Russia History Modern Crime and Punish-Ment

Crime and Punish-Ment

A day in the life of a Russian policeman responsible for keeping order in Admiralty District in St Petersburg – the most unenviable beat in the notorious “crime capital” of Russia.

Lying slap bang in the very heart of St Petersburg, Admiralty District is named after its most famous architectural monument – the former imperial naval headquarters. The Russian Admiralty was founded by Peter the Great in direct analogy to the Admiralty in Whitehall, seen by the Tsar during his Great Embassy to London in 1698. The presence of such an institution is not the only distinction the two cities share. Walk a few blocks from the tapering gilt spire of the Admiralty, and the former Russian capital reverts into a maze of labyrinth-like backstreets, dead-end alleys and pre-revolutionary courtyards, an urban sprawl to warm the cockles of any latter-day Bill Sikes.

Home to half a million people – eighty percent of whom live in communal flats – Admiralty District provided the inspiration, setting and many of the characters for the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was to the Admiralty Police Station that university student Roddy Raskolnikov came to confess his brutal axing of a petty moneylender and her sister in Crime and Punishment. The local police were asked to find barber Ivan Yakovlevich’s missing organ in Nikolai Gogol’s ghoulish tale The Nose. More recent crimes include the murder of Grigory Rasputin in the Byzantine splendour of the Yussupov Palace in 1916 and the assassination of liberal politician Galina Starovoitova on her own staircase in 1998.

This background of the sinister, fantastic and downright bizarre seems to pervade the entire day that I spend with Dmitry, a thirty-year-old policeman who has agreed to put up with me for his whole twenty-four-hour shift, to give me a first-hand taste of the life of a typical Russian “ment” (the popular derogatory term for a policeman in Russia – but one which, I notice, they also apply to themselves).

The day begins with a visit to the local vytrezvitel or sobering-up station. I presume we are going to charge a group of over-exuberant youths or cart a few hapless drunks home after a night on the tiles. To my surprise, Dmitry walks up to the desk and blows into the waiting breathalyser. Seeing my confusion, he explains that every policeman in Russia must pass an alcohol test before he can sit behind the wheel of his car.

Barely glancing at the reading, the duty officer scribbles out a twenty-four-hour pass or putyovka, testifying that Dmitry is sober enough to drive. Armed with this document, we jump into his five-year-old police landrover and drive back towards the station.

First port of call is to select a uniform for me, so that I look less conspicuous while out on our rounds. The Russian police are perhaps the only force in the world to wear a designer uniform. A blue-grey “action-man” suit with matching cap and doc marten boots, the uniform was designed by famous couturier Slava Zaitsev. The only drawback is that the clothes are not sewn in Paris or Milan, but by hardened crims in Russia’s labour colonies. Badly-made uniforms of substandard cloth are the only revenge they can take on those who put them where they are now. I try on five different uniforms, all ostensibly my size, before I find one that actually fits. Dmitry removes the label on the cap, revealing a number inked on the cloth – the traditional way a prisoner lets the wearer know how many years he still has left to serve.

We arrive at the police station, a not unattractive Neoclassical building on an otherwise unremarkable sidestreet. Dmitry tells me that before the revolution, the station used to belong to the Horse Guards Regiment, who used it as their morgue. Arrestees sit in cells where the dead bodies once lay. Even in summer, the temperature inside never rises above 10 C.

Dmitry collects his Makarov handgun and two magazines of sixteen bullets, before finding out who will be his partner (naparnik). It is Yury, whose wedding he recently attended. Like Dmitry, Yury makes up his meagre earnings by moonlighting as a security guard at a car showroom. Police officers work one day on, two days off. The pay is 320 roubles (just over six pounds) for a twenty-four-hour shift. Ten shifts a month mean a nominal wage packet of sixty quid a month.

Dmitry and Yury are now responsible for their own subdistrict of seventy thousand residents (that’s the official number – the real figure is probably much higher). The equivalent of half the population of Middlesbrough is packed into aging blocks of flats, many of them built during the time of Catherine the Great. Once spacious apartments have since been divided and subdivided into tiny flats and communal apartments, in which up to thirty residents squabble over who has first shot of the single gas stove or evil-smelling toilet.

