Several weeks of high-profile probes leave many Russians thinking those at the top are only getting back at one another. (ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

From his tiny shop on a highway 20 miles southeast of Moscow, Valery Tsaturov listens to daily reports of a national fight against corruption with a mixture of anger and skepticism.

The headline-grabbing charges of high-level official misconduct began a few weeks ago, and President Vladimir Putin recently said that the battle would certainly extend to the everyday bribes that average people pay to keep their lives running smoothly. The news, Tsaturov said, has not reached the traffic police officers and health inspectors who prey on him in this society permeated with corruption.

“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.

Small-time bribery

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.

Tsaturov contends that it is impossible for Putin to fight corruption because government is based on loyalty, which is rewarded by enrichment opportunities. If high-level officials are prosecuted, they and their allies would turn on the president, and the whole system would be in danger of collapsing.

Pervasive problem

The Indem Foundation, a think tank that prepared a report last year for the Ministry of Economic Development, found that bribes are most often paid to the traffic police (about $800 million a year) and by parents applying for child care or kindergarten spots. But the greatest volume goes to the health-care system — about $1.2 billion a year in small payments.

Vladimir Rimsky, an Indem sociologist who worked on the report, said such pervasive bribery is having a pernicious effect. For instance, students pay bribes to clear an exam or win a diploma. Two university professors in Moscow were recently accused of guaranteeing that a graduate student would successfully defend his thesis and get his degree for a payment of $40,000.

Russia has a high traffic fatality rate, with about 28,000 traffic deaths last year among a population of about 142 million. The United States, with 311 million people, had about 32,300 fatalities.

Officials blame poor-quality driving schools, instead of investigating reports that the vast majority of drivers have to pay bribes to get their license, offering little incentive to learn how to drive.

“The traffic agency is not an organization of road police,” Rimsky said. “It’s a service with privileges to get bribes from drivers.”

Russians know a bribe is the price for fast paperwork at the passport office, the best treatment at the doctor’s office, quick repairs from the building superintendent. Of course, they try to avoid paying when they can.

On one vacation, Alla Tkach, a bookstore manager in the city of Izhevsk, drove hundreds of miles to a modest resort on Russia’s Black Sea coast and was forced to pay $200 in bribes to the traffic police along the way. This year, she gave up, taking a $300 charter flight to Barcelona instead. Spain, she said, was fabulous.

Tsaturov, 60, and his wife built their house themselves in the hamlet of Timonino, a short walk from their store. The warm and hospitable Tsaturov refuses to allow a visitor to leave without lunch. With his wife at work, he washes his hands and holds them, dripping, in the air, sure he has seen a towel somewhere, before beginning to grill skewers of meat. He had bought glasses for the occasion, which he ceremoniously removed from their box and filled with kvass.

“I wish one day Russia could become a democracy,” Tsaturov said, imagining a country that listened to its citizens and took corruption seriously. “If only we could see such happiness.”