Russia: Moscow's Top Secret and Other Exaggerations

Global Voices Online
Sunday, June 24, 2007

Moscow these days may struck one as a rather expensive city: according to the Cost of Living Survey recently conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting, it's "the world’s most expensive city for expatriates for the second consecutive year."

To Moscow locals, however, Mercer's findings may look a bit like an exaggeration. LJ user try_baby_try explains (RUS):

Hey you, unbelievers and the doubtful,

You live inside this city, you know where to buy cheaper food and how to save money on housing.

Poor foreigners are being charged three times as much - hotels are expensive, accommodation costs them about as much per day as it does per month to you. This, above all, is what makes up such a high cost.

Yes, and even cab drivers, when they see a foreigner, they demand $100 instead of 100 rubles.

Speaking of the tendency to exaggerate, roughly 9,000 riot police were deployed to downtown Moscow from all over Russia on April 14, 2007 - for a comparatively small-scale event: the opposition's Dissenters' March. Later, even president Vladimir Putin admitted, through a spokesman, that there had been instances of "overreaction" by the police.

And when LJ user g60, a Moscow native now living in the United States, was visiting his hometown, he happened to cross paths with Putin's motorcade twice, getting a glimpse (and a few furtive photos) of the exaggerated security measures taken to secure the president's passage through the city.

Here's g60 story (RUS), posted on June 12:

Top Secret

In the first three days, I ran into the president of Russia twice. "Ran into" is not an accurate term - it was more like getting stuck in traffic because of the cordoned off streets.

The first time, on the second day, my classmate and I were driving out onto [Kutuzovsky Prospekt], when a policeman with the belly as big as that of a Santa Claus began fussing around, blocked off the exit, started waving at the cars that were still on the road as if they were mosquitoes.

"We have a belief here," my classmate told me sadly, "that if you meet the president, you'll be late."

At last, after some 15 minutes of waiting, the president swooshed by and the traffic was restored.

The following day, I was wandering around downtown Moscow, and when I was on [Nikitskiy Boulevard] on my way to [Arbat], I saw something that I'd only seen in Israel, on [Remembrance Day], when all traffic stops at the sound of the siren, and people step out of their cars and stand nearby. Here, there was no siren, but the cars stood still, and people were standing, too, because not everyone had air conditioning and the heat was well above 30 [degrees Celcius].

When I realized what was going on, I moved faster and reached [Arbatskiye Vorota] - which looked strange. I've seen the place looking like this before, a long time ago, in 1982-84, during the funerals of [Brezhnev] & Co. - everything was cordoned off then.

I took out my camera and made a few shots: the empty Kalininskiy [Novyi Arbat's old Soviet name] on one side and a wall made up of cars on [Vozdvizhenka] on the other side - waiting for the Chief's drive-through. Soon enough, a motorcade appeared, a Mercedes Limousine surrounded by three Gelaendewagens, or whatever they are called, a very impressive sight. I did think it was better not to make the cops nervous, the camera was hanging on my belt, the lens was as wide-angle as it gets - and I just pushed the button a couple times, knowing that the motorcade would definitely be on the picture.

[...] I was not allowed to make but one step. As soon as they all drove away, I heard this from behind my back: "Young man, your documents and your camera, please." I turned around and saw a minder sweating in his dark woolen suit. "Special Department for the President's Affairs, Officer Kh**yev," the [chekist] introduced himself. Of course, I failed to remember the department's and the special agent's exact names. He even half-showed me his ID, having at the same time concealed it from me carefully with his hand. [...]

"What's the matter, may I ask?" - "You've photographed the Secret Drive-Through (sic! - g60)." - "What was secret about it? Look how many people there are around. Is it not allowed to take pictures or what?" - "Yes, sure. Show me your documents." - "No problem, here." To say that he was disappointed when he saw my documents is not to say anything. "Where's your registration?" - "I arrived on Saturday, today is the first business day, and I'm required to get registered within three days."

"Then show me the pictures you've made, please." - "Yes, with pleasure." Novyi Arbat was on two of them from horizon to horizon and somewhere in the center there was a tiny spot - the presidential motorcade. [...] "And this you'll have to erase." Well, I thought, thank God for an idiot. Decided to play along a bit: "May I keep them, they're a memory, I haven't been here in a long time..." - "No, you're not allowed to. We won't punish you, but do erase the picture." "Okay," I say and push the "delete" button with a sigh. "Good bye and all the best." [...] I walked aside, took out the flash card, inserted another one. You see, sergeant or whatever rank you are, you'll never become a general, nor will your boss - or you'd know how many seconds it takes to restore the erased picture.

Here it is, this picture, Russia's Top Secret. [...]

[you can view the original photo here]

I'm not going to write trite things of the "manuscripts don't burn" variety, because I have something to say on the main subject. Namely, that the erased photo was preceded by another one, without the motorcade on it, and neither the watchful chekist, nor his bosses found anything criminal about it:

[original photo is here]

The current president should fear this picture a lot more, I believe - because sane people are likely to view it as an accusation. A charge of dictatorship. Exposure of the [servants' mentality] of his own subordinates, which hasn't disappeared since the Soviet times. And this is not just about the president - it's as much about all the citizens who are prepared to tolerate this.

In the States, I live in [the middle of nowhere, a place rarely visited by the federal government officials]. The Republican administration doesn't even hold their election campaigns here - it's useless, considering California's [ultra-liberal political beliefs]. Nevertheless, I happened to run into vice president Cheney once, at an intersection: I was moving towards his motorcade, and it was busy doing what everyone else was doing at the moment - waiting for green light. It came on, and everyone continued on their way. And if it happened some other way, if some official seriously believed that the people are there for the government and not vice versa, then he'd quickly be dealt with the way [anti-Republican] Californians had dealt with their Democratic governor - they made him resign, replacing him with [Arnold Schwarzenegger].


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