Welcome to Russia!

The foreigner-in-Russia blogging at News of the Eastern reports on a typical encounter with Russian “law enforcement” authorities.  (NOTE:  An average Russian is paid less than 90 rubles for each hour of work.  Thus, the “little bit of money” asked for by the police as a bribe in this story amounts to more than three hours of labor, nearly half a day’s pay, for an average Russian and as such is roughly equivalent to a bribe of $60 being demanded from an average American. Imagine being asked that for, say, walking on grass with a sign to the contrary.)

Yesterday I had my first run-in with the Russian police. Unlike many of my other foreign friends, I am not routinely stopped and hassled for my documents so this was my first direct experience of the renowned MVD, although of course I’d heard thousands of stories about how corrupt the Russian police are. This time around, however, I was definitely in the wrong, although I’m not entirely sure to what extent the police were in the right either.

Picture the scene. It was the start of a long sunny weekend and some friends and I decided to buy some wine and have a little drink in a park in the sunshine. Now, usually you can drink pretty much anywhere, anytime in Saint Petersburg, however we somehow hit upon the idea of taking our wine to the Summer Gardens, one of the few places where it is strictly forbidden to drink alcohol. We sort of knew it was forbidden, but this being Russia, where rules are made to be broken, we decided we’d probably be alright. So, we found a nice bench and after finding the requisite pieces of paper on which to sit (Russians have a peculiar horror of dirt and who knows what sort of diseases lurk upon benches) we poured our wine into plastic cups and started our evening. All was going swimmingly until a couple of policeman with joy in their eyes, descended upon us, shouting “you’re nicked!” (or at least the Russian equivalent).

Your Documents, Please

I suspect that the first lesson taught at Russian policeman school is how to ask for the documents of any law-transgressing (or potentially law-transgressing) (or indeed not Russian-looking thus potentially law-transgressing) character. It is perhaps the average Russian policeman’s favourite activity and they are at it everywhere: in the metro, on the streets, in the park, you name it. And so, true to form, we were asked to hand over our passports.

Not really wanting to do so, my Russian friends all immediately claimed not to be carrying theirs, whilst I stood there smiling stupidly, not having my passport with me and not really wanting to give away that I wasn’t Russian. The police, however, were adamant. No documents were produced at this point but we were told that it would be necessary to go with them to the station, to sort out this little problem. The police seemed remarkably happy about all this and didn’t in the least insist that we should pour the wine away. Instead, as we set off towards the station they told us to bring the wine with us, and so we we walked through the park drinking our illegal wine in their presence. They were also very cheerful, joking away as if it was all part of the picnic.

When we arrived at the station – a small hut/office in the park boundaries – we were told we would have to show our passports. In gallant, Russian-man style, my friend assured the police that the devushki (girls) hadn’t been drinking and so it really wasn’t necessary. Alas, the fact we were holding cups of wine somewhat negated this and the policeman insisted we show them. At this point I had to admit that I wasn’t Russian and unfortunately didn’t have my passport. To which the policeman astutely replied: “And how do I know you’re not a foreign terrorist?” Good question, to which I had no proof illustrating the contrary. He seemed to accept my promise that I wasn’t, but all the same made us go into the little hut, where a matriarchal mama of a policewoman sat looking at us severely.

“You do realise you are not allowed to drink in this park?” the woman asked. Well, yes. And then, the horrible fate that surely must arise from a meeting with the Russian police after such unlawful activity never happened. “Devushki, you must read these rules and then you can wait outside on the benches.” This was clearly a man’s problem. And so Anna and I dutifully read the Park rules (which somewhat bafflingly included ‘no killing of swans’ despite a notable lack of swans in the park) and then went outside leaving the men to do their stuff. The men were offered a choice – 500r official fine per person, including noting down of passport information, or 300r under-the-table, straight in to the policeman’s pocket. A no-brainer really. The boys paid up as the girls waited quietly outside.

All’s Well That Ends Well

And so our police escapade ended. I learnt a few important things about how the police in Russia work: first, they really do love that little bit of money. The system of slipping the police a couple of hundred roubles and avoiding any further trouble is so entirely engrained in the minds of both the police and Russian citizens as to make it an almost officially sanctioned law. Second, when there’s a promise of some money the police are friendly. I mean, really, really friendly. Third, the Russian police are rather sexist. And for once, I was glad of it!

37 responses to “Welcome to Russia!

  1. Police wages stink so bribes are supplemental income. Corrupt cops don’t get fired. There is no civilian oversight.
    It’s the same police corruption story that permeates the Third World where Russia by so many metrics resides. It’s so simple and fixable if the Russian government want to do it. They don’t.

    • The problem is that Russia fears the population so it needs large numbers of police officers to feel safe. However, it does not have the money to pay its police officers a decent money, so they live off of what can be stolen from the very population that the Russian state fears. Can you say vicious circle?

      • Michel, I agree that the regime needs the cops. It also mops up a lot of marginal males of which there are plenty by putting them in uniforms and low wage gov’t jobs.

        I wonder how much better paid OMON is? I bet it is significant.

        • Yes, I forgot about that. You are right, the MVD and other forms of security services in Russia truly are a make work project. Mind you, a very economically inefficient one as it does not contribute anything of value to the economy as it parasitically will feed off any industries or businesses or even government services that could actually help the economy and the population.

  2. Haha, can’t belive this post! That is pretty much word to word of what happened to me and couple of my finnish friends two years ago in the same park. Even the bride asked has remained the same,

    • And the same thing happened to my girlfriend and me when we snuck into Summer Gardens after hours in order to make out. That was in May 1976. The more things change the more they remain the same (except for the cops’ fee that was 1 rouble then).

    • They asked for a bride? And which poor Finnish girl had to mary a Russian policeman?

  3. An English friend of mine on a school music trip in the mid 90’s, was taken off the street with a friend by police, robbed, stripped and hosed down in the courtyard of a police station in Moscow.

    His age at the time? 14.

  4. I remember when I was in Moscow. I was taking pictures when I was stopped by the Militsya right outside Red Square. I was asked for my documents. I had my passport but forgot my registration card at my hotel. The was not very friendly and wanted to go down to the stationi. My Russian friend said something like “We don’t have time, we will pay the fine here” which means we will pay the bribe. I gave my friend the money, and my friend but the money in a booth were the Militsya were stationed. I contrast this to how the police in London behaved with tourists. Amazing. In the London the police try to help you. Furthermore, you will NEVER see a cop shaking down tourists near the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben

  5. They were doing something “illegal”?

    It is worse when there is no probable cause.

  6. Let me quote.

    It was the start of a long sunny weekend and some friends and I decided to buy some wine and have a little drink in a park in the sunshine. Now, usually you can drink pretty much anywhere, anytime in Saint Petersburg, however we somehow hit upon the idea of taking our wine to the Summer Gardens, one of the few places where it is strictly forbidden to drink alcohol. We sort of knew it was forbidden, but this being Russia, where rules are made to be broken, we decided we’d probably be alright.

    Literally, I have no words (except obscene ones)!

    This moron: 1) was drinking in public; 2) was stupid and arrogant enough to think he’ll go light with it?

    And now he is complaining?
    Idiots like him deserve 15 days imprisonment (as an absolute minimum)!

  7. Oh I don’t know, Russians are notorious law breakers.
    Don’t forget the author was WITH RUSSIANS at the time, or did you miss that bit?
    Besides, Russians always drink (and are drunk) in Public.

  8. Wow, I am pretty suprised by the reaction your re-posting of my story has provoked. I’d just like to add a few things.

    Firstly, in response to trilirium:

    This moron: 1) was drinking in public; 2) was stupid and arrogant enough to think he’ll go light with it?

    Yes, we were very silly to do something illegal in Russia, I agree. We were also unfortunate in this incident to get caught. There were plenty of other people there drinking, we obviously just caught the policeman’s eye.

    However, I’m not complaining about the punishment. I’m not Russophobe and we fully deserved to be fined. The point of my article was to look at how engrained in the Russian psyche this idea of bribing the police is. I also wanted to point out how the sole reason the police were interested in us was the possibility to make a bit of money on the side. They were very, very friendly and allowed us to continue drinking our wine and even take it away with us to finish somewhere else. The whole point of the law is to make some money, not to maintain order. That was what I found interesting.

    Secondly, in reponse to La Russophobe’s intro:

    (NOTE: An average Russian is paid less than 90 rubles for each hour of work. Thus, the “little bit of money” asked for by the police as a bribe in this story amounts to more than three hours of labor, nearly half a day’s pay, for an average Russian and as such is roughly equivalent to a bribe of $60 being demanded from an average American.

    This happened in St Petersburg, where the average hourly wage is considerably higher than the average wage across Russia. When I asked a Russian friend about this he said that bribes in other cities would be adjusted accordingly; just as public transport is more expensive in Petersburg, so are the bribes demanded by the police. Relative to avaerage wages in Petersburg, the 300 roubles per person that was demanded was not so much here as the calculations suggest. It was, of course, an uncomfortable amount, but not, however as much as you suggest.

  9. LOL u guys no nothing about corrupt Chicago cops

  10. The law is the law. It’s illegal to drink in public, and it probably is where she’s from too. She LUCKY the police only wanted a bribe. She’s required to carry her documents with her, also breaking the law. The police could have given her a very hard time if they weren’t only trolling for bribes. You just have to put your passport in your pocket and carry it with you where ever you go. If you’re a foreigner living in a rented apartment or a dormitory it’s probably safest with you anyway.

    Here’s a bit of advice. I’ve know a lot of foreigners who’ve lived in Russia, doing whatever the heak they want, bribing their way around, and then one day, they run into a cop who doesn’t want to be bribed, and end up in a bunch of trouble. As a foreigner living in Russia, better to set an example to others then just join in the anarchy. And stay away from LaRussophobes, and don’t feel bad if they attach you, they attach EVERYBODY.

    • No Marc, it’s not that simple. It’s not good enough to say “the law is the law” as if that would justify everything. Even if they had committed some technical violation, that wasn’t not why police was so vigilant. Bribery is wrong no matter how you slice it, and it does not make it right just because these people were foreigners.

      And there is more. What kind of a country requires persons to carry ID’s any time they are outside? I’ll tell you what kind — totalitarian, fascist, authoritarian. Lately, Russia makes claim to be a civilized and democratic society just like the West. Well, civilized and democratic countries generally do not require people to carry ID’s and even if some do, they don’t arrest person who don’t have an ID on them.

      Russia has a right to have any laws she wants on her own territory, but if she insists on having a police state like that, she has no right to expect that she would be respected as a civilized nation.

    • Correct. Don’t break the law when abroad – you wouldn’t do it at home, either.

  11. What kind of a country requires persons to carry ID’s any time they are outside?


    • One where you are guilty until (maybe) proven innocent? ;)

    • And Greece, and Italy,


      It’s pretty normal in Civil Law countries.

    • Might pay to read a bit more (from your link)


      “It is compulsory for all German citizens age 16 or older to possess either a “Personalausweis” (identity card) or a passport but not to carry one. While police officers and some other officials have a right to demand to see one of those documents, the law does not state that one is obliged to submit the document at that very moment. But as driver’s licences are not legally accepted forms of identification in Germany, most persons actually carry their “Personalausweis” with them.[citation needed]

      So they must possess one, but do not have to carry it around with them.

      As for calling Greece a “normal civil law country” well the “birthplace of democracy” does not really live up to the hype if you get my drift.

      As for Italy, well it is currently run by the mafioso (and good mate of Putin) who molests minors and changes the law to avoid prosecution for corruption, so once again, not the best example.

      • Of course, you can always let yourself be arrested and taken to the police station for identification… :) So, no, the law does not ‘require’ you to carry it.

        Oh, Israel is another country where you MUST carry it.

        • The last time that I was in Germany, I did not see police officers everywhere stopping people and asking for documents. I have also never heard of complaints of German police officers harassing immigrants or people who do not look German for their documents in the hope of collecting a bribe from them. So, the odds of being arrested and taken to the police station for lack of identification are somewhere between zero and none.

          • That wasn’t the question. The question was about what kind of countries require their citizens to carry ID, and I provided the answer. What you (allegedly) experienced in these countries is not in the least relevant.

            For what it’s worth: during my entire time in Russia, I was asked to show my documents only twice: once, when I was jaywalking, and once when I was asking for directions in god-awful Russian.

            • It depends on two factors: where you were in Russia and whether you had the “right” skin tone (i.e. whether you looked ethnic Russian enough to make the police think they had nothing to gain/earn by shaking you down). In my experience, Moscow is worst when it comes to police officers asking for documents as a means of earning extra money.

              • Granted, I wouldn’t want to be a dark-skinned person in Moscow. So, my experience is limited to that of a white person. Still, this does not change the facts I brought up.

                • Neither does it change the fact that in my decade spent traveling to Russia police officers were usually found at the top of each and every escalator in each and every metro station in Moscow looking for their next targets, asking for documents, in the hopes of finding someone with a comma out of place in the paperwork so they could earn some bribe money.

            • Is it a crime to ask directions in god-awfull Russian in Russia? Because if not, then if surely undermines your argument that they won’t ask to see your documents unless you are disobeing the law.

      • As for calling Greece a “normal civil law country” well the “birthplace of democracy” does not really live up to the hype if you get my drift.

        1) Being the first to adopt a system of governance via the people is not hype, it is fact (without wanting to undermine the contribution of other countries, e.g. Britain, to the formation of contemporary democracy). Of course, pray tell us which country does live up to the hype, Georgia maybe? Perhaps you believe kiwiland to have contributed more…
        2) Yes, Andrew Greece is a normal civil law country and has been so since 1974. It is a member of the EU and NATO. It is considered a free and democratic by every NGO or institution that has produced some form of accessment, despite corruption. Greece is in no need of the smerkyness, the smugsness and the irony of one who questions the self-evident.
        3) Other countries which require some identification are indeed Germany, Austria and Hungary (from experience) and remain civil law countries.

  12. ” in the hopes of finding someone with a comma out of place in the paperwork so they could earn some bribe money.”

    Or somebody actually breaking the law?

    Have you ever paid a bribe in Russia? Because I have not. I have also not knowingly broken any laws.

    • Yes, when stopped by a police officer while I was in a hurry to catch my train. Nothing wrong with my papers, all the necessary documents were in place – but made the mistake of mentiong that I was in a hurry, so the officer kept dabbing around my papers until he got 10 dollars. Paying that bribe was in fact the only time I broke the law in Russia…

    • Really Karma?

      Seems you are the only one then.

      “Polls repeatedly show widespread public disdain for the police as principally interested in taking bribes. Russian newspapers routinely report cases of police brutality and involvement of officers in criminal acts.”


      “Bribery still endemic in Russian government and police force.
      A new report by the Ethical Corporation Institute investigates the challenges facing companies operating in Russia as the Russian government continues its fight against corruption.

      31 March, LONDON

      TRACE International, Inc., a non-profit membership association providing practical anti-bribery compliance advice for multinational companies and their intermediaries, issued its first Business Registry for International Bribery and Extortion (BRIBEline) report for Russia on 11 March 2009.

      The TRACE International report found that the vast majority of bribes reported in Russia were made by individuals associated with the state. Police, state officials and employees at all levels of government were the two major sources of reported bribe demands.

      The Ethical Corporation Institute’s (ECI) new report, Anti-Corruption, Ethics and Compliance in Russia, shows the Russian government is increasing its efforts to tackle corruption in business. However, the report did uncover evidence that shows corruption is still clearly present in Russia, even in the highest levels of government itself.

      The Hermitage Fund, an investment group suffered badly at the hands of dishonest players in Russia. Bill Browder set up the Hermitage Fund in Russia in 1996, and found the Russian judicial system to be ineffectual and itself corrupt when he attempted to expose and correct corporate corruption.

      For a time he was able to gain some success through the “court of public opinion”. Then the Russian government decided it did not want cases of corruption brought to the attention of the media.

      On November 13, 2005, Browder was refused entry into Russia and was not permitted to enter the country despite appealing in person to Dmitry Medvedev. The Hermitage Fund was then illegally raided on the fabricated basis that it owed taxes.

      ECI’s new report on corruption in Russia continues to detail a number of other complex frauds that were perpetrated. These include bogus court cases and sham judgments that seem to involve government departments.

      Hermitage is one of the cases that had made companies in Russia wake up to the economic and social risks inherent in business corruption.

      The ECI report analyses the anti-corruption strategies of several big firms operating in Russia. Findings suggest that multinationals can help Russia win the fight against corruption.”


      “In any event, our results indicate that police misconduct is indeed prevalent. Official figures put the number of Russians ages 16 and older on January 1, 2004, at 119,154,119 (Goskomstat 2004). Our point estimates of 5.2 percent of Russian adults victimized by police violence in any two- to three-year period, 6.3 percent by corruption, and 13.8 percent by some form of misconduct directly or via family translate into roughly 6.2, 7.6, and 16.4 million acts of police misconduct. These numbers are staggering: police misconduct is widespread, even commonplace, in Russia today.”

      “Citizens of Russia who are of non-European ethnic origin are more likely than ethnic Russians to encounter police violence, controlling for the other variables: the metric coefficient of 0.357 implies that their odds of victimization are 43 percent (e^sup 0.357^ = 1.43) higher.10 The difference between ethnic Russians and other Slavic or European ethnicities is not significant, suggesting that racism on the part of police officers may be behind the disproportionate exposure of non-Europeans”


      We believe our empirical results show that contemporary Russia is a case of what we have called predatory policing. Public encounters with police corruption are at least as common as experiences with police violence, and both are widespread. The primary structural basis for violence appears to be pressure from higher authorities to meet case-clearing targets (which encourages police to obtain “confessions” by torturing suspects), not elite directives to oppress subordinate groups. There are some statistically significant disparities in exposure to police misconduct along the lines of ethnicity and social status, but no group of young males is immune to police misconduct, the disparities are small in magnitude, and they do not follow a consistent status gradient. Finally, the Russian public tends to view self-interest rather than elite interests as the primary motive for police misconduct. While public perceptions of police motives may be mistaken, the fact that such a perception is so common is nonetheless telling.

      No doubt, the Russian police do engage in actions that protect the interests of elites and suppress minorities: they harass ethnic minorities, police political protests, and investigate political opposition groups (Shelley 1999; Robertson 2004; Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty 2007). Police forces have played important roles at various times in the brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Chechnya (Kramer 2004). But our data suggest that these political roles of the police are less prominent than their overtly predatory behaviors, whereby they use their authority to enhance their personal wealth and violently abuse citizens regardless of their ethnicity, political orientation, or social background.

      As in the United States, experiences of police misconduct in Russia clearly correlate with low confidence in the police and the courts, despite Russia’s important institutional and cultural distinctiveness. Therefore, our study offers grounds for concluding that the linkage between experiences of misconduct and legitimacy of law enforcement is not restricted to the United States but can apply in countries with very different institutions and culture. Russians’ distinctively high levels of distrust in the police and the courts are based at least in part on their current experiences of misconduct and incompetence by those institutions. We cannot rule out the possibility that deep-seated cultural traditions of skepticism about the law or Soviet-era experiences also help produce mistrust of legal institutions in Russia, because these factors could easily supplement the effects of more recent experiences. But our findings do suggest that the current performance of the police does have an impact on public levels of trust: culture and the past are not the sole influences. Moreover, we find little support for the notion that Russian culture fosters tolerance of police misconduct.

