In Russia, some things are the way they are

Daniel Brooks

On most Russian buildings, one (and only one) of any given number of doors is open for entry. Often, each building has a double set of doors, one leading from the street and the other into the building.  Usually, the one and only inner and outer doors are on opposite sides. People entering the building have to jostle each other to get into the first door and then make their way over to the other one. Sometimes the unlocked door is marked, often it isn’t or the marking isn’t clear. Every time a building is entered, the correct and only entry door has to be found. That’s just the way things work, in Russia.

Recently I went to a trade show at VDNKh, the exhibit center on Prospekt Mira. The exhibit hall was brand new and the entrance boasted two sets of 30 doors, one facing the street and one inner set of doors leading into the hall itself. The outer doors had 29 arrows on them, pointing to the one door, on the right side, that was unlocked. One more door on the inner entrance was open as well, as far away from the outer entrance as possible, way over on the left. Another 29 arrows pointed to that one. The few people entering the building ended up elbowing one another to get in.

One reason I’ve heard to explain this practice is to reduce drafts. This theory seems a bit odd. Most Russian buildings and vestibules are well heated. If one door is open, cold air would come into the building at a steady pace, being open more often than the other ones. I’ve been given another explanation; in Soviet times, doors were in short supply. As few doors were used as humanly possible because replacing them was impossible. This makes little sense. The one door would be overused, causing it to be replaced sooner, rather than later. A more plausible explanation is security. With only one entrance, it is easier to stop people and check all documents thoroughly. This gives the guards something to do and keeps down unemployment.

Some buildings have improved.  Many have revolving and sliding doors, especially at the newer shopping centers and buildings in the city. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of ‘one entrance door only’ persists.

I can comprehend why some things are the way they are, for reasons of tradition or bureaucracy. However, when I go into a building in Russia, I wonder what would happen in the event of a fire. Some recent events give cause for concern. On December 5, 2009, a fire broke out at a night club in Perm. On the night of the fire, 300 people were in a facility designed for 50 people. The fire was reportedly caused by fireworks that ignited the decorations in the nightclub. The club-goers rushed to the exit, blocked in part by furniture, as the lights went out. There was only one door open at the main entrance. A second one was locked. A total of 156 people died and another 78 were injured as a result of this tragedy. Afterwards, several of the survivors provided comments on line about the disaster. At first, only two ambulances showed up. They only took away five or six people. After that, firetrucks finally arrived and began bringing people out of the burning building. Some were brought out by those who’d managed to escape. Many of the injured who escaped the building were laid out on the ground on the snow, in minus -16 Celsius weather. An investigation showed the building lacked adequate fire sprinklers. It was a case of an overcrowded building, fireworks going off, flammable decorations, no sprinklers and inadequate number of emergency exits.

More recently, a tragic fire at a shopping center in Kemerovo in March of this year caused the death of 60 people of which 41 were children. A group of schoolchildren found themselves in a movie theater when the fire broke out. Some of the children tried to call their parents on their mobile phones as the fire spread but to no avail. In the view of investigators, many lives could have been saved if the fire alarms had gone off and fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems had worked at the shopping center. Further, per media reports, the emergency exits to the movie theater were locked.  After the fire, according to, some theater owners complained about high fines imposed by Minkultura and the film distributors if the number of people in the movie theaters exceed the number of tickets sold. One solution is to lock the doors to movie theaters, including the emergency exits, while films are being shown. By this logic, the lives of people watching films at movie theaters is less of a priority than paying a fine. It defies the imagination.

I would be curious to find out whether more entrances, fire and emergency exits have been opened up since these tragedies in Kemerovo and Perm. Not to mention sprinkler systems and alarms. Perhaps they have. Judging by my own completely unscientific observations of entering Russian buildings, it is a work in progress.

I once read a saying that Russians love bureaucracy the way Italians love babies. It can be said the other way around, if you are an Italian. One salient feature of Russian bureaucrats is that they pronounce opinions with utmost authority. Such opinions can be wrong. Nevertheless, once such an opinion is issued, it can be difficult to overturn. The applicant often has no choice but to comply. Recently, a friend of mine needed to submit a set of yearly documents to extend his residency status by (he thought) April 8th. The official who needed to stamp the application told my friend, without hesitation and with conviction, he’d made the application too early and to come back on May 15th.  Another bureaucrat, who took the application on May 15th told my friend that he’d applied five weeks too late. He had needed to submit the documents on the 8thof April. Both bureaucrats were absolutely confident about their opinion.

Fighting the bureaucracy is a way of life in Russia. Many Russian pensioners entertain themselves by going to various Russian government agencies and applying for things. Especially popular is the pension office, often full of retired Russians who can be seen having a chin wag while waiting in line to fight for their pensions and benefits. These pensioners are hardened veterans in the battle with bureaucracy and can be seen arguing about their applications with skill and energy.

Another phenomenon of Russian life is stamps. They are used on documents because that’s the way things work. When I recently made a bank transfer online via Sberbank, I received a receipt as an email attachment with a stamp on it. It was dark blue and it was signed in blue ink. These stamps take on magical significance. They are visually satisfying. The dark blue color makes it official and acts as proof that the bureaucracy has been conquered or can be conquered again, if someone demands a convincing document. Instead of waiting for the whites of their eyes before firing the first volley, Russians wait for a blue stamp. The stamps are either round or rectangular and display the name of the organization arranged in an impressive way. There is no legal logic for such stamps. However, they are required because that’s the way things work.

Making stamps in Russia is a thriving business. There are companies that design stamps and produce them. I have a stamp for my sole property business and normally I carry it around with me. Mine is the old-fashioned variety, with an ink pad. I ceremoniously stamp my inkpad and then a document. I can blow on my stamp, before stamping something. It’s a lot like exhaling before drinking a glass of vodka. Sometimes I stamp documents that don’t need to be stamped, just for the hell of it.

Getting a stamp put on a document is an audible signal that the bureaucrat sitting across from you has decided to finalize your application. Bam, goes the stamp, followed by relief. The bureaucrat has decided not to hold up your application any longer. After that, happiness. Forgotten, inexplicably, is the nuisance of long lines, confusing rules and forms.

At times, explaining the need for stamps can cause heads to be scratched in other countries. I once worked for a British company who was exporting tea to Russia. After we had agreed to the terms, the final step was to put the stamps and signatures on the contract. It had to be done in a precise way. The first version was rejected by the buyer’s Russian bank. After that, I sent a detailed memo. The document needed to be initialed in blue (not black) ink on the bottom, right hand side of each page except the signature page. The signature page and each attachment needed a blue stamp on the signature line and the signature itself. The UK seller didn’t have a stamp and had to go out and have one made, then buy a blue ink pad. The ink was light blue, causing complaints, after which a dark blue ink pad was found and the document was finally accepted. It took longer to get the document stamped than to agree on the contents.

Finding the correct entrance door, fighting bureaucrats and using stamps are part of the landscape here. They can be amusing. They can also cause problems, and even harm. Stamps that can be easily copied or duplicated is a fantastic way to falsify documents. When bureaucratic laws can be interpreted by the bureaucrats, laws and regulations can be manipulated. And when the doors to buildings are too few in number, people can suffer and die in the event of fire.

We can only hope that over time, such practices will improve and change.  Until then, some things simply are the way they are. And that’s all there is to it.

RussiaKnowledge©Daniel Brooks 5.6.18