MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, came into office this year promising to deal with corruption. So far, he's made little headway. Corruption is the topic of our last story from the city of Chelyabinsk. All week, NPR's Anne Garrels has been reporting on how Russia has changed through the eyes of that city. As she found, corruption is worse than it was 10 years ago and Russians aren't sure how the government can crack down on something so ingrained.
ANNE GARRELS: Ask someone in Chelyabinsk how much he or she makes, and the likely answer is somewhere between $200 and $600 a month. How then, you ask, do you live on this is the next logical question. Russia's expensive - really expensive - even here in the boonies. The answer is usually the vague verb krutimsa. In other words, we hustle. Few live on their declared salary. Either they get paid an additional amount under the table, or they take bribes.
Take an Aeroflot ticket agent. On every flight I went on, I was charged a huge amount of overweight. When it came time to pay, I was asked each time, do you want a receipt? I answered, yes. Much to the apparent consternation of the ticket agent who asked me yet again, are you sure you want a receipt? It became clear I was expected to slip a lesser but still significant sum across the counter inside my passport instead of paying the full amount at the cashier's desk. All the agents were in on the game so no one seemed particularly concerned about being caught. These ticket agents must pocket hundreds of dollars a week. This endemic corruption has bred bitterness and cynicism. Mark Kelleher, an American teaching English in Chelyabinsk, was astonished at his students' behavior.
Mr. MARK KELLEHER (English Teacher, Chelyabinsk): Not all Russian students, but a large number of them - they just cheat like crazy. And blatantly cheating because it's accepted by a lot of teachers, I guess.
GARRELS: Cheating, bribery - it's the name of the game. Bribes can get you out of the army and, if you pay enough, in to universities - especially highly competitive fields like economics, law and medicine.
Dr. EDUARD REEBIN (Chairman, Regional Legislatures Medical Commission): (Russian Spoken)
GARRELS: Dr. Eduard Reebin, a member of the Regional Legislature, says growing corruption has been a real shock. Genrikh Galkin, a local investigative journalist and editor of the newspaper Evening Chelyabinsk, believes it all starts at the top. He describes an impermeable web of leaders from the security services, government and business.
Mr. GENRIKH GALKIN (Local Investigative Journalist; Editor, Evening Chelyabinsk): (Through Translator) There are a few people who hold power, and they also hold power over the courts. And they use their power to earn millions of dollars and make sure court cases go the way they want.
GARRELS: If trying to figure out how ordinary Russians get by is tricky, just try finding out where officials get the money to buy their mansions. President Dmitry Medvedev is pushing legislation that will eliminate blatant conflict of interest and improve transparency. But for now, as Galkin has learned, asking those kinds of questions can be dangerous. Six years ago, when he wrote about a vice governor's questionable practices, Galkin was charged with slander and sentenced to one year in a labor camp. Russian and foreign human rights groups raised the alarm. The charge still stands, but his sentence mysteriously disappeared. He believes he was saved less by the public outcry than support from the mayor, who is in his own battle with the governor's office. And he says neither the sentencing nor his reprieve were legal. He recently investigated another corruption scandal involving top officials.
Mr. GALKIN: (Through Translator) It was clear hospitals here had noticeably less money to work with than their neighboring regions. It turned out the regional medical insurance fund had not dispersed as much as $10 million that it received from the federal budget.
GARRELS: After Galkin once again raised some uncomfortable questions, the money was allegedly found, but there was no official investigation and no one was prosecuted. Galkin has generally backed off of corruption cases. He admits he's frightened, in part because he now has a wife and child to worry about.
Mr. GALKIN: (Through Translator) It's important to write about, but it's not worth getting killed for.
GARRELS: Endemic corruption is killing off incentive and hampering the development of a real middle class, that according to Vera Sokolova, the 37-year-old owner of a chain of plant stores.
Ms. VERA SOKOLOVA (Plant Store Owner): (Through Translator) You do everything right to develop a piece of property, but if you don't bribe the right official, you won't get it through. Suddenly, you find someone else has the land. For $100,000, you can do anything here without any permissions.
GARRELS: On a visit to Chelyabinsk, President Medvedev and his staff asked local business leaders to write him, anonymously if need be, with their concerns. Vera did - naming names, and citing all of the corrupt practices she daily wrestles with.
Ms. SOKOLOVA: (Through Translator) I pay taxes - not on my income, but on the square footage of my stores - but I still have to purchase an expensive meter for each of my cash registers each year. For the makers of these meters, this is super business, mega business. Someone got the federal government to sign off on this. It's corruption, plain and simple.
GARRELS: She suspects this scheme is uncomfortably close to someone in the Kremlin. She hasn't heard anything back from Medvedev's people. This mother of five is not easily defeated, but her frustration is clear.
Ms. SOKOLOVA: (Through Translator) I just want my children to have an easier way than I've had. I want life to be legal, to be normal.
GARRELS: Vera is outspoken. She recalls how Russians were silent in the 30s during Stalin's reign of terror. She remembers asking her parents why they never fought back. She says she doesn't want her children to one day ask her why she never raised her voice. Anne Garrels, NPR News.
NORRIS: And you can hear all of Anne Garrels' stories from Chelyabinsk at npr.org.
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