Return of the nosy babushka
To counter rising crime and terrorism, Moscow is set to recruit citizens as police eyes and ears.
It was one of those dread possibilities that hung over everyday life in the Soviet Union: a summons to appear before the local block council.Skip to next paragraph
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These watchdogs of public morals and order could impose penalties from public humiliation to calling in the police - for such offenses as shirking participation in "voluntary" street-cleaning brigades or listening to foreign radio broadcasts. Under Stalin, people were encouraged to submit anonymous denunciations of neighbors suspected of harboring antistate opinions, which often led to the victim's arrest and the gulag or execution.
The councils were disbanded when the USSR collapsed. But now Moscow city authorities have decided to revive them in what they say is a kinder, gentler version, similar to America's Neighborhood Watch programs.
Echoing the views of many older Muscovites, pensioner Vladimir Moiseyev says he supports the idea. "Something should be done. There is disorder everywhere."
Mr. Moiseyev sees little danger of Stalinist-style anonymous stukachi - informers - defaming innocent people in today's Russia: "If someone claims I'm a hooligan or a drunkard, who's going to believe them?"
But Mahmed Nanizade, who hails from the former Soviet Caucasus republic of Azerbaijan, is more skeptical. "This law looks good on paper," he says, "but it might turn out quite another way in real life." With his brown skin, Mr. Nanizade already endures frequent document checks by police on the lookout for Chechen terrorists. "People who help the police can be corrupt, they can tell lies about someone. It all depends on the people who get involved," he says.
A bill rushed through its first reading last week in the Moscow Duma, the municipal legislature, will install a Soviet-style system of grass-roots supervision and control Moscow's 600 districts. Backers insist that enlisting neighborhood police informers and security helpers is vital to conquering the growing threats here of crime and terrorism.
But critics warn that authority that will be handed to the semiofficial vigilante bodies is far more sweeping than anything found in the West, and potential abuses may eclipse benefits.
"The purpose is to consolidate citizens, and improve the flow of information from ordinary people to the authorities," says Col. Anatoly Shlykov, a veteran police commander and one of the new law's authors.
In Col. Shlykov's district of Moscow, Taganka, a platoon-sized suicide squad of Chechen rebels slipped past police last October and seized a theater with 900 hostages, leading to the deadliest security disaster in recent Russian history. "We face new and ruthless enemies, and that's why police need to have eyes and ears everywhere," Colonel Shlykov says. "People want to be protected, and they are ready to take a hand in defending their neighborhoods."
When the revived block councils aren't watching for terrorists, they will handle more mundane problems, such as collecting rent from delinquent tenants, punishing cheating shopkeepers, keeping tabs on vagrants and suspicious outsiders, settling quarrels between neighbors, and enforcing sanitation standards, he says.