Knowing my interest in meeting police in every country that I can, my publishers in Moscow arranged for me to meet the Chief of Police for central Moscow, Alexandr Havkin — whose bailliwick includes the Kremlin and all the surrounding area. I had been briefed to bring a gift of a UK police hat and any other memorabilia I could, so, courtesy of Sussex Police, I dutifully turned up with a whole box full of badges and shields as well as a Sussex Police cap. He was so delighted he presented me with an Afghan Russian soldier’s helmet (weighing some 25 pounds! — see pictures below) as well as an assortment of Russian police badges, and a beautifully packaged bottle of rare vodka which he asked me to present to his equivalent in Sussex as a goodwill gesture between Russian and British police.
I think the helmet is quite cool — I might wear it with the visor down when I don’t want to be recognized!!! Anyhow, Alexandr was concerned that I might have a problem at customs, leaving Moscow with this helmet, as it is military equipment. So he gave me his card to show to any customs official who was difficult, with instructions for him to call Alexandr! I packed the helmet in my suitcase, thinking that way it would be the least visible, but then realized my luggage was going to be way oveweight. So I decided to carry the vodka bottle in my hand luggage, unaware that Russia now has the same regulations as everywhere else about taking fluids on flights. As I went through the security scanner, a security official removed the bottle and told me they would have to confiscate it. I then pulled the Chief of Police’s business card from my wallet, showed it to him and informed him this bottle represented important goodwill between our two countries. All the security guards went into a huddle, then they raised the fingers to their lips, gave me a conspiratoral smile and ushered me through with the booty intact! I later presented it to a very happy Detective Chief Superintendent Kevin Moore, Head of Crime for Sussex.
Moscow Central police station is not unlike many of the older police stations in the UK. It looks like it was built in about 1920 and has not seen a lick of paint or a fresh floorboard or carpet tile or strip of linoleum since! Alexandr’s own office is large, and lined with the stuffed heads of animals — he is a keen hunter and invited me to join him on a future trip. Too good an invite to turn down!!! After a tour of the police station and the cells (Russian prisoners look much like British ones — and they all started taunting me about football — a subject I know little enough about in English, let alone in Russian…) Then I went out to dinner with him and fifteen of his senior colleagues, who were determined to get me drunk!
There is an etiquette in Russia that if you toast or are toasted, you have to drain your glass. All sixteen Moscow police officers duly toasted me in turn! I was told the trick was to eat something each time you drained the glass. I tried, but that wasn’t doing me any good. So I then tried being clever and poured half the content into my water glass. But I forgot I was with sharp-eyed police officers, who immediately spotted the ruse and made me drink the water glass contents too! I was eventually rescued by my publishers who helped me out into the night. And if anyone ever tells you that neat vodka is great because it doesn’t give you a hangover – well they lied!!!
One thing that did amaze me was the salaries of the police. One of them asked, before I was too drunk, me how much a newly qualified policeman in the UK gets. I told him it was about £20,000 – £22,000 as starting salary. They said in Russia it is £2,000. And the Chief of Police gets £16,000. Hardly a fortune — the cost of food is not much cheaper than the UK, cars are about 35% more. Living can be cheaper as there is a lot of free accomodation from the government, but still… But even so I found those figures mind-boggling. Then I was asked by Alexandr how much a judge in the UK gets. I replied the range was from about £95,000 — over £200,000. He told me a judge in Moscow earns £22,000. But then he said that with “perks” that could rise to well over £125,000. What kind of “perks” does a judge get, I wondered, that could give that kind of salary boost ????
One very interesting comment from Alexandr was on the subject of crime in Russia. He told me that in the year 2000 the situation was so bad the Moscow police actually thought they had lost the battle against organized crime and that it was the Mafia who were taking over control of the city. Now, he was relieved to tell me, the police were back in charge, but it had been a worrying time.
When I was last in Russia, in 1985, staying in a hotel on Gorky Prospekt (now renamed) there was literally nothing to buy in the shops and stores. Above is a photograph of the interior of the grandest department store in Moscow, GUM, as it is now. You would not believe it in 1985: There was literally nothing in any of the windows, and all the lighting in the entire building seemed to come from one solitary 40 watt bulb! Yet, across the road from my hotel window in 1985 I saw a small shop, where an endless procession of smart cars pulled up (when there were virtually no other vehicles on the street) and people in fine clothing went into the shop and came out laden. I learned it was part of the then two-tier Soviet society — a “Berioska shop”. You could only go in if you had foreign currency, and it was laden with every luxury you could want, from Beluga caviare and Havana Cigars to Western luxury electrical goods.
It is good to see that has now all gone. Anyone can buy anything and the shops and store windows are filled with the same goods as everywhere in the western world. But although there is now an increasingly prosperous middle class there is still clearly a big divide between the rich and everyone else. One of the constant sights on Moscow streets is people under the bonnets of cars and vans and trucks, tinkering with them, carrying out repairs. You see someone doing this on almost every street corner. That is a rare sight in our disposable goods Western society today. People don’t mend things in our modern world. We throw them away and replace them.
Another factor separating Russia from the west is women’s rights. At a dinner one night I sat next to the wife of one of the Russian oligarchs who had better remain nameless! She told me that women have absolutely no status in law in Russia. Although her husband is a billionaire several times over and she lives as lavish a lifestyle as is imaginable, if he chose to divorce her she could be left with literally nothing.
Something else that has changed is the quality of food and service. Last time I was in Russia, staying at my Intourist Hotel (no options) the evening meal was served at 6.30pm, and all at once. So your starter, main course (usually shoe leather in some kind of sour gravy) and desert, served by one of the world’s ugliest and least pleasant waiters and waitresses, were all laid out on the table, getting nicely cold for you. But on this trip I ate some of the most brilliant food. One restaurant in particular, Turandot, is an absolute must if you go to Moscow — it is the most beautiful restaurant I’ve ever eaten in, anywhere in the world, and served by delightful staff all dressed in frock coats and knee-breeches — with real elan! See the New York Times and Passport Magazine reviews.
One of my biggest surprises back in 1985 and even more true today is how strikingly beautiful many of Moscow’s buildings are (even more so in St Petersburg) The Moscow State University (pictured above) is both imperialistic and striking in its design and scale, and the Kremlin, despite the forboding atmosphere of Red Square, is a truly stunningly beautiful palace. And I couldn’t resist this picture of the wonderful memorial to Yuri Gagarin (pictured below), the first astronaut, who went into space in 1961. Ironically he was killed piloting a conventional plane in 1968.
Have fun if you go — just don’t toast anyone in a bar!