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Disabled Stunt Earns Head Of Russia's Sberbank Praise, Mockery

  • Tom Balmforth

Dressed in an outfit vaguely reminiscent of Robocop, the former economy and trade minister glided through the flagship Sberbank branch in Moscow wearing special glasses, earmuffs, and body padding designed to impair his sight and hearing, and restrict his movement.

Dressed in an outfit vaguely reminiscent of Robocop, the former economy and trade minister glided through the flagship Sberbank branch in Moscow wearing special glasses, earmuffs, and body padding designed to impair his sight and hearing, and restrict his movement.

MOSCOW -- Sberbank head German Gref is being both mocked and praised after he experienced what it would be like for a disabled person to apply for a loan at the Russian state bank.

Carried out on the International Day of Persons With Disabilities on December 3, the idea was to establish how hard it can be for disabled people to conduct such transactions in a country where there is often only rudimentary infrastructure (if any) for the disabled.

Dressed in an outfit vaguely reminiscent of Robocop, the former economy and trade minister glided through the flagship Sberbank branch in Moscow wearing special glasses, earmuffs, and body padding designed to impair his sight and hearing, and restrict his movement.

"Gref in a Sberbank branch. God forgive his PR people," wrote one Twitter user who posted video of the event:

Surrounded by photographers and camera crews, he proceeded to receive a bank consultation for taking out a 100,000-ruble loan ($1,568), based on a declared monthly income of 30,000 ($471) a month, far above the average salary in Russia and higher still than state disability allowances, which reportedly can range from 9,000 ($140) to 15,000 ($234) a month.

After appearing to struggle to hear what the bank consultant was telling him, Gref asked her to don the sense-impairing glasses and earmuffs in order to experience for herself.

"We will draw a series of conclusions," Gref told journalists afterward, suggesting that Sberbank might "create products for the disabled for buying special items such as wheelchairs and so on."

The exercise -- widely seen as a public relations stunt for the bank -- sparked positive and negative feedback, the latter of which cast Gref as hopelessly cut off from reality.

"Maybe he should stand for an hour, spiritedly push and shove with the people, listen to how the poor -- who have been forced by cruel fate to take out credit for things they can no longer put off -- live," the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily commented.

The newspaper also pointed out how inflated the disabled Gref's given income was, noting that the median income in Russia is 22,729 rubles ($357), while the most common salary is 12,665 rubles ($199).

Others took issue with Gref conducting his experiment at Sberbank headquarters -- rather than in a more humble branch outside the capital. "Where is he, some kind of VIP section?" one Instagram user commented in discussing a photograph of Gref receiving his consultation. "Why doesn't he have a go in Mytishcha [a Moscow suburb]?"

The Russian government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta saw the positive side -- that the exercise had shed light on problems faced by the disabled. "I think this was a good PR move," Sergei Smirnov, director of the Institute for Social Policy at Russia's Higher School of Economics, told the newspaper.

"But it is also significant that the head of a big bank has drawn attention to this problem. Since Soviet times, it has been considered that communism is the world of youth, that [the world] is made for the young," he told the paper. "There is no culture of service, a normal system of adaptation for the elderly and disabled."

Online Mockery

Online, the feedback was ironic and sometimes indignant.

"It's funny and sad when your shoes cost more than a Sberbank branch in the provinces, and your 'invalid' costume more than the pensions of a hundred invalids," wrote SmutnoeVremya, posting a picture of Gref declaring obscenely in a speech bubble, "I can't see a *#$** thing!"

Other online jokesters imagined Gref experiencing his bank as a homeless person.

"Stop it Gref!," wrote Twitter user Shcha.

Golos Mordora, or Voice of Mordor, riffed off the same photograph by writing: "Gref! Enough!"

Twitter user Vozhd continued the theme by tweeting a picture of a homeless man lying in front of Sberbank ATMs and placards advertising mortgages, adding, "A disguised German Gref takes out a mortgage at preferential rates."

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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