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Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Friday, 26 October 2007 12:33 UK

Moscow Diary: Welcome to 'Wild East'

The BBC's James Rodgers asks if life in Moscow is really as dangerous as many Western visitors to the city think. He also ponders the logic of a nocturnal lost-baggage delivery service. His diary is published fortnightly.

IMAGE PROBLEM

"It's all Kalashnikovs, isn't it?"

Photo of Anna Politkovskaya near spot where she was murdered
The Politkovskaya murder further tarnished Russia's image abroad
My friend was coming to Moscow for a business trip. He was explaining what one of his colleagues expected they would run up against when they arrived on the streets of the Russian capital.

Like the empty shelves in Soviet shops, the "Wild East" image of Moscow is one that is hard to shake off.

When communism collapsed in the 1990s, the crime rate here rocketed. Muggings became much more common.

If the Soviet police state achieved one thing, it was to put the fear of terrible retribution into street criminals.

With that system gone, Moscow went from what felt like one of the safest big cities in the world to something decidedly more dangerous.

It was not just muggings. The hard men who were slugging it out for a share of the newly-privatised socialist state were happy to shoot each other as they did so.

Business people, diplomats, and journalists venturing to this strange post-Soviet world returned with tales that amazed and terrified their listeners: stories of "hits" carried out in the cafes of expensive hotels, or on the pavements outside casinos.

Even if there are fewer such contract killings now, the hired gun is still used to settle personal and professional scores in Russia.

Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who reported on the Chechen conflict with unrivalled detail and daring, was killed in the entrance to her block of flats a little over a year ago.

The deputy head of the Central Bank, Andrei Kozlov, had been shot dead as he left a sports hall a couple of weeks previously.

The English word "killer" has even entered the Russian language - especially in the lexicon of tabloid crime reporters - to describe the hit-men.

'HOOLIGANISM'

Street crime is a different matter. Some of you may disagree, but to me, much of Moscow today often seems safer than parts of cities in western Europe.

Gamblers in Moscow
Casinos symbolised Moscow's "get rich quick" mood in the 1990s
My friend was asking me what he and his two colleagues should beware of when they first arrived.

The first thing I warned them of was a scam practised on unsuspecting foreign newcomers by unscrupulous cops.

Their trick is to wait outside hotels for people they know have left their documents inside.

They then threaten them with arrest unless they part with what might be called an "on-the-spot fine" - or might equally be called a bribe.

There was even a newspaper report last year that a group of Moscow tour guides had written to the city's chief of police asking him to stop his officers shaking down their clients.

My second piece of advice was that he and his colleagues should take extra care if any of them was not white.

This weekend saw the latest killing of a non-Slav in an incident which appeared to be racially motivated.

The investigation is under way, and news reports suggest the police have identified suspects.

The problem is that in similar previous cases a conviction has not always guaranteed a long jail sentence.

Juries have taken pity on offenders for their youth, and found them guilty of the lesser crime of "hooliganism".

The authorities have tried to combat this - some of the more lenient sentences have been made more severe on appeal. The murders continue.

Moscow isn't the crime capital that some people seem to imagine. It does pose dangers to some foreigners they might not expect to counter elsewhere.

DISTURBING DELIVERY

I ignored the phone call at 0100. For a reporter, they are not that uncommon. But this was a number I didn't recognise.

I thought that it might have been someone playing "drink and dial" who had hit on a wrong number.

At 0522, the phone rang again. This time I took it. "I'm downstairs," said the voice. "I've got your luggage."

I went down. I had visitors from Scotland whose luggage had been left at Heathrow as they changed planes to fly to Moscow.

I had tried to track it down on their behalf, but with no luck. The phone number the airline had given me was permanently engaged. Now, here it was.

The flight it had been sent on had landed 13 hours earlier. The delivery driver seemed bemused by my frustration at being woken.

He explained that they collected lost luggage during the day, then delivered it at night.

Losing bags is enough of a pain in the neck. Losing sleep just makes it worse.

The driver's logic had a certain sense in a city where the daytime streets are often choked with cars.

It just made me wonder whether the UK-based airline my guests had travelled with knew their Russian partners offered this round-the-clock service.

My e-mails to them have gone unanswered.


Your comments:

On the subject of lost luggage, to be honest, I would consider the night-time delivery to be a rather clever and acceptable solution. It's better than having to wait in at home all day. Compare this service to that offered by Russia-based airlines who provide no delivery at all. Instead, you have to go back to the airport yourself, in person, when they call you, to collect your lost bags from the lost-and-found and then customs-clear them.
Christian, Moscow/London

Your guests were lucky James. I was in Moscow in July visiting my mother-in Law who lives near the city centre on Bernikovskaya Pereulok. BA left my luggage at Heathrow and I didn't receive it for eight days. Nevertheless it was still delivered at 1am! As far as street crime is concerned, I have seen very little evidence of it on my visits there and have never once been stopped by the police to produce my documents. However, a pedestrian was shot during a road rage incident close by just two weeks ago. I have never driven in Moscow, but the roads are truly scary, particularly the Garden Ring.
Eric Witton, Aberdeen

The only scam you missed out on when advising visiting foreigners is the grandfather of them all: namely the dropping of a wallet by an unsuspecting person, then a stranger comes along as the person who dropped it walks speedily away, and offers to split the proceeds! Once you get involved the other person coincidentally re-appears (often with a policeman also in on the scam) and accuses you of stealing the contents!
Simon, Kiev and Moscow

I have lived in Moscow for over 15 years as a foreign national. I would broadly agree that the biggest hassle and threat for visiting foreigners stem from annoying police document check scams (always carry your passport, visa and registration with you and never let them take money off you, even if it means a quick trip to the police station to argue it out) and street violence against non-white visitors. In addition I would say that the "civilised" centre of Moscow is generally safe from mugging and violence. Muggings, violence and break-ins against foreigners (and against anyone who appears to be remotely "different" or who has something worth stealing) are far more likely to occur in the suburbs of Moscow than the centre. These are areas which few visitors actually get to see.
Christian, Moscow/London

Russia needs to be understood on its on terms but there is a genuine lack of will for that. Russia is as European as it can get. I wonder how long it will take to understand that you can be European without being 100% Western.
Chavo, Sydney, Australia

This is so true. I spent the summer in Russia studying political and economic Russian specifically and more than half of the words were versions of English. My favourites (which were already mentioned) were marketing and manager. Although Public Relations follows close after (my teacher actually laughed as she said it to me because it really is just the English phrase with a Russian accent).
Elizabeth, NYC, NY, USA

I live in the US, and my "lost" luggage was delivered to my home at night time, funnily enough around 1am.
Marat, Bentonville, AR, USA

I just came back from a trip to Rio. Even in the worst times of crisis in early 90s Moscow was much safer. Generally, Moscow is very safe for a city of 10 million. I do not find it any safer in New York or London. Comparison of crime statistics in large cities would improve your article a lot! Also, recently we hear a lot about hate-crime in Russia. Would be nice to compare statistics for similar type of crimes in other large cities and to hear some analysis of the problem. I agree with your point about police. The collapse in the 90s created underpaid police and it seems better to avoid them unless totally necessary (which is, mostly, not the case in New York or London).
Yuri Boykov, London, ON, Canada

I enjoy visiting Russia but your comment about the threat of arrest brought back memories. With me it was with six railway police. Having your hands held behind your back while they rifle through your wallet is not an experience I would like to repeat. As for an on the spot fine or bribe they didn't bother, they just took all my cash. If only the cops were like the ordinary Russians.
John Stevenson, Cairns, Australia

Just a small remark: when it comes to lost luggage, western airlines behave in a similar way. Once in Washington DC, I got back my lost luggage after three days of waiting. It was brought to my hotel at 3am. During those three days I didn't manage to reach the airline hotline in the US. So it's not only the 'Russian way'.
Piotr, Torun, Poland

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JAMES RODGERS IN MOSCOW

James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow


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