Monday, January 6, 2014

Happy New Year... Do You Want to Live?

Happy New Year... Do You Want to Live? 

Things in Russia never turn out the way you think they're going to.

New Year is the biggest holiday in Russia, and this year's celebration was no exception. Complete with a raucous house party, toasting champagne with Russian strangers on the main square of the city while sliding down a 30 foot ice slide, riding the first metro train of the New Year through the city, singing Russian songs and eating pirog and drinking tea with a new group of Russian friends in a one room apartment... And oh yeah gopniks with knives and blood smears on the ground. Read on!

So fellow Fulbright ETA and native Tomich (he lives in Tomsk) Alex Olson and I decided we had had our fill of New Year's celebrations and decided it was time to head home by about 3:30am. Luckily for us, two girls from the party decided they also were through. We had stopped drinking for about 3 hours and we figured a group of four would be pretty safe. As we walked along the Main Street of Novosibirsk (Krasniy Prospekt) fireworks continued to randomly erupt from seemingly every block of the city, and joyous Russians seemed to dance and run out of every street corner.

It came time to depart from our company and walk the final kilometer of our trek alone. So we said our goodbyes and turned onto the next connecting street. About this time we began to joke about how all of our friends from the initial house party were warning us not to go into town because it was "boring" and "dangerous." One Russian even showed us a sizable scar on his thigh and said, "This is from Lenin Square on New Year's." So as we contentedly giggled to ourselves about how overly cautious our Russian friends had been, given that we had successfully navigated our way around the main square (crawling with families btw, not dangerous) and found all of the Russians who invited us to their apartment to be as merry and friendly as any, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that three suspicious looking men were crossing the street toward us. 

One Russian looking man stumbled up the snow bank and turned toward me. Well, damnit, this is bad. It was a little too late for action and as I tried to just walk past him he thrust his hand into my belly and pushed me back. I'm not quite sure what he said but I like to think it was something along the lines of Russian for "This is a stick up!" 

I felt something hard at the bottom of my rib cage. He's really applying some pressure. Well looks like I'm about to lose my wallet. And my phone. And my passport. My life?

I tried to make nice. "Guys, guys, you don't have to do this," I said. That didn't really get me anywhere. So I decided that the pressure at the bottom of my rib cage was a little uncomfortable, so I tried to push his arm away. That wasn't such a good idea. He pushed into me doubly hard, and turned his palm upward, showing me the knife swallowed in his hand who's point had slightly pierced my jacket. "Did you see?" he said in Russian. "Yes, I saw." "Do you want to live?" "Yes, I want to live." 

Me being fully subdued, he directed his younger central Asian lackey to clean out my pockets. This little guy looked terrified, but he came up and snatched my wallet out of my front right jean pocket, then took a few steps back. The Russian man then told him to come back and check my pocket. There goes my phone. Then somehow, remarkably, they didn't even bother searching my jacket pockets where they would have found my passport. The man pushed me away and told me to get lost, and I took a few steps down the street. 

I turned around and stopped to see Alex with his hands up surrounded by 3 men who were looking through his pockets. I felt helpless, and I took a few steps towards the car that was driving by and tried to wave them down. But my effort was half-hearted as I didn't want to do anything to get either of us stabbed, so I simply watched as they took everything on Alex's person and then stumbled off towards Krasniy Prospekt. 


Alex came up to me and we watched as the three vanished off into the city. We stood their wondering what to do next. Did we just get mugged? We just got mugged. What do we do do now? Do we follow them? No, it's dangerous. So we just watch them walk away? Yeah.... Well tomorrow we tell the cops, but they probably won't do anything. If only we knew how wrong a prediction that was... 

In the mean time I spent the rest of the night canceling every one of my credit cards and thinking of all the little coincidental steps that led us to that particular street at that particular time. I'm not one to believe in fate, but it was impossible not to dwell on the shoulda-coulda-wouldas. What if we had left a little earlier? Later? What if we had turned onto a different street? What if we had just taken a taxi? What if we had met different people on Lenin Square and gone in a completely different direction? Why didn't I run when I first saw the gopniks? But the biggest should-coulda-woulda will stay my own...

I woke up the next morning (afternoon) in a depression and to find that one of the girls that had walked with us to Krasniy Prospekt had sent me a friend request on Vkontakte. I immediately told her that we were mugged right after leaving her. She asked if there was any help she could provide us. Well... could you quickly take us to a police station? Unfortunately for her, she agreed.

We thought the whole police station thing would only take half an hour or an hour. We would report our stolen stuff, they'd put the document in a file, say something along the lines of pretending to look for our stuff, and send us on our way. Well first we went to the closest police station, but they established that they wouldn't hear anything about it because the crime occurred in a different district of the city. 

