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Moscow Babylon March 7, 2006
Prime Time Robbery
By Mark Ames Browse author Email

I was robbed last week. What happened was I went into a "Prime" sandwich shop on Ulitsa Maroseika to get some lunch. Prime is this quasi-Western-style self-serve cafe where you choose your own pre-made sandwich from its open refrigerator.

I was in completely out of it when I entered due to overwork. I chose a "French Chicken" sandwich on a baguette, a bag of nacho chips, and paid the cashier. What I didn't know until later was that a man and a woman had cased me from outside the store -- they must have seen how dazed and foreign I looked. They followed me in about thirty seconds behind me, didn't order anything, watched me pay -- and watched me put my wallet back into my coat pocket.

I took a seat at a table near the back and slipped my coat off onto my chair. From the security video I watched afterwards, the couple followed and sat in the table behind me -- a man with dark hair and a weirdly chiseled face, and a woman in a knit ski cap and parka. He took the seat just behind mine, at first facing away from me, while her seat on the other end of their table faced towards me. When my cell phone rang and I was distracted, he turned around in his chair, dipped into my coat pocket, and pulled out my wallet. It was creepy to watch, in that semi-photographic black-and-white crime-cam you see only on TV shows ... After lifting my wallet, they both discreetly, without hurrying, stood up and walked out.

I didn't realize my wallet had been lifted until I got up to leave. At first I thought I'd left it on the counter when I paid because I knew I was in a daze. The cashier got upset, thinking I was accusing her of stealing it.

"Everything is videotaped," she said fearfully. "We can try to watch it and see."

Watching the tape not only creeped me out, it made me want to get Abu Ghraib on the bastards. There is something about getting robbed that brings out your inner Cro Magnon. It has nothing to do with the actual value stolen -- it's pure primal threat reaction. I wanted to murder, I wanted them to die horribly and in great pain -- to see them go to a Russian prison, catch incurable TB, and slowly, miserably suffocate on their own lung-blood.

With vengeance in mind, I had the Prime manager call the militsia. Incredibly enough the militsia arrived in 20 minutes, just as they'd promised over the phone. Two cops, one with his machine gun out, entered Prime and asked me what happened. I told them briefly, and told them that the whole thing was recorded on tape.

"Do you want to watch it?" I asked.

They avoided my offer, telling me to follow them out to their van. We powerwalked over the slick ice-moguls on Ulitsa Maroseika's narrow, crowded sidewalk. It was one of those raw late afternoons that makes the ice somehow more lethal than normal. People looked at me strangely, as if I was being hauled in.

A big militsia van was waiting for us. I sat in the back part, directly across from one cop, who held onto his Kalashnikov and looked at me. One of his molars was missing, but otherwise he had an oddly harmless, teddy-bear face. He explained to me several times that I needed to be more careful, not to put my wallet in my coat pocket, to always be on the lookout. "Moscow's a big, dangerous city. You can't relax here," he said. "It's like New York, isn't it?"

The cop in the front seat asked me if I thought that the van we were riding in was crap compared to an American van.

"No, it's fine!" I said. "I've been in much worse."

That wasn't the answer he was looking for; he stopped asking me questions.

The otdelenie was located below Pokrovka -- only ten minutes away as the pedestrian slides, but in a car, during peak traffic in Kitai Gorod, it took us nearly 30 minutes. We parked in a dark courtyard lot to a pre-Revolutionary building, in one of Moscow's nicer, older districts. From the outside, it looked fine -- but inside was a different story.

There was a small waiting room, run down and dark-paneled, with a glum Tadjik-looking guy sitting quietly on a bench. The room smelled like homeless people, sour and unhealthy. A cop behind an old, filthy teller window barked loudly, telling me to go to the second floor, room 7, to the detective's office.

I walked alone to the back of the precinct and to the stairwell. At the bottom, on a bench, sat two men with expressions that were either blank or wretched -- it's hard to tell with Russians sometimes.

There were three young "detectives" in the office I was sent to. A really depressing office, with an old fan, a crusty old air conditioner lodged in the window, and some late Soviet office furnishings, these useless cabinets that you can only find here.

