Letter Writing

Daniel Brooks

In Russia, anyone can write a letter to the authorities, making a complaint about roads, crime or the disliked deeds of unliked neighbors. This right is laid out on a web site named http://services.government.ru/letters/. It shows how the letter should be written and to whom it can be addressed. Other, similar sites show how to send letters to individual officials in the Russian government, the Prosecutor’s office and local government. Such letters can be written and signed by a group of people. These are known (naturally) as ‘collective letters’.  Every letter, written in the correct way, will receive an answer in writing. The person accused has the right to make a statement in response. Some of these statements are written down long hand, with a pen, those things that have ink inside them. Russians are still taught how to write long hand, a dying art. Perhaps, it’s needed, in part for such documents as these.

Russia is known for its terrible roads. Napolean said, in Russia there are no roads – only directions. Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin dreamed of good roads coming to Russia 500 years after Napoleon’s era. While roads have dramatically improved in Russia, thanks in part to periodic events such as the Olympics and World Cup, Russia’s roads need work. Moreover, there aren’t enough of them. According to experts, Russia needs 1.5 million kilometers of roads but has 904,700 km of them, of which about 19% are unpaved.

When we drive from Moscow to my dacha, we take the Nova Riga highway. It’s wonderful, repaved often with black asphalt that quickly wears out. While in Moscow Oblast, or region, the pavement brings joy. They worsen the closer we get to our dacha. We pass the Rubicon when we enter Tver Oblast, the biggest Oblast in the country, where the pot holes multiply. Finally, we arrive at a dacha where driving faster than 100 km per hour on the main roads isn’t a good idea because they aren’t flat. Instead, they are wavy, like a choppy sea.

When we bought our dacha, our village had the worst road ever. It was beyond description. We were proud of that road as were our neighbors who felt that Muscovites, such as ourselves, were kept out. It had a deep rut that filled with water every spring, rising up past the engine block of cars having the temerity to drive through it. I thought nothing could be worse, but I was wrong. A friend of mine has a dacha in a village with a road leading to it several kilometers long through a bog. For years, it was unpassable in places by the biggest SUVs, especially in the spring. The village had a tractor that would haul cars out. When my friend told stories about his road, he won bragging rights hands down.

Both of us eventually fixed our roads. I did it by collecting some money from our neighbors and selling our 1998 Land Cruiser for an exorbitant amount. The Land Cruiser was no beauty, but it went to a good cause. It is transmogrified into a flat, gravel road.

My friend’s road got fixed because his mother-in-law knew better. She wrote letters. For several years, she wrote letter after letter to the nearest municipal authorities, officials at the oblast, or regional, level and eventually to the Prime Minister and President. With each one, she would quote other letters that had made unkept promises. She threatened law suits, bad publicity and the threat this road posed to the half dozen elderly pensioners living in her remote and mostly abandoned village, about three hours from Moscow by car. Eventually, concerned responses were sent. Initially, the authorities asked her to stop writing letters and promised road repair the following season. There were vague threats. This led to an intensification of letter writing. Nowadays, the village does have a new road, put in by the government, elevated to take the three or four cars in the village safely past the bog. It was a victory of letter writing and my friend didn’t pay out a single rouble. Now his road is better than ours, giving him bragging rights once again.

Every letter sent by a Russian citizen to any Russian authority will eventually be answered, in some form or another. This gives the letter writer a warm feeling, like swimming in a wet suit, something no one cares about. The letter can contain almost any allegations the writer wants to make. I know of a situation in our dacha when a neighbour cranked up patriotic marching music full blast because someone nearby was having a big party in their back yard. The neighbour told the police she had been threatened with murder after one of the party goers chucked her out, using colourful Russian swear words. The murder charge was written down on a form, as was a rebuttal by the inebriated neighbour. Both documents were written in long hand using a pen by the police and went into a big file somewhere, where responses to letters go, there to collect dust. Afterwards, the police officer complained of having a sore hand from writing down complaints all day long.

Letter writing is gratifying because it seems to produce results, although the effect might have nothing to do with the cause. We have an apartment on one of Moscow’s main roads leading to the centre. Someone I know very well has an apartment one floor below us. For many years, in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, when Moscow was more chaotic than it is now, two or three prostitutes would stand out on the street below our apartment and offer their services at all hours. Car after car would pull up and the prostitutes would negotiate the price, leaning into an open door. More often than not, the car doors would be slammed shut and the potential clients would drive away, no deal done. Sometimes, the prostitutes would land a fare, but not often. At the time, we had old wooden windows in our building that would ‘breathe’, meaning they didn’t keep out the sound very well. We could hear the prostitutes out there, talking, yelling at their customers. It drove our elderly neighbour up the wall.

The neighbour began a letter writing campaign to the city and national government. Her efforts were incessant. Each letter was registered at the post office and in time, she’d get an answer. One day, the prostitutes were gone. We will never know conclusively whether the letters did the trick. The neighbour believes her letters worked.  Maybe they did. In any event, the effort seemed gratifying.

Letter writing allows the Russian authorities to give people the belief that they have some recourse to shape events in their country. From time to time, such letters come in handy. It also can set people against each other. The neighbours in our village should pull together and pressure the Russian authorities to fix up our road, at taxpayer expense. Instead, some of them are writing letters and going after one another. I would think this suits the Russian authorities just fine.

I once witnessed a letter writing campaign first-hand, the outcome of a feud between neighbours in a certain village. The complaint was made by someone who had a personal grudge against a neighbour, a phenomenon that seems to take place in small villages the world over. The neighbour had drilled a well without getting a permit beforehand, something required by law but mostly ignored. The letter writer notified the local officials and inspectors came. Afterwards, the neighbour paid a small fine for not getting a permit to drill the well in advance. The initial letter led to a pile of papers being produced that was about an inch thick. After payment of the fine, everything went into an archive and there it sits.

Imagine the volume of letters pouring into the Russian government from around the country from people of all ages and walks of life. Each of them produces a file that is stacked up somewhere in an archive. While some of these letters might be trivial, these are the outpourings of complaints by the people who write them. There most of them sit, collecting dust. Where are those archives? What stories are in them? We may never find out. Add it to one of Russia’s mysteries inside an enigma.

The authorities can tell a letter writer that the case is closed, and letters written from then on will be disregarded. One wonders how this works in practice. The Prosecutor’s office at the local level might make such a statement but how will the President’s office know about it? My bet is that once letter writers begin, they just keep going.

I’m not sure I would like to be the government official who has to answer all these complaints in writing. I once met someone in a local government office who was handling a response to a letter. His was bored and frustrated.  When I asked him for advice about writing letters to the government, he said the person who writes the letter needs to take care. Often, the writer is the one who is inspected and fined by the authorities and not the other way around. As is often the case in Russia, things are solved in a case by case base. What is written down might end up in an archive. Then again, it might not.

RussiaKnowledge©Daniel Brooks