Election Week in Russia: Moscow, Present Tense

Fellows Spring 2004

By Nathan Hodge

June 02, 2009

MOSCOW—It feels like a scene out of a very bad Costa-Gavras movie. The police are out in force here, and it's a rather menacing sight.

Blame it on the Metro bombing: On Feb. 6, a powerful blast ripped through a packed Moscow subway train during rush hour. Dozens were killed, and the authorities pinned the blame on Chechen rebels, saying it was the work of a suicide bomber.

After my arrival on Feb. 22, I hopped a minibus to Voykovskaya metro (the fare's gone up: 7 rubles now, about 25 cents) then took the green line to the center of town. The platform at Voykovskaya was not particularly packed; it was a Sunday afternoon on a three-day weekend. But marching down the middle was a squad of MVD (internal ministry) troops in fatigues and fur-lined caps.

No big deal: I've visited Russia five times over the last 12 and a half years, and I lived in Ukraine for over two; I'm used to seeing people in uniform. After all, we're talking about countries that still have large conscript armies, so it's not unusual to see recruits marching around town or performing menial chores on the street.

I got off the train at Mayakovskaya station. This time the police presence was a bit more apparent. Every 20 meters or so along the platform, there was a uniformed man with a truncheon and a red armband: PATRUL ("patrol"). I was struggling along with my baggage—feeling a bit conspicuous, in fact—but I encountered no hassles.

Perhaps it helps to look European.

That night I went out for a stroll to walk off dinner and stave off jet lag. I walked out with my friend Masha onto Tverskaya Ulitsa, a big commercial boulevard in the center of town.

That Monday was a state holiday (Defenders of the Fatherland Day, formerly Red Army Day), so there was a sizable crowd promenading on the sidewalk. I walked east, and within a few blocks saw a small group of police officers; they had stopped an African pedestrian (an exchange student? a tourist?) and were inspecting his documents.

Not to sound jaded, but I wasn't exactly surprised. After all, this is a city where non-European foreigners?especially African students?often complain of harassment by the police. Mostly, it's just corrupt police looking to extract a bribe, much like the way Russian traffic cops often supplement their income by levying spot fines on drivers.

It's a familiar part of the scene. If I remember correctly, it figures in all the State Department travel warnings to Russia and the former Soviet Union. (The consular information sheet for Russia counsels visitors to "exercise caution in areas frequented by 'skinhead' groups and wherever large groups have gathered.")

So we walked on.

I elbowed Masha. "Did you see that?"

"Yes," she said. "But it's the first time I've seen it happen in person."

We resumed our gossip. Masha rather lightheartedly noted that she had been stopped twice on the street recently to have her passport checked. She's a native Muscovite, but she's dark-haired and looks like she could be from the Mediterranean. Laughing, she said, "They thought I was a shakhidka!"

Shakhidka, of course, being the Russianized feminine form of the Arabic word shaheed: martyr.

Walking under the pedestrian underpass, I noticed a pair of militiamen talking to two young women; one of them—dark like Masha—looked like she could have been from the Caucasus. Was this another passport check, or was this just two cops chatting up the pretty girls?

When we were headed back, though the subway underpass at Pushkin Square, another group of four uniformed cops had stopped another unlucky pedestrian. He was a gaunt man in black leather trousers, very Caucasian-looking. Was he Armenian? Georgian? Azerbaijani? Perhaps he was Russian, like Masha, but he clearly looked suspicious—at least to the police.

We kept on walking.

Moscow, to make clear, is not under martial law. On Monday night I took another walk down Tverskaya. It was a holiday, again (this time, International Women's Day), and everyone was out promenading, carrying bunches of flowers and open beers. The police presence was no heavier than in downtown Washington, D.C. On nights like that, the city has its allure.

But if you ask anyone from the Caucasus or Central Asia what it's like to travel to Moscow these days, you invariably hear the same word: khamstvo (boorishness)!

Russian hospitality, it seems, is under some strain.