Monday, October 29, 2007
Russians take on the GAI (at last)
It was a nightmare moment: after a highly lubricated Moscow evening with two visiting Canadian friends, we piled into a cab (actually, random Lada that pulled over and agreed to my price for a ride from Lubyanka Square to Oktyabrskaya metro station) and turned down one of the back streets of Kitai-Gorod.
Moments later, a member of the hated, baton-wielding GAI, the traffic police, waved us down. Our crime, I immediately realized, was getting into a car with a Central Asian driver. The racist and corrupt GAI were about to hand him a ticket for Driving While Uzbek, and we three Canucks were also going to be scrutinized to see if additional graft couldn't be extracted.
The first officer gave my passport a prolonged look, only to shove it back in my face with disappointment when he couldn't find anything out of order. He went through the same process with my friend Blayne, then turned his attention to the third Canadian, a gentle man named John who had made the cardinal mistake of bringing his passport with him, but forgetting the white entry card he had filled out upon landing at Sherevmetyevo Airport.
Delighted to have caught a foreigner without proper dokumenti (Russia's police, having solved all the country's larger crimes, are obsessed with making sure foreigners have their documents in order) - and even more ecstatic when they realized John didn't speak Russian and didn't know what was going on - they shoved John into the back of a police cruiser. Then they turned to me, the Russian-speaker in the crowd, and asked what I was going to do about it.
They told me they needed to take John down to the police station. I said that was fine, since we had done nothing wrong, and moved to get in the back of the cruiser alongside my friend.
They blocked me physically. I couldn't come, they told me, since I wasn't going to be charged with the grievous crime of forgetting my entry card at home. John would be taken to the station alone, something they knew I wouldn't allow.
Having lived three years in Moscow, I knew what came next.
Mui mojem reshit etu problemmamu po-drugomu? I sighed, a line I'd memorized during years of dealing with corrupt cops. "Maybe we can solve this problem a different way?"
Of course, this was what they wanted to hear. An on-the-spot fine of 500 rubles (about $20 at the time) was agreed on and we were free to go. Our Uzbek driver paid a smaller fee of 100 rubles for being brown.
All this is a prologue to explain the delight I felt when I read the story in today's New York Times entitled "Weary of Highway Bribery, Russians Take On the Police." By Clifford J. Levy, it tells the story of Kirill Formanchuk and how his decision to stand up to the GAI (which earned him a prolonged hospital stay) has inspired others and made him a folk hero.
Now that's a Russian revolution I'd take up citizenship to join.