If you think taxes are high, move to Russia, laugh a lot

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 24, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Russia learned taxation policy from the Mongol Golden Horde, which more than 600 years ago ruled by pillaging, ravaging and then taking the survivors and taxing them to death.

Modern Russians say their government has spent the intervening time only honing those early techniques. One tax in the 1600s demanded a fifth of a person's income. Peter the Great, the 18th-century czar, put a tax on beards, on hats and on anyone wearing leather boots. Beehives were taxed; so were kitchen chimneys.

While the government perfected taxation, the citizenry perfected tax evasion. Peasants desperate to avoid a household tax when the collectors came to town would dismantle their homes, log by log, and disappear with them into the forest.

The better-off simply bribed the tax man.

Today, Russians have ample cause to recall the rapacious past. Taxes go up daily, and without warning. The words taxes and customs -- both of which came from the Mongol language -- are on everyone's lips.

A businessman named Sergei Delsal reported the other day that he had traveled all the way to the Netherlands for a good buy on a used car. When he set out, he faced only a small tax. As he drove across Europe with his car, the government decided to put a 60 percent tax on foreign import cars.

By the time he drove his used Audi to the registration office, he was informed he would have to pay a $10,000 tax. "This huge, fantastic sum exceeds the cost of the car by 2 1/2 times," he complained in a letter to a Moscow newspaper.

Over the last several months, food and clothing stores have raised their prices by 13 percent to reflect a rising value-added tax. Now the government has announced a 15 percent customs duty on all imported food, along with a 20 percent tax on imported sugar.

Though the decree about the food tax only became known in the last week, it was dated March 10. A wary consumer who was planning to order a shipment of food from a Danish mail order firm called customs officials March 9 to ask if there was any tax on imported food.

"No," they said. She placed the order, and presumably will have to pay the extra 15 percent when it arrives.

Earlier, a 100 percent tax was levied on imported alcohol. The result? A liter of Gordon's gin cost $35 in one supermarket this week.

It's gotten so bad, even government officials have begun to complain.

On a television news show, Moscow's Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said the customs duty on food would be disastrous for the average person.

The new tax was promoted by Alexander Zaveryukha, Russia's conservative agricultural minister, as a way of protecting the domestic food industry -- which can't keep up with demand anyway.

Mayor Luzhkov said the idea was ridiculous, that it would only hurt the average consumer by cutting down on food supplies and driving prices up for already pressed buyers.

The popular newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets agreed. "The main aim of the new resolution -- to protect Russian customers -- won't be achieved. It will create an emergency situation."

Russians love to tell the story of Tamerlane, one of the last Mongol conquerors. Tamerlane, known here as Timur, was born in 1336 in what is now Uzbekistan.

Tamerlane spent his lifetime invading and collecting taxes -- southern Russia, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Lebanon and India. He died while trying to conquer China.

Russians recall how Tamerlane ordered his men to replenish the treasury by collecting taxes from a Russian village.

The tax collectors returned empty-handed. "They cried pitifully that they had nothing left," the tax collectors reported back. "Return," Tamerlane decreed, "and collect the taxes." The men did, and got the money.

This happened a second time in the village. Again, the villagers wept bitterly and said they had nothing left. Again Tamerlane ordered the tax collectors to go back. Again they got money.

The third time, the tax collectors reported back that the villagers only laughed when the taxes were demanded.

"Leave them alone," Tamerlane replied. "If they're laughing, they have nothing left to lose."

No one is laughing at the tax man yet, but the first chuckles could break out any day.

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