Dmitry tells me that he has always had a love of Britain and the English language, ever since he was at school and spent two weeks in London as an exchange student. Besides speaking English fluently, Dmitry is also a fountain of knowledge of the history of the district. As we swerve past the Mariinsky Theatre, he points out the house where children’s writer Arthur Ransome lived when he was the Observer’s foreign correspondent in Petrograd in 1917. So why did he choose a career with the police? “A neighbour who worked at the station suggested it. I thought why not? To be honest, I didn’t know anything about the police back then.” But why take such a difficult post? Couldn’t he find a nice cushy job guarding one of the city’s 123 museums – cups of tea and biscuits every half-hour from doting curators? “I want to help people. I need action. I don’t want to sit on my arse all day.”

Not much chance of that in this job. A report comes in of a body in the River Moika. Dmitry steps on the accelerator – the race is on to get to the scene of the crime first, before the representatives of the neighbouring police district. St Petersburg is criss-crossed by a network of rivers and canals, dividing the city into various administrative districts. Dmitry explains that a drowned body is, in Russian police jargon, a “capercaillie” – a crime that cannot be solved – and they have to constantly think about their statistics. Sadly we arrive too late. On the opposite bank, the police from the neighbouring district have already indicated to the river crew the nearest landing wharf – on our side of the canal.

Dmitry jots down a brief description of what the person is wearing and whether he thinks it was an accident, suicide or murder. Much of his day is spent examining corpses. Under Russian law, the police are called to every death. His partner tells me of one occasion when he was filling out his report and the “corpse” sat up in bed and grabbed hold of him: “I almost had a heart attack. My mates heard me scream and burst in with their guns, almost frightening the second life out of the poor old soul.”

Yury’s tale is interrupted by a report of a mugging outside the Vladimir Nabokov Memorial Museum. The victim is a German sightseer. St Petersburg is an increasingly popular destination for foreign tourists, who have a magnetic appeal for thieves and pickpockets. A favourite ploy of local con artists is to pass themselves off as policemen, before robbing people of their money and documents (fuelling popular prejudice against the force).

Not that foreign tourists are above making their own contributions to the local crime figures. Only last week, Dmitry brought in four Mancunians, who had given the locals a taste of traditional English yob culture by thumping a taxi driver and smashing up his car following a drinking session at the Senate Bar. While they chilled out in the “aquarium,” the glass-enclosed cage where minor offenders are held, Dmitry chatted to them about football (three of them supported Manchester United, his own favourite team, he recalls, while the other was a Manchester City fan).

The next three hours are largely spent wandering through interminable courtyards and up and down staircases. The majority of blocks have no lifts and those that do are broken. Dmitry tells me that by some mysterious law, fifty percent of all crimes are committed on the top floor of tenements, while thirty percent occur in the basement.

We spend ten minutes searching for one flat following a report of an assault and battery. When we find the right address, the door is answered by a kindly looking old lady. “Who called the police?” “I did, what kept you?” “What’s the problem?” “I have just been brutally assaulted in my own home – come this way!” She leads us into the flat and flings open a door: “It was him!” We look into an empty room. “Well, what are you waiting for? Grab him!” Dmitry and I exchange glances, as Yury steps forward. “You leave this to us, ma’am, we’ll deal with him.” He steps into the room. “All right, come along quietly, or it’ll be the worse for you.” We leave and descend the stairs, accompanied by our invisible offender. “That’s right!” the caller shouts in our wake, “Lock him up! Throw away the key!”

Our next job promises more action – a raid on a heroin den in the Haymarket. We cross Sennaya Square, popularly known as the “belly” of St Petersburg, in analogy to Émile Zola’s novel Le ventre de Paris. This is where the remorseful Raskolnikov went down on his hands and knees to beg forgiveness from the common people. One-and-a-half centuries on, the place still remains a hotbed of prostitution, pickpocketing, petty racketeering and pawnbrokers. The only redeeming feature, an eighteenth-century church, was pulled down to make way for an ugly Soviet-style underground station in the 1950s.

Dmitry tells me that the local pushers have got drug dealing down to a fine art. The system is so sophisticated that the only way the police can crack it is with the help of a baklan or “grass.” Admiralty District has no separate drugs squad, placing everyday officers like him in the front line in the fight against drugs.

An informer tricks the dealers into opening the door and Dmitry and Yury move in. Although they find two youths in a semi-comatose state and used needles in the kitchen, a crime is only committed when someone is actually caught in possession. They search the apartment for the stash of heroin – the most popular and accessible drug in Russia – but find nothing. Without sniffer dogs and with no time on their hands (four new calls have already come in) the most they can hope to achieve is to flush the dealers out of their own district.

