Moscow. I have been standing in line at a hotel check-in counter for five minutes, while three women do nothing behind the desk. When one of them glances at me at last, she says, "This office does not work."
A perfect description of the Soviet System -- and its hotels.
After more than a dozen years of dealing with the Soviet system, I think I've discovered its biggest problem: Everyone is an official. The women at the check-in counter, for example: In the West, they would be hotel employees whose job is to make the guests feel welcome and wanted by getting them into a room as quickly as possible. In the Union, they are guardians of the scarce resources of the State, one of the scarcest being hotel rooms.
When one of the women finishes her chat, I hand her my passport and visa and a voucher showing that I have paid in advance. She studies these documents with care that would shame a border guard. Am I worthy of a room? Can I prove it to her? Clearly, she doubts it.
But after due consideration she hands my passport and visa to her compatriot in the next chair for entry into the hotel's register of foreigners. To me she hands a hotel card with a room number on it and says, "Key," nodding toward the far end of the reception desk. I take the card and present it to the woman there. She searches the rack under the desk and hands me a key.
Perestroika is bringing substantial changes to the U.S.S.R. The hotels are getting better. The old ways are definitely dying; but they die hard. People do try, God bless them; but the old ways die hard. Once you've been an official, it's not easy to be anything else.
There is a method for dealing with Soviet officialdom. Actually, there are several methods. The best one is to Be Somebody, but that's not open to most of us. The woman at the check-in counter, after all, decides who is Somebody.
Second best is to kill her with friendliness. The woman who couldn't care less whether you stay in her hotel tonight, because she doesn't know you, will do anything for you if you are inside her circle. But how to get there?
Sometimes it's easy. That throwaway travel kit the airline gave you on the flight into Moscow: You have a dozen of them by now. Who needs another miniature tube of toothpaste and bottle of body lotion? Every woman in Russia, that's who. "By the way, could you use this?" you ask as she studies your voucher.
This is not a bribe. It's friendliness. She will understand this. Soviet friendships already have a large element of mutual aid built into them: It's Us against the System. One friend can get theater tickets, another has access to mayonnaise. The system doesn't work, so self-help groups spring up to make life a little easier.
We're not necessarily talking about personal friendship here. The Soviets, like probably everybody else in the world, have a concept that could be better expressed as "friendly relations" than "friendship." They may say of someone that he or she is svoi chelovek -- "my person" -- rather than "my friend." You may in fact find real friendship; but the first stage is to establish friendly relations.
Sometimes even this isn't easy. Soviet indifference can go well beyond the passive "don't give a damn" stage, to active indifference that isn't often seen in the West -- not real hostility, but a blank wall that is moved to head off attempts to get around it.
A friend I often travel with conducts elaborate campaigns to overcome the active indifference. I've never seen him fail, although positive results may take weeks of effort spread over several trips to Moscow.
Why bother? Because life on the road, like life everywhere, consists of a lot of small contacts with a fairly limited number of people, and the friendlier the contacts are, the better life seems.
The most important contacts, for better or worse, may be with people behind hotel desks. So even if you don't have several trips to work on friendly relations, it's always worth trying.
His rules are simple.
First, act as if you and your adversary are friends, even if she's determined to show that you're not. You become what you pretend to be. Say some friendly words. If you don't speak Russian, say some friendly words in English. And smile.
Americans tend to think that a smile will get a smile in return. Not in Russia, it won't. Russians do not smile officially. People who smile in the course of a business transaction are considered to be not serious. And renting a hotel room is a business transaction.
But don't give up. Russians, in spite of tradition, are suckers for a persistent smile.
I watched my friend work on a woman who rented Intourist cars to foreigners at a hotel service bureau. Every day he hired a car, and every day he opened the negotiation with a variation on the same phrase: "Now smile! It's a great day in Moscow!"
It took at least a month of cajoling, spread over several different trips; but she gave in at last. He came to her desk one morning and a wonderful happy smile spread over her face. He was in.
The downside -- if it was one -- was that from then on she always wanted to spend 15 minutes talking over the day's events before he got his car. They gossiped while others waited.
