Normally, you wouldn’t catch me laughing when a building goes up in flames. Yet when it was reported that packages inside the central office of Pochta Rossii, Russia’s beleaguered national postal service, were on fire today – I couldn’t suppress a rueful giggle. At the very least, the fire was put out quickly and there were no victims. Unless you count Pochta Rossii’s dignity.
Pochta Rossii just can’t win. I know this, because I know what it’s like to be their customer. This spring, I was still getting Christmas cards sent by friends and relatives in the US and Canada. Sent in December, that is.
A baby book sent to my son from Toronto once took roughly four months to arrive – and that’s not even a horror story. When you consider how badly Pochta Rossii is doing, we could have gotten that baby book when my son was ready to graduate high school.
In April, the backlog of international packages in Moscow was so enormous that the Pochta Rossii chief was fired on the spot. However, there is little hope that firing one person will magically turn the postal service into an efficient enterprise.
There is a simple lack of professionalism on all levels of the postal service. There is also the fact that any potential reform at Pochta Rossii will not be possible without reform at the customs service, for one thing. Last year, I spoke with a customs official who was eager to promote reform. “Of course, new reforms have nothing to do with people who are just concerned with getting their bags and packages in and out of the country! No, that’s small stuff!” he told me excitedly.
“But for most people, their personal bags and packages are kind of a big deal,” I countered meekly.
“Well, we understand that,” he said. “But to be honest, we have to make sure that businesses can have it easier first. The reform has to start somewhere, might as well start with them.”
At least the customs service has its priorities clear. I’m not sure that anything is clear over at Pochta Rossii. In fact, I keep having disturbing visions of Russian postal workers drinking peyote and throwing darts at pictures of the DHL and FedEx CEOs as they consider their future.
When I first moved to Moscow, I once had an argument with a postal worker who snapped at me when I was trying to fill out a form. As a new, naïve resident of Moscow, I told her very angrily that she should be ashamed of herself. “This is how you will end up losing customers to the likes of DHL!” I said.
“Hah. What do I care about DHL?” she replied. “What do I care about my customers? If I cared about every single one of you, it would destroy my health!”
I wanted to tell her that she was setting up a false dichotomy, but then I realized that this was a certain corporate culture I was dealing with, as opposed to an individual problem.
Before the flames at the Pochta Rossii office were put out today, some of my friends were already wondering whether or not postal workers set the packages on fire themselves – just to avoid having to process and deliver them. It’s a fun conspiracy theory, but it also doesn’t seem so outlandish for a disorganized organization whose employees frequently don’t know what it is they are doing.
Still, Pochta Rossii does have one serious problem it’s ready to tackle – the problem of people recording videos or taking pictures in their branches. Just a few months ago, a corporate memo was circulated on the Internet, explaining how postal workers must immediately turf out anyone who dares to record what happens inside the post office. The official reason that postal workers were told to give was “privacy reasons.”
I suppose that it’s one way of dealing with rudeness and inefficiency – pretending it doesn’t exist. You know how the old Internet saying goes: “Pics or it didn’t happen.”
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.