MOSCOW — Natalya Veselova has spent more than a year trying to get a Russian driver's license. What should have been a simple process has turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apparent reason? She refuses to bribe the Moscow police officers who administer the exam.
"They are doing their best to push people to pay bribes for licenses," said Veselova, the 33-year-old mother of a toddler, who has now failed the driving test seven times. Many others in her position give in and pay the expected bribe, typically the equivalent of several hundred dollars (euros).
Since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, corruption has penetrated deep into the fabric of everyday Russian life. Ordinary people find themselves giving money to police officers as well as doctors, teachers and government officials just for basic public services.
Resentment over this pervasive graft has helped fuel the protest movement against Putin, now Russia's prime minister, as he seeks to regain the presidency in a March 4 election. The huge demonstrations in Moscow in recent months were set off by a December parliamentary election won by Putin's party through apparent fraud, but the outrage tapped into far deeper anger over the corruption and cronyism that Putin has fostered.
Corruption was a problem in Soviet times and under Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin. What has changed under Putin, experts say, has been the sheer amount of bribes paid to officials, which has skyrocketed along with incomes in Russia.
Graft also has become more institutionalized under Putin: Bosses tend not to punish their employees for taking bribes, but rather demand a share. Observers say the Kremlin has tolerated the wrongdoing because it's the main source of income for millions of bureaucrats whose support is crucial to Putin.
The extent of corruption in Russia is reflected in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, where Russia is ranked 143rd out of 183 countries.
The corruption largely involves big business and government: Kickbacks are standard for many contracts; corrupt judges can be used to destroy or take over the business of a competitor; while friends and relatives of government officials are among the wealthiest people in the country.
But much of it is part of normal life.
Russians routinely pay to get a child into a school or receive medical treatment, even though both education and health care are supposed to be free.
One study estimates that Russia's 143 million people paid about 164 billion rubles ($5 billion) in "everyday" bribes in 2010. Half of Moscow residents and nearly 40 percent of all Russians have been in a situation where they felt a bribe was necessary to solve their problems, according to the joint research conducted last year by the Public Opinion Foundation and the Indem Foundation, which studies corruption.
The size of the average bribe has doubled over the past five years to 5,290 rubles ($178), said the study by the independent Russian research centers.
"Citizens are not actually rushing to pay bribes," said Elena Panfilova, director of Transparency International in Russia. "They pay when they're being cornered into a situation where they have no choice."
Many of the bribes go to Russia's traffic police, who among other things administer the driving exams.
Veselova began taking driving lessons in January 2011, hoping that by the summer she would be able to run errands with her young daughter in the backseat. In May, she was ready to apply for her license. She passed the written exam and the parking and maneuvering test, but then failed the road test.
She returned to the station, a commute of an hour and a half each way, to retake the exam six times. Each time, police officers found some fault with her driving. With Russia's driving code filled with an array of arcane regulations, officers have any variety of excuses to flunk an applicant.
"If an examiner doesn't like you, it's very easy for him to fail you," said Sergei Kanayev, chairman of the Moscow-based Federation of Car Owners.
Veteran driving instructors say applicants are routinely failed over technicalities and that many of their students end up paying despite being competent drivers. In most cases, police officers don't have to ask explicitly for a bribe. Their behavior during the test and advice to "come better prepared" are universally taken as a hint that money will have to be paid.
Kanayev estimates that 50 percent of Russians who fail the driving test end up paying a bribe to get their license. No figures are available largely because of the reluctance of people to admit to having bribed the police.
The traffic police failed to respond to requests for comment over a period of several weeks. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, who commands Russia's police force, last year lauded some regional police officials for eradicating corruption, but acknowledged that it remains a problem in most regions.
Veselova's family and friends have been trying to persuade her to stop wasting time and pay the bribe.
Finding someone to "arrange" a license isn't difficult. Many drivers are happy to pass on the contacts of an intermediary who will make such arrangements, and thus spare the candidate from directly bribing the police officer. The service typically costs from 10,000 to 15,000 rubles ($330 to $500).
Veselova said a friend offered to arrange for her to pass the driving test in exchange for two bottles of cognac, but she couldn't bring herself to do it.
"I'm a believer in God. And this would mean deception," Veselova said. "I'm raising a child. How would I then tell her that she must always be honest and act honestly?"
Newspapers are full of reports of policemen arrested on charges of corruption. Last year, the head of the exams department and five other employees of a police station in Moscow were fired for "issuing driver's licenses for bribes." But the practice continues.
The health care and education systems are also rife with bribery.
For instance, bribes are routinely given to ambulance staff to take patients to better hospitals or to move a patient up on the waiting list for a needed operation. Relatives know that by slipping a few notes to a nurse, they may be able to assure their loved one gets better care.
Public schools are free, but some are more sought-after than others. Parents across Russia complain that directors of desirable schools will state that they are at capacity, then quickly hint that a place might be found if the parents were to make a contribution or donate equipment.
Universities are among the top offenders. One of Russia's most prestigious medical schools, the Pirogov Medical University in Moscow, was rocked by a scandal last summer when it was found to be selling about 500 spots that should have gone for free to those who scored the highest on admission exams.
Putin has responded to the protests by pledging to eliminate incentives for officials to take bribes. But as testament to the growing willingness to challenge Putin authority, bloggers have circulated a list of his vows to fight corruption dating back as far as 2000, none of which has had any notable effect.
"Corruption in Russia is not an isolated problem, but a deep-rooted system," said Georgy Satarov, the head of Indem and one of the leading Russian experts on graft.
After failing to pass the driving test within a three-month period, Veselova had to start the whole process over again. She recently resumed the effort and has again passed the written exam and the parking test.
With the driving test still ahead, she is more determined than ever not to pay a bribe.
"They got me so angry," Veselova said. "We pay our taxes, so why do I have to go and bow down to them?"