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Changing Lifestyles : Hot Hats : Ukrainians say that it is not safe to wear their shapkas . The fur caps are a target of thieves.

March 09, 1993|ROBERT SEELY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KIEV, Ukraine — Walking down a quiet street in Kiev, Alexander Vychenk, a 52-year-old engineer, recently fell victim to Ukraine's fastest-growing crime fad: Two teen-agers mugged him for the rabbit fur on his head.

"I didn't even see them," Vychenk said. "One of them pushed me over, the other took my shapka and they both ran."

Shapkas , those thick fur hats that are staples of nearly every Ukrainian's wardrobe, have become favorite targets for juvenile gangs as living standards in this former Soviet republic plunge and street crime soars.

In this first post-Communist winter without price controls, the real value of shapkas has risen sharply over their original, artificially low Soviet prices. As a result, police say, shapka snatching has increased fivefold in the past year.

In 1991, a shapka cost the equivalent of $1.50 to $2 at official prices, easily affordable for most Ukrainians. Now, shapkas are so expensive that a good one is cherished as a family heirloom. A new shapka --the word is a Russianized form of the French chapeau --can cost 96,000 Ukrainian coupons (the Ukrainian currency), or $48, which is about 10 months of average wages.

"I've got a lovely mink hat, but I don't wear it anymore," said Elena Kolomeyets, a Kiev engineer. "I am too scared it will be stolen. Instead I use a cheap hat for day-to-day use."

Like many Ukrainians emerging from the numbingly predictable Communist order, Kolomeyets is shocked by the sudden spiral of crime and inflation--ailments long familiar in the West. Although Kiev is still a relatively safe city, its overall crime rate rose by 21% last year.

The increase covers petty offenses such as shapka thefts as well as murder and organized crime. Reigning above the petty hoodlums who mug people for their hats are the Soviet underworld and the upstart Mafia-style gangs first spawned during perestroika (economic restructuring).

The profits of both groups from such ventures as gambling and prostitution, combined with the minimal chance of getting caught, make crime an attractive career option in Ukraine.

"There are no laws against racketeering. There are no laws against laundering illegally made money through commercial shops," said Valery Kur, a former Kiev police official. "We just don't have the laws to fight organized crime."

Criminals have killed 150 police officers in the last two years, and the police have struck back brutally, even at innocent people. Alexei Yelagin, 24, a magazine translator, said was beaten by a police officer for carrying a tear-gas canister, a popular but illegal self-defense weapon.

"I was going to a Metro station to meet my wife at 11 p.m. after work," he said. "I was stopped and searched. One of them punched me in the face and threatened to spray me with the gas."

As in other former Soviet republics, the death of communism has failed to bring the improved living standards promised.

A year ago, 120 coupons, then worth about $5, was a normal monthly wage. Today it is the price of a plastic shopping bag in Kiev's Bessarabski market, which teems with Ukrainian, Georgian and Azerbaijani traders selling everything from fruit to caviar from stalls on the sawdust-covered floor. Tomatoes, transported in winter from the southern Caucasus region, cost up to $2 a kilogram (over 90 cents a pound), more than in Western Europe.

"We can't afford the market very often. The average pay here is 10,000 coupons ($5) a month. You need 25,000 coupons to survive," said Kolomeyets, who, like many Ukrainians, has come to equate capitalism with poverty, economic reform with industrial decline.

"We are not used to inflation," she said. "Many people can't understand these sorts of things at all. We used to live another style of life. People are disoriented."

The collapse of the old order and the resulting freedom for Ukrainians to buy and sell what they like means that shapkas , like all stolen goods, can appear at any one of a dozen markets in the city. The two favored destinations for stolen fur hats are, according to police, the Republican stadium market and the Kurenovsky market in Kiev's Bohemian district, Podol.

"Ten years ago, the police had strict control over what was bought and sold," Kur said. " Shapkas were sold privately at only one or two places. . . . If you didn't have a license to trade them, you could be arrested. Now, stolen shapkas are on sale at hundreds of kiosks and at every market."

Used shapkas sell for the equivalent of $5 to $20, depending on the age and material. Mink is more valuable than rabbit.

At least 300 hats were stolen in December in central Kiev alone, police said, prompting Ukrainian television to broadcast warnings to citizens to remember their hats when lining up for buses.

Other than the straightforward street mugging--a new phenomenon in itself--the most popular method of snatching a shapka is to lurk at Kiev's crowded bus and subway stops and, just as the doors are closing, steal from a boarding passenger.

Pursuing police are hampered by fuel shortages, caused by increases in the price of imported Russian oil. Police cars sometimes run out of gas while chasing suspects. Corruption also hinders the effort.

"The police earn so little money," Kur said. "A policeman very often has to live in a dormitory with his wife and family. He earns perhaps 15,000 coupons ($7.50) a month. A racketeer will earn 20 times that amount. Taking a bribe is very tempting."

One thief arrested after trying to grab a pair of mink shapkas from two pedestrians was seized by passersby and held until the police arrived.

The culprit turned out to be a police major.

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