The police are known by a lot of different names, but here in Russia there’s only one word: militzia. There are a few rules that go with encountering the police:
1) Don’t look at them.
2) Don’t take pictures of them.
3) Don’t speak English (or anything, really) within earshot.
4) Don’t look too suspicious.
5) If they stop you, do as they say.
Well, I’ve been able to try out 1-4 the last few weeks, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I could do #5. Let me spell it out for you.
I was walking with some friends. The green man telling us we could walk had just disappeared; my friends sprinted across the street (even with stationary red man telling them to stay put). Somewhat zoned out, I decided to wait it out. I waited for the cycle to go back to Mr. Walking Green Man and crossed the street with the light and rejoined my friends. We began walking.
Walking, I saw a man in blue start walking in our general direction from about 20 yards away. Although I didn’t really have any reason to believe so, I said to my friend “Sh!t, I think he’s coming for us.” Sure enough, he came over to us and sorta gave off the signal for “stop walking and listen to me, right now.” He pulled his nightstick out (pretty unnecessarily, but whatever) and strapped it onto his shoulder.
He launched into a pretty long speech in Russian, in which I understood a bit – mostly, to paraphrase, “don’t walk against the light.” He looked at us expectantly and we all did the same thing (completely unplanned and uncommunicated, I should add): started laughing and saying “We don’t understand, our Russian is bad” – in English. A risky move, to be sure, but one that had actually been advised to us if we’re stopped by the police. You might wonder why, but there’s actually a good reason.
The police in Russia are known to be pretty corrupt. Bribery is rampant and you’re more likely to get help on the street from a babushka than from a police officer. Sometimes the police just approach people to be bribed into not pressing some bogus charges; speaking English (which most police don’t speak/understand) has been known to scare off such corrupt officers, who frankly don’t want to have to work that hard to get petty cash. Another reason to speak English after being approached rather than Russian is that you don’t want to agree to something because you’re cocky about your own Russian skills and find yourself in dire straits.
At first it seemed like speaking English had been a bad idea. He immediately asked to see our documents and we all scurried into wallets, bags, etc. to find copies of our passport and visa information.
However, he didn’t really even look at them – we think he was probably just trying to scare us a little.
Our police officer friend understood a little English. So he illuminated the situation for us.
“You, you, you, and you,” he said in English, pointing to everybody in the group but me, “crossed the street in red,” he continued in Russian.
“You crossed in green,” he said in Russian, pointing to me. “Excellent,” he continued.
Next he pulled out, from his pants pocket, a pocket lawbook. Seriously. He opened it and flipped some pages, finally arriving on the page that basically said you can’t jaywalk. There is a fine for jaywalking, and, as our resident director has told us, there is a really complicated process to pay such fines. Luckily our friendly fuzz didn’t fine my friends.
He told us that because we were his guests (he actually said that) he wouldn’t fine us (or rather, them – he still liked me for crossing correctly)…this time. But he did warn us not to do it again. We thanked him (why?) and went on our way.
It was a pretty scary situation but it ended up all right. I think that we’re probably the better for it, actually. It’s probably better that the first time (if any time…) I got stopped by the police here in Russia was with friends, so I now sorta know what to expect the (possible) next time it happens. We also got extraordinarily lucky that our policeman considered us “guests” rather than “invaders” or “foreigners,” prime bribe targets.
The truth is that a run-in with police is almost inevitable here. Unlike the US police, Russian police can ask for your documentation with no more reason than a whim, and a single foreign-looking person (or, lucky for me, someone who looks like he’s from the Caucus region (Chechyna, Georgia, Azerbaijan, etc.) is really a prime target.
But, I am alive and well, happy and tired. I played soccer today for a solid two hours (with fellow Americans – no Russians, unfortunately, I guess they took the day off) and am quite worn out as a result. I have to get up early for ANOTHER medical exam tomorrow morning – if I see tape, I’m going to sprint away as fast as I can.