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A Few Bad Men

A demonstration for police reform in May 2009
The following reader comment (from Brian in Colorado) was posted to my recent story on whistleblower cop Aleksei Dymovsky:

Dymovsky's allegations ring very true to anyone who has ever spent any time in Russia, outside of luxury hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The comment that "The public fear the police even more than hooligans and criminals" jibes completely with my experiences in Russia. It should also be said that the public fear the police much more than hooligans and, especially, criminals do.

Although, I personally, only experienced minor and humorous bribery requests from the Russian police, the experiences in Russia of other American acquaintances with the corrupt and incompetent legal system makes me somewhat afraid to again visit a country whose hospitality and culture I very much enjoyed, at least not until Putin and the siloviki have been deposed and/or jailed.

Having lived in Russia throughout most of the 1990s, I can say that this comment is spot on.

But the problem of corrupt and abusive cops long preceded the rise of Vladimir Putin and the siloviki and it will probably not go away once they leave the scene. In fact, it was endemic throughout the supposedly liberal years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency.

Reading this comment, I was reminded of a summer night in St. Petersburg in the late 1990s. Some friends and I had just finished dinner at a downtown restaurant and decided to go for a walk. Somebody suggested we stroll down Nevsky Prospect, the city's bustling main drag. But a Russian friend quickly nixed that idea saying he didn't feel safe walking down Nevsky at that hour. "There are too many police there," he said.

Everybody nodded in agreement. We walked down the Fontanka Embankment instead.

Reflecting on the exchange later, I was bothered that I had internalized this fear of the police that is second nature to many Russians. "I've been in this country too long," I thought.

The fear was nonetheless rational. Most of us had had unpleasant experiences with the police ourselves or knew somebody who had.

An American accountant I knew was robbed twice by police officers. A Finnish journalist was snatched off the street for no apparent reason, and taken to a police precinct where he was brutally beaten and robbed. A Russian friend was picked up and press ganged into the Army.

A favorite trick in those days was for police to stop somebody for a routine document check. After examining your papers, they would then say they had to inspect your wallet for narcotics (because everybody hides narcotics in their wallet, right?). During this "inspection" they would then take any money they happened to find and hand the wallet back. It was brazen and there was little one could do about it. You had two choices: either let them get away with it or make a stand and risk being detained for resisting a police officer.

One Russian photographer I knew told me how his brother was fired from the traffic police for not taking bribes. Every cop on the street, he was told, was expected to collect bribes -- and turn kick most of the proceeds upstairs to their superiors.

This, in fact, is a metaphor for how Russia's whole economy works. The only difference between the Yeltsin and the Putin era is that the system has become much more centralized -- and expensive. Russians now pay an estimated $300 billion in bribes annually -- a tenfold increase over 2001.

This problem is not a matter of a few bent cops. It is systemic.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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