Rhino's Ramblings: Yalki Palki, Moose Jaw Style


Robert Thomas

Throughout my many travels around what was once the former Soviet Union I would often run into a bureaucratic nightmare and it almost seemed as if the simplest things out there would regularly take forever to get done.

It went way beyond red tape and cumbersome regulations but really was a game where you had to get ingenious to get around what should not be an insurmountable impediment to accomplish your goal. And many times it was just sheer luck you actually got something done.

The book or the law might say one thing but the reality was not even close to such theoretic nonsense.

People who lived in the former Soviet Union even had a special term for it, they called it "Yalki Palki".

I can give you plenty of examples of Yalki Palki but the most graphic one to illustrate the problem involves Canada's embassy in Moscow.

I had to get some papers sworn out at the Embassy and then have the Russian government affix a seal to prove they were genuine then get them back to the Embassy for a final notarization.

It seems like an easy thing; just run them from one office to another, then back again and it's all done. Simplicity couldn't be more entangled in a web of complication.

I remember speaking to the Third Secretary, Manuel Mulas, who told me I could speed the process by taking the papers myself and he gave me a sheet of instructions on how to go from the Embassy to the Russian state office and back again.

So I set out on a journey which first saw me hopping on a tram, arguing with the attendant I was only going one stop, which was free under Russian law. So no I wasn't buying a ticket.

I then cut through a park and down to the great subterranean world which is the Moscow Metro, riding for a kilometre, where you exited and went down one level to where you caught another train for three more stops.

Then you came above ground, where you walked one block through an alley and if you didn't lose your bearings you caught a bus to cross a bridge and then walk two blocks to your final destination.

Of course, I turned the wrong way and found myself in the bad part of the alley and ended up asking a street prostitute for directions. As crazy as it sounds, she eagerly gave me the right ones and to say thanks I gave her pack of Marlboroughs that had cost me a dollar (US funds).

I jumped on the bus, then paid another dollar to ride alongside the Moscow River and then over a bridge to where I started to walk through a commercial district and reached the Russian department of foreign affairs.

Of course, I arrived at lunch time and had an hour to kill as I looked at the line of people wanting documents to have a seal affixed.

I thought "this is stupid, there is no way I am going to make it back to the Embassy before it closes", so I decided to sit down for a sandwich on a bench as it was a nice day.

About a minute later, some Russian guy sat down beside me and started to eat a sandwich, as well. He ended up getting some mayonnaise on his hands I instinctively gave him an extra baby wipe I kept in my satchel or "man purse", to the uninitiated.

He noticed me carrying a file folder and asked if I was coming to get documents certified; when I replied yes he told me to follow him. So thinking he knew someone I could give some good Canadian candy (OK, "grease" if you like) to get to the front of the line, I followed.

There must have easily been 100 people who he just pushed right by, including foreigners holding diplomatic passports, some accompanied by body guards, to get to the office door, where he unlocked it and told everyone to wait as we went inside.

I had unknowingly helped out the very Russian official I needed to see. He quickly examined the document and affixed a hologram seal and wrote it all in a ledger.

And then I exited past two visibly angry American officials who started to ask me how I got to the start of the line, in front of them, because they had clearance from the Russians to be first?

As a joke, I mimicked in a North Dakotan drawl "I'm married to Boris Yeltsin's cousin's niece."

And then the American official replied "I'm sorry, we heard President Yeltsin had some sort of family connection to America. Maybe you can stop in at the Embassy some time?"

All I replied was "maybe", as I pushed past people visibly angry with me for getting in before them.

It was a very hot and muggy day in Moscow so I decided to grab a Coke before I took off. I spotted a street kiosk about 100 yards away and set off for it.

As I waited in line, there about 50 yards away I saw a Canadian flag and you guessed it, the Canadian Embassy.

A Canadian government official had sent me on a wild goose chase for two hours. The veritable scenic route.

As I arrived at the Embassy, outside was Mr Mulas speaking to some young Russian women and so I asked him why did he send me all over the place when I could have simply walked down the block? I also asked him if he had ever taken the same route I had just taken?

