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Moscow PD Blues : Their Cars Are Junk, Pay Stinks, They Don't Always Know Who's in Charge. But What Really Overwhelms Russian Cops Is Something New: Big-Time Capitalist Crime.

January 16, 1994|DIANE K. SHAH | Diane K. Shah's last piece for this magazine was on Steven Spielberg. Her most recent mystery novel is "Dying Cheek to Cheek," published by Bantam

Inside a ramshackle brown brick police station, Lt. Col. Mikhail Sergeivich Pertsev absorbs the latest news crackling over the police band. "A man with a submachine gun just threatened a man in a car," he says gloomily. "The man lost the car."

A carjacking? Where?

"Not far from here. An area that used to have a lot of construction. Huts were built for the workers to live in, and there was lots of fighting with knives." Pertsev pauses. "We call this district Chicago."

As chief of one of Moscow's smaller police stations, in the northern part of the city, Pertsev seems to possess a bottomless store of good humor, which he needs. He presides over 110 officers--"We should have 120, but no one wants to be a policeman anymore"--and a fleet of seven squad cars, two of which don't work. "They are like the Aurora boat that started the Bolshevik Revolution and is now a museum in St. Petersburg," Pertsev says wryly. "They do not move."

Sitting behind the desk in his no-frills office, Pertsev proudly hoists a brand new police radio. "It's a Motorola, and we have our American colleagues to thank for it," he notes. "Seven came last week. Unfortunately, we need 40 or 50." Before the radios arrived, Pertsev's men relied on Hungarian-made sets. "The Hungarians probably felt hurt with us after 1956," he offers slyly. "Their radios only caused trouble."

Immovable cars and balky radios are the least of the problems that dog Moscow's 100,000 officers. An escalating crime spree has exploded--sometimes literally, with grenades--throughout the streets of this city of 9 million. Cars disappear in the night, a new old-style mafia operates with reckless abandon, and guns abound, thanks to the disintegration of the Red Army, which has made stolen weapons commonplace on the black market. Even when a criminal is caught red-handed, police may have to let him go. Russia's criminal justice code, enacted in 1961, did not envision many of the new order's cunning crimes. Added to all this is a departmental reorganization that has blurred territorial boundaries, confusing just about everyone. "We are the only state system that has not collapsed," Pertsev laments. "But that isn't saying much."

Vladimir Vershkov, a ruddy-cheeked lieutenant colonel in charge of press relations, shakes his head at the insanity of it all. "Every day, we have explosions, stolen autos, robberies, apartment assaults," he says, using the Russian vernacular for burglary. "Such things we have never seen before."

Indeed, last summer, a man in a policeman's uniform entered one of Moscow's new commercial banks, pretending to check out how the bank was performing its duties. Right behind him marched seven submachine-gun-toting accomplices. A four-hour standoff with the police ensued. The result: one cop dead, two others wounded, six suspects apprehended, two still at large, a police force--and a city--dumbfounded. "This was our first bank stickup," says one high-ranking police official. "The state took it very hard."

But not as hard as the December murder of Nikolai P. Likhachev, chairman of the gigantic Rosselkhozbank, who was gunned down in his Moscow apartment--one of 30 bank officials murdered last year. On the day of his funeral, banks and currency exchanges closed to protest the government's inability to protect them. Seizing the moment, hard-liner Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky raised crime to a political issue by blaming violence on people from former Soviet republics.

Before former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and then Boris N. Yeltsin, opened up Russia to a free-market economy, there had been no crime in Moscow, officially, because socialism was a perfect society. Well, maybe a little crime. Desperate for car parts, citizens routinely stole each other's windshield wipers, while party officials pocketed great gobs of state money, but otherwise there was little to steal. Now, with the influx of foreign hard currency and a proliferation of commercial ventures, Russians are experiencing one of the ancillary fruits of capitalism: big-time crime.

It's a growth industry. In the past few years, three tabloids have appeared, each dealing with only one subject--crime--which is often the lead story on TV news as well. This is understandable. During 1993, about 19,000 major crimes were committed in Moscow, compared to 302,000 in Los Angeles: While one in 11 Angelenos was victimized, only one in about 500 Muscovites felt the sting of a major crime--but that's a 39% increase over the same period in 1992. Still, while Los Angeles averaged 78 murders a month, Moscow averaged 100, up 55% from the previous year, and "heavy wounds," from which the victim may or may not eventually expire, were up 34%. Auto thefts, carjackings and car robberies are running at about 675 a month. When the year began, five or six cars were stolen a day; during one recent night in Moscow, 102 cars vanished.

"How many auto thefts do you have in Los Angeles?" asks Vershkov, the press relations man.

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