Friday, June 24, 2005

Stopped by the militsia

A week ago today, I was stopped for the first time by the police—the famous/infamous militsia. I have to say that I have been here for close to two years this stint and for close to three years on and off and I have never been stopped by the militsia. This might be true because I don’t look like a foreigner all that much and it’s foreigners who usually get stopped according to some reports. (Though I should say that people here and in Russia have an uncanny ability to spot the American. Maybe it’s because I usually walk around in a New York Yankees cap? I’m not the only one to wear one here.)

And I haven’t been stopped for anything in the car either. They tend to have these random checks of motorists here for paperwork or other things--maybe even because they broke a traffic rule-- by the militsia. Most of these seem to me to happen on the weekends. The law-abiding person in me says that it is to arrest the drunk drivers who are out in force then. We tend to avoid driving all that much on the weekend because I think the drunks make it more dangerous.

But the cynic in me would say that the militsia is out in force on the weekends stopping cars to increase their salary. They do this during the week too, I know, and maybe I just happen to see them in greater numbers in the areas I drive in on the weekends or at least where I have driven on the weekends. This cynical view would say that these officers converge on an area of town where the possibilities are greater. (We used to live in a more affluent area of the city.) So they converge. But that is the extremely cynical me. I don’t really know this to be the case. I only extrapolate from the fact that they do extort money from drivers and they do take up positions to do it. We would call it a speed trap but speed is not the issue in any way.

In the last place we lived, there was a militsia officer who lived in the next building over. We watched him drive in one day. He was driving a late model Mercedes. It wasn't a brand new Mercedes but it was new enough. It would have cost at least around $40 or $50k, an amount that would have been hard for him to come up with on his police officer’s pay. (It wouldn’t be all that much more than $300 a month.) He could have sold a dacha or an old apartment to get the money but that wouldn’t have covered it either. The people here will tell you where he got the money. They have jokes about it.

Anyway, we were going out to the village to my in-laws this past Friday. Their village lies about 100 kilometers south of here and we end up on country roads to get there. It’s a nice, scenic drive, relaxing for people who live in the city and have to put up with it all the time. So I like to go and find the drive pleasing.

On one of these country roads, we have seen militsia. They have usually taken up a position across the intersection of the road we need to turn on to get out to the village. And we usually haven’t had any problems. We come up to the intersection and turn left in front of the patrol car. No fuss. Of course, they can stop us for anything even to look at our papers so we aren’t necessarily Scot free if we obey the rules but we usually don’t have any problems.

On this day though I ended up thinking that the turning lane was on the right not the left. There was no dashed line like you would get in the US but a solid line that would indicate that there was two-way traffic on the road. I didn’t remember how it was I had turned before and hadn’t slept all that much the night before to really be fresh enough to decide the issue clearly. So I ended up in the right lane of what I thought was two-way traffic signaling for a left turn.

There was a militsia patrol car parked across the intersection just as before. One officer was outside talking to someone in the passenger seat through the window. He saw our car and immediately went around the front of the patrol car with his baton and stood there watching our car. It looked to me like something was up and I waited for him to do something, to signal me over some way. He didn’t do anything but just stood there watching our car.

He didn’t do anything so I pulled out and began to turn. At that point he signaled me with his baton to pull over. This is what we did and, when we stopped, he came over to my side of the car. “Did you know that you turned illegally over there?” He pointed across the road. “No, it was two-way traffic there. The line was solid,” I responded. “Well, it’s not two-way and you turned from the wrong lane. There’s a sign back there that tells you,” he said. My thought was that no one would see the sign—I didn’t see it—and that that sign, wherever it was, was only there to make the stop legitimate. But I said, “It looks like two-way traffic to me. Look at that truck,” and I pointed to a truck that was making the turn from the same lane I turned from, “He’s doing the same thing.” The officer took his baton, stepped out and signaled that truck to pull over too. He came back to me.

“I want to see your license and your registration.” I pulled out my Utah license and handed it over to him. He looked at it and turned it over and couldn’t understand any of it. It did have my picture on it and I think he understood that it was a license. But my handing that license over to him seemed to embarrass him a bit. Maybe that meant he couldn’t control the whole situation like he could with others, I don’t know. My registration seemed to be in order though.

My wife piped in and vouched for how good a driver I was. The guy was discomfited a bit and just told me that I needed to be careful about what I was doing. “I am going to let you go with a warning,” he said. “Would any police in the US let you go for making a wrong turn like this?” I said, no, that they wouldn’t, but I lied. I knew that police in the US would be likely to give a warning to a tourist who made a wrong turn—tourism is a vital industry in every state. But I thought it was best to stoke his ego a bit by giving him credit for something great that even police in the US wouldn’t do. He seemed to like that answer and told me to remember that. He waved us on and went over to talk to the poor truck driver.

So what was really going on? My cynical self says that this was a trap that allows the militsia to get motorists there and extract their toll charge. They are stopped and then begins the negotiation on price. He didn’t want to spend all that much time on us because it would have been more difficult to get us to pay any money. We were, as far as he knew, just tourists and don’t know that you need to pay the militsia to let you go. To take any more time with us would cut down on the numbers of other cars—and opportunities—that would come along. And he already had a better candidate in that truck driver he stopped.

That is the cynical me. That he would take money is a highly likely thing. That he might be out actually enforcing the law is possible but not very likely. But our little daughter and some other family members thought he was a very nice and kind man. Maybe they saw something I didn’t.

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