So we traveled to the correct police station, and immediately received flak at the door. Why were you out at 5am? It's going to be very hard for us to find them now, why didn't you contact us immediately? 

We finally were sent to an office where we answered the same questions again. This officer really didn't want to deal with the situation. After speaking with him for half an hour, he left and got his chief, who was equally displeased to see us. They seemed much more interested in establishing who we were, where we lived, what we did, and what we were doing the night before than taking the fact that we were robbed seriously.

Apparently, having to accept that an armed robbery occurred in their district is bad for their statistics, and they were trying really hard to convince us that a knife wasn't involved. It's a very different, much more serious crime in Russia if a knife is involved. 

Finally they took official statements from each of us individually and seemed to be interested in investigating the crime. We'd been there for about 3 hours and we figured we were about done. Again, we were very wrong. The best was yet to come.

We then each individually got to meet a very unique officer. Women police officers aren't exactly known for their friendliness, and neither are Russians with whom you aren't friends, and when you combine the two you get this particular kind of person who's screech can leave you shivering in your interrogation chair in complete submission. The closest analogy I can think of would be the screech of the Ringwraiths in the Lord of The Rings. 
I didn't ask if you THOUGHT there was a knife. I asked if there WAS a KNIFE!!!!

Somehow we survived Miss Wringwraith (for the time being) and they said they had a few Central Asian suspects they wanted to me to try to identify. I looked at them through a window and a doorway of the station and they weren't our little central asian suspect.

Then they showed us some pictures of a group of three suspects a different station had picked up. And, amazingly, these guys looked like the guys that robbed us. I was sure about the young central Asian one - the fear in his eyes just burned an image into my brain that I wouldn't forget.

By this point the chief had warmed to us, and they decided they would do an "opaznanie" of these suspects that very evening. Opoznanie is the Russian version of a "line-up." My only experience with police lineups comes from the movies. My idea of a lineup is a bunch of suspected criminals line up in a room with height markings, and on the other side of a one-way window a witness stands and comfortably points out which man was the one who did the supposed crime. It's all very relaxed and often, in the movies, comical.

Opoznaniye in Russia

There wasn't much that was funny about the opaznaniye, at least not at first. It also didn't help that we didn't really know exactly what we were doing. They basically let us into a room where three somewhat similarly looking people were sitting on a couch, one of whom was one of our suspects. A detective sat with a stack of papers, and several police officers sat around the edges of the room. A few other people I had never seen before stood in the corner. I wasn't sure why until afterwards, but basically they were there to make sure the process was fair. 

I immediately recognized the little man who had taken my wallet and phone, but now i had to manage to describe the difference between him and the other two men sitting on the couch. They asked for more and more defining features until every bit of his face and stature had been analyzed and depicted. It makes sense, I suppose, but it was stressful. I have a hard time describing people in English. I rarely remember eye color or even hair color of a person, just impressions, but I can recognize people when I see them. 

I found myself thinking of some of my last Russian classes at William and Mary where Bella Feliksovna asked us to describe how someone looked in Russian, and we all blankly stared back at her. Describe? Why can't we just show someone a picture. Well, situations like these are why we learn to describe people. 

The only time the opaznanie got funny was when they asked me to describe the build of the man who stuck the knife into my jacket. I said "Обычно," which means "usual," which drew some smiles even from the guy sitting next to him on the couch. The people in the room collectively decided to have mercy on me since I wasn't a native Russian speaker and we agreed on "средный" which means "average." Words matter.

Between the opaznaniyi we ate some Papa John's pizza they allowed us to order (Yes, Novosibirsk Russia has a Papa John's). By 3am, it was all over. Even Miss Wringwraith flashed a few smiles.

The chief of the police drove us and our poor new Russian friend home. She had endured the entire 12 hours as a suspect and then translator for us. My friend, Alex, warned her not to agree to do any more "little" favors for any more Americans. 

So we arrived home, with no money and no telephones, but a good feeling that we had aided the Russian justice system. We'd successfully identified two of the gopniks that robbed us, and while our money and phones were gone, we were happy. The next day, we paid back our translator with chocolates, wine, flowers, and our company. There's no way we could ever truly thank her for helping us. She suffered right along with us through the 12 hours at the police station, and they never would have taken us seriously without her there. 

To conclude, they say in Russia that your entire year will be spent in the same way that you meet the New Year. Russians are very superstitious. Let's hope this year isn't an endless cycle of being held at knife point and eating pizza in police stations. 

Let this song explain the rest: