Every time I walk past a police officer in St. Petersburg, I look down, up, to the side—anywhere but his face. It’s not that I’m guilty of anything, but here the militsia, as the St. Petersburg police are called, are not known for jolly attitudes and community outreach. They also do not need a reason to ask for your documents, an open request that can lead to questioning in an unfamiliar language and to the gifting of pastel-colored Ruble notes.
I’ve played out the scenario many times in my mind: An officer’s eye meets mine. Nightstick dangling from his wrist—Russian police seem to always have their nightsticks out and ready—he approaches. As I pull my photocopied passport (And here’s the technical guilt: By law, one is required to have the actual passport with him at all times) out of my wallet, he sizes up its monetary contents. He questions me. I tell him—in English—that I speak no Russian, as I’ve been advised to do. He suggests a ruble figure. I comply, replacing my passport in my now-lighter wallet, walking away, if all goes well.
Today, my imagination met reality.
As I walked into Vaselostravskaya Metro Station, a police officer, standing to the side with two others, stopped me. “Документы, пожалуйста,” documents please. As I’d practiced, I told him that I speak no Russian as I unfolded the crumpled copy of my passport. “Ah, American,” he said. And smiled. One of his partners added in a “Hello, American.” The young officer, no club in hand, gave me back my passport, and I was on my way.
Apparently, the police are not looking to bother American students, or to earn an easy several-hundred rubles.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, what the police are looking for is draft dodgers—young men trying to escape their mandatory time in Russia’s military. Spring is draft time, so the police may (they deny this, according to the St. Petersburg Times) be ratcheting up efforts to fill the military’s ranks, in part by checking the documents of young men at metro stations.