“Nothing is changing,” he said. “And all of them who are stealing from us ordinary people will get away with this.”
Russians consistently cite corruption as one of their nation’s worst problems, so they might have been heartened at the investigations of Defense Ministry executives accused of siphoning off $215 million in property scams, agriculture officials blamed for defrauding the government of $1.3 billion, reports that $200 million has gone missing from the space industry, and more.
But like Tsaturov, many have been watching with some detachment, unsure what set off all the commotion but sadly confident that a settling of scores is taking place high above their heads, that a few mid-level people will take the fall, that none of the well-connected will end up behind bars, and that life will go on pretty much as usual.
The countryside is dotted with shops like Tsaturov’s blue-
painted frame store, emblazoned with the words “Fresh Meat.” It’s so small and so stuffed with tea, coffee, candy, canned tomatoes, cigarettes, beer, bay leaves, kvass (the fermented black-bread drink), dried fish and other last-minute must-haves that only one customer can squeeze in at a time.
The meat — better step back as his dainty wife, Lyudmila, raises her axe and whacks it into bone-splintered pieces — attracts bribe-seekers like packs of hungry hyenas. Salivating traffic police officers stop Tsaturov as he drives his loaded car from the meat factory, he said, asking for $30 to let him pass their post. Health inspectors hover over the counter like flies, demanding $500 a month to keep the store open and the meat certified.
Small-time bribery has been entrenched since czarist times, a way to pay bureaucrats when the state felt too poor to do so. Tsaturov said his modest operation barely feeds his family, but that makes no difference. He is expected to pay, in the same way that a more-profitable operation nearby does — making illegal alcohol they call Scotch. “It’s an affront to Scotland,” Tsaturov said.
His complaints to police were ignored, Tsaturov said. “They tell me, ‘Is it such a big deal to give the traffic police 1,000 rubles?’ ” Once, when he persisted, they grew angry and began threatening to open a slander case against him if he didn’t shut up, he said.
“I live in fear,” Tsaturov said. “I don’t know what might happen to me or my family.”
A poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that citizens were widely aware of the latest investigations but divided about the motivation, with 45 percent saying that the reason was an internal fight at the top and an equal number deciding that Putin was following through on campaign promises to fight corruption.