Russia, September 21, 1999
Someone stole my car!Los Angeles Times September 21, 1998
In Russia, Stealing Is a Normal Part of Life Crime: Theft has become integral to the 'privatization' of state property.
By Richard C. Paddock, Times Staff Writer
ARKHANGELSK, Russia--Drunk and desperate, Pavel Araslanov climbed to the top of a power pole to steal what he thought was an unused electrical cable. When he cut the line, 10,000 volts passed through his body, killing him instantly. He was found the next morning dangling from the pole by a safety strap. His death was not in vain. Soon, other thieves came in the night and stole the 4,000 feet of copper wire that went dead in Araslanov's final act. Within days, they sold it as scrap at one of dozens of junkyards in this city near the Arctic Circle, getting enough rubles to buy food and vodka.
This is one small case in an epidemic of thievery that has swept across Russia in the nearly seven years since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Without the repressive control of the Communist system, theft has emerged as an integral part of the "privatization" of property once controlled by the state. While the powerful and well-connected have made off with factories and companies, the poor and disenfranchised take whatever they can get their hands on. Stealing, experts say, has become a normal part of life for millions of Russians.
"People don't think theft is that much of a crime anymore," said Vladimir B. Almukhamed, an Arkhangelsk prosecutor whose office handled two similar cases of thieves electrocuting themselves. "The number of thefts has skyrocketed. Right now, people are basically stealing everything they lay their eyes on."
Cult of Thievery Dates Back 300 Years
The theft of public resources is a deeply rooted tradition in Russia. For more than three centuries, rulers from Peter the Great to Boris N. Yeltsin have complained of graft and corruption in their governments. Stealing has long permeated all levels of Russian society. Today, history and economic necessity have combined to produce a modern culture of theft. During the Soviet era, Russians were taught that everything was owned in common, and stealing from the state was kept in check by severe penalties. But the breakdown of the Communist system set off a capitalist free-for-all in which the strongest, smartest and most ruthless divided up the empire's spoils.
Boris, steal the fence while your at it!
"People see the results of the so-called privatization," said Boris V. Uemlyanin, first deputy police chief of the Arkhangelsk region. "In Soviet times, everything belonged to the people. The change has created the situation where things ceased to be 'ours' but didn't become 'mine.' They're nobody's. Now, people have no qualms about destroying something that was created by other people to buy a bottle or support themselves." Leonid Sedov, a senior researcher with the All-Russia Public Opinion Poll, estimates that 30% of the country's population engages in stealing at least occasionally.
Some liken the behavior of Russians to American office workers who pocket pens, paper clips and stationery to furnish their home offices. But Sedov contends that stealing--along with its companion, excessive drinking--is more common here than in Western countries because Russian society, long mired in serfdom and communism, has matured more slowly than others.
"We are an adolescent people," Sedov said. "In any culture, adolescents are not very much concerned about moral rules or property and are more prone to base their behavior on force and violence. Force is the main regulator of Russian civilization. The respect for property isn't firmly established here as an important human right."
Near the end of his reign in the early 18th century, Peter the Great grew angry over the constant embezzlement and theft carried out by his friends and government officials, Robert K. Massie recounts in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, "Peter the Great." In a rage one day over the latest reports of high-level bribery and extortion, the czar ordered the immediate execution of anyone who stole even enough from the state to buy a length of rope.
"Has Your Majesty reflected on the consequences of this decree?" his advisor, Pavel Yaguzhinsky, asked as he took down the directive. The czar told him to keep writing, but Yaguzhinsky persisted: "Does Your Majesty wish to live alone in the empire without any subjects? For we all steal. Some take a little, some take a great deal, but all of us take something." Peter shook his head sadly and gave up on the idea.
A century later, historian Nikolai Karamzin was asked to describe the workings of Russia's government. His answer was one word: "Voruyut"--"They steal."
During Communist times, Josef Stalin succeeded in suppressing thievery by meting out brutal punishment. Even children were arrested and sent to labor camps for taking handfuls of grain from collective farms. But stealing from the state enjoyed a resurgence during the final decades of Soviet rule. The era of Leonid I. Brezhnev was notoriously corrupt; in 1987, five years after Brezhnev died, his son-in-law was imprisoned in a huge bribery scandal.
Bandits Are Bolder, Heists More Brazen
The difference between those in power and ordinary Russians has always been opportunity--and the scale of theft possible. Russians have an old saying that they cite whenever the subject of thievery comes up: "They steal anything that's not nailed down."
In 1991, the Soviet Union's final year, there were 427 reported thefts for every 100,000 people, government records show. In 1992--the first, and most chaotic, year of independence--the number of reported thefts jumped to 1,086 per 100,000 people. Since then, the official number has declined gradually. It reached 717 per 100,000 people last year. But the figures tell only part of the story: Russians are cavalier about gathering data, and statistics are notoriously unreliable. Moreover, because Russian police are widely regarded as corrupt and inefficient, many crime victims are reluctant to file reports.
