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Russia Breaks My Brain
I don't understand this place, I just live here.
#12: The Mafia, Skinheads and My Teacher
Monday, February 9, 2004

Hi everyone, and welcome to the latest edition of The Weirdest Place on Earth. While I was back in the US, a number of people asked (or in the slightly more confusing instances, informed me) about the Mafia in Russia, and how it supposedly runs everything here. But since that'll be a pretty short subject, I'm also going to mention the crime that I or my fellow foreign students have actually encountered.

Ok, I'm sure the Mafia is around, and it probably does have it's hand in a lot of what goes on here. But if so, it's completely behind the scenes. You rarely ever encounter anything to even remind you of the idea that there's organized crime bosses around. Sort of. You do see fancy new cars driving around town, including a set of new, matching black Mercedes sedans....but those belong to the police.

I've heard a lot more complaints about the police (sometimes even joked about as the actual Mafia) than about any Tony Soprano-types. There's a tradition of the police demanding payment of "fines" on the street, and I know a guy here on the Fulbright that had most of his cash taken by the cops his first night in town. Usually it's because your documents are supposedly wrong somehow. This wouldn't seem so annoying though if the police seemed reliable in other ways, like protecting people. The very same Fulbrighter was then mugged shortly after the police let him go that same night.

Now I'm not saying that the police should have been following the kid as personal escorts. The real problem seems to be tied racism and the skinheads, which seems to have gotten worse after recent elections put a lot more "ultra-nationalists" in office. Fairly often I've read about foreigners being attacked by gangs of skinheads, sometimes beaten within an inch of their life. Recently a student from Africa was slashed multiple times during an attack, but the attackers focused on his face rather than areas that could have been more lethal, like his stomach or his neck. Humiliation and deformation instead of death. And here's where the police come in to all this...they don't.

There are lots of stories about ethnic minorities going to the police for help but only being considered with suspicion at best. Once a guy was actually fined for assault after defending himself against a gang. When asked about this lack of enforcement, the police have been quoted as saying that "St. Petersburg is no worse than any other city it's size" or even that "these minorities report these crimes to divert attention from their own criminal activities." Neat, huh?

Now it's true that it's a little weird for Russian's to get into the idea of being a Neo-Nazi since the Nazi's (often just called "fascists" here) aren't exactly popular in a culture that has "hero cities" which stood up against Nazi invasions in WWII. In practice, the skinheads here seem to just be extremely xenophobic. Any foreigner is bad, and the ones that look noticeably different are just the best targets, dark skin being the worst. There's actually even two terms for Russian citizens- Russkii is only an ethnic Russian (the pasty-white folks born here) and Rosinskii is for foreign ethnicities coming to Russia. So technically the population of Russia is growing thanks to immigration, but thanks to these sorts of terms, many people consider the Russian population to be shrinking. This comes into play in situations like the military, where non-Russkii's aren't trusted, and they are facing shortages of able-bodied men to guard the borders.

Now the blurring between skinhead attitudes and official policies here is a little misleading. I really don't mean to imply that everyone here is just a knife away from being a skinhead. That's not the least bit true. It's just that skinheads tend to have such a dramatic impact that they can dominate one's experience.

A good example of this is when my friend Louis went to Yekaterinburg, a city in the Ural mountains over Christmas break. He is from Switzerland, and was traveling with a French guy also named Louis. They went out on the train just to see what one of less touristy cities was like, although Yekaterinburg is still one of the largest cities in the country. One night they were walking through a pedestrian underpass when a group of youngish skinhead types grabbed something out of Swiss Louis' hand (a calendar featuring the pop group "Via Gra"). Louis demanded it back, and the skinheads started punching. In the end, both Louis' got away without serious injury, but also without the calendar.

Two days later, the Louis' were walking on the street in the afternoon when a group started following them, saying that French Louis was "too dark," and that they'd get/attack/kill/etc. them. French Louis of course isn't black. At best you'd say he had a Mediterranean complexion, if the lighting wasn't too good. But that was enough for the thugs, whom I'm guessing hadn't seen an actual foreigner in quite a long time. Once again there was some punching, but that was about it. Still, this was in broad daylight, and was enough to make the Louis' stay inside a whole lot more for the rest of their visit.

