Therell be no more passing the ruble in the Siberian town of Megion. Its mayor has banned the phrase I dont know, and hes promised that civil servants who say Its impossible, Its not my job, or twenty other synonyms for no-can-do will lose their jobs.
“I don’t know,” “What can we do?” and similar expressions have long been hallmarks of a bureaucratic mentality intent on doing as little as possible, and the failure to respond to the needs of the citizenry had become a cliché of Soviet-era Russia, though it also characterizes the American government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
The Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer used to tell this joke about the do-nothing Communist management style:
What happened when the people’s revolution came to the desert?
For the first six months, nothing changed. And then there was a shortage of sand.
But the days are long gone when five year plans meant one step forward, two steps back, as are those heady times when enemies of the state were simply assassinated – well, gone except for the occasional gunning-down-in-broad-daylight on a Moscow street or the not-too-subtle-radiation-poisoning of former KGB operatives in London hotels.
And now that Russia is converting to a capitalist economy, where raw talent is prized over blindly following the party line and any street urchin can one day grow up to be president, so long as they have the support of the army and the secret police, "Why should I do this?" is out, and customer service has become the order of the day.
And so, municipal employees of Megion, a town of 54,000 that has become a center for Siberia’s oil and gas industries, must tell the new mayor all the different ways a given problem can be solved instead excusing themselves with, “It’s time for lunch,” ”No one told me," or "That happened before my time."
Separated at birth: Megion’s mayor, Aleksandr Kuzmin, who finds no excuse acceptable, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, for whom there is also no excuse.
Stalling -- "The office just closed" -- or giving out false information -- "I already told the Commissar about it" -- once a tactic that earned promotions for career government employees, is now prima facie evidence of counter-revolutionary activity, at least in Megion, where the customer is tsar.
But two things haven’t changed as Russia transitions from the old ways to the new. One is the government’s conviction that it can tell people what they can and cannot say. And the other is that the government can monitor everything that the people actually do say. Under Communism, the walls had ears: in addition to official eavesdropping, wiretapping, and the opening of mail, children turned in their parents for subversive speech, and neighbors ratted on one another simply to secure a larger apartment, or any apartment at all.
And in today’s Russia, exercising free speech can still get you a one-way ticket to Siberia, though if you’re already in Siberia, where the town of Megion is located, not all that far from the other gulags, that’ll probably get you a one-way ticket to outer Siberia, or maybe London, where you should definitely avoid the sushi or Bulgarians carrying umbrellas. Because in Megion, now only the mayor is allowed to say, "It's impossible. It can't be done."
Children enjoying summer sports in downtown Megion, Siberia