Last weekend I was doing a bit of shopping, which took me all over the city center by metro. I had my camera with me, and took advantage of the multiple stops and transfers by taking photos of some gorgeous underground stations.
Komsomolskaya Circular boasts one of the most beautiful Moscow Metro pavilions. The stop is linked up to a major railroad hub, which includes three long-distance rail stations plus a commuter rail, and certainly makes an impression on a weary out-of-towner setting foot in the nation’s capital for the very first time.
As such, it is teeming with police, keeping a close watch on illegal immigrants, potential security threats and…possible sources of extra income?
One such enterprising gentleman approaches me in the middle of my photo-sesh. He is sporting the most smug, self-satisfied grin on his round, ruddy face, which suddenly is hovering about four inches above mine from atop his 6-foot-2, 250 lbs frame.
– Ma’am, are you aware that the Metro is considered a ‘closed object’? (= restricted area)
– Is it, now? What does that mean?
– That means that photography is not allowed in the stations.
Now, I know that this is complete and utter bullshit, so right away I know where he’s going with this. Next up he’s going to ask me for my passport, he will check it out and tell me that my “documents are not in order.” That’s the standard line that the extortion-oriented law enforcement folk feed to the foreigners or the out-of-towners. Then he would tell me that I need to pay a fine if I do not want to be taken to the metro police station for a thorough interview.
Ha. As if. We never got to the documents part.
Instead I say:
– Actually, I think it means that you’re full of crap, because the Metro is a public space where photography is allowed, as it says so in black and white in the Rules and Regulations of the Use of the Moscow Metropolitan posted in every station and metro train car. But of course you figured: a rail hub, a camera – got to be some naive out-of-towner who doesn’t know the law. I DON’T THINK SO.
And I walk away while he is still picking up his jaw off the floor.
Sadly I know that in Russia incidents like this are a dime a dozen, especially for expats and tourists. I’ve read a blogger’s account where he pretended to call the British consulate when a crooked Metro cop told him that his documents were not in order, and that he better pay up. It worked out for him – the policeman told the dude to carry on.
But I think I have a better tactic, and one that doesn’t involve being a smart-mouth or carrying a Moscow residency passport.
Say yes to the fine.
You heard me right. Say that you will pay the fine. Then ask the officer to issue a ticket for the alleged violation. If your docs are fine and if you hadn’t broken any serious laws, I’ll bet half a kingdom that he won’t.
Here’s the deal with proper fines: all of them have to have a paper trail and all of them have to be paid to a ‘higher authority,’ through a bank. This is pretty much the opposite of what your wannabe-extortionist wants. He is relying on intimidation tactics to get you to hand over a couple of thousand rubles nice and quick.
Issuing a fine means that 1-he is not getting the cash, which is his sole purpose for stopping you if you hadn’t actually done anything wrong; and 2-he has to give up his identity, thus exposing himself to a potential investigation should you contest the fine (issued on a basis of a fake charge) and/or report the incident to a higher authority.
Unfortunately there is still a lot of corruption in Russia’s daily life, but now there are also real efforts to fight it, and more and more I am seeing evidence of authorities really caring about the welfare of the people – which is why a cop won’t bet his career on such a high risk, zero reward move. No money, mo’ problems.
And off you go, on your merry way, cash still in your wallet.
So, if you are in Russia* and are being told to pay a fine, on the spot, please remember this phrase, and repeat it over and over to a jackass who is trying to take advantage of you: “Vypishete shtraf, pozhalujsta.” “Write out the fine, please.” As I said, he won’t.
*I think this tactic can work in many other countries with questionable law enforcement practices. At the end of the day, all they want is a quick payout and anonymity, and an official fine issuance takes away both. Just remember to operate under a very reasonable assumption that all fines have to be paid and processed through proper channels – after all, the legislators writing laws and the bureaucrats administering punishments do not want to be robbed of their share either.