Last week I took a shortcut through a small side street leading to Moscow’s central register office. Bad move. A typical Russian wedding is a very bling affair so the narrow lane was clogged with white stretch limos and several wedding parties in the act of raising vodka and champagne toasts to a gaggle of brides and grooms.
Fortunately I was on my motorbike, so I swerved to the only empty space – which happened to be the pavement – and drove along it for less than 15 yards. As I was about to rejoin the road, a door swung open and a man stepped out on to the pavement. Braking sharply, I managed to stop just in time.
The man – a stocky specimen in black designer sports jacket, suede shoes and sunglasses – turned on me. “Do you know what this building is?” he barked. “It’s the district’s local prosecutor’s office.”
He then demanded I hand him the keys to the motorbike and show him my papers. When I refused, he jumped in front of my motorbike and started making calls on his mobile. Of course I knew I was in the wrong; in fact my brief appropriation of the pavement would undoubtedly have earned me a fine in most countries in the world.
Unfortunately I had just managed to upset a representative of Russia’s infamous judicial system – a Moscow prosecutor. In Russia members of the police, the judiciary and the security services are, in most cases, considered to be above the law. It appears they can do no wrong and are accountable only to their superiors. A mere traffic fine was not going to suffice; I was in for a show of power.
Soon two burly men arrived, one flashing a police badge that identified him as a captain whose speciality was hunting criminals on the run. The prosecutor was still on his mobile: “We have detained a man who was driving a motorbike along a pavement. Send a car at once.”
Minutes later a plainclothes police officer pulled up in a four-wheel drive with tinted windows and told me to accompany him to the local station for ID checks.
As I was taken down a corridor, I was not exactly reassured by the presence of a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founding father of the Cheka secret police, precursor to the KGB. For a while I was parked in the militia captain’s dingy office, under a sign that read: “No smoking. Penalty 50 roubles” (£1). Then the captain came in, lit a cigarette and sat down next to a pair of handcuffs dangling from a heating pipe.
Clearly it was a slow day for criminals. As his bored colleague, a burly tattooed Chechnya veteran with only one front tooth, played with the office kitten, the captain typed up his version of events with one index finger. His creative flair more than made up for his poor typing skills.
“When I asked Mr Franchetti to follow me to the police station,” said his report, “he turned on his motorbike, pushed me aside, insulted me and tried to drive off, at which stage Mr Franchetti was detained and taken to the police station.”
Most Russians are aware that police officers systematically fabricate evidence and use force, torture and blackmail to extort false confessions. I have reported on such stories many times. Even the Russian justice minister, in a rare public admission, revealed that thousands of people are wrongly charged with criminal offences every year.
Now for the first time I was seeing the process unfold before my eyes. What struck me most was the ease and nonchalance with which the captain twisted a minor traffic violation into a case in which a police officer was now the victim. This was no sudden moment of creative inspiration; rather a talent fine-tuned from years of experience.
“You know perfectly well that didn’t happen. What’s the point of writing lies?” I asked.
“The point is that this is what the prosecutor’s office wants,” replied the captain. The man whose path I had crossed was the third most powerful figure in the district prosecutor’s office, I was told. He was also responsible for checking the work of officers posted at this very police station. The captain made it clear he was acting under strict instructions.
“You’ve been living here for a long time – you know the system,” he told me. “That’s how it works. We are not bad people, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Everyone seemed bemused by the prosecutor’s overreaction, but orders were orders. The men in the station were mere cogs in a repressive and corrupt system.
After six years’ service, the captain was earning £360 a month – a miserable sum in a city that is fast becoming one of the world’s most expensive. Married but without children, he said he needed more than four times that amount to support himself. Like most of his colleagues, he made up the difference by abusing his power.
Say, for example, you have been swindled by a Russian firm. Turning to a lawyer is one option, but taking a case through the courts is a lengthy and expensive process that in most cases is doomed to fail. Ask a man such as the police captain for help – and offer an unofficial backhander to motivate him – and your chances of success will be much higher.
In my own case, my best bet would have been to pull strings and conjure up someone powerful enough to call the prosecutor and dress him down. I would have been released at once – but such tactics are part of a subtle and dangerous game that can lead to greater conflicts and long-term moral debts that are best avoided.
For those with the right connections almost everything is considerably easier to achieve in Russia than in the West. Unless the conflict is with the Kremlin. And if you are a member of the Kremlin then you really are untouchable – unless of course you cross the president.
Ordinary Russians, though, with neither money nor influential acquaintances have no rights. Nor, it seemed, did I. Four hours into my detention a traffic policeman arrived. He filled in yet more paperwork about my traffic violation, then asked with a hint of sympathy: “Stepped on some big-ass toes did you?”
Next came an investigator from the Russian interior ministry, who announced he’d now be handling my case. I was asked to make a lengthy statement, which he took down by hand. By this time I had a small sense of how helpless people can feel once they are caught up in the system.
Then a more senior officer arrived. My grave offence – driving 15 yards on a pavement – had now involved nine officers. The new man said my deposition would not be valid. As a foreigner, I had to make it in front of an official interpreter.
This is another peculiarity of Russia’s perverse judicial system. The miscarriages of justice perpetrated by its officers take place within a strict legal framework that presents a semblance of legality. Officers who write up a false report will often fret about a minor legal technicality that could be construed as an infringement of the rights of the person they are framing.
Five hours after my encounter with the angry prosecutor I was finally released. The captain explained my case would be studied by an officer from the interior ministry who would decide whether to recommend pressing charges. At which stage I’ll have little choice but to go native and start trying to pull strings – the only way to solve such problems in Russia.
The simple lesson of course is not to ride a motorbike on a Moscow pavement. The more important point is that although Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, has vowed to reform the country’s judicial system and root out corruption, he has no chance of succeeding.
Sure, in the next year or two, new anticorruption laws will be passed. Some judges and police officers will lose their jobs, a few innocent people will be released from jail. But corruption is too endemic to vanish in one generation, and Russian justice will continue to be a highly selective process for many years to come.
The Sunday Times, 29 June 2008
* Mark Franchetti is the Moscow correspondent of The Sunday Times