Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hopefully it will be better the second time around…

They have just finished painting our house... again.

Two years ago, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, our house, along with many, many others in Pinsk got its first face lift in probably twenty years. Maybe thirty. All houses in Pinsk, private or state are still basically under the control of the housing authority know here as Doma Provlenye. Yes, these are the same Doma Provlenye people who come after us like Nazis every spring, threatening us to take our garden space away unless we invest some money into upkeep. The reason why things were let go for so long was that before two years ago there was never enough money to do something such as painting houses. Before two or three years ago in fact, there was not enough money to turn on street lights at night, fix potholes in the roads and for sure, to pay people adequate wages. It had been like this since 1991 when the Soviet Union went out of business and it had been even worse, if this is possible, since 1998 when the Russian ruble collapsed taking all connected economies down along with it. So there was never any money to fix anything and the houses sat and aged. The paint pealed, the plaster cracked. The wood in the windows rotted; the floor boards creaked and the mildew spread. And this is how it was.

But two years ago there was that party and the president ordered that no cost be spared in making the place at least look livable again. Machines were bought which filled in the potholes, working crews were equipped with modern machines, the streetlights turned on when it was dark and the old houses were given fresh coats of paint. Ours was one of these and for the first time since I have been here, I actually understood that our house was in fact yellow.

So why, you might be thinking, are they painting the house again? Well, this is a very good question. The surface answer is that they needed to redo the job because all of the paint that they put on the walls two years ago fell off. Well, it didn’t all fall off. Great big chunks of it did; peeling away piece by piece in strong winds, the grey undercoating showing like a run in an old woman's stockings.

There is a word in Russian: Stidna. Stidna basically means embarrassment or shameful. Kak te nye stidna? is a familiar Russian phrase (how are you not an embarrassment?), and this is what both our house and the people who painted our house have been for more than a year now, since their original paint job began to fail. Stidna. Certainly the reason for the peeling was that either too little or no undercoating was used or that vastly inferior materials were purchased. And this would absolutely be par for the course out here. But from my perspective there is always another question to be asked when one sees something terribly amiss: Were the people who screwed up guilty or just plain stupid? This was the question I asked quite often by the way during the early parts of my stay in Poland; in the case of the cop the answer was probably a little bit of both. But when you ask this question about the failed paint job on our house, we get an interesting answer.

First of all, let's look at the people who actually did the job. Would you actually tell me that a professional painting crew would paint a house without putting a coat of primer (gruntovka in Russian) on first? Well, to answer this, we have to ask whether or not the crew that did the job were actually painting professionals. There were two women who did the painting job last time (maybe it was three, I forget) and they did the entire job themselves over the course of perhaps three weeks. These women though were not private contractors but rather state paid employees working for daily wages. Because they were not a private company, they had no control over which materials to use or even, I suppose, how to go about doing the job at hand. They were very friendly women though and they made a great fuss over our Anya, but other than flat out forgetting to put any primer on (didn't they notice those other buckets?), which is very doubtful, it appears as though someone either neglected to give them any or told them that this job was to be made without.

So this brings us to the bosses. Again, this job was paid for out of the budget of the Doma Provlenye. DP though is not a private entity, they are an organ of the state and specifically, they are the organ that is responsible for things such as painting houses. Obviously DP would know how many square meters of paint would be needed to cover a house as well as all of the other details such as how many man hours would need to be paid and what materials would actually be needed to do the job successfully. You see what I am saying? This is exactly their job and I am sure they have meetings with their superiors in which they have to be accountable for exactly these types of details. And what is more, the responsibility for those jobs falls entirely on the DP because unlike the west, Belarus does not call for estimates from painters. Here, because the state is the monopoly, when it needs something done the work is paid for using a state pricing system. This is exactly the same as it is for selling agricultural products and food stuffs at he markets. Basically this all means that they know.

So, as this is how the system works and because the DP was fully responsible for both work and the materials, our next question is how that painting crew came to do the paint job on our house without actually putting any primer on?

I have three answers to this and the first two come under the heading of stupid or guilty.

The stupid answer is that they simply didn't know how to do their job. This is quite possible because again, they had no practice for at least 15 years- probably even the painting crews were getting a little cobwebby as well and so simply not knowing is not such impossibility, even with all of those meetings. And if this is true, well, they say that experience is the best teacher. However, if this was the case I seriously hope they learned something because though nobody knows what a lesson in life is supposed to cost, if you don't learn it the first time, YOU WILL have to pay for it again.

The guilty answer is that Doma Provlenya put the money for the primer in their pockets. They did this either specifically by not buying the materials they had been budgeted for, by simply not using it and then selling to another contractor or by purchasing cheaper and inferior materials than were budgeted for. They also could have cheated by thinning out the paint and/or using less of it, but this is not how the damage looked.

I also have a third possible answer though and it is a bit more forgiving. Giving DP the benefit of the doubt, we could also say that they were simply doing the best they could with what they had to work with. They had gotten some money to do work for the big party but they really didn't have enough to do the job well and so what they decided to do was to make the place look as nice as possible under the circumstances even though they knew that it would only last a short time. This decision of course would eventually be twice as expensive, but then again, if you are doing creative financing, what really would be the difference, right?

Well, you know I would love to go with the third explanation, but I can't. I would like to because it even adds a note of heroism to what could possibly be considered a hardworking, under-financed and underpaid organization. I would love to take this side because it is a feel good story about how we all pull together as a team in times of stress and about how staying together and working together for common goals always wins the day. But I can't take this side because it is simply not the truth. The fact is that they mismanaged public funds and screwed up the paint job because they just didn't do what was needed the first time. And I know that they knew what they were doing because several other houses were also painted on our street and the paint did not fall off of theirs. To me this simply means that they played with money that was not theirs to play with. The money that went towards painting our house was Belarus' money, the town of Pinsk's money or best said: the people of the town of Pinsk's money. Making money decisions that show both public incompetence and even potential corruption is stidna and completely unprofessional. Making improper use of materials and labor which end up costing twice as much as is needed, especially when this is exactly what your organization is supposedly there to do, is criminal. Of course stealing money or materials is also criminal, but that is a given. And further, as this organization has insisted on using heinous, fascist and abusive control tactics, year after year, on a group of retirees who wanted nothing more than to work their little garden spot of fifty years in peace, I simply cannot believe in any altruism; there is no way that the DP has even the slightest care about caring for the community around them and this paint business is a perfect example.

But anyway, the scabs have finally been scraped and spackled away. The new color is more of a peach than a yellow but it is not so bad to look at. They didn't bother to put drop cloths down so the foundation and asphalt walkway is now Jackson Pollock-ed with yellow and gold and I had to yell at them twice about using our garden for a toilet or leaving their beer bottles under our benches after they drank their lunch, but as I said, the place looks a bit nicer. I guess we'll see how long it lasts though. Probably they got it right this time. Probably they did.

More soon…