Lifeless Clerks

Daniel Brooks

Recently, my bank informed me that I owe $2 (121 Roubles) in back taxes. As a result, my Russian sole property business account was frozen. On a sunny day, with nothing better to do, I went to the tax office to clear things up. I was helped by a young woman who was barely alive. My two-dollar tax liability was low on her list of priorities. She had drifted off to another dimension, the picture of listlessness. After avoiding eye contact and without saying a word, she printed out a form showing that I owed 32 Roubles in taxes, the equivalent of $.50. I was confused. My liability had suddenly shot up by 25%. Could it get any worse? Any more questions would have been too much to ask so I didn’t. Instead, I called my accountant.  She told me to go back a second time and ask for any documents that would show all of my tax obligations, down to the last Ruble. I worked up the courage and went to the tax assistance desk for more help. On my second try, I was helped by a young guy in a snappy suit. He was slouched back on his chair in a horizontal position. Hitting the print button was hard work but after a deep sigh, he printed out four statements showing I owed 121, 68 and 332 Roubles, in addition to the 32 Roubles I’d found about earlier, coming to a grand total of 9 US Dollars. 

After that, I went to my bank to find out what these payments were all about. The young people working at my bank are gorgeous and slim, hired in all likelihood for their looks and low body fat percentages. Their personalities are difficult to ascertain. They respond to questions without visible emotion, something like the androids in the British TV series ‘Humans’. The answers to my questions were not in their memory banks. All that mattered was to fill out the correct documents in the correct way. The bank staff said I’d need to make pay my $9 in back taxes on line in four separate bank transfers, using something called a platezhnaya poruchenieor bank transfer form. If I neglected to pay, my account might be frozen over and over again as each tax liability is received by the bank. After paying, I would have the right to challenge the tax charges, costing more in accounting fees than the original taxes. I relented and went about paying.

Transferring money to pay Russian taxes can be done on line. I went about it in the comfort of my local coffee shop with the help of a double espresso. The bank transfer form is not for cowards, at least at my bank. Jittery with caffeine, I went to work, entering numbers into the payment form, each several digits long. The INN, or tax ID number comes first, followed by the BIC. These are followed by formidable account numbers named the KPP number, KBK number and finally, last but not least, the all-important KPTO. Sometimes a number called a UIP is involved. These accounts are significant in ways unknown to anyone outside Russian bureaucracy and the Ministry of Taxation. Various other boxes have to be filled in with personal information, the exact address of my company down to the entrance number and postal code, abbreviations showing the nature of the payment, the VAT obligation and the period it covers. Some parts of the form are left blank. As a rule, about half of the payment forms I submit are rejected. When they are, I call the customer hot line at my bank and ask what to do next. In this way, legions of young people are employed to assist hapless folks like me who are unable to complete a simple form.

My account number is 20 digits long. The KBK and KPTO numbers have 20 digits as well, allowing a few billion numerical variations.  Someone is thinking ahead. 

Luckily, these payment forms can be saved and reused.  However, the KBK, KPTO and other numbers can vary from payment to payment based on instructions from the tax officials. They need to be checked carefully, something I often get wrong. I’d make a terrible Russian.   

After learning very little at my bank, I exchanged some money and in doing so, I signed a document incorrectly. The currency exchange form was signed three times by the clerk who prepared the document, three more times by the cashier who changed the money and finally by me. The clerk and the cashier signed the document with a flourish using elaborate signatures, suitable for an international treaty. The final document was stamped six times and cut into three pieces by the cashier using a ruler. I ruined her day by signing it wrong. The cashier’s complaints could be heard through the bullet proof glass separating us and out into the bank. Such is the pain caused by non-compliance to bureaucratic norms.  

I can only imagine the deep, dark and complex labyrinth of regulations, special codes, forms and account numbers that the bank staff are required to navigate day in and day out. One wrong move and you have to start all over. In comparison, filling out a platezhnoe poruchenieis child’s play, as any Russian will tell you. Focusing on forms and regulations must be exhausting, leaving little or no inclination to think. Foreigners asking daft questions don’t make life any easier.  Working at the tax office has got to be even worse, out there on the bureaucratic front line, sitting in a cubicle with procedural shells firing overhead. It’s no wonder these handsome, intelligent and well-trained people are evolving into robots. They are probably numbed by it. I know I would be. 

Daniel Brooks 29 April 2019 copyright

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