#52: Police Racism in Russia: A New Age Buddhist Preaches the Bible to a Corrupt Policeman in Red Square
17 August 2002
Back in Moscow from Kaliningrad, I decided to pop by the Red Square again. Bright blue skies and the gorgeous sun turned the Kremlin walls into a magnificent symphony of colours. Nothing was to prepare me for the nasty and yet somewhat amusing incident that was to follow.
Just as I was admiring the scene, a young policeman standing in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum waved at me and signaled at me to come over. I strolled there and he asked for my passport. Yuks, another silly passport check on dangerous Asians like me. Maybe he thinks I’m a Chechen terrorist. I handed over my passport, which he examined carefully.
“OK, fine,” the blond policeman said in halting English, and still holding on to my passport, “but you have committed a crime.”
“What?” I couldn’t believe my ears.
“I saw you throwing a cigarette over there. It’s caught on our video recorder and recorded in our HQ. I’m going to arrest you.”
Oh gosh, another corrupt policeman. I have come across too many in my travels, but I could hardly believe this was taking place so openly on the Red Square, with all that glory of imperial Russia and the glittering golden onion domes of the Kremlin’s cathedrals.
“You will either be sentenced to up to 3 years in prison, or if you are lucky, just fined US$50,” he hesitated for a moment, and then continued, “Or I can forgive you, if you pay 500 Rubles for an excursion of Stalin’s grave.” He pointed to the row of graves of Soviet leaders behind, normally not open to tourists.
500 Rubles is about US$17, a big sum of money for a tiny grave and so I said, “Hey friend, that’s not fair. I haven’t thrown any cigarette – I don’t even smoke. An excursion sounds interesting, but 500 Rubles is too expensive for an excursion anywhere.”
“Then you have to go to the police HQ with me.”
That doesn’t sound like a good idea. I don’t fancy going to the police HQ and suddenly threatened by more corrupt policemen and even more ridiculous charges. At least we are in the open space now, and it looks a lot safer.
“No, no, no. This is very strange. Look here, my friend, I am not a smoker, can you smell smoke in my mouth?” I opened my mouth wide and lunged my face forward, deliberately invading his personal space, and partly to irritate this idiot.
He fell backwards by a few steps, a little shaken. He regained his composure, “You must have used a chewing gum. That’s why there’s no smell. Yes, you have definitely committed a crime according to the laws of the Russian Federation. You want the specific code of the law? Come to the HQ and I will show you.”
“Chewing gum? Hey man, you know Singapore? We don’t use chewing gum there. And we do not like smokers too. How can I have thrown a cigarette on the square?” I decided to exploit Singapore’s atrocious reputation on this.
“You don’t chew gum or smoke in Singapore?” He had a surprised look on his face, “No, I don’t believe you.”
And so on and on we had a meaningless debate on whether Singaporeans do chew gum or smoke. At times, both of us reached a stalemate and a strange silence prevailed. The problem was, he’s still holding on to my passport. He decided to break the stalemate by offering a lower excursion price, “How about 400 Rubles?”
I said no, “Too expensive, and besides, I haven’t thrown any cigarette.” I smell some weakness on his part. When sharks smell blood (well, if you have forgotten, I was an investment banker), they pursue it.
“OK, final price. 300 Rubles, but no excursion. You pay and then go.”
Suddenly this sounds attractive. I am in a dilemma. Should I just pay and go rather than wasting my time here? My hand reaches for my wallet. No, No, NO! I have done nothing wrong! I have another month to go. Must I pay a bribe every few days in Russia? No way!
“Hey friend, I have done nothing wrong. 300 Rubles is still slightly expensive but I may consider it – but no way will I pay 300 Rubles if I can’t see Stalin’s grave.”
He hesitated, and then said, “No, no, 300 Rubles and go, no excursion, or you go to police HQ with me.”
For the next 5 minutes, we basically reiterated our stand and again, many spells of strange silence, as both of us hardened our stand. Frustrated, I turned and looked around the square, the amazingly colourful onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral at one end of the square, the newly rebuilt pinkish Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan at the other. Devout worshippers were rushing into the churches for the mass. Russia is facing a religious revival, as economic and political uncertainty has turned many to religion. Suddenly I have an idea. Sounds really silly, but I need to break this impasse.
“Hey, my friend, are you a Christian?” I asked this corrupt idiot.
He seems perplexed at my question, “Yes. Why?”
I pointed to St Basil’s and said, “You see, that’s a great monument to God and God’s greatness. I am a Christian too, and I believe that I cannot lie. I did not throw the cigarette and if I am to pay you, I will be lying and thus committing a sin.” I then swayed my arm in the opposite direction, facing Our Lady of Kazan, “And Mother Mary will be unhappy with me too.”
Forgive me, my Christian friends. I have obviously lied. I am nothing but a pseudo-New Age Buddhist, one who worships the God of Capitalism in normal times, becoming a Buddhist only for as long as a cellular phone call at times of need, such as the disturbing moment just after the accident in Albania. But obviously I couldn’t preach exotic Buddhism to a Muscovite policeman. Marketing theories dictate that you need to appeal to something your customers are familiar with. Not that I see the policeman is a customer, but he is indeed sort of a prospective victim of my pseudo-marketing objective. I have to talk about the Bible with him, rather than invoking the Buddhist Diamond Sutra.
