NOTES FROM THE PHONE GULAG
"WOULD YOU PLEASE REPEAT THAT?" screams the woman who has answered the phone. "I'M WRITING ABOUT TELECOMMUNICATIONS IN RUSSIA," I respond. "I'LL CALL BACK." I do so. The line is better the second time. After a few seconds, though, I get disconnected. This happens again on the third try. Next come nine tries and nine busy signals. Finally, I get through and stay on--long enough to learn that the person I want isn't in. Could I please try calling again later?
No problem. In Russia, such episodes are a routine part of the working day. The office I'm calling this time--the business consultancy arm of Ernst & Young--is right across town. As I make other calls in pursuit of my story, my own phone log looks something like this:
1. Call to Kiev, Ukraine, site of an upcoming communications conference. I try 22 times before I get an intercity dial tone. (Though a separate country, Ukraine is still reached by intercity lines.) When I finally make the connection, it isn't bad, but the person I want is in a meeting. The next time, I get the intercity dial tone on the 13th try, after 8 busy signals, 3 dead silences, and 1 unannounced entry into someone else's conversation.
2. Call to the American embassy in Moscow. The embassy has nine listed numbers. (The local network can't handle "hunting," or assigning calls to available lines through an organization's central number.) I dial eight of them before getting through, but loud bleeps begin to blot out parts of the conversation. I hang up and dial all nine numbers several times before getting a line. This takes 15 minutes. The conversation then picks up where it left off, without comment.
3. Call to the Communications Ministry. My first three tries yield only static and whistling noises. I'm forced to wait a while before making a fourth try: The phone line has had trouble disengaging from my previous failed attempt. Much picking up and putting down of the receiver. When the dial tone returns, I dial and get whirring noises. Victory comes on the fifth try.
4. Call to the international relations section of the Russian Communications Ministry. I ask for the department head. I request an interview. He agrees. "But in person," he says. "Not on the telephone."Deborah Stead in Moscow