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Three hours under arrest

I only went back to Russia once in the years since I emigrated. Did not like that journey much, for a number of reasons. The pervasive state of dilapidation on Russian periphery at the turn of the century was the primary reason. The commonplace boorishness of service sector employees, from shopping assistants to receptionists, grated on my American-honed sensibilities. The expectation of a bribe clear on the face of anyone with power to make my life simpler or harder made me want to hurl. Yes, seeing many old friends was really nice, but it also made me realize how divergent our values and interests have become.

Natasha ascribes much of my disaffection with that trip to the weather. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to go, and with Natasha more than half-term along with Kimmy, I could not postpone it until warmer months. Mid-March tends to be quite cold in the Russian south, with driving rain or wet snow dominating the skies. And so it was, raining one day, snowing the other, freezing overnight and thawing by the midday just enough to make everything one big puddle of mud.

But the very last day of my visit turned out bright and sunny, with not a cloud in sight and the temperatures finally climbing into early-spring territory. I had a few hours before I needed to go to the airport, and I decided to use them for a bit of video-recording.

With a camcorder in hand, I arrived to the corner of the streets on which our old high-rise apartment building stood. I focused on the balcony of our former apartment on the 12th floor, then panned around the area. There was our street – it did not look any different. There was the fire station next to our building. There used to be a large block of grassland in front of it where we played football as kids, but it was now occupied by a nondescript unattractive government structure.

I turned off my camcorder and started in the direction of the next spot that I wanted to tape.

But I did not manage more than a few steps as a police sergeant with a large automatic weapon slung across his shoulder approached me. He inquired why I was videotaping a government building. Which one, I asked. He pointed to the aforementioned unattractive structure and informed me that that was a local police precinct. I expressed my ignorance of that fact and explained that I used to live in this apartment building right here, used to play football as a boy on the spot of land where the the precinct now stood, came back for a visit for the first time in many years, and just wanted to record the present look the place for the rest of my family back home. He politely asked where I lived now. America, I answered.

He asked for my documents.

My US passport was in the breast pocket of my jacket. The problem was, the day was considerably warmer than any previous ones on my trip. I left one layer of clothing at my brother-in-law’s apartment. Guess which one!

After I conveyed that to the policeman, he firmly requested that I follow him to the precinct, “to establish [my] identity”. (Actually, he used a brilliant and capacious word in Russian language that roughly means “we are going to walk to you-know-where together, and you have no choice in the matter”: Пройдёмте.)

We arrived at the “reception” room of the precinct. There was a single mostly bare desk near the window occupied by a lethargic-looking major. A couple of chairs stood opposite the desk by the wall. Next to them was a little holding cell, its metal gate in the open position. A few raggedy-looking Caucasians1 sat on the bench inside the cell with despair manifest in their facial expressions.

I was shown to a chair while the sergeant explained the issue to the major. The latter got visibly excited at a prospect of some action and proceeded to question me along the same lines as what the sergeant already asked. Then he moved on to filling out the arrest form (known in Russian as “protocol”).

“Last name?”
“First name?”
“Well, it’s Yakovlevich, but it will not appear on my passport.”
“Why not?”
“Because in America, patronymics are not used.”
“How is that possible?”
I expressed a complete inability to answer.
“A person needs to have a patronymic… Where are you registered for residence2?”
“I am not registered anywhere.”
“What??? Are you a БОМЖ3?”
“No, I am not a БОМЖ. I can give you my current home address, but again, it will not appear in my passport, and I am not прописан there. Such a thing does not exist in America.”
“Well, I have to put something under прописка. What’s the address?”
I did my best to convert my New Jersey address into a Russian-style one.

And so on.

A few other officers entered the room in the meantime and joined in “interrogating” me. Some were visibly amused, but at least one sensed an opportunity to catch an international spy. He demanded that I rewind and show him all of the footage that I previously taped. I’d done very little recording prior to that last day, so there was little to see. Still, he got excited at a couple of sequences. One was the expansive view of the vast rail junction near the main city station, as seen from a high bridge above it. The other was a neglected and decrepit construction site behind my in-laws’ apartment building, as seen from their balcony. Satisfied with the improbability of me taping the former as part of a terrorist reconnaissance, the major got incensed that I would record something in the state of ruin for my “documentary”.

He was justified in his indignation, of course: I specifically taped that view as an example of what I viewed as general разруха4. But I did my best to convince him that I was simply recording the view from my in-laws’ new apartment, without much thought for what it was.

Some other major suddenly asked me in a heavily-accented English whether I spoke any English. It took me a couple of moments to switch languages – I’ve always been pretty slow at that particular skill – but I answered in my best Brooklynite accent that yes, I in fact spoke both languages at almost equal levels of fluency by now. I suppose he understood only “yes”. That must have been enough, though, to corroborate my otherwise unsupported claim of residing abroad.

The question of how my identity could be established was raised again and again, and I kept responding that my passport was at my brother-in-law’s apartment just a few bus stops from where we were. “We’ll check that”, was a repeated response.

It was just a couple of months before Putin was elected the Russian president for the first time. During the election campaign, he had “personal representatives” in all regions of Russia to direct appropriate events, and his representative in the Rostov Region happened to be the president of the State University that I not exactly had graduated from years ago. There was a fair chance that he could recall my name, on the strength of me having been an active komsomol leader in my youth and studying in the same year as one of his sons. So, I had a bright idea of announcing to the crowd of officers that one of the simplest ways of establishing my identity was to dial the offices of the university president – personal representative of Putin, Vladimir Vladimirovich, – and ask him whether he remembered me.

