Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
~ Herodotus (I know… I was surprised too)
A lawyer-type classmate of my sister’s (who I suspect is firing on a few too many cylinders) was recently posted to Russia and sent in some impressions of the country to his friends and colleagues. Among these, he confessed to being really taken aback that a letter posted to him from Western Europe took almost 21 days to reach him in Moscow.
Myself, I was astonished that no one at his fancy-schmansy legal outfit had seen fit to warn him that, along with trolleybuses and the 10 pm evening news on TV, foreigners (and quite a few Russians) just ignore the postal system here. Not in any kind of morally outraged, angst-fueled boycott or anything, but rather as something we’ve given up long ago as antiquated, inefficient, and irrelevant. As a recent article in The Moscow Times pointed out, if you want something in Russia, you need to hand-carry it in. An example: I forgot my battery charger for my digital camera in the US when I came over a few weeks ago. The first thing I did was to send out a note on Facebook to figure out which of my friends was next coming over from the US to Russia, and then asked a neighbor to send her the battery. I’ll have it next week. It did not occur to me to ask my neighbor to post it to Russia, and, as I’m on an austerity budget, there is no way I could afford the cost (four figures) of having it shipped via DHL, FedEx or UPS.
“I can always tell when you are coming home,” says my mother, “when the UPS man comes three times a day.” And so he does, along with Chet the Mailman, and the tough cookie FedEx woman, bringing clothing, and books, and sheets, and towels and obscure pieces of kitchen equipment, and label maker tape and all kinds of things you can’t easily or cheaply access in Russia. Then, I pack them in my TUMI bags and head over to Russia.
Such as it is, then, Russia’s postal service was founded more than 300 years ago by…guess whom? Peter The Great, of course! In 1693, Peter ordered the first regular postal service to support (of course) the naval shipyard at Archangelsk, and the State Duma inaugurated the Day of the Postal Service in 1994.
About three years ago, I began to get a whiff of what seemed to me to be a concerted effort by the Russian Government to beef up the post office service. It was almost as if someone at the top had seen that cheesy film with Kevin Costner “The Postman” (because they don’t strike me as the types to curl up with Il Postino) and said “First tier nations have a decent postal service… do something about it!”
Here were the hints: Andrei Kazmin, (who looks more like a rodent than any of the other oligarchs) the former head of Sberbank (the National Savings Bank) was put in charge of the Post Office, suggesting that either he had really screwed up or reform might be in the wind. Next, you started to see commercials on television for the Russian Postal Service: wildly improbable, slightly unfocused scenes of sun-drenched (so likely) kitchens and fit and happy families overjoyed to be receiving newspapers, letters, cards, parcels from a jolly Slavic version of Chet The Mailman who they just let in their back door, which, needless to say, is the kind of thing that happens every day in Russia. It was clearly a PR campaign, because, of course, the Russian Postal Service doesn’t compete directly with anyone. About this time, I got into it, and wrote a column about how easy it was to walk in and buy post cards and stamps, encouraging a very skeptical HRH and his parents to send Velvet some mail at boarding school. I’m afraid that they’ve been proven right: Mr. Kazmin has stepped down and the Gorgans who run the post office have gone back to snapping your head off when you ask for international post card stamps.
If you ask me (and no one ever ever ever does) if Dmitry Medvedev is really serious about beefing up Russia’s economy, he ought to put Skolkovo on the back burner and beef up the catalog mail order business: I know for a fact that Russians are wild for LL Bean, Lands End, Eddie Bauer, Hannah Andersson, Eileen Fisher and that ilk. I know because I’ve spent the last 17 years lugging that kind of stuff over here, which I would love to stop doing someday.
Compare Russia and the US on post office statistics:
In 2009, the USPS handled 177 billion pieces of mail, compared to Russia’s 1.01 billion. The Russian Postal Service employs 390,000 people, and the USPS 596,000. Russia uses 450 postal vans, 17,000 vehicles and more than 360 flights, whereas the USPS deploys 218, 684 vehicles.
And, as Barack Obama will tell you, USPS is hurting.
This post is part of The Stunt.
Hello there Readers!
What do you think about the postal service where you live? Is it efficient, or are you outraged by it? Have you had any experience with Russia’s postal system, or did you sensibly just give that one a miss? Thank you, as ever, for joining me on this romp through Russia’s professional holidays. If you found the state Russia’s postal system depressing, perhaps some more upbeat posts are in order. Try these: