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!