It’s been a long time now, at least a couple of years, since I was last stopped by the cops in Moscow and asked to present documents proving my right to be in the capital of the Russian Federation.
But there was a period when this was a fairly frequent occurrence. The main reason for this was a law, now relaxed, which stated that non-Muscovites were only entitled to be in the city for three days without registration, something both difficult and expensive to obtain.
I had, of course, a visa and the appropriate registration. I would have been mad not to. Unfortunately, though, I often left these tiny pieces of paper at home.
Although I can’t say I particularly miss being hassled by the cops, routinely referred to as musor (garbage) throughout Russia, I must admit that I sometimes got a buzz from these minor battles of wills and wits with the badly-paid representatives of Russian state power.
A small pleasure, granted, but one that often put a spring in my step for the next, I don’t know, 25 minutes or so.
The last time I was cornered, without docs, was at Kursk station, one of the city’s main train terminals. I had just seen a friend off on a trip down south when two cops – a young one and an old one - nabbed me. They went through their legally obligated duties of saluting me, and then demanded to see my documents.
“Uh, I don’t have them,” I began. “I left them at home.”
The older one made a disapproving ‘tsk’ sound with the side of his mouth. “That’s a pity.”
The younger one, his face heavily pockmarked, looked me up and down. “Where are you from? You’re not Russian.”
“England,” said the older police officer, as if he had been waiting his whole life for this moment. “You like Freddie Mercury?”
A number of Russian males of a certain age have a deep respect, even love, for the late and extremely camp Queen vocalist. I have never been able to figure this out. Lots of them, including the older cop, even have moustaches, which, while not quite so outrageously gay, bear some relation to The Merc’s. (Did people call him that? I’m not sure. If not, they should have.)
“Well, not really.”
Moustache Cop was crestfallen. Perhaps, I should have lied. But you can’t live your life like that. I mean, you start pretending that you enjoy Queen, that you wet yourself with joy every time “Bohemian Rhapsody” comes on the radio, and the next thing you know you are working the night shift as a guard at a concentration camp, making out you don’t notice the plumes of human-smelling smoke that puff out of the “shower room” every now and then. Compromise is a terrible thing. Better not to start on that slippery slope.
“Look,” I began, cutting to business, “maybe I can pay a ‘fine’?”
Cops love sarcasm. Ever noticed that? I mean, worldwide. Perhaps it’s part of their training, or something. The older cop stroked his moustache again. I could hear his brain ticking over; sarcastic answers forming, being rejected. Eventually, though, probably against police protocol, he simply asked, “How much would you pay as a “fine” in London, uh?”
“I wouldn’t have to show my documents on the street in London.”
“It’s true,” I continued. “You aren’t required by law to carry ID in England. Yet.”
The younger cop, obviously bored by our discussion about comparative civil rights, interjected with a long drawn-out sigh. “OK, OK, whatever. How much?”
“One hundred roubles?”
At the time this was about the price of two beers, and the going rate for such an offence.
“Are you winding us up? I could get that from any of this lot,” he countered, waving his arm dismissively at the mass of his fellow countrymen trudging through the station.
“Of course, he’s joking,” said the older one. “Haven’t you heard of the famous English sense of humour?”
Many Russians are under the impression that English humour is a most mysterious thing, Zen –like in its abstractness, seemingly possessed of nothing amusing, and the shops are full of books entitled ‘1000 English Jokes,’ and so on. The jokes they contain are, indeed, most unfunny. I have never heard any of them told in England. I often get the impression that they are compiled by otherwise unemployable guys in small flats in Russian provincial towns.
My only option was to go to the police station with them, and have my registration checked out. I had already done this once, and I knew that the process, complete with bribe negotiations, could last for hours.
“One hundred and fifty?” I said. “Look, I’m not so flush right now.”
They glanced at each other, and the older, after quickly checking around him, stuck out his hand. I placed three crumpled fifty ruble notes on his palm, and with a curt, “Don’t leave it at home next time,” from Moustache Cop, they were gone.
I didn’t hang around either.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.