      Finally, the predatory character of policing in Russia should call the attention of democratic theorists and policymakers to how dysfunctional public institutions, especially those that are supposed to protect individual security, can impede democratic transitions. Effective public institutions-large-scale organizations and systems connected to national, regional, or local governments that provide services to the general public-play a vital role in preserving the enviable quality of life that citizens typically enjoy in modern developed societies. When the legal system (police, courts, prisons), the military, the postal service, public education institutions, regulatory agencies, and systems of public transportation, public health, and safety (ambulance, fire, inspection, and sanitation services) perform well, they provide public goods and enhance the well-being of wealthy and poor alike. They both reflect the nature of the state in which they exist and help keep it stable and secure. In contrast, the Russian police actively (as opposed to inadvertently) deliver more public harm than public good. They are not the only public institution in Russia that can be characterized in this way (see Gerber 2004), but because they directly hurt rather than protect the individual security of Russian citizens, they do more to undermine democracy and civil society than any other institution.

      Since the 1990s, social scientific studies of Russia have focused mainly on changes in the economy, intra-elite power struggles, and new electoral and legal institutions. Scholars and policy makers focusing on these aspects have recently begun portraying Russia as a stable, “normal” country (Shleifer & Treisman 2004). But this label can hardly be applied to a country where predatory policing prevails. Modern police forces have been described, aptly in our view, as “the capstone in the creation of the modern state” (Marenin 1985:102). Our results indicate that the Russian state does not qualify as such. An adequate approach to the challenges facing Russia’s democratic transition today requires sustained attention to the task of reforming the police.

      Contemporary Russia stands out as a case where predatory policing obtains in a global power with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons and a relatively modernized economy. The predatory character of policing cannot be attributed to the Soviet legacy as such or to Russia’s economic problems. Other transition countries have devoted more energy and resources to the tasks of police reform, producing less predatory police forces (Shelley 1999; see also Caparini & Marenin 2004). By all accounts, the recent improvement in Russia’s economy has not reduced the levels of police violence and corruption. Predatory policing reflects the failure of Russia’s post-Soviet leaders to devote sufficient energy and resources to the reform of the police. This failure has exacerbated prior organizational pathologies, such as forcing confessions rather than using modern police techniques such as intelligence-based policing and forensics to solve crimes, or dealing with raising crime by issuing performance targets from above rather than investing in better tactical approaches.


      “A few months ago Market-Racket posted a piece about Russia trying to sell itself as a great place for FDI, and how corruption is sucking credibility out of President Putin’s pitch. In light of Transparency International’s latest corruption survey, which moved Russia from 90th place all the way down to 126th place (out of 159), this phenomenon merits a closer look.

      One of the most obvious questions brought by the survey’s astonishing results is: how did Russia get such a terrible grade? A quick read of Russian think-tank INDEM’s recent report provides more than a few jaw-dropping responses.

      The INDEM organization took a survey of 3,000 Russians this year and asked them a series of questions on their experiences with corrupt behavior. Here are some of the observations:

      • 62% of respondents have offered bribes for health service.
      • 44% have paid bribes to obtain justice in court.
      • 63% have offered bribes for higher education.
      • 86% have been requested to pay bribes for police matters (obtaining driver’s license, traffic incidents, etc.).
      • The average bribe paid in Russia is US$136 thousand.
      • A successful Russian businessman has to allot $243,7 thousand of his budget to bribes.
      • The Russian market of bribes is evaluated at some $316 billion a year.

      In addition, the Levada Centre, a Russian polling service, says that Russians think that “policeman” is the most criminal of professions, beating “drug dealer” and “terrorist” by a landslide. ”


      • I’m not disputing what you write, I am merely relating my experience in Russia. Maybe I’m particularly fortunate. I also never had anything stolen from me in Russia (possibly because I happen to be very vigilant). Who knows.

        By the way, I don’t understand how the AVERAGE bribe in Russia could be $136,000 when the GDP of Russia is something around 10k. That makes no sense. Certainly NOT in 2005.

        Or can anybody explain how that is possible?

        Note, they interviewed RUSSIANS, not foreign business people.

        • Simple: corruption is becoming centralized. Rather than a large number of bureaucrats going after small bribes, you have higher level bureaucrats and organizations collecting much larger bribes from larger entities. One MVD officer was arrested this week, for example, for allegedly receiving $850,000 in bribes. If the allegations are true, it is clear that he did not collect the money 5 or 10 or even 300 rubles at a time.

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