Symbol of Underground Economy : Tipping in Russia Persists Despite Law

Associated Press

The tip a Moscow waiter illegally scoops off the table is symbolic of an underground economy in this Communist country, where money is more often paid to get quality service than to reward it.

For years, Soviets have doled out money or merchandise to grease palms, win favor or merely get an appointment with a good doctor.

Under Communist Party Chief Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the custom has come under fierce attack, but it still appears rife.

"With a full wallet, all things are possible here," a taxi driver said recently as he whisked an American into downtown Moscow from Sheremetyevo Airport.

Driver Wanted Double

The driver wanted double the $6 fare because he was exceeding the 50-m.p.h. speed limit. On the dashboard of his sedan, a plastic sign warned passengers to pay only the fee shown on the meter.

"Extra-fast service means extra money," the cabbie said, the sign notwithstanding.

Since Gorbachev came to power in March, 1985, the Soviet Union has enacted a spate of measures designed to loosen state controls on individual enterprise and provide citizens with increased opportunities to make money.

But simultaneously, the Kremlin has launched an assault on "unearned income" and bribes, which Soviet founder Vladimir I. Lenin labeled one of the chief enemies of socialism.

Few Tips Turned Down

Tips--in Russian, chaevye, or "money for tea"--fall into the illegal category. But few Soviets turn them down when offered, and fewer still are able to explain where tips end and bribes begin.

Dining out is less of a habit among Soviets than among Westerners, and those who eat out usually choose self-service cafeterias over the lines and bribes needed to get into restaurants. Work in service industries is held in low regard, so restaurants tend to attract employees with little education or ambition.

Soviet diners rarely leave tips, and will often wait half an hour for the equivalent of 20 cents or 30 cents change. But waiters have learned to recognize foreigners and their greater propensity for rewarding service.

A Western family recently was admitted to the second-floor dining room of a restaurant in Moscow's Zhdanov neighborhood after the maitre d'hotel, who identified himself as Sergei, learned they were not Soviets.

Wanted Jogging Suit

Sergei was waiting beside the large wooden door as the family emerged. He asked if they enjoyed their dinner.

When they said yes, he asked if they could buy him a Western-style jogging suit, a prestige article of clothing in the Soviet Union.

"You will always find a friendly welcome here," he added, apparently as an incentive.

A. I. Mikhailov, a doctor of legal sciences and a government official, said that Soviets have come to believe that the only way to assure themselves goods and services in a shortage-plagued economy is to offer gifts to those in a position to help.

'Thanks' a Habit

"One can speak about a habit that has become rooted in the past two decades that you absolutely have to give," Mikhailov told the newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya (Soviet Russia), an organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. "And thus, people 'thank' the doctor, the teacher, the supplier.

"If someone does something good for you, simply saying 'thank you' has somehow already become awkward."

The newspaper reported that instances of known bribery of officials has increased 40% over the last three years.

Svetlana, a former Aeroflot stewardess who now works as a Moscow waitress, is paid about $90 a month. She accepts tips she is offered, but has no way of declaring them on her income tax, which is computed on the basis of salary.

For her, all tips thus presumably constitute illegal revenue.

Some Moscow restaurants, such as the National and the Praga, tack on a 4% service charge, apparently as a convenience to their bookkeepers and customers alike.

'13th Month' in Salary

A client who finds fault with the service can object to paying the surcharge, and the waiter or waitress may be deprived of a bonus or of the extra "13th month" in salary that many Soviets are paid.

For many, handing over a few rubles, a bottle of vodka or half a pound of coffee remains the surest way of getting things done.

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