Last December, I traveled to Moscow with a group of students to study legal reform in Russia, a country whose goal is to reform the Soviet system to become a law-governed state. Just how far Russia has to go became apparent to me from an experience I had on the Arbat, Moscow's principal tourist strip.
I was there alone, shopping at the souvenir stands for matryoshka dolls - the lacquered wooden nesting dolls associated with traditional Russian culture. The most popular item then was the Monica matryoshka, which had a likeness of Monica Lewinsky on the outermost doll, one modeled on Paula Jones directly inside that, and a smaller Gennifer Flowers doll in the innermost spot. As I stood perusing the wooden Monicas, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see a tall, thin, Russian policeman. He asked to see my passport and visa. I shuddered, remembering Hollywood movies where a Russian policeman's request for papers is a prelude to ten years in the gulag.
While I ruffled through my pockets, two other policemen joined us, a fat man with a scar on his chin, and a dark-skinned policeman who may have hailed from Central Asia. Both carried semiautomatic weapons on shoulder straps. I remembered thinking I was lucky to have my documents. In Russia, a visa must be stamped by your hotel when you arrive, and the hotel clerk had just returned my visa the night before.
My relief was short-lived. "I'm afraid there is a problem," the thin policeman proclaimed. "You have an improper stamp on your visa. You are under arrest. Come to the station."
I had no choice. As they marched me over to the nearby police car, I desperately looked around for someone to help me, but the Russians on the crowded street averted their eyes and tucked their chins deeper into their thick coats. I was pushed into the back seat, where the fat policeman joined me, placing his gun on his lap with the barrel pointed toward me. After the two other policemen got into the front seat, we drove away.
I immediately started pleading with them. "I don't understand!" I said. "Why am I being arrested? I am just a student!" The thin cop in the front seat pointed at my visa and shouted "Straff! Straff!" over and over again. I tried to show him that the hotel stamp on the visa was where it should be, but he continued to point and shout. The big policeman with the scar was filling out a form in Russian and demanding that I sign it. I knew the U.S. embassy was nearby, so I implored them to take me there. The cop filling out the form said, "No embassy! Station!"
After about five minutes of struggling with my fear and bewilderment, I looked outside and noticed that we were still in the neighborhood around the tourist strip. Suddenly I realized the game: We had been circling the block again and again. My suspicions were confirmed when the fat policeman said that the station was unpleasant, and wouldn't it be preferable for me to pay them the fine, or straff, directly? I had not been arrested; I had simply been selected for a shake-down, a blatant, brazen attempt at securing bribes from tourists.
The straff they imposed for my violations was 4,000 rubles - about 200 dollars. Not a bad take in a country where the average pensioner was earning less than 30 dollars a month. At the beginning of our trip we had been advised that, because hotel security was rather lax, we should carry all our money with us. As a result, I had about 600 dollars tucked into my belt pouch, money I was not about to hand over to these thugs.
With my anger subduing my fear, I decided to play dumb. I claimed to be a poor student and demanded they take me to the embassy. At the same time, the nagging fear arose that, if they chose to search me and found my belt pouch, they might have enough of an excuse to bring me to the station after all.
I decided on a half-lie. I said that I was carrying 70 dollars, which was what I had in my wallet. "Seventy dollars is the penalty for your violation," the thin policeman declared with no trace of embarrassment. "Pay the straff, and we'll let you go." As I gathered the money from my wallet, the car slowed to a crawl, and after a wordless exchange of money for my passport and visa, they let me out of the car not far from where they had first found me. Walking back to my hotel a poorer man, I had to chuckle at the irony of my situation. I was here to study legal reform, and the police had been happy to show me the ways of the lawless.
Noah Sachs, who graduated from Stanford Law School in May, is an attorney at Carter, Ledyard & Milburn in New York City.