It was worth 15 minutes to him. "It keeps me in touch with the people," he says, "and now I can always get a car."
The second rule is to carry gifts. Gifts, as noted above, are not bribes. They are a sign that you recognize you are dealing with a person and not a function. They get you into a group.
The gifts don't have to be expensive. Airline travel kits are fine. Lipsticks are wonderful. Western fashion magazines are every Soviet woman's dream. (The "officials" you deal with in these matters, incidentally, are always women; men may manage the hotel, or may not -- a lot of hotel administrators are women -- but women staff the desk.)
Books used to be the gift of choice for some women -- anything from pop romances to great authors -- because nothing that anyone wanted to read was being published in Russia.
This made for a certain efficiency in packing: I could take along a book to read and pass it on when I had finished it. But in the last three years, so many new books have been coming off the Russian presses (including works long suppressed) that no one can keep up with them. As a Russian friend said to me, "There's so much to read, there's no time to live!" Consequently, books are not the treasure they used to be.
You'll have three lines of contact in the hotel. These are administration (check-in and check-out, bill payment, passport control and key); the floor lady; and the service bureau. All are vital to your well-being.
Administration is the least of your worries -- but not a small one. I've tried to check in at a Moscow hotel where I had a confirmed reservation, paid in advance, only to be kept waiting for two hours and finally sent to another hotel where I waited for two more hours before getting a room.
Intourist tends to treat all its hotels as interchangeable, even when one's in the center of the city and the other is five miles out. So be nice to the lady at check-in this trip; you may need a friend next time.
But still, administration is a three-contact event: checking in, getting your passport back (they keep it overnight for registration) and checking out. It can be no fun; but it's not a daily annoyance.
If you ever want to extend your stay at the hotel, though, you'll desperately want a chelovek on the inside.
These days, all hotels in the major cities are booked to capacity. When you first raise the question of extending your stay, you'll get the first answer every Russian official thinks of: nevozmozhno. ("Impossible.") Persistence makes all things possible; but friendly relations make them easier.
The floor lady you definitely want to be your chelovek. Hers is a traditional Russian position that's being phased out in the more progressive hotels; but if she's on your floor, you need her help. She works a 24-hour shift, watching over all functionings of the whole floor.
Thirsty? She'll make tea for you. Did your alarm clock break? She'll wake you. Most important of all, she'll get your laundry done -- usually without breaking any buttons. (Lately, though, she'll probably want to be paid in cigarettes or dollars. The ruble, never real money in the rest of the world, isn't real money now in a Moscow hotel, either.)
But, unless you have your own Moscow office, it's the service bureau that goes farthest to determine your quality of life as a business traveler.
These are the women who get you a car and driver, send your faxes, make your dinner reservations outside the hotel, make a quick call to confirm an appointment even though that's not their job. The difference between their unconcern and their cooperation is the difference between a relatively easy stay and a painful slog through the trenches of officialdom.
Be forewarned, however: Even friendly relations may not be enough to make the service bureau efficient.
Historically the Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel service bureau has been good and helpful, the Kosmos has been worthless. For instance, at the Kosmos you have to reserve a car a day ahead of time, and then you may or may not get it. Extra effort can make a difference, but not always of the kind you want.
I stayed at the Kosmos several years ago during one of the periodic peace conferences the Soviet government used to put on. For a week the Kosmos was inhabited not only by tourists and business travelers, but by several dozen film stars and minor politicians, invited to talk about world peace. For that week, anything you wanted was available. Need a car a half-hour from now? It's yours. Need a telephone call made? Let me help you.
Then the movie stars left, and it was the old Kosmos again. Worse yet, the women in the service bureau -- worn out by the exertion and spoiled by the attention of the great (even if the names of the great people had never before been heard in the Union) -- had used up their ration of friendliness.
For the next several days, if you needed something, you got it yourself. Not even fashion magazines could move them; they had seen fashion on the hoof. I haven't stayed at the Kosmos since.
William E. Holland is a lawyer with the firm of Chadbourne & Parke in New York.