I’m sorry to begin this way, but I’m going to talk about poo. And anyway, this story is really about corruption, and how – no matter how upstanding you are – it can overtake you almost before you know what’s happening, so really the poo element is hardly the worst bit.
First, some background. My small son attends a kindergarten in Moscow – what Russians call a dyetsky sad (children’s garden). The children stay there much longer than they would in England, moving on to school only at six or seven. In our dyetsky sad, there’s a facility given the grand title of basseyn (swimming pool), but which is in fact about five feet across and about the depth of a sheep dip.
To be allowed to bathe in this thing (I’m not sure even a toddler can swim in it), children must first bring to school a special certificate confirming they are healthy. Russians are extremely keen on these health documents – before our son joined the kindergarten we had already shelled out around $200 on a “spravka” – a fuller certificate requiring a blood sample, lots of weighing, measuring and general eyeing up, and a rather unexpected anal swabbing which has given my son a lifelong fear of cotton buds.
When the white-coated “med-sestra” (school nurse) collared me at nursery to tell me I needed the latest certificate, at first my hopelessly inadequate Russian wasn’t up to it. As we stood on the stairs, I understood she was asking me to get hold of a document, but couldn’t recognise a word she kept repeating rather quietly. “I don’t understand this word “kal”,” I interrupted, then noticed her looking flustered and blushing (usually she is, frankly, a bit scary – the kind of nurse that would yank out your wobbly tooth with one twist).
Too late, I realised the word I was shouting means “faeces”. I needed a sample from my son, she explained in hushed tones, then I should take it to be tested and return with the appropriate bit of documentation. The easiest place would be the local dyetsky polyclinika (children’s medical centre), where I should simply hand in the sample and her note explaining what was needed, after which my son would have the freedom of all five feet of the school pool with the other children.
This presented two challenges. Get hold of the right documents and, first, persuade your five year old to let you grab a bit of his poo. Any self-respecting small boy will never allow this, and my son took to sneaking off to poo in the mornings before I was ready to pursue him with my small pot. I grew nervous as the time came to drop him off at school in the mornings: often the nurse would pop out of her office in her white coat, smiling expectantly and asking “Uspech?” (success). “Paka nyet, ” (not yet) I would mumble apologetically, silently cursing both my son and the Russian obsession with health bureaucracy.
Several weeks later, when I had almost resigned myself to permanent playground humiliation and my son to a life of giant arm-bands, I finally caught the little toad off-guard one morning and secured the necessary sample.
Wrapping the precious pot in a swaddling of plastic bags, I set off for the clinic, finally finding it lurking – as with many Russian facilities – in a residential building and marked only with a small municipal plaque denoting it as Polyclinika Two in our district.
The door opened onto a hubbub of crying babies, over-worked medics in white coats criss-crossing back and forth, relentlessly bright lighting, and a row of glass-fronted cubicles housing uncompromising-looking ladies stamping endless closely-typed documents. In front of them queued strained but patient parents, clutching more “dokumenty” and attempting to pacify wailing infants overheating in full snow gear.
Resisting the temptation to turn round and walk straight out again, I dodged a couple of workmen trailing a drill and loose cables and homed in on the least occupied-looking person in the room: a woman in a white coat who appeared to be running a stall of magazines no one was buying. She was knitting. I waved the nurse’s note at her and ran through my usual “I speak Russian badly – please can you help me?” routine. Go and join the cubicle queue, she gestured, before returning to turning a heel.
I queued; was queue-jumped; queued a bit more. At the window at last, I found the gap through which communication occurred was set roughly at rib height, requiring the queuer to adopt a sort of genuflecting crouch, head to one side. In this position, I again proffered my note, together with the pot (still in its bags).
“Ah,” said the robust lady (also in a white coat) sitting on the other side, “This is no good. You must bring your son to the clinic between 9am and 10am to provide a sample here.”
This was disastrous news. Not only had all my efforts to get hold of the “kal” been in vain, I now faced the impossible challenge of persuading my son to poo on command. The clinic wanted to be sure the poo was authentic; I knew the plan was a non-starter.
“I can’t do this,” I wailed in my awful Russian. My son is at school then. And he won’t do what you want.”
The solid lady looked at me a moment, then leant forward conspiratorially. Rapidly, she wrote down some figures on a piece of paper, each linked to one of the documents I required. Still crouching sideways, and squinting as I tried to follow her Russian, I finally, stupidly-slowly computed what was happening. I was being invited to bribe her.
It was an odd sensation. Surprise, shock, a weird petty lawbreaker’s thrill. And, to be honest, relief: I could finally get this infuriating problem sorted, allow my son to swim and stop dodging the nurse each morning.
Directed to the next queue, I finally paid my 800 roubles (about pounds 16), though only after having naively misunderstood the instructions and trotted obligingly off to the – real – cash desk with my bribe bill (I was sent back with a sneer). Bribe Lady’s colleague wrote out all my forms and stamped them repeatedly and forcibly in blue ink. She was friendly, even providing her mobile number on a scrap of paper, presumably in case I needed to purchase a few fake innoculations or a pain-free blood test.
I left, closing the door on the wailing, the long-suffering parents, the small-scale bribery. I’ve done nothing wrong, I told myself: in England we never need all these tests so they can’t be necessary for health protection, and anyway my son is perfectly healthy. The other kids have probably got fake forms too, so we’re all in this together.
In one sense all that is true, of course. It doesn’t take a year here to work out that the Russians typically place a line of bureaucratic hurdles in front of most activities, then offer a way round them – for a price. The oldest defence – everyone’s at it – is true, and makes righteous personal actions seem pointless.
But the taint remains. Barely even aware of what was happening, I was sucked in. I took the easy route the moment it was presented to me: I didn’t stop for a moment to mull or moralise. I decided I could judge for myself whether a rule could be broken, even though, theoretically, my actions could have consequences for others.
I don’t judge every small-scale rule-breaker in this way. That clinic is in one of the nicest Moscow districts, and it was harsh and tough – maybe the care was good but the atmosphere had an edge of desperation to it. If I had to pay to get my child faster care (and I don’t mean a daft certificate), I am sure I would do it.
The shock was in the easiness of joining the game, of seeing principles honestly held crumble a bit without even much pressure.
On the way home, I chucked the real “Kal” no one had wanted in the bin.