After a heavy night of drinking The Dutchman and I walked into a café near our apartment for some refreshments. We were on our way to check out some mass demonstrations that were occurring in the centre of Moscow. I always got the vibe that the waitresses thought they were doing you a personal favour by providing you with service in some of these places. The Dutchman ordered a coffee and I said I felt like having a hot chocolate. The Dutchman pointed out something on the menu which seemed to be what I wanted. Eventually our drinks arrived, and whilst the Dutchman received his coffee as ordered I was presented with a cup containing warm melted dark chocolate. Quite literally ‘hot chocolate’ and not what I had expected. It came with a spoon and a glass of water. I couldn’t help but laugh and tried to eat it, however after a few spoons I couldn’t continue as it was just too rich.
The Dutchman and I went down to the metro and made our way into the centre to see what all the fuss was about. I was curious to see how what seemed to be such a brutal and corrupt police force would deal with large scale protests and if it would all descend into violence or not. I wasn’t sure what they were protesting exactly but there was a shitload of people. A significant amount were probably sightseers like us – yeah, down the system man. The police had fenced off large areas channelling people into bottle necks keeping people out of where they didn’t want them. The authorities were a mixture of regular police, army conscripts and police conscripts. Yes some of the police are conscripts in Russia, two words that should probably never go together: ‘police’ and ‘conscript’.
An officer from the special police unit ‘OMON’ whose functions vary from being riot police to participating in combat operations in places like Chechnya
The protests were pretty peaceful from what we could see but later I heard on the news how there had later been some violence resulting in a fair few arrests. We decided to find a suitable venue to discuss the day’s events and enjoy some ales and a decent feed. We decided to head to Stary Arbat (where I bought the tank driver’s hat) and go to Hard Rock Café. There were a lot of Western themed restaurants/bars in Moscow but the food and drink came at a price. By now it was dark, and the usual bustling street was now quiet except for a few people coming and going from restaurants. As we arrived at Hard Rock Café I noticed a horse tied to a post outside the venue. Moscow being one of the most expensive cities in the world and a city with one of the highest proportions of millionaires and billionaires had resulted in some lavish lifestyles. This extended to some punters riding their horses about the city just like the good old days.
We made our way into the venue and went through security, walked upstairs and found a table not far from the dance floor. We drank heavily and spoke of past times and memories, and the Dutchman told me about his travels in Kazakhstan and Iran. An experienced geologist was in high demand and he was willing to travel as long as the price was right. Out of the corner of my eye the soldier in me picked up on a tense situation unfolding and I adjusted my gaze to see what it was all about. The table next to us was occupied by a group of gentleman of well-dressed but questionable appearance. All of a sudden one fellow smashed his bottle in half against the table and drove it right into another bloke’s face and then casually walked away. Blood started pouring out instantly and the guy stumbled forward, a girl screamed and ran towards him with a serviette. I had never actually seen someone break a bottle in half in real life.
The assailant had walked upstairs to the next level and I was wondering why no-one else at the table had run after him. I was unsure if the bottle had struck the guy in the eye or not but the amount of blood on the floor was unreal. All of a sudden a cop rocked up on the scene, looking like he’d just woken up and had probably been enjoying vodka on the house for the last few hours. Some of the bigger venues in Moscow paid the police to have a full-time officer posted to the venue to make it appear safer, however they usually ended up hunched over the bar somewhere asleep. The cop just stood there not really doing anything. I said to the Dutchman “fuck this, let’s get out of here”, and we left.
We made our back onto Stary Arbat which was completely deserted by now as it was quite late. The temperature had dropped and the street had become a freezing wind tunnel as we made our toward the metro. We were recalling the night’s events, probably speaking a bit too loud, when we noticed two dark figures in the distance who had most likely heard us speaking. As they drew closer we realised they were two cops and they asked us to stop. They had obviously heard us speaking English and saw their opportunity to rip off a few foreigners. They asked us for our passports and ‘registration’, which was a document that gave you permission to be in Moscow. If you were to be in a city for a certain amount of time in Russia you had to go to some local authority and get ‘registered’ to be allowed in the city. In Russia the citizens had a normal international passport and also a domestic passport which has to be carried on them at all times. It reminded me of old-school war movies where the Germans would burst into a train carriage in occupied Europe shouting “papers! papers!”.
All this bureaucracy and red tape in Russia gave the corrupt authorities at every level an opportunity to collect bribes and payoffs. Although it was my first time in Russia the Dutchman was quite a seasoned traveller and knew the country and language well. He spoke with the two police in fluent Russian and advised me that they had said we were missing a stamp on our registration and that we could go back to the station or just give them 1000 roubles each and we could go. Of course it was all bullshit and they were just making it up and hoping we would hand over the coin without protest. The conversation flowed for a good 10 minutes and ended with the Dutchman telling them that I was going to call the Embassy and tell them what was going on. Surprisingly that gave both of them a scare and they handed back our passports and the conversation turned friendly. The Dutchman started talking to them about soccer and the like.
It was then that the most bizarre part of the encounter occurred. One of them said to the Dutchman that they were going to a colleague’s birthday party later and were wondering if we could just give them some money anyway to buy a bottle of whiskey. The Dutchman declined their request and we parted company. As we continued walking to the metro the Dutchman told me what they had asked at the end and I was in pure disbelief, uniformed police asking two foreigners a question like that. It was hilarious, and most people have trouble believing it when I tell them. Despite all this I always felt quite safe in Russia and encountered many friendly and helpful police throughout my travels.
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A photo of Stary Arbat I took during the daytime