That had the desired effect of putting them into action. I was quickly bundled into a police car with supposed aim of driving to the apartment to retrieve my passport. But after some wait, spent in civil conversation with the driver and one other militioner guarding me – they were quite fascinated with America, – I was moved back to the reception room straight into the holding cell, while somebody from the precinct apparently drove to the apartment to fetch the passport.

Interestingly, I got a sense of sympathy coming my way from the people in the cell. An older woman actually sighed during a pause in the proceedings, “Why are they tormenting the boy?”…

My sister-in-law Katya thankfully was home. She answered the door, got my passport, and came to the precinct. I am almost positive that she does not hold any grudges towards me for that unpleasant experience – she and I had a number of good laughs recalling the whole thing since then.

The appearance of the official document confirming my claim of being a foreign citizen immediately shifted the balance of power. It was still the time when “America” was not a curse word in Russia, but rather something to admire, respect and even fear. I’m not saying that fear is a good thing, but it affected the way foreign citizens were dealt with. My passport practically burned fingers of everyone who touched it – the possibility of an international incident involving an American citizen indirectly connected to Putin played out very clearly in every officer’s eyes.

I was shown to the office of the precinct chief, a stern-looking middle-aged woman major. She and her assistant, a pretty young female captain, repeated the entire interview while being quite good-natured about the whole thing. The captain made eyes at me and joked that admitting to being a former komsomol leader was not to my credit any longer; times changed, you know. The major gave me a lecture about violating the regulations of a foreign citizen’s stay in Russia by videotaping without a permit. I pleaded ignorance, stressed my origins as a local boy and made promises to never ever ever violate any regulations in my life.

The major, in a manner that was almost apologetic, announced that while they were satisfied that I was neither a spy nor a terrorist nor any other type of unsavory character, they could not let me go without levying a fine for the violation. The protocol has been already filled out, after all, and required a recorded closure. The fine was in the amount of 42 rubles. A buck fifty, at the exchange rates at the time. I had to run to the nearest Sberbank branch, where I came across an opportunity to witness a sad procession of pensioners in line to get their meagre pensions and walk away with practically nothing after paying for various utilities. I brought the receipt of the payment to the precinct’s chief office, got my passport back and walked away a free man.

Those several hours at first seemed like a fun highlight during the otherwise disappointing trip. I wasted the only sunny day of my journey on the drab interior of the local police precinct, but the experience felt as an adventure of sorts. It was not long, however, that I stopped laughing at it and recognized it for the final straw that irreversibly soured my entire experience of coming back to the place of my birth.

Years later, I watched through the 50-episode Zona. Among its storylines (but not the main line, as IMDB suggests) is the months-long detention and abuse of an American citizen in a provincial Russian jail, motivated by the possibility of extorting a huge sum of money from a “rich American”. The series is supposedly based on real stories of former jailbirds and the period in time that it depicts does not suggest more than a couple of years of difference with my own experience. Projecting that storyline onto my own brush with the Russian law and order scared the bejeesus out of me. It could have turned out so much worse…

I made my flight, and the return journey home yielded several curious episodes one after another. But that is probably for another blog entry.


1In Russian culture and language, Caucasian is not a politically correct euphemism for a “white European”. It is instead a generic name for people who come from Caucasian Mountain “autonomous regions” and trans-Caucasian former Soviet republics (e.g., Georgia, Chechnya, Dagestan).

2 Registration of residence (прописка) has always been more than just a “permanent address” in the Soviet Union. With the internal freedom of movement pretty much non-existent, прописка was like a physical anchor that you were not supposed to stray away from often and for long periods of time. I suppose this strict interpretation already no longer existed in 2000, but the term itself was still widely used. I have little doubt that it continues to be used nowadays.

3 БОМЖ is an abbreviation for “without a defined residence” (Без Определённого Места Жительства). A socialist euphemism for “homeless”, but because of the importance of прописка, rendering the person just a tiny step above a common criminal.

4 А state of perpetual ruin.


  1. Kisintin

    That could have turned out really bad for you. I always wondered if that was the precinct where my good friend Mishka worked at that time. Not that it would help in any way, and he would have recognized you.

  2. jason

    Wow, that scenario scares the crap out of me… I’m sorry to say that there are certain places I’d otherwise be interesting in going, but can’t bring myself to seriously consider because of potential and arbitrary hassles with the local authorities. Seen too many movies, I guess.

  3. Ilya

    When it comes to Russia nowadays, you need a local guide, and your complete lack of Russian will actually provide a sort of defense from abuse. But I know what you’re saying, Jason.

  4. John the Scientist

    “your complete lack of Russian will actually provide a sort of defense from abuse.”

    Shit, I violated that rule the first time I was detained by the KGB. Not only that, I betrayed the fact that I could read the rank insignia on the officer’s epaulettes as I was paying my fine. Needless to say, the second time I was detained, I did not make the same mistake. o.O

    There was no third time.

  5. John the Scientist

    “How does an American student in Russia get detained twice by the KGB? You must have been some troublemaker, John.”

    Dude, I was in Lithuania in 1991. No further troublemaking required.

    Now as to WHY I was in Lithuania, and didn’t say, remain in Orel, well…

  6. Saqib

    I got pulled over for a traffic violation and went through a similar ordeal (minus, national intrigue, that’s my father’s department!). After being ridiculed for being a whiny little boy they threatened me with impounding my car. I got into a scuffle with the police but didn’t relinquish my keys, they have no right, and besides I had no intentions of doging the fine. It was only brotherly love that kept them from detaining me, “You silly boy, get out of here!”

    And that image of pentioners coming away with nothing is the biggest motivation for me to head on back just waiting for my uni to finish up the paperwork.

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