Joshua Tucker: As the Sochi Olympics continue, so does our companion Monkey Cage series of Russian politics-related posts. Today we bring you Columbia University political scientist and Director of the Harriman Institute for Russia, Eurasian and East European Studies, Timothy Frye, on Russia’s culture of corruption. Previous posts from this series can be found below.


A central theme of the Sochi Olympics has been the cost. When applying to hold the Olympic Games in 2007, President Vladimir Putin noted that the total cost of hosting the games would be around $12 billion, or roughly 50 percent more than the 2004 games in Vancouver. This figure has flown north of $50 billion, and while cost over-runs on the Olympic Games are common, the more than four-fold increase is large by comparison to past Games. Many point to corruption. Inflated costs, kickbacks to state officials to secure contracts and the use of generous subsidies to politically connected firms have all been the subject of discussion. The fact that the head of the state agency in charge of construction at the Games has been replaced four times in six years — with each dismissal followed by charges of embezzlement and abuse of office — doesn’t inspire confidence.

In many respects, this is not unusual for capital-intensive infrastructure projects in Russia. In a nice paired comparison, the World Bank estimates that it costs three to six times more to build a road on the Russian side of the border than on the Finnish side despite the similarities in climate. Many argue that given this pervasiveness of bribery, Russia has developed a culture of corruption that has made bribe-giving and bribe-taking broadly accepted. Few doubt that paying bribes to police, doctors, state officials (and yes, professors) is common. Indeed, that 30 Duma deputies divorced their wives shortly before new legislation took effect that would compel them to reveal the size of their spouse’s income gives some sense of the problem.

But does rampant bribe-giving make the practice more socially acceptable? As tales of bribes to police to avoid traffic tickets or provide protection from street crimes are commonplace, Lauren McCarthy, Noah Buckley and I focused on the normative acceptance of paying bribes to police. In a survey of 1,600 Moscow residents in 2011, we randomly assigned slightly different questions to respondents to try to identify some conditions under which bribery may be seen as acceptable. We found that telling respondents that a new police officer in Moscow makes about $1,000 a month (or a little more than half of the average salary in Moscow) did not make respondents more likely to say that bribe-taking was acceptable. This is not consistent with the view that it is acceptable to give bribes to public servants because their pay is so low.

We also found evidence that the scale of corruption had little impact on the normative acceptance of bribery. We said “it is sometimes the case that the police ask businesspeople for small informal “contributions” to protect their business from street crime. Do you think that this can be justified?” We then asked the same question but replaced “small” with “large” informal contributions and found almost no difference in the responses. On a five-point scale (where 1 = yes and 5 = no), the responses were 4.17 and 4.18 respectively. Overall, what strikes us is the low percentage of those agreeing that bribes to the police are acceptable — even when we nudge respondents in various ways and give them reasons to answer otherwise.

We also used a special technique (an item count) to elicit more truthful answers about whether respondents had paid a bribe to the police in the last 12 months. We found that those who had paid bribes to the police not only exhibited lower levels of trust in the police but also showed less trust in the parliament and the government, which suggests the power of the spillover effect of bribery on trust in other political institutions. Perhaps the best evidence of Russians’ disapproval of corruption is the rise of Alexei Navalny (see picture above), who became one of Russia’s most prominent opposition politicians largely on the back of his anti-corruption efforts. While Russians may pay bribes, they don’t like it.


Previous posts from our Sochi-companion Russian politics series: