Sunday, January 9, 2011

Fleeced: My Run-in with the Russian Police

By Alex Dvorkin, 2008-10
(Lead Teacher, 2009-10)

When I got on the bus from Kislovodsk to Moscow, I was relieved to learn that this time I would not be sitting next to someone who’d been drinking. On my ride from Moscow to Elista some ten days earlier, I’d had the misfortune of sitting next to a Kalmyk who—only one hour into the twenty hour drive—asked me if he could relieve himself in my almost empty bottle of water. On my return trip, the beautiful Karachay girl who was sitting next to me as our bus pulled out of Kislovodsk didn’t look like someone who was going to present similar problems. The ride would be long, boring, and not very comfortable, but I didn’t have anything to worry about.
I was wrong.

When we pulled into the Caucasian Mineral Waters bus station, a police officer boarded our bus and began to inspect everyone's documents. The suicide bombers responsible for the March attacks on the Moscow Metro had come to Moscow from the Caucasus by bus, so the checking of documents didn’t come as too big a surprise. I had my passport, visa, and registration: all the documents I needed. I was not expecting there to be any problems.

Unfortunately, problems don’t care about whether or not you are expecting them.

It all happened so quickly. The police officer finally reached me. He asked for my documents. I promptly produced them. He asked me what I’d been doing in his neck of the woods. I told him I’d been traveling on vacation. He asked me what I was doing in Russia. I said I taught English. He asked me where I taught. I answered honestly. Next, he asked if I was receiving a salary there. I respectfully answered that I was. Where, he then followed up, was my work authorization card? When I told him I didn’t have one, he asked me to get up and follow him.

At this point I started to get a little nervous.

The plastic card he was telling me I needed sounded legitimate to me. During my first year at the American Home, I was given just such a card. Why, I started to wonder, wasn't I given one this year? Perhaps the American Home had forgotten. Perhaps they’d decided to try and put one past the bureaucrats.*

I’d heard all sorts of horror stories from my students about corrupt police officers in Russia, so I was a little skeptical of this officer’s claim that I didn’t have all of the necessary documents. On the other hand, I distinctly remembered being issued a card the previous year just like the one this guy was describing to me. It sounded plausible and legitimate.

So, what was I to do? My first thought was to call someone from the American Home, but this wasn’t an option because the money on my cell phone had run out due to the exorbitant roaming charges I’d incurred during my travels. I thought about suggesting to the officer that he might be mistaken about my needing a work authorization card, but that seemed to come dangerously close to charging him with dishonesty or corruption. Such a charge might offend or provoke him. I definitely didn’t want to do that.

As I was mulling over all of this, the police officer suggested we move our conversation to his car, which we turned out to be standing next to.

Inside the car I explained to the police officer that I’d been given a work authorization card the previous year, but unfortunately not this year. His response to this was that I seemed like a nice guy, but that this didn’t change the fact of my being in violation of Russia’s immigration laws. According to the officer, I would have to pay a five thousand ruble fine in Moscow within the next twenty four hours. If I didn’t pay it, I faced the possibility of having my visa ‘liquidated’ and being forced to leave the country.

I looked out the window at the Moscow-bound bus where I hoped my backpack was sitting undisturbed. I remember wishing that there was some way to just make this whole mess go away. Maybe I was dreaming. I'd count to ten and suddenly find myself magically transported to an empty train on the Moscow Metro humming towards Kursky station. Yes, I'd just count to ten and this whole hassle would simply be gone. One, tw…

“So,” the young police officer interjected, “what are we going to do?

“Well,” I said, “I guess I’ll pay the fine if that is what is required of me.”

This answer didn’t seem to please the police officer. He repeated the same question, this time asking it in a way that suggested there might be an easier way out.

When I didn’t answer, he became more direct and asked me if I had “any propositions.”

At this point it became pretty clear what he was getting at. He wanted a bribe. I didn’t want to give him one, of course. But I also didn’t want to deal with any bureaucrats back in Moscow. What I wanted more than anything else was to get out of this police officer’s car and back on my bus. So, I pulled out my wallet and peeked inside. Three crisp thousand ruble notes. More bad luck. I’d have to start by offering him one thousand, the equivalent of about thirty dollars—a pretty significant sum.

I took one of the bills out of my wallet and showed it to my ‘captor.’

The police officer shook his head. I had clearly disappointed him.

In a kind, almost mentorly tone, he explained that since the fine imposed on people without work documents was much more than a thousand rubles, he couldn’t accept such a small sum. The way he said it, you might have thought that he was turning it down on principle. It seemed as if he was telling me, “I’d love to let you off for just a thousand, but I just can’t. There are rules, you know.”

After having my offer shot down, the first thought that popped into my head was whether or not he’d consider changing a thousand. Maybe fifteen hundred rubles would work. In my mind’s eye, I saw him press the button that usually turns on the radio. Only this didn’t turn on the radio. The steering wheel suddenly opened and a cash register on springs shot out. The police officer pushed a button. Kaching. Before I could even bat an eye, the officer had snatched both thousand ruble bills from my hand, deposited them in the register, counted out five crisp hundred ruble bills, and placed them back in my outstretched hand.

“Would you care for a receipt, sir?”

It must have been the sheer outlandishness of those words coming out of a Russian police officer’s mouth that brought me back.

The police officer looked at me with a puzzled look on his face, “I’m sorry, but one thousand rubles is not enough.”

I opened my wallet and took out another thousand. This elicited an approving nod of the head. I took the two bills and held them out to the officer. Shocked by my lack of discretion, he politely asked me to place the money on the dashboard. Clearly, he was worried about someone seeing us. I guess this way he could say, however implausibly, that I had put the money there while going through my wallet in search of my work permit. I later learned that this is standard bribe taking procedure for Russian cops.

I got out of the car with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt relieved that I wasn't going to miss my bus and be late for the start of the summer semester at the American Home. On the other hand, I felt angry and frustrated at my own powerlessness because I suspected that I may very well have just been cheated. At the same time, considering the circumstances, it wasn't clear what other alternatives I had.

When I returned to Vladimir and told my story to the Russian staff at the American Home, they confirmed my suspicions. Teachers don’t need work permits in Russia. I’d been had.

During my two years at the American Home, I covered a lot of ground: Alexandrov, Yekaterinburg, Elista, Gus-Khrustalny, Istra, Kazan, Kiev, Kislovodsk, Kostroma, Murom, Nalchik, Nizhniy Novgorod, Omsk, Orel, Pereslavl-Zalesskiy, Plyos, Pskov, Pyatigorsk, Rostov Velikiy, Ryazan, Sergiev Posad, Smolensk, Tomsk, Tula, Velikiy Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Yurev Polskiy, Zheleznovodsk. After the end of my last semester, I went on an unforgettable hiking adventure in the Altai Mountains.

I hope my story doesn’t dissuade you from traveling in Russia, for many of my fondest memories are of my time on the road. In addition to all of the amazing things I saw during my travels, I also had the pleasure of meeting a number of fascinating people. There was the Kyrgyz man I shared a room with in Tomsk. There was the Buddhist monk from Ulan-Ude I met on an eastbound train. And how could I forget the gregarious and inquisitive young Kalmyk man who sat down between me and that drunkard en route to Elista?

So, travel, but be safe. Know what documents you need and always make sure you have money on your phone in case you find yourself in an unexpected situation. If you travel as much as I did, you might find yourself in a difficult situation from time to time, but the good will in all likelihood outweigh the bad. It certainly did for me.

Have a good trip! Schastlivogo puti!

*Alex’s blog post about the castle in the photo:

NOTE: According to Oxana, the AH’s Assistant Director and “expert” on “required documents,” when the Federal Migration Service decides that we qualify to hire “teachers,” under Russian law they do not have to obtain “work permits.” In 2008-09, apparently to be on the safe side, bureaucrats who were new to the job decided that we were not allowed to hire “teachers.” The next year they decided that we were an “educational institution” which was allowed to hire “teachers” and, therefore, work permits were not required. This year, because of a delay in renewing our “educational” license thanks, in part, to a changed interpretation of the “rules,” we had to go back to getting work permits. We don’t yet know what we will be allowed to do for the coming year.

Clearly, each group needs to be sure they know what documents they need to have with them, especially when they are traveling. They also need to be prepared to contact the American Home if they encounter difficulties.

Alex might have been able to avoid having to pay a bribe if Oxana had been given the opportunity to explain to him - and the officer — that he did not need to have a “work permit.” Mobile (cell) phones with enough money on account to call the American Home are essential, especially when traveling. (We loan phones to all of the teachers.)


  1. Good thing you are able to handle that situation with that corrupt cop. Though he have a point by asking your working permit. But, these guys should be the one who is suffering for these kind of unconstitutional acts. I understand that you are fairly working as English mentor but make sure that you have supporting papers such as work permits next time. Also, make sure to have a travel protection(travel insurance) so that if you run out of options you can ask your insurance provider for an assistance.


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