The daily news in Russia is full of accounts of brazen heists and bold thieves who steal almost anything imaginable. In the Far East, bandits have made off with two locomotives and 70 tons of equipment. So far, neither the trains nor the thieves have been found. Railroads, stretching unprotected across Russia's vast expanse, endure frequent thefts of cargo, signal lights, wiring and parts of the trains themselves--at times endangering operations and causing costly delays.
When they steal Gagarin, that's when I'll be worried!
"I am sure that in a normal country, no one in his right mind would come up with the idea of dismantling a locomotive battery in order to take out the lead and sell it," said Yevgeny A. Balakin, a spokesman for the railroad transport police. "In Russia, it is possible."
Oil pipelines, similarly vulnerable, have suffered a recent surge in thefts by sophisticated crooks who tap into the lines at remote locations and load oil onto their own trucks for quick resale. In one recent case in the Volga River region of southern Russia, thieves cut into a pipeline, installed a spigot and filled a waiting tanker. Police who caught them in the act found that they had already prepared a false set of invoices and transit documents.
Dozens of cases of theft of nuclear material have been reported since the Soviet Union's dissolution. Former government officials alleged last fall that suitcase-sized nuclear bombs were missing from Russia's arsenal and could be in the hands of terrorists. Hundreds of thefts of weapons and ammunition from poorly guarded military installations across Russia have been reported. Many of the culprits are officers and soldiers trying to supplement their meager salaries. In one case in Volgograd, in southern Russia, four teenagers who had broken into an arms depot to steal gunpowder lighted a fire so they could see better and blew up the entire ammunition dump. They ran to safety when they saw the flames leap to a box of tank shells.
Russians consider it normal to take flowers from parks, roadsides and cemeteries to sell or give away. Sometimes, they also take metal grave markers to sell for scrap. Thieves in the Ural Mountains city of Chelyabinsk stole the chemical saltpeter from a factory and sold it as salt to the unsuspecting. One old woman unwittingly made soup with it, killing her son and seriously poisoning herself. After she recovered, she made soup for her son's memorial service, sending herself and six guests to the hospital.
Nothing, it seems, is sacred. Thousands of stolen icons--hand-painted religious artifacts--have been confiscated by border guards from thieves trying to smuggle them out of the country. One of Czar Nicholas II's vertebrae disappeared from the morgue table in Yekaterinburg while his remains were stored there. Rare dinosaur bones, the world's largest mammoth tusks and 240-million-year-old amphibian skulls were reported stolen from Moscow's Paleontological Institute. At the monument 120 miles east of Moscow marking the site where cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, one of Russia's greatest heroes, crashed his test plane and died 30 years ago, visitors have filched the steppingstones for use in their own gardens.
Last spring, police busted a ring of Moscow car thieves who lured car owners to an auto shop and killed them for their vehicles. Police found 10 bodies buried under the floor of the garage.
Now that's an alarm!
As if real-life theft was not enough, television offers a weekly game show called "Interception," in which contestants act out the theft of a car and try to elude pursuing police. The "stolen" vehicle is equipped with a Lo- Jack antitheft device that allows off-duty police officers hired for the show to track the stolen vehicle. A driver who eludes the police for 35 minutes wins the car. David Gamburg, the show's creator, said it has become popular in part because it taps into Russians' ancient contempt for authority and their admiration for successful thieves.
"It's very appealing to Russians," he said. "In Russia, we don't have a history of valuing someone's private property. People consider themselves a hero because they stole from the government."
Nonferrous Metals Hottest Ticket
A new crime inspired by the disintegration of the Soviet Union is the theft of nonferrous metals such as copper, aluminum and brass. Reported cases jumped from 3,400 in 1994 to 26,631 last year, according to Oleg N. Shibko, head of the Russian Interior Ministry's antitheft department. In the early days of privatization, nonferrous metal disappeared from factories by the train car. Since then, a network of junkyards has sprung up to collect metal bit by bit from scavengers. Although local jurisdictions try to regulate the scrap yards, police find it hard to tell the difference between stolen goods and genuine junk.
Authorities say the trade in scrap metal is controlled by organized-crime groups, which transport the material abroad for recycling and sale in the West. Much of the stolen metal passes through Estonia, where the shipments acquire legitimacy on their way to Western Europe and the United States. The trade has made Estonia one of the world's largest exporters of nonferrous metal--even though it produces none itself.
The demand for copper and aluminum has prompted thieves all over Russia to steal wiring, power lines, television cables, telephone lines, pipes, boat parts, machinery components and whatever else they can find. Often, the thefts deprive residents and factories of electricity, telephones or cable television. The thieves usually get paid far less than the social cost of the damage they cause.
In Arkhangelsk, where Peter the Great launched Russia's first naval vessel, hard times have forced the unemployed to scavenge metal at the defunct port where they once worked. Most of the facility's nonferrous metal is gone, so they collect pieces of iron from the hulks of boats and buildings, even though the bits bring only a pittance at the scrap yard. Their activities are legal, they say, because the port is shut down. Besides, there's no one to stop them.
"Now, it's only poverty and misery, and all we can do is strip the leftovers of the empire to survive," Yevgeny Oksov, 51, a former crane operator, said as he stood in the engine room of a boat and used a hacksaw to cut off a heating pipe.
As nonferrous metal becomes harder to find, scavengers take greater risks. In the past year, dozens of people have been electrocuted nationwide stealing power cables or electrical components, Shibko said.
"Everyone who cuts a cable is aware of the danger," said Stanislav Brylkov, 47, the operator of a small junkyard. "They are unemployed and ready to go to any lengths. People have been cornered by poverty. One in 10 factories is working, and people have to feed their families."
The last time Irina Krasnova saw her husband, Dmitri, he rode off on his bicycle saying he was going to get grass for the family's pet rabbits. Police found his body the next day in a small power substation. He had been electrocuted trying to steal bits of copper.
"I don't think he knew about electricity," she said, holding their 2-year-old daughter. "He didn't know how to put a socket in the wall. But we were in a predicament."
By Alexander Samoiloff
In 1999 a chronic Russian disease of non-ferrous metals theft has grown up into the real fever. The problem is that impoverished Russian people steal non-ferrous metal parts for selling at a low price to the "recycling companies". During few previous years local telephone and electric companies waged a war for survival of their copper cables. Now the Russian crisis has made export of metals a highly profitable business and we receive regular daily reports about theft fever in all Russian industries.
A 67 years old pensioner Leonid Galich told me - "When I traveled by bus to take a look at Dacha (country house) my neighbor said - If you have anything made of aluminum or copper I can bet they are stolen. A scrap reception station was opened in the neighboring village. And the neighbor was right. Local BICHI has robbed out all metal things from my and all neighboring Dachas, including aluminum spoons, forks, wire, pails, ladders, corrugated roofing sheets and etc. Robbers are paid 15 - 20 Rbls per kilo at the reception station."
Khabarovsk electric and telephone companies, Trans-Siberian Railroad and aviation suffer a real disaster. For example, police reported about 8 casualties as the result of attempt to cut off operating high voltage electric cables in 1998. Only in January 1999 we already had 5 deaths. If in 1998 transportation police has registered 545 cases of metal parts theft from railways for the whole year, than only in January 1999 they report about 126 such cases.
For example, at the train station Korphovskaya the team of railroad electricians at night stole 150 meters of the linear copper wire and some other equipment. While workers have received for the "scraps" 275 Rubles, which they immediately have spent for buying 12 bottles of vodka, the railroad has suffered 22,5 thousand Rbls loss.
Deputy Chief of Transportation Police Anatoly Zaikin told me that in January near the Amur-River Bridge they have found a dugout and detained a team of "scrappers" equipped with all necessary tools for dismantling of equipment. Those professional "scrap diggers" were travelling along the railroad between Siberia and Vladivostok.
Khabarovsk City Telephone Company suffers heavy losses because of the regular theft of copper cables, which leaves the houses and some areas without communications. For example an ambush in Uzhny Microrayon detained a man who regularly cut off the telephone cable in the big house. To their surprise police found that the robber lives in the same house and has a telephone. Near the town Troytskoye police ambush detained the team of electricians from Electric Company, who stole at night 1,5 km of high voltage wire line. Khabarovsk airport reports about invasion of robbers on their facilities. Thieves steal equipment, parts, cut off lightning cables and etc and sell to the "Recycling Company".
During inspection raids on scrap reception stations police often finds Army ammunition and equipment, like copper artillery shells, missiles. Recently they found a missile launcher. In an effort to stop robberies Governor of Khabarovsk Krai Victor Ishayev has issued a decree on licensing and strict control of the domestic scraps reception stations. But the Chief Procurator cancels the regulation, as it "contradicts to the federal legislation and infringes on the civil rights". But the neighboring China enjoys a Civil Right to receive super profits from Russian scrap metals by destroying the remnants of Russian economy.
"DEVIL'S DEN" EL DORADO
From Tykhookeanskaya Zvezda
A real "Gold Rush" has started near the small town Obor down south of Khabarovsk. Local residents and visitors from Khabarovsk and Prymorye has built in the woods a tent camp "Devil's Den" and dig for non-ferrous metals - an old army ammunition.
At the beginning of 1998 one local resident found few bronze artillery shells in the woods and started to dig. In a month already few hundred people worked hard on the site of the old W.W.II Army ammunition warehouses. Later few diggers have purchased bulldozers. "We live like American gold diggers in Klondike at the end of 19 Century.
The sites are fairly shared between people and every morning men go to this hard and dangerous work - said an old timer Valentine Denisenko. - They use probing rods to detect shells and mines and women pile them. Two men were killed by mine explosion and one has lost his hand. Few businessmen buy metals on the place for 8 Rbls per kilo of bronze and 6 Rbls per kilo of aluminum. Later they resell it in the city at the much higher prices." There are few camp vendors who supply diggers with food and other necessary products. Also, here you can exchange metal to vodka.
Many local residents of that rural area are unemployed. It's almost impossible to find work as the lumber mill, were a majority of them worked earlier doesn't operate. So, some people live on hunting and fishing, another part sells illegal vodka and cultivates cannabis for sale. Last fall police detained few old Babushkas, who are professional drug dealers.