One of the cops sat down with me and wrote out a zayavlenie of the robbery. He was incredibly slow and meticulous. I mean really, really slow, as if it was his first time, as if it was a test without time constraints. It took nearly an hour for him to write out a zayavlenie that filled up about 2/3 of a page of handwriting. Then he gave me a pen and piece of paper and we did something like a Russian 1B dictation exercise, in which he dictated a letter I should write to a senior detective, written in Russian in my own handwriting, requesting an investigation into my robbery complaint. I fucked the letter up several times, particularly when it came to declining his participles.

I kept telling him that there was a videotape of the robbery at Prime. But he and the other two colleagues avoided following up on the videotape question, as if they didn't want to hear it.

"Can you take a picture from the tape of the guy's face from the video and match it to a database?" I asked.

The cop told me, with some shame, "We don't have that technology here. It's not America. We can only match fingerprints."

"What can you do then about this?" I asked.

"We can give a description to the police on that beat. They can be on the lookout."

"It doesn't sound good," I said.

"The chances are pretty low, but it's possible," he said.

"Is there a lot of crime in the Kitai Gorod area, I mean comparatively speaking?"

Another cop laughed. "Yes, a lot of crime, yes."

"What kinds?"

"All kinds!" another laughed. "Everything, murder, robbery, violent crime, you name it."

It was clear now that I'd wasted my time. They were underfunded, demoralized, pissed off, and over their heads in crime...and here I was asking them to put out an APB for a guy who stole my wallet. I felt like The Dude, who asks the Latino cop who finds his car, "Do you have any, you know, leads or anything?" "Leads?! Ha, yeah! We got people workin' in shifts! Ha-ha-ha-ha! Leads?! Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!"

When we finished, a younger, more sprightly detective asked me about American football. It turned out that he had played for one of Moscow's top American-style football teams in the late 1990s, both as wide receiver and fullback. Russia's football teams are among the best in Europe, he assured me, and the sport was still growing fast, with dozens of teams and junior league teams, and a former league manager now representing a district in the Moscow City Duma.

The whole thing took me four hours, from the time I was robbed to the time I walked out of the building, and it left me exhausted. I didn't lose much money, but I did lose my credit cards, my California driver's license, and some crucial items like my Night Flight "Frequent Flier" card.

Everyone I spoke to afterwards told me that there was really no point in filling out a zayavlenie. One friend who'd been robbed and beaten a couple of times explained that the only reason to fill out a zayavlenie is for your own peace of mind. "The cops won't do anything at all," he said. "But you can make their lives difficult for not trying. They'll call you and ask you if they can close the case, which they need for their own purposes, but don't ever let them close it. It makes them look bad, which they deserve for not doing their fucking jobs."

Three days later I got a call from a detective. They wanted me to come down to the otdelenie to look at a lineup of potential suspects. "We may have caught them," he said.

"You have a suspect?" I asked, surprised.

"We want you to look at someone, a man," he said.

"But it was a couple," I said. I thought they probably just wanted to show me that they were doing their job, and had probably just nabbed some poor hachek who hadn't paid his bribe.

I got to the precinct at sundown. A cop with a machine gun, in fur cap and parka, stood guard in the courtyard near the door. "What do you want?" he asked. Seeing him out there with the Kalashnikov, alone and bored, made the precinct seem oddly vulnerable.

"I was called in for a lineup," I said.

I went inside and upstairs, where I was met in the dark corridor by the detective who filled out my zayavlenie, and another, cleaner-cut, smarter looking guy, full of energy and unexpectedly polite.

"Would you recognize the man or woman who robbed you if you saw them?" the smarter detective asked.

"I'd doubt it," I said. "I didn't see them rob me when it happened, just on the videotape afterwards."

"But you'd recognize their faces, right?"

"Well, no, I'm not sure. I don't think so. Only if I could compare."

"What do you remember about them?"

I realized not much. The couple seemed ordinary. The man had dark hair, a darkish complexion, kind of a mean face. The girl's face wasn't visible in the video tape, but you could see her knit skicap and her parka. That's what I told the detective.

"Okay, first I'm going to show you him. Take a good look. Don't be frightened either."

