There are quite a few ways that the unscrupulous – or downright corrupt – can separate you from your personal property. Unfortunately, some visitors to Russia have discovered that the line between overt criminality and suited officialdom is in fact more of a grey-scale.
Back in 2009, Major Alexei Dymovsky, a Russian police officer, received both public praise and professional persecution after publicly denouncing the corruption within his force and petitioning Putin to address the issue. It may sound melodramatic here in the UK (though sadly perhaps not, in the USA), but part of his plea included the statement: “I am not afraid of my own death!”. Criticism in Russia is a serious business.
There’s an air of acceptance amongst the population that at some point they will come up against a police officer expecting a bribe in order to overlook some imaginary infraction, and as mentioned in earlier articles: the traffic police are openly regarded as the worst of the bunch. Tourists visiting Russia represent relatively easy pickings if an ‘official’ suddenly decides to supplement his monthly income at their expense.
Back in a previous life, I wrote a short series of articles entitled Business In The City of Extremes about an acquaintance who saw a little more ‘reality’ than he cared to, whilst on a business trip to Moscow. Some of the shenanigans included: an airport official’s attempt to confiscate (steal) his laptop, the routine theft of passports followed by a ‘courtesy’ call offering to sell them back, and the sudden ‘disappearance’ of his driver who had berated his chauffeur firm employers a little too much. Hey-ho, such japes.
Many horror stories surface on the internet and stick in the filter, so to speak, and it’s interesting to scan them for any commonalities that could elicit simple warnings to the unwary. It may sound obvious but not actually carrying something that is worth stealing is as good a defence as any! They can’t take what you don’t have. As a generalisation; opportunist thieves – whether uniformed or not – aren’t after an intriguing guessing game, more of a quick hit. They have many people to check and so have to be selective about whom they focus on. So, openly ‘telegraphing’ your wealth by wearing expensive jewellery and carrying expensive looking gadgets is a bad idea.
Being a ‘Rich Westerner’ makes you a likely target in any case – and you are one whether you are aware of it or not. Unless you have looked into the issue, it will come as a surprise just how poorly the average Russian citizen is paid. Think in terms of £300 – £ 400 per month for a relatively ‘decent’ job; say teacher or police officer. Whatever you earn here, you’re rich compared to them. Even if you are on ‘welfare’, you are still rich. By affording travel to Russia; you are rich. Period.
Yes, the cost of living in Russia is lower, but it is not commensurate with the diminutive wages at hand. Couple this with a history of a shady grey (or outright: black) economy that pre-dates communism and you’ll see why certain sectors of the establishment are keen to get their hands on the contents of your wallets.
Of course, once you have been pulled over by a customs officer who is busily combing through your belongings, then the issue of open display is a moot point. He’s got his hand in your underwear. One particular USA citizen found himself in this situation with a particularly nasty ruse at hand.
Having been pulled over by the official, he found himself detained in an isolated room for questioning by airport police – a horrifying prospect. Apparently (they informed him), the house in which he had been staying was a notorious drug haven, so they asked why he chosen to stay there. Being part of the drug trade is big deal in Russia (as it is in many countries), so he was encouraged to come clean about his “real” business in Russia. Threatened with the prospect of detainment and a thorough investigation – the penalties could be very severe.
The hapless traveller was suitably panicked at this point. “’Tell you what”, the official said “you can just pay a cautionary fine of 300 US dollars and then be on your way”. It may come as no surprise to learn that 300 dollars was “coincidentally” the exact amount of foreign currency carried in his luggage. Imagine the chances!
Needless to say; the thankful traveller paid up and departed Russia with haste. Be careful out there.
[Photo by fmfm166]