So the lesson here? It's really good for my health that I'm now scarily-pale. But even that doesn't always keep you out of trouble. My roommate from California was recently attacked by an old drunk man with a 2x4. He doesn't really know what set the guy off, but the guy actually chased my roommate swinging the 2x4 at him, then chased the mini-bus that my roommate got into to get away. "Do you owe him money?" the driver asked, before driving my roommate back to my dorm, even though it was off the normal route.

To get away from violent crime here, I'll move onto the Gypsies. Holy shit, are they bad news. Any quasi-romantic vision you may have of the fun-loving gypsy people, moving from town to town, playing music by their little gypsy wagons, has nothing to do with these people. I know it's stupid to make this kind of statement after criticizing others for racist attacks, but somehow the Gypsies here occupy a very strange and malicious place in Russian society. Much worse than those devious French guys.

Basically, the rule is never be within arms reach of a Gypsy. The further the better. Avoid them in the subway at all costs. Pickpocketing is done very aggressively, and sometimes as a group. Picture a lone Japanese tourist wandering off from the safety of his tour group as a mob of 20 Gypsy women descend on him from the alley. There is no slight of hand here, just a quick frenzy of hands, leaving the tourist with just the shirt on his back. Ok, they let him keep his pants too, but they did take his camera and his wallet.

I know of another American who was knocked to the ground by a group of teenaged gypsy boys (never men, as it's ok to fight men), although they only took her English/Russian dictionary. My roommate had a new camera taken from his pocket. Kristin prepares for this sort of thing by keeping used tissues in her outer pockets, and has had them stolen a couple of times. See what I mean by aggressive?

My personal experience with crime has been much less dramatic. This last weekend I had to pay a fine (a legitimate one, although it wasn't my fault!), and this minor little offense became an adventure in bueracracy. The address I was told to go to was actually a police station, but thankfully rather than fine me for trespassing, they cops were very friendly and gave me proper directions. Then I met with two women who entertained themselves by making fun of me while filling out my paperwork. Finally I was to make the actual payment, which of course meant standing in line somewhere else. In this case, it was the bank. They gave me slip of paper saying the address and "41" on it before sending me on my way.

The bank was ridiculous. After standing in line over and over again asking where I supposed to pay my fine, I finally figured out that 41 was not an office or cashier number, but a form number. A form that was to copy off the template on the wall, in duplicate. One of the pieces of information I had to copy was based on a map. You had to look at where you lived on the map, find the number corresponding to that region, then find that number on another form. That number led to you a 9 digit number to write on your form. No, I didn't figure that out myself. A Greek student that just happened to also be paying a fine was there, and he spoke English, thus completely saving my ass.

After paying the fine, plus 50 rubles for a processing fee, I was able to take my receipt back to the original office, which was of course closed for the day. This was to be expected, since they were only open 2 hours a day, twice a week. I'm guessing the rest of their time is spent filing all these papers somewhere where they'll never be looked at again. But anyway, the women had told the Greek student that they'd still be there, and that we should come in anyway. The rest (aside from some more cracks about my lack of Russian skills) went smoothly, so now my passport can finally be registered.

Finally, one last little tidbit about illegal activities. This one's pretty light hearted though, in pleasant contrast to the beatings and muggings and such. Today in class, my teacher had us translate a joke that mentioned marijuana in it (they use the word marijuana here)(and yes, the joke also mentioned someone wanting cake). Most people got it, except for the chinese students. My teacher was sort of panicked, she didn't know how to approach the subject at all. So after asking the rest of the class if you ate or smoked marijuana, she went on to describe that it wasn't a cigarette, but you smoked it and received a high, felt very good, comfortable, etc. The chinese student then motioned that you injected this substance? No, no, you smoke it. Pause. Thinking. Nodding. The student was satisfied. Having an English background is soooo helpful sometimes.

So that wraps up this darker version of the Bizarro World Chronicles. Next time there'll be much more fun stuff that has nothing to do with getting arrested or beaten. Although the way some of those Russian kids were sledding, the word "beating" definitely comes to mind.

-Angry Giant