“Something happens to these guys in OMON,” a Russian friend told me during my visit to Moscow. “They take them away, train them, and then,” he pointed a finger at his head and turned it from side to side. “They just don’t see people as people anymore. They see them as something else.”
Supposedly the Russian security apparatus — and I had no real means to distinguish between a traffic cop and militsiya other than a difference in uniform — are kinder and friendlier when compared with their Belorussian counterparts. Belarus is supposedly a “nasty and ugly regime” my Russian friend said, but what “nasty” means there is that the police will beat up anybody, even pregnant women. Here, you have to stick out a bit more to feel the wrath of OMON come down on you. Again he put his finger to his temple and spun it. Crazy indeed.
So why do they do it? “Most of the guys that join the security apparatus are from outside Moscow. They have nothing. They see it as a step up to a better life,” he said.
Aha. Trade your soul for a better life. It’s the same old song, isn’t it? It always is.
It’s an interesting thing about the Russian security presence. On one hand, Moscow feels extremely safe because of it. I didn’t have one troubling experience with another civilian. I probably felt more safe there than I used to in Washington or New York. The metro is clean and beautiful. The shopping centers are shiny and new. The people are friendly, when they are in the mood. Within the first half hour of landing in Moscow, we were given free samples of Starbucks espressos at the airport and befriended a tourist — a plump, middle-aged Russian woman, back from Thailand — who toasted the “good American coffee” with us and smiled.
So, other than the concern about Chechen suicide bombers, I never really felt unsafe in Moscow. I tried to keep an eye out for Chechen militants, but I actually have no idea what Chechens look like. My impression is that Russians are experts at telling the national origin of a person based on looks. At one club, a woman approached me to ask if I was from Italy. “I could just tell,” she said. But Chechens? My idea of a Chechen is of a man with a long beard dressed in military fatigues and an automatic rifle slung over the shoulder. The joke about Chechnya these days is that it has more independence and autonomy than it would have it had become a independent satellite of Moscow. But other than that, there isn’t much that’s funny about Chechnya. I’m told that average Russians don’t even think of it as part of their country anymore. “No one goes there,” said my Russian friend.
So, other than the Chechens, the scariest people in Russia are actually the police. This is not because they are all brainwashed, baton-wielding psychos. Most of them are skinny, polite, and look barely old enough to shave. I think that the reason the Russian police are frightening is simply because justice is fickle and arbitrary in their country. And once you are in the hands of the police, your fate is up to them. Every officer is his own God. “I wouldn’t dare drive from Moscow to St. Petersburg,” said an acquaintance. “The roads are bad, and there are too many hungry cops.”
There are too many hungry cops in Russia, except the hungry cops don’t want food, they just want money. “They’ll search you until they find something wrong, or they’ll make something up,” said my Russian friend. “Then they will levy an on-the-spot fine, which you should pay if you want to get on with your business.” This endemic corruption slows Russian life. There is a whole “black market” of bribes passing from hand to hand, a “shadow economy” of traffic fines and building violations. And because of this, people are afraid of the police, or rather, at their mercy.
I wondered how it was that the Moscow subway was so quiet. Then I realized that everyone is actually under surveillance. Even though the signs of the market economy are obvious — advertisements for Somersby cider or a Ringo Starr concert — the officers are always there. Each time I passed one, I made sure to avoid eye contact. At the same time, I was told that no one would mistake me for a Russian. “Your hair is too long,” said my friend. “Most men here wear their hair short. People here want to blend in, so that no one will notice them.”
I kept thinking about a story I had read in Estonian writer Andrei Hvostov’s new book Sillamäe Passioon, about how he had also been stopped by the police in Russia, and apologetically did as instructed to get out of the situation. Hvostov wrote that he was stopped because he was still, under his new Western clothes, an old Soviet person, and that, like animals, they could smell the fear on him. In the end, they fined Hvostov for having American dollars in his pockets.
For the most part, though, I wasn’t afraid of the Russian cops, if only because I had never really witnessed them in action. And by standing out so much, I became, in a weird way, invisible to the police. “No one will bother you if you have an American passport,” I was informed. See, Uncle Sam is still looking out for me. In addition to some obvious minuses, there are real benefits to being a superpower with standing armies on several continents. I clutched my American passport when the police pulled us over on the way out of Moscow. We were singled out, my friend said, because we had foreign license plates.
A quick period of questioning by a boyish traffic cop revealed that my friend had forgotten his insurance certificate at home. The fine? A few thousand rubles if we wanted to get back on the road, the cop said. My hands were now sweaty, but my Estonian colleague in the back seat informed me that everything would be okay. “This stuff happens all the time,” he said, leisurely munching on a pickle, business as usual, reading a fresh issue of The Economist. After the fine was paid, we got back on our way, hoping the police wouldn’t call ahead to their hungry friends down the road so that they could shake us down for the same violation.
On the way out of town we drove over a bridge graced by enormous bronze soldiers, one with a rifle extended violently in the air. If there hadn’t been a twirling neon Nescafe sign beyond the arresting image, I might have thought I was leaving Pyongyang.