November 30, 2011 Meet the Militsia

Posted in Rodger's Russia Book | Posted by rodger |

I’ve described the traffic police before. They are basically self employed ruble fishers who stand by the road and do legal extortion. To be fair, most of the people they stop are guilty of a traffic violation and taking bribes is the only way they can make the rent.
I have liked the few that I have met personally, but have dreaded meeting one on the job. I didn’t think it was probable here in Prochlodney because I’ve never seen a cop here more than a few feet from the police station and traffic seems to be a total anarchy, but I learned that there is an exception.
Larisa and I were leaving the car bazaar on Saturday when I saw a car for sale on the other side of the road. I made a particularly wide turn at the next corner and went over on the shoulder to wait for an opening to turn around. Larisa instantly became mildly hysterical, “What are you doing you idiot? That’s a policeman there. Now he wants you to pull over!!!!” (She doesn’t usually call me an idiot, but she has a Russian’s common terror of police).
I didn’t see a policeman, but there was a guy standing on the side of the road in blue coveralls waving something at me with his right hand. He wore a neat little military cap and, oops, carried a neat little short stock Kalashnikov under his left arm. That’s a cop.
Larisa later explained that they stood outside the car bazaar every weekend because there were hundreds of cars going by and most of them were from other jurisdictions. Cops here prefer to ticket outsiders because you don’t have to see them next week in church.
As I passed over my passport and international driver’s license, Larisa said he was stopping me because I didn’t have my seat belt on. The official fine is 500 rubles ($15) and most cops demand 300 to let you go. All bets are off, however, for foreigners.
As the young cop looked at my documents he started to laugh. He looked back at this older supervisor and said, “It’s an American!” By that time I could see the older policeman over his shoulder. It turned out to the husband of our landlord, who also laughed and said something like “Yep, that’s our American.” The younger cop handed by documents back and waved me on. As I left he laughed and shouted out,”American. Next time, one hundred dollars, No, five hundred dollars,”
Apparently a lot of people in Prochlodney/Premalka know that there is one, and one only, American in town. I don’t think that it would have gotten me off from a serious ticket, but being a town curiosity was good for a seatbelt violation.
The “Whew” was premature. That was yesterday. This morning I had to run an early errand, so I left the apartment about 8:00. Little did I know that this would be the day that the police would begin to enforce the new law requiring headlights to on whenever you are driving – including in the daytime.
The police were beside the road less than a mile from the house flagging down car after car whose headlights were dark – including me. This was going to be a day that paid everyone’s rent. I was a little nervous about being stopped a second time in 24 hours and the sun was low enough on the horizon to blind me with glare as I tried to pull to a stop in front of the line of parked cars. My windshield was a complete white out. I almost made it, but the sound of my right side scraping along the front of the taxi parked there was loud enough for everyone, and every cop, in the neighborhood to hear.
I got out of the car and handed my documents to one of the policeman. I didn’t need a translator to understand the phrase that had to mean, “What kind of idiot runs into a car in front of a cop? Are you freaking blind or just completely stupid?” He was definitely NOT in a good mood.
I told him that my Russian was bad and called Larisa on the cell phone. She told him that she would be there in 15 minutes and he told me to sit in the car and wait. I think that if my Russian was better he would have told me to sit in the car and wait, AND NOT TOUCH ANYTHING. While I was waiting, another cab showed up and the person in it looked at the damage to the cab that I had hit and discussed it with the driver.
I sat and worried. I figured that I had done three or four hundred dollars (12,000 rubles) of damage to the cab, but I am an American and I did do it right in front of a cop, so the sky seemed to be the limit on damages.
After about 10 minutes, Larisa showed up on her bicycle and spoke briefly to the cop, and then the two of us approached the taxi driver and his supervisor. In Russia, if the two parties to an accident come to an agreement, it does not need to be officially reported. I figured these guys were going to split whatever the damages were and never tell the cab company what happened. I hoped that they didn’t have any big bills to pay.
The first thing the supervisor said was that he estimated the damages at 3000 rubles ($100). I had to shush Larisa with one hand while I reached for my wallet with the other. She wanted to bargain, but I got off on a stupid accident – in front of a cop – for a hundred bucks and I wasn’t going to argue.
I handed over the money and we waited for a few moments for the police to come over. He stood between us and looked first at taxi driver, “Do you have anything more for this man?” pointing at me. The driver said “Nyet”. He then looked at me and pointing at the taxi driver asked “Do you have any problems with this man?” When I said “Nyet”, he made a hand washing gesture between us, held a palm up to each of us, said “Done” and walked away.
Larisa, never one to leave well enough alone, followed the officer to ask about my ticket for no lights. Just to make things better, she told the officer who was already in a bad mood that we would not pay a bribe, but we would pay a legal ticket if he wanted to write one. Ain’t she sweet? The officer made a sour look at me and said, “He’s had enough trouble for today. We’ll let it go this time.”
So, I got off from one ticket because I am a curiosity and one because they felt sorry for the idiot. I will definitely drive more carefully in the future. I’m running out of excuses.
Russian Travel Tip of the Day
Russian shaving cream and Russian toothpaste do not taste anything alike, despite the fact that they are packaged in identical looking tubes and placed side by side on the bathroom sink.

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