Tax Day in the USA, and I don’t mind telling you I feel exceptionally smug, having slid my mustard-colored envelopes, marked with how much postage to pay from my wonderful new CPA into the mail box a whopping 24 hours before the deadline.
This is a phenomenal feeling – albeit an expensive one – someone who knows what they are doing, has done your taxes, got it right, told you how much postage to pay, and you get the return in on time. It opens up a host of possibilities. One can look Officer Nobel of the TSA square in the eye, in the sure and certain knowledge that you ARE paying his salary. One feels marginally less guilty about asking the stalwart librarians at Forbes to track down the 1923 edition of Queen Marie of Romania’s autobiography; and I, for one, plan to give Scott Brown a piece of my mind, if I should ever meet him. This is on a par with that blissful moment they call you from the OBGYN’s office and tell you chirpily in their flat vowels that “everything checked out great, Jen” in regards to your latest scary over forty test.
“Phew,” you think, “That’s great. For today, at least, I can rest easy.”
Peace of mind on this scale regarding taxes in Russia never comes this cheap, and there is never a total certainty such as I had at the Easthampton Post Office, that you’ve done your civic duty to the letter. The minute that statue of Felix Derzherinsky, founder of the KGB, which loomed menacingly over Lubyanka Square was pulled down along with the Berlin Wall, a new and far more nebulous demon took over: The Tax Inspectors. Formerly the Tax Police, this huge, paramilitary organization is today a branch of the Russian Ministry For Internal Affairs, which makes them a first cousin of the present-day KGB and the notorious Traffic Cops. It’s a shared skill set. I always picture this organization as the lidless eye of Sauron in The Lord of Rings. I picture them inhabiting a dark tower in a barren landscape like Sauron, when in actual fact they are headquartered in a delightfully proportioned Stalin-era building on The Garden Ring. I researched their web site for this post and I can say that they have a complete list of the weapons they use, but no hotline or website help about how to file your taxes correctly.
From the beginning of my time in Russia, taxes were the ominous cloud in everyone’s sky – sometimes only a distant smudge on the horizon, sometimes a noxious and pervasive fug that threatened imminent deluge. The Yeltsin years saw everyone try – and epically succeed — in avoiding paying tax: understandable since post-perestroika rates ran about 3000% on income and profit. Then Mr. Putin came on board, lowered the tax rate to 13% (Thank you Mr. Putin!) but made it abundantly clear that taxes should be paid, paid in full, paid on time, and paperwork (which makes War & Peace look like a haiku) lodged correctly. The Big Four, which was then The Big Five, made an obscene fortune charging frightened foreigners gazillion dollars an hour to explain the tax laws to them. Accountants were the most powerful people in companies (I was so frightened of the bulldozer called Olga who performed this service at my company, that I used to throw up before our meetings). Heads rolled over taxes. The richest man in Russia was sent to Gulag 2.0 Siberia: a new twist on an old formula. Taxes are the new Terror.
I just finished "The Whisperers" by Orlando Figes, which is a very chilling (read -40 degrees below zero) look at family and personal life during Stalin’s Terror.
“It was so depressing…I could not put it down,” I told the distracted person on my left at a dinner party. He seemed baffled, but that is how it was. It gave me a whole bunch of insight into lots of things I hadn’t given enough thought to: like why old ladies in Russia never look you in the eyes, why no one takes any personal responsibility for anything, and why public servants don’t act as if you paid their salaries, but rather as if they had a license to fleece you further.
I hadn’t given the Terror much thought for quite some time. It is not my period for a start (I’m an 1825 – 1918 gal) and of course, it is not remotely amusing. I’m not sure I’ll want to revisit it anytime soon, but my head is full of it at the moment. One thing the book really drove home was the mood of the time: people living numbly knowing that the NKVD could turn up at any moment of the night, how they kept suitcases to the ready, and disappeared in the Black Marias off to Gulag 1.0.
I made my way through the book, as one drawn to pick off a scab: despite the pain, the challenge of painstakingly maneuvering the fingernail under the rough leathery ridge of the scab, then the uneasy flirtation of easing the scab up, millimeter by incredibly painful millimeter. You know that pain will follow pain, but you keep peeling back the scab, finally feeling the rush of adrenaline when the air prickles the raw pus beneath.
It was that kind of read.
But tonight, at least, I shall sleep easy.