For Many in `New Russia,' It's Still Darkness at Noon
Growing crime wave prompts nostalgia for `order' of police state - a letter from Moscow
MOSCOW — IT is easy to hear nostalgic talk about the "good old days" of Soviet totalitarianism. Memories of bread sold for mere kopeks loom large in the minds of Russians in these times of hyperinflation.
But nothing evokes the desire for a return to the orderly past more than the crime wave that has engulfed Russia in recent years. With the end of the police state, and the fear of authority that went with it, there seems to be little restraining the increasingly bold criminal class. Moreover, hard times and the lure of quick money has made crime even more attractive, if not lucrative.
Russian government officials dole out the dry but depressing statistics. Some 238,000 crimes were committed in August, an official report says, up 18 percent from last year. Murder and violent crime is up. Robbery has increased 50 percent.
The Russian press is filled with ever more incredible tales from the police blotter. Entire railway cars filled with goods are looted. Cars and their drivers are hijacked by highway pirates. A routine check of a truck leaving a military base in the Far East in July discovers surface-to-air missiles on their way to a customer. In St. Petersburg, which has acquired a reputation as a center of Russian organized crime gangs, four recently opened kiosks selling cigarettes for the American firm Phillip Morris are firebombed by the mafia for undercutting blackmarket prices.
Private security services are booming, proudly advertising that they employ former KGB agents or moonlighting policemen. Men in Army camouflage fatigues carrying submachine guns are now regularly seen guarding buildings. One Russian businessman employed a firm set up by KGB men to install a burgler alarm system at his new home. He reports they wired his home with the latest high-tech wizardry from the KGB's stores. Foreigners targeted
Foreigners, who once enjoyed the dubious safety that came with being constantly watched by the KGB, are now a favored mark. From gangs of pickpockets operating in Moscow's underpasses to systematic robberies of foreign apartments, the dollars and consumer goods in the hands of foreigners make them sought after. A doctor at a Moscow medical clinic serving foreigners reports growing numbers of violent attacks including knifings, even several cases of foreigners being drugged and robbed by men posing as pot ential business partners.
Travel to other cities is as risky as life in the capital, as this reporter can testify. My hotel rooms have been robbed twice - once in the Far Eastern Russian port city of Vladivostok and another time in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
The first time, the hotel staff had helpfully given my room key to the thieves and told them of my absence, a practice I learned since is commmon to the gangs that increasingly have the run of Vladivostok. The detectives who came to the hotel dutifully recorded everything stolen, and also the remaining contents of the room (including an empty peanut butter jar in the garbage), on three separate sets of documents. As to a solution to the crime, they shrugged and replied - "Tak zhit nelzya" - "It is imposs ible to live this way," repeating the title of a popular film depicting the degradation of Russian life. KGB guards
Then there is our office, located in a building housing only foreign diplomats and journalists, one of many such ghettos in which foreigners had until recently been compelled to live. Our special KGB guards still stand outside, still watching us but no longer barring the entry of Russians. Now, we who reside and work here almost wish they would.
Our building, along with others like it, has become a favorite spot for thieves. The neighboring offices of one British newspaper and an American television network were hit by these unwelcome visitors.
A few months ago, a colleague went out for a few moments to a nearby office and returned to find a thief rummaging through the desks. Unbeknownst to us, the lightfingered visitor had already pocketed about $100 worth of rubles when he was brought downstairs to the KGB guard. The guard searched him and discovered a syringe, which indicated he was one of the growing army of drug addicts here, the guard said. That fact seemed to enrage the local police, who administered the kind of rough questioning familia r in days gone by in America. `Evidence held'
The robber was wanted on other charges, we were later told, and that was the last we heard of him. It is also the last we have seen of our money, taken as "evidence" the police say. We've chalked it up as a not-quite-voluntary donation to the Russian equivalent of the policemen's benevolent association.
Appearing the other day before the Russian parliament, President Boris Yeltsin vowed to launch a war on crime and corruption. He blamed everyone from police and prosecutors to the military men selling their weapons on the black market. The silver-haired former Urals Communist Party boss promised to bring law and order back to the streets of Russia again.
With the apparatus of the police state still largely intact, such a call might well bring some chills to many Russians.
But judging from our own experience, we suspect such concerns are shared by a shrinking number of our fellow Russians.