He opened the door to the office -- there was no one-way mirror. Inside was a tall, dark-haired man with handcuffs on. He stood up right away and smiled at me. We were a couple of feet apart, face to face. "Come on," he said, trying to look friendly and soft. He made some quip that made me actually laugh. "You haven't seen me before. Look at me." He turned to his side, giving me a profile just like how suspects do on those criminal shows on TV. It seemed as though he'd done this before. He was taller, bigger, and meaner-looking than what I remembered from the video -- and yet, weirdly enough, he had the same hard, chiseled features, and the same hair, to the extent my memory worked. I was kind of shocked -- I didn't expect it at all.

The detective led me back out into the corridor and shut the door.

"Is it him?" he asked.

"I don't know. When I first came here I thought there was a zero percent chance," I said. "But now, to be honest, he looks roughly like the guy I saw in the tape. I'd have to watch it again."

"So it's him?"

"I really can't say, but he does look like him."

The detective told me they caught the suspect after several robbery complaints in the same area of Kitai Gorod on Tuesday. "The same thing that happened to you happened to a lot of people. The criminals were operating there at that time rather brazenly."

The detectives set up a sting, the suspect robbed an undercover cop, and they arrested him and the girl.

"He's on the 'Wanted List' for a series of other crimes," the detective told me. "He's already done jail three times. A serious criminal. We don't know as much about the girl. Will you recognize her?"

"I only remember the hat and coat, but we'll see."

He brought me to the next room over and opened the door. The girl immediately stood up -- you could tell she was both scared and yet seasoned, maybe a veteran prostitute. She had neck-length red hair, a fine sharp nose, and very brown teeth. She tried smiling. "Look, you've never seen me before," she said, using almost the exact same words as he had. "Come on, we've never seen each other, tell them," she said, tilting her head and softening her voice. She fumbled around to put some clothes on. "I'll show you, let me dress so you'll see," she said, smiling, as if it was all one big misunderstanding. That was when I noticed the knit ski cap on the detective's table, and the parka on the back of the chair. They looked like the exact same cap and parka from the videotape -- and oddly enough, she avoided wearing them while putting everything else on.

The cop brought me out and shut the door. "It's not her, is it?" he said, changing tactics.

"Actually, I think it may be her," I said.

"But you couldn't recognize her, could you?"

"It's the same cap and coat. I want to look at the tape, but it looks like her. I can't believe this."

The cop politely walked me out and told me they'd be calling me soon. It was an amazing experience -- they really might have caught the thieves who robbed me. As one veteran journalist friend, also shocked, said afterwards, "Does this mean I have to rethink Russia? Are things really changing? Is shit starting to work here? I can't believe it, this will make my work much tougher!"

On my way home, I stopped into Prime and asked to see the tape again. I was told that the woman who runs the videotapes would not be in until Sunday morning, to come back then.

Sunday morning, I returned to Prime as agreed. A different manager was on duty. I told her how I'd been robbed while at Prime, and how I needed to watch the tapes again to help identify the suspects.

"But you can't watch them," she said.

"What? Why not?" I asked. "You already showed them to me."

"They've been erased. Our system automatically erases the video tapes every 24 hours."

"Even when a robbery's taken place in your store?" I asked, stunned.

She shrugged.

"But what's the taping for if not exactly for this?" I demanded. "How could you erase the tape of a robbery in your store!"

"I'm sorry, but this is how our system works," she said. "It is not my fault."

"I don't care whose fault it is, this is insane. What's the point of having a video security system if you erase tapes of crimes that happen in your store?"

"If you don't believe me, I could show you what we have in the computer now. Except that the video cameras stopped working last night."

"So it doesn't work at all now?"

"No, it doesn't work at all."

Private Western-style businesses were supposed to be the salvation of Russia, the way forward out of the sovok past. But in this case, it was the cops who had their shit together, and the new slick business, with its deceptive veneer and sovok modus operandi, which screwed my case up. For the first time in Russia I felt genuine sympathy and even respect for the cops -- they did their job, against what everyone, myself included, expected. As always, it's the guy -- or the slick business -- you don't suspect who always screws you over.

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