All he said was that "no he hadn't", they were simply directions the Russian staff had provided him with. He also let it slip that in three years I was the first person ever to tell him the office he was sending people on a scenic tour to was less than five minutes away. But he would personally insure the directions were corrected by Monday.

For me this was Yalki Palki, Canadian style.  It is hard to describe the feeling and the frustration which came over me when I discovered the bureaucratic nightmare.

Throughout the last few weeks, as I probed into High Street, that entire feeling of frustration I felt in Moscow seemed to be coming from the merchants and businesses affected by Phase Two of the Cast Iron Water Main Replacement Program.

The problem seems so simple: replace underground pipes, fix sidewalks, provide new service connections and pave the road. How hard can it be?

But then things went sideways, as City Council awarded the contract late, due to the Province's unexpected austerity budget and the need to rework the City's budget as a result.

Allegations of a lack of maintenance on the City's waterworks meant non-functioning valves, fire hydrants used for temporary water literally exploding at the bottom when the valve was opened, electrical wires cut that were not initially buried deep enough under sidewalks and schematic drawings not even close to reality.

Necessary valves, allegedly initially incorrectly ordered, not arriving until the last week of October. This after the street had holes dug in it for weeks after the main lines were installed, allegedly further delayed the completion.

Trenching in service connections in November when the weather turned cold simply to beat the November 30th completion deadline, leaving large parts of the road rough throughout the Winter and into Spring. I now hear the deadline was actually October 30th - so who knows?

A seeming lack of communication and an inability to work together between the City and the contractor progressively worsened the situation

Plus communication problems with the High Street business community played a role.

The list goes on and on. These are the things the merchants and business owners told me they heard, saw and watched over days, weeks and finally months. All the while their businesses were financially bleeding.

This, for me, is the antithesis of Yalki Palki, right here in the Friendly City.

And just like that day in Moscow almost two decades ago it took a bit of creativity to finally get this project going again.

All it took was for some ingenious soul to enter the street in a contest and win the "coveted" Canadian Automobile Association's Worst Road in the Province competition, have the provincial media embarrass the City and make it look like Moose Jaw is truly 4 x 4 country or at least as bad as any road in Ukraine, No cash, deteriorating infrastructure and provincial and federal governments simply telling local authorities "we don't want to hear it, it's your problem". The situation is eerily similar.

For me, that day in Moscow only cost me a few hours of my life, unlike the businesses and merchants of High Street who have lost tens of thousands and many literally are teetering on the brink of forever closing their doors. For many, these are businesses that have been here for well over a decade brought down by what they see, justifiably or not, as a run around. Moose Jaw's very own version of Yalki Palki.

A bureaucratic nightmare wrapped up in so many twists and turns its almost unbelievable anything actually got done. When at the same time they spent months looking out their doors knowing there was a much easier solution then the one that was happening.

Now, is there anything the City can do to help out those affected by what was described as a project where anything that could go wrong went wrong? Is it truly a "slippery slope" for the City to do something more than just taking charge? Legally, there might be legislation to protect the City from litigation or financial responsibility from what I'm going to call a debacle but morally and ethically isn't there something which could be done given what's happened?

Perhaps it's time to say damn the legalities.

But then again, with some councillors using the words "slippery slope," are we being told, subliminally, that even our civic leaders don't have faith enough to believe this is not going to happen again?

With that said, is there anything we as just citizens of Moose Jaw could do to help out?

The answer is very simple. Don't abandon High Street and try your best to shop there.

When I was down there recently I saw a sign on one shop window "Parking in The Alley Sorry for the Inconvenience."

Many of the High Street businesses are accessible from Fairford Street on the north or River Street to the south. You can get very close by the Avenues crossing High Street and you won't destroy your vehicle getting down there. You don't need to use High Street to access High Street.

If you are unsure how to access a particular business just pick up the telephone and give them a call. I'm certain they will gladly give you accurate instructions on how to get to their shops.

Others have websites and are very responsive to messages.

As an aside, a few years after my first encounter with Yalki Palki at the Canadian Embassy, I needed further documents authenticated. And once again I was given the same photocopied set of directions on where to receive that Russian state hologram but this time I simply walked down the block and waited two hours in line.

Some days you can't win but here's hoping they do on High Street....