Is St Petersburg really the “crime capital” of Russia? Dmitry doesn’t think so. “It’s just called that after a popular book by local crime writer Andrei Konstantinov, following a number of high-profile assassinations in St Petersburg. The number of crimes committed per capita is no higher than in any other city in Russia.” He too, however, has also been a victim of crime. “There was an attempt to burgle my flat early one morning, when I was out moonlighting. My wife heard a noise, got up, and they fled.” What are his views on first-time burglars? Should they be jailed? “Yes, they should. If a person has consciously embarked on that course, there is no going back for him. Those social and economic arguments that all the prisons are full or that they need rehabilitation won’t wash with me.”

Throughout our entire day, no more than forty percent of our time is actually spent fighting real crime. The rest is calls to schools on hoax bomb alerts or answering petty domestic disputes fuelled by alcoholism, boredom, or a combination of both. One violent quarrel has flared up because a husband and wife cannot agree who gets to sleep on which side of the bed. We arrive at one flat in the evening to find it is nothing more than a complaint about a leaking pipe. When Dmitry suggests calling a plumber or placing a bucket under the spot, the disgruntled caller launches into a tirade against the lazy ments “who do not want to lift a finger to help.” Tired of hearing all this for what must be the tenth time that day, we beat a weary retreat.

Why do Russians have such a poor opinion of the police? Dmitry thinks one of the reasons is their inbred distrust of any form of authority: “Before the revolution, the police were traditionally known as musor (trash). Soviet-era abuses did little to change that view.” Yury blames their media image: “The tabloid newspapers print sensationalist stories of policemen pushing drugs or accepting orders for contract killings. ‘Ment-bashing’ makes good press.” Surprisingly, the worst offenders are the state TV channels. Anxious not to tarnish the government or president for shortfalls on law and order, the official mouthpieces perpetuate the image of an incompetent and corrupt police force, deflecting attention from abuses of power closer to home.

But what about corruption in their own ranks? Dmitry does not deny it exists. One of the main problems is the practice of sending untrained conscripts from the army to “help” the regular police: “Bullying is rampant in the Russian army and each recruit sent to work in the police has to give his ‘elder’ 300 roubles (£6) a day. How he gets hold of that sum is his problem. The army also sets them a target of how many people they must charge each day. All this only encourages abuses. And as they wear the same uniform as we do, we get the blame.”

The hardest part of the job is never knowing what they are going to face when they are called out to a flat. The only way Dmitry can call for back-up is by using his own mobile phone – the police walkie-talkie remains in the car. We answer a call at 3 am from a woman who says she is being beaten up by her drunken husband. She opens the door for us and we find the man in a string vest, drinking vodka in the communal kitchen. At the sight of our police uniforms, he flies into a rage. “So the bitch has called you swine, has she?” he splutters, reaching for the nearest object. As ill luck would have it, this is a meat chopper...

We retreat back into the corridor, where a group of tenants – who had up until then been enjoying the spectacle – immediately break ranks and scatter back to their rooms like frightened rabbits. The husband advances towards us, red eyes bulging. Dmitry grabs the first object he can find, a ski pole propped up against the wall, and deals the man a neat blow across the back of the neck. But what if nothing had been at hand? “Then I would have been forced to use my gun...”

The police can open fire if their own or another person’s life is in danger. Although Dmitry brings his gun out of his holster, on average, once a month, he has not fired a single shot in all his ten years with the police. So could he do the work unarmed? “No way! We never know what we are letting ourselves in for, but at least when you are armed, you feel a little bit better. It boosts your self-confidence. And criminals think twice too.”

The long shift eventually comes to an end at 9 o’clock the next morning. Although the low northern sun has yet to rise, a new day is already beginning in Admiralty District. Before we split up, I ask Dmitry and Yury the two questions I have been saving for last. Does crime pay in Russia? Yury laughs: “Not on our shift, it doesn’t! Seriously though, most of the crimes we deal with are petty theft, which don’t pay.” Dmitry adds philosophically: “Everyone chooses his own path in life.”

What would happen to Felix Yussupov or Roddy Raskolnikov today? Dmitry thinks for a second: “Prince Yussupov? With his title and money! He would get off scot-free!” Raskolnikov’s case is harder. Yury thinks he would be banged away forever. Dmitry reminds him of the mitigating circumstances. “What mitigating circumstances?” “Well, he came to us and confessed, didn’t he? Eventually...”

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