Sunday, November 20, 2011

Moscow's Red Square

Our first day in Moscow, still half jetlagged, we decided to go to the Red Square.  Before traveling to Russia, we had read several guidebooks about the country, and they all mentioned that the Russian police are incredibly corrupt and that they look a tourists as a source of side-revenue.  According to the guidebooks, if you were approached by a police officer seeking a bribe, all you had to do was say "take me to my embassy" and they would back off.

I thought after reading that, I was thoroughly prepared for such a confrontation, however, when it happened to us, I was mortified. 

We walked a few steps into the Red Square, holding hands and smiling in awe of the enormous beauty of Red Square, and the pinnacle of its beauty, St. Basil's Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church built between 1555-61, on the order of Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan.  The Cathedral marks the geometric center of the city and the butt of its growth since the 14th century.  It was the tallest building in Moscow until the completion of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in 1600.   

A view of the Red Square from Will's apartment

As soon as we walked in, we decided to step into a pharmacy totally oblivious to the people around us.  The moment we set foot outside the pharmacy, 3 tall, burly men wearing long, dark trench coats and police hats approached us.  "Passports" one of them said, in a very thick Russian accent.  I pulled out our passports from my purse and with my hands already shaking, I gave them to the man.  He looked at them, and flipped through the pages to find our visa for Russia.  "Problem" he said.  In Russia, if you are to stay in a city for more than 3 days, you are supposed to register with the local police office, and let them know of your intent.  It was our first day in Moscow, so we had not yet done that, and to be honest, we had no intention of wasting a day standing in line to register.  So, when he said "Problem", I knew he was right, we hadn't registered.

My heart dropped to my stomach.  It had happened to us! They wanted money, we knew it, but how much?  How do you communicate with someone trying to get a bribe if you don't speak the language?  What if we gave them too little and they didn't let us go?  I had a million thoughts running through my mind at that moment.  I pictured my life in a Russian jail, and started shaking frantically. 

"Take us to our Embassy" I said, my voice quivering.  "Wait, wait" said the man.  The line hadn't worked, I was so nervous.  I had totally forgotten about Timor, until Shane reminded me.  "Let's take them to talk to Timor", said Shane.  Timor was our driver / ex-military who worked for our host in Moscow, a Texan, like us, named Will.  Will had instructed Timor to drive us around Moscow and take us to the main sites. 

We signaled to the men to follow us, they held on to our passports, and begrudgingly walked behind us.  When we walked up to the car, Timor was asleep in the driver's seat.  We knocked on the window and he stepped out of the car.  I've never been happier to see anyone in my life! Timor was a very large man, he made the officers look tiny next to him.  He started asking the policemen what they wanted.  We couldn't understand what he was saying, but we could tell that he was speaking to them  in a very dismissive tone.  He waved them off, and told us in broken English, "I follow you so no more trouble".  Timor followed us the rest of the day, as we took in the sites of the Red Square and the Kremlin.

Shane, Timor and me in front of St. Basil's Cathedral

Throughout the day, I noticed the officers that had given us trouble.  I saw how they huddled in an area, and chose which unwitting tourists to harass.  It made me so angry...

Later that night, we picked up our travel guide again, and read that, in Russia, overt signs of happiness (smiling, laughing, etc) are considered symptoms of idiocy and to be avoided. We had an "aha" moment, and realized that was our give-away to the policemen.  We were certainly the smiling idiots in the Red Square.  From that day forward, we stopped smiling in public, and were not harassed again.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and informative, a must read before traveling