel - I am not so sure.

The removal people weren't happy from the moment they spotted Nicholas Nickleby. It couldn't leave Russia without permission from the Ministry of Culture, they said. There would have to be documents, faxes, signatures, deliberations. It would require a letter from the British embassy's consular department and another from the editor of The Independent. Why the views of either organisation on an old book, treasured only by me, should be deemed remotely important remains a mystery. But the paperwork was duly prepared and dispatched, festooned with the essential motif of any document that expects to be taken seriously in this country - an elaborate stamp. In Russia, this must be round.

In a few weeks, someone in the ministry will finally get round to deciding whether Nicholas Nickleby - and with him the rest of our worldly belongings - will be allowed to leave Russia, or whether he will be deemed a national art treasure or Nazi war trophy, not for export.

I have been warned that it could take up to three months. During that time - if the flight of capital continues at its present rate - some $3bn will have winged itself illegally out of the country to foreign bank accounts.

I tell this story not merely to vent my frustration but because it speaks volumes about Russia. All over the country, every day, thousands of man- hours are being lost to the economy because the authorities have decided to make a paper mountain out of a molehill, while failing to address their real problems - not the least of which is monstrous corruption.

The food queues of perestroika have disappeared, but the time-wasting has not. Russians daily fritter away hours getting "propiskas", granting them permission to live in any given place (although this violates their constitutional right to live where they want), or a list of other meaningless documents. They still have to show their passports before boarding internal flights or visiting Lenin's tomb.

Even to check into the Hotel Moskva in St Petersburg, a visitor is expected to deal with three different receptionists, each one armed with a pen and notepad with which to generate more rubbish. And most other Soviet- style hotels are much the same.

My best recent example of this was provided by a Russian neighbour of mine. He lives in a tiny communal flat a few doors along from us which, until recently, he shared with another man. His fellow occupant left, so my friend decided to try to take over the vacant room, a poky and airless little space though it is. That was six months ago.

Although willing to pay the required rent, he still hasn't got official permission to move into the room from the city authorities. He has, he says (with no pride), bribed everybody.

On one stunning occasion, his documents were rejected by the city authorities because the courier delivering them was a temporary worker, filling in for someone on sick leave, who forgot to bring a document showing that he was entitled to deliver paperwork. In the end, a committee will meet to discuss my friend's fate and one day he will, with any luck, have a few extra square metres in which to live.

Every country has its gigantic, blind, meddling bureaucracies, not least the British and Americans (as anyone who has dealt with the latter's tax authorities will testify). But Russia's legacy was worst than most. It is one among many reasons why market economics have been slow to take root. And it also helps to explain the widespread public apathy and despair when it comes to government.

My hope, on leaving this intriguing land, is that the Minister of Culture will find time to read Nicholas Nickleby before he returns it to me. He will find that Dickens's world, with all its jobsworths and dogs- bodies sweating away over countless ledgers in countless dark little offices, is strikingly similar to his own.