One Hand Clapping

Daniel Brooks

A reader suggested I write about philosophy. Two sayings came to mind. The first was: If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a noise? The other was, what is the sound of one hand clapping?  I first heard these sayings while studying at university. Their deep meaning escaped me for many years. They seemed to have to do with the meaning of sounds; perhaps they only exist if our ears hear them.

A less existential definition came to me after living here in Russia. Let’s say someone chops down a tree belonging to someone else, out in the deep woods. If the owner of the tree is not within hearing distance, it never happened, being soundless. Free wood goes home. One hand clapping could be the sound of a hand in the cookie jar, when no one is looking. When cookies are being taken, don’t clap.

The unheard falling of trees can happen in Russia, by virtue of the ways things change and the history of the country, both distant and recent. Since 1992, the rules of the game have altered considerably, going through stages. At each stage, new rules have been put in place but enforced sporadically during which time trees fell silently. Eventually, in some cases, the sound of falling trees became too loud to ignore and they were heard. In other instances, they are still coming down.

Russians use another expression which is ‘the nail that sticks up gets hammered’. It is a phrase used in Japan as well, calling for everyone to be harmonious. I don’t know that much about Japan but it seems like a somewhat unharmonious solution to a lack of harmony.  Then again, I’m American where such an expression is not widespread. An American might say that someone sticks out like a sore thumb. You don’t necessarily get hammered for it.

In Russia, harmony has its place with a local twist. Many believe it is better to keep a low profile than to decipher the meaning of the often contradictory and unfinished laws on the books in this country. Many capitalize on the confusion, while they can. This is changing, gradually, and the screws are being tightened although it still seems like a work in progress.

Someone in the Russian government once said, ‘you must always obey the law, and not only when they grab you in your special place’. The person who provided us with these words of wisdom is as high in the Russian hierarchy as you can go. Judging by the way things are changing in Russia, protection of one’s special place might make sense.

In many ways, the law in Russia can be difficult to understand. One widespread solution is to try to wiggle around the regulations, en masse. This is a national pastime. Because there are so very many folks out there wiggling, it is believed that the chances are low that your own special place will be grabbed at any given time. The expression often used to justify such an approach is ‘everybody does it’ (vsye tak delayut).

There is a fascinating new show on Russian TV called ‘Insiders’ (‘insaidery’). In it, young people get jobs working at various places for a few days wearing tiny cameras. They record all the ways that one hand can be clapped. It has to be un-staged because what we see is too bad to be fake.  In one episode, a dairy producer falsifies the expiry dates on sour cream and adds copious portions of margarine to a product that is labelled as ‘butter’. No wonder Russian butter is so soft. In the next episode, at a bakery, a cat runs free, the place reeks of cat urine, expired cookies are ground up and added back to the flour to make more cookies, cockroaches are rampant and scraps of dough that land on the floor are re-used. After that we see a sushi delivery business that uses a cheap cheese spread and calls it ‘Philadelphia’, a product that is not sold in Russia. At all of these food production sites, hands are not properly washed, headgear and protective clothing aren’t used and the sanitary conditions are horrible. Over and over, the people working in these establishments use the same phrase, ‘Everybody does it’.

In contrast, there are more and more examples of laws going into effect that are working. Until a few years ago, Russia had a large number of banks. Many were known as ‘pocket banks’ serving as the pockets of the owners. They were also known as ‘Potemkin’ banks, meaning they existed for show. Many were involved in funny business such as illegally transferring hard currency out of the country, for a percentage. Such practices were widespread; everybody did it. Over time, this practice has effectively stopped and along the way, a number of banks have been shut down. By end 2017, Russia had about 570 banks, down from 900. The objective is to end up with about 400 banks by 2019. Many of these banks were not shut down for fraudulent activities such as creating fake loans or opening bank accounts for businesses that were non-existent. Instead, they were shut down for having poor asset value and high risk. The upshot is that the nefarious activities in which these banks were involved are mostly a thing of the past.

Prior to 2016, Russians smoked liked chimneys in public places, restaurant and bars. Asking a smoker to stop had little or no effect. I occasionally would light up a cigar and join in. I fondly recall having a cigar at the Irish bar in Sheremietovoairport with a Guinness Stout before flying out of the country, back when smoking was allowed. Those were the days. Few believed that this practice would ever end. However, it has. No smoking is allowed in any public places. It’s a fantastic change.

Parking in Moscow is another example. Up until about three years ago, parking was a free-for-all. It was allowed to park anywhere, on sidewalks, in public parks and to double park. Drivers would leave their phone numbers on their dashboards and you’d have to call them up if they blocked you. I still have a piece of paper in my car with my mobile phone number printed on it. The double parking, especially by very important persons (anyone with a large black SUV or expensive sedan and a driver) would cause traffic jams all over the city. It was, however, convenient and free. A place to park could almost always be found and if worse came to worse, you could leave your car standing in the middle of the street. Everybody did it.

Those days are gone. Parking is only allowed in specially marked areas and the parking regulations are enforced by large, green tow trucks called evacuators (‘evakuatory’). These trucks mean business. They quickly remove improperly parked cars. Some parking spots aren’t marked at all and a driver who has parked in a certain place for years might suddenly find an empty space where his or her car once stood. An army of people on foot can be seen walking around the city in special uniforms, taking pictures of parked cars with computer tablets to make sure that everyone has paid for their parking. Anyone illegally parked or failing to pay the parking fee gets an email and needs to pay a fine. Parking has become an important source of income for Moscow city government, in some ways more lucrative than revenue from small business, making it a mixed blessing in the opinion of many.

At about the time that parking regulations were being enforced, another change came about; the removal of 20-foot shipping containers used as parking places in the courtyards of Moscow’s apartment buildings. In our own courtyard, about a dozen of our neighbors put shipping containers in various places in the courtyard, providing them with a dry place to park their cars. The rest of us had to park in the open elements on a first come, first serve basis. The owners of these containers claimed that they had special documentation, authorizing the use of their containers. Mostly, their documentation was bogus but it was a widespread practice. Everybody did it. We lived with it. One of our neighbors put a shlagbaum, or barrier, in front of his container and after that, he ran an electric wire from his apartment just above us on the fifth floor, down to his container. The wire ran right in front of our kitchen window. When it rained, the wire would spark. No one could park in, or in front of, his shipping container and he could sit inside and watch TV, when it wasn’t raining.

One day, the evacuators showed up and removed all the containers in our courtyard. Some of our neighbors got wind of evacuators on the horizon and took their containers away beforehand. They were conscious of their special places. Nowadays, the apartment courtyards are valuable pieces of real estate.  With permission from the city, a shlagbaum can be placed at the entrance to the entire courtyard and only the inhabitants of the apartments at that courtyard can get inside. We’ve just gotten permission from the city for a shlagbaum at our apartment building. Last week I went through it and entered the inner sanctum for the first time. Any outsider scum who need a place to park will have to find a spot on the street and pay for it.

In this country, a low profile is often called for when having a normal conversation. This is another way of being a nail that doesn’t stick up. I’ve been told to keep my voice down when talking about such subjects as money or my American nationality, even though no fascists, chekists or neighbors are anywhere within hearing distance. I call this practice being a ‘partisan’. It seems like a good idea although I am not sure why. Perhaps, instinctively, the Russians know it’s best to keep their skills as partisans up to scratch. Someday, they might need them. It’s happened before.

RussiaKnowledge©Daniel Brooks

1 July 2018