Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
It was only a layover the other day at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, but it still made me tense.
It didn’t help that the uniformed Russian officer immediately began demanding to know the purpose of my trip, never mind that I was clearly not entering Russia and was therefore not his concern. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that I vowed years ago never to return to his country until and unless I obtained diplomatic immunity.
More or less on a whim, and as though I didn’t spend enough time in the classroom over the regular college semesters, I decided to spend the summer of 2002 studying Russian, a language entirely new to me. After a few weeks Stateside learning the rudiments, the cohort of us relocated to St. Petersburg for a few more weeks of immersion. When that finished at the end of July, I picked up my backpack and bought a train ticket to Moscow, hoping to see more of Russia and eventually to catch the Trans-Siberian Railway.
As soon as I arrived in Moscow, flush with excitement to be in the “Third Rome,” I headed out to Red Square, the heart of Moscow and the location of the Kremlin and the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral.
And as soon as I arrived on Red Square, a pair of policemen approached me. “Excuse me,” one cop said in heavily-accented English. “We want to see your passport.”
One of my professors had warned me about the “papers, please” approach. Unfortunately, in Russia, the police were within their rights to ask for papers. I took out my passport and waited for the other shoe to drop.
The officer took my passport. Turning to my visa to Russia, he announced, “There is a problem with your visa.” He put my passport in his pocket. “You must come with us to the police station.” Later I would learn to carry photocopies, but I was only a college student then. What I did know was that there was nothing wrong with my visa. Russia still had a Soviet-era law requiring foreign visitors to register with local authorities in each city visited. But the law only required registration within three days of arrival, not within three hours, which was about how long I’d been in Moscow.
For a moment I tried to protest and to point out the above. But either I could not make myself understood or, more likely, the policemen were determined to ignore me. Fondling their sidearms, they began to escort me toward a deserted alley. I looked up and saw half a dozen other foreign tourists receiving the identical treatment from another dozen policemen.
I would have preferred not to go to a Russian jail, and I remembered my professor’s advice in such a situation. “Officers,” I said with mock ceremony, “I’m terribly sorry about any problem with my visa. It won’t happen again. Is there any way I can pay a fine and not have to go to the station with you?”
I said this in English because I could not have said anything so complicated in Russian. The cop who had been doing all the talking looked at me for a second. “Fine? You mean penalty?” This was the English word he’d acquired for this purpose.
“Yes, a penalty.”
“How much is the penalty?”
He sized me up from head to toe. “Three thousand rubles,” he said.
How did he know? I had a total of three thousand and three hundred rubles on me. At the exchange rate at the time, three thousand rubles was a little under a hundred US dollars. Reluctantly I paid them. “Can I get a receipt?” I asked out of anger and mockery. They laughed. “Okay, but then what do I say if your friends stop me and demand money as well?”
They walked away without answering, still laughing.
I might have gone home there and then. But instead I decided that I would not let some corrupt cops stop me from seeing the Kremlin. And with the three hundred rubles left in my wallet, I could just afford a student ticket. I bought a ticket and left my belongings in the coatcheck.
When I came out from coatcheck, a policeman stopped me. “I want to see your passport,” he said.
“I just left it in there,” I pointed at the coatcheck. “You want to go in and get it?”
He waved me off, as if to say “forget it.”
So I was able to visit the Kremlin after all. When I came back out, I retrieved my daypack and began leaving the area as quickly as I could. But just a couple of streets over, outside the Russian parliament, I saw a quartet of young men in uniforms coming my way. As discreetly as I could, I tried to hide my face and turned down a side street. They ran and caught up with me and made a circle around me. Their uniforms weren’t police. The shoulder patches read “OKHRANA,” which means “security.” At least back in Tsarist days, the Okhrana was the secret police. I didn't know what branch of the security service the Okhrana was as of 2002.
“We want a present from you,” the leader of the pack said as one of his fellows ripped my backpack off my shoulder and began to go through it. “Ten bucks.”
Really? I thought. With all this ado, all they wanted was ten dollars? Sadly, I did have some US dollars on me. I kicked myself for not having left them in my room. And I didn't have a ten-dollar bill but only a twenty. What were the odds that these guys would give me change?
After that morning on Red Square, I spent my remaining two days in Moscow looking over my shoulders for anyone in uniform and meticulously staying away from them. Though I had hoped to spend more time in Moscow and in the surrounding historic towns, as soon as I could I bought a ticket on the next Trans-Siberian train leaving for Mongolia and China. I got the hell out of there and swore never to go back to Russia until, for one reason or another, corrupt Russian cops could never touch me again.
And the experience has informed my views on international affairs. Never in all of my travels, never in any other part of the world — not anywhere in Asia or Africa or the Middle East or Latin America — have I seen corruption as blatant as what I found in Moscow. Extrapolate that astounding rot across an entire body politic, an entire system of government, and what do you have? God help anyone foolish enough to get into bed with the Russian kleptocracy.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."