He stared at me in silence, amazed at my sudden invocation of god. “Butï¿½” and I interrupted him, “God will bless you if you are honest and nice, and show all the tourists of the world the glories of beautiful Russia.”
I then went on and on, preaching the Bible, using terminology from what little I know of the Book, and combining with what little I remember from my Buddhist Studies classes more than a decade ago, all the Buddhist precepts and the Middle Path. The policeman said nothing, but nodding his head throughout my impromptu mass on the Red Square, the heart of Holy Russia, New Jerusalem, Third Rome, or so the Russian Tsars and Patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church once proclaimed.
Suddenly, the policeman asked, “Are you a Catholic?” I was stunned. That was a dangerous question. I am treading on dangerous ground now. I have read about the Russian Orthodox Church’s unhappiness with the Pope over theological disputes as well as the Russian Parliament’s various acts to curb activities of foreign churches in Russia, a move championed by the Orthodox Church. But heck anyway, let’s try my luck since I have gotten so far.
“Yes, I am.” I said.
The policeman smiled a little and then whispered into my ear, “I am, too.”
“God bless you too,” he continued, and then thrust my passport into my arms. “You can go now.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “Thank you, God Bless You!” I said and then walked away in large steps, away from the Red Square as fast as I could. It’s incredible that my trick worked, albeit after 30 minutes of debate with this idiot.
(Oh yes, when I told my Christian friends the story last night, they were adamant that it was a providential sign, and maybe I should consider going to a church. OK, no way mates, don’t ever try persuading me. My beloved Yuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, knows what I mean.)
Once again on my journey, the Russian police has shown itself to be corrupt and extremely anti-Asian, as they target Asians most of the time. Whatever it was, however, I think being a TV evangelist has suddenly become a viable alternative career choice for me. Just imagine the massive financial machine I might be able to build up with that.
The following day I took the train to Yaroslavl, a historical city north of Moscow, with Dima, a Russian contact. It was there that I found out via email that my uncle has passed away in Singapore. With Dima’s help, I bought an overnight train ticket to Moscow. At 4:30am, the train reached Yaroslavlsky Station in Moscow. Heaven was crying, and the god of lightning rocked the skies with his angry roars. Together with other passengers, I ran towards the main station building for shelter. The distance between might be a mere 100 meters or so, but it was one of the longest and most humiliating 100 meters I have ever covered in my life. Despite the heavy rain and the short distance, I was stopped three times by hostile policemen for checks.
“Kitai, Kitai, Kitai, passport, passport, passport!” I heard the shouts as I was running towards the station building. “Kitai” means “Chinese” in Russian, a word which I was long acquainted with on this journey. It’s usually shouted across loudly, with disdain and condescension. I have already experienced daily police checks during my first few days in Moscow. I presented my passport which the two policemen waved in the rain, wetting it in the process and smearing the ink of the stamp on the document.
“Nyet Kitai?” they asked.
“Nyet, Singapursky,” I said, “No, Singaporean.” Then they threw the passport at me, dropping it onto the pile of water.
I picked it up, and continued running towards the station. Then followed a second check by another policeman, and then a third one just moments after I left the second one. Three checks in 100 meters!
What a relief when I reached the station building. I ran to a corner, carefully making sure no policemen were in sight. By now, I felt like a fugitive, a criminal on the run, a frightened prey being hunted mercilessly, simply because of my skin colour. Shivering with cold and hunger, I wiped my wet forehead. Suddenly, tears rolled down my cheeks. The combination of grief from my uncle’s death, physical fatigue from the restless overnight train journey, and then finally the humiliating treatment by the local police, have drained me off totally, physically and emotionally. I have never in my travels, not just the past 8 months, but throughout my decade of backpacking, felt so awful and humiliated.
I regained my composure soon enough. I have experienced wonderful hospitality from all my Russian friends and contacts, and I would never forget these, despite the rough treatment from the local police. The latter has totally disgraced their country and did their country a terrible disservice.
If any Asian asks me whether he should visit Russia, I am inclined to say, “NOT NOW, do it only after the Russian police stop their persecution of Asian visitors.” Moscow is a surprisingly cosmopolitan city, with huge population of ethnic Asians who are Russian citizens. However, I am amazed: this is how they are treated on a day-to-day basis.
I have met Russians who say that such measures are justifiable due to the war in Chechenya (and hence potential of Chechen terrorist acts in Moscow), or presence of illegal immigrants in Russia. I am not convinced by such arguments. I can’t see how basic human dignity can be disregarded and certain ethnic groups targeted in such a rough manner. I am not the only one who has experienced this; I have heard of numerous horror stories from other Asian travelers. The bribery incident on the Red Square also revealed how corrupt policemen are tempted to abuse their power to enrich themselves, simply because the system gives them enormous discretion, and allows them to do what is usually not allowed or tolerated in civilized societies. To my Russian friends who are reading this, no offence is meant, for I am merely saying what I feel sincerely, as someone on the receiving end of the unpleasant treatment.
Will I abandon my journey? No, doing so would be an act of defeat, especially when I have been planning this journey for a long time. If things get worse, I may consider shortening my stay in the rest of Russia, but will certainly travel on the main railway line to Mongolia.
OK, enough of monologue. Wish me luck and you will next hear from me from Baku, Azerbaijan.