Every afternoon in Russia's second city, a laser technician and two college students don red armbands and big badges to play policeman. They are among initial recruits in a controversial effort to revive the Soviet practice of civilian street patrols.
"Once I prevented a crime," history major Sergei Svetlichny, says with pride as he recounts rescuing a woman from her drunken and abusive partner.
The brigades are known as druzhina, a name that recalls the Brezhnev era of the 1970s, when youth patrols worked hand in hand with police to keep order and report suspicious behavior.
Some hail their reappearance as a healthy step toward citizen activism, seeing the volunteer squads as similar to neighborhood watch groups in the United States. But critics see the move as part of a broader strategy by President Vladimir Putin to control lives and curb civil liberties and point to the druzhina of the past, used by the state as an ideological brigade to curtail subversion. "They want to set up a system to somehow control people," says Vladimir Kovalyev, a writer for the English-language St. Petersburg Times.
But Arkady Kramarev, a former police chief and head of St. Petersburg's Law and Justice committee, counters: "Our so-called democrats see in this a violation of human rights - that is, hooligans' rights. They even compare the druzhina with the stormtroopers of Fascist Germany...[but] it is a civil activity, and impossible to construct a civil society without it."
The renewal of the druzhina is in keeping with Russian president Vladimir Putin's emphasis on law and order. In Moscow, druzhina reappeared several years ago after a spate of bombing attacks.
The druzhina pilot project in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown, began last fall and officials say they want to double the current ranks to 400.
Helping with everything from crowd control to domestic disputes, the volunteers fill gaps left by police units who are busier with more serious crime in St. Petersburg, known as the crime capital of Russia because of numerous mafia-style killings.
A day on patrol
Like young police recruits, the druzhina begin their shift by gathering at the precinct with their notebooks to hear the police blotter read out by a uniformed officer. At 4 p.m. at one subway station, a thief stole a woman's bag, the officer reports; a burglar stole a video recorder; a man assaulted a 9-year-old girl - medium build, black jacket, street address. Computer composite portraits of suspects are passed around. The volunteers, who are paid a symbolic $20 a month, divide up, with assignments to assist policemen at points throughout the district.
While druzhina cannot themselves legally make arrests, they often step in before police arrive. They take down citizens' reports of crimes and report suspicious activities.
A do-gooder bonhomie reigns among the volunteers, who speak with pride of their role keeping their community safe, and reversing negative stereotypes about cops.
"This is a different country from 30 years ago," says Sergei Shilov, the microbiologist. His hair is long and wavy, a style that would have been suspect in Soviet days.
"In Brezhnev's day, the druzhina was just for people to show off. They made no contribution," adds Michael Djachenko, the clean-cut laser technician. "But the risks are greater now, because crime has jumped since the 1970s."
Officials say that incidents are "greatly reduced" in areas where the druzhina forces are active.
On a typical patrol recently, an unlicensed sidewalk vegetable seller was forced to put away her eggplant and onions. Documents of a man wheeling a bulky load were inspected. And a man too drunk to walk was dragged and carried from a vodka bar to the nearby police station and locked up. Pedestrians stared warily at the patrol, reading the lettering on the back of their green vests: "Municipal Druzhina #7."
"It's not correct to make only the police responsible - civilians should be engaged because crime is a common problem in society," says Sergei Vasilyev, deputy director of the city's Family, Childhood and Youth committee, which runs the druzhina program along with the police.
"Reactions are good, because people feel the druzhina are a real source of help," he says. "They do not look like an oppressor, or as a physical force, and are much more merciful than police."
But some observers say the druzhina are part of a troubling anostalgia for Soviet-style order. Evidence of a trend to revive the past is growing: A new directive of the Russian Academy of Sciences that requires scientists to report on any contacts with foreigners - just like in Soviet days. A severe clampdown has hobbled the independent press; and a proposed state of emergency bill is being criticized as allowing arbitrary arrests.
Plans to outfit the druzhina with police-like uniforms and nightsticks - though legally they can't make arrests - compound concerns of critics.
Kovalyev, the journalist, says he has been stopped by four tipsy young men in plainclothes, who said they were employed by police. He suspects they were druzhina. He says using scarcely trained volunteers will do little to stem crime. "Who are these people?" he asks. "Just ordinary people who know nothing of the law."
While druzhina patrols may be a throwback, they could also be a limited one. "Now in Russia, it is a fashion to revive some institutions of the Soviet period," says Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a former KGB lieutenant colonel in Moscow.
The new patrols could be an initiative by local security officers to "write a beautiful report about working with the common people," he says, or "a way to recruit new informants." Either way, they are likely to be less "dangerous" to civil liberties than other steps the Kremlin is taking, he says.
"It could be a good thing, to some extent," says Mr. Preobrazhensky. "They could help stop hooligans."
For the students taking part, any greater aim of the Kremlin is lost among their own, personal motives.
Mr. Shilov, pulling on an earring in his left hear, says: "Before, I thought all police were bad people. Now I realize they can be a pleasure to deal with, and that my beliefs were just prejudices."
Such thinking is what helped drive senior police inspector Andrei Gribanov to propose the draft druzhina project in 1999. "It is important for youth to be involved in something," says officer Gribanov, who wears the typical Russian police black leather jacket, which usually inspires as much fear as confidence. "Here, their mentality changes. They really grow up."
Russia's first druzhina was organized in the 1880s as a loyalist volunteer security force to help guard tsarist processions and statesmen. In the early Soviet period, brigades of workers and peasants were used to crack down on crime. Later, zealous Communist Youth League members became members of druzhina units. But by the 1980s, with enthusiasm for communism and ideological vigilance on the wane, most volunteers were in it only for the extra time off offered as incentive for joining.
Mr. Svetlichny, who is now considering a career in the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, says he joined the druzhina because there were few other positions left open at a university job fair. "I didn't want to be a waiter, and at first, this didn't appeal to me either," he says. "Then I became attracted to the work itself, and even more when I realized that we are contributing to a safe atmosphere."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor