Thursday, February 03, 2005

We almost got robbed during our train ride from St. Pete to Moscow.

We took a lousy, late-night train that, unlike some of the better ones, arrives in Moscow at a decent time - around 10 am, instead of 6 or 7. We were in a two-bunk compartment - normally, they call it first class here, but this particular train was too decrepit to deserve such a high title.

Something woke me up in the middle of the night. When I opened my eyes, I saw the little lock by the door handle moving - I knew right away someone was messing with it outside. Then the door slid open just a bit, and a few moments later the additional little lock in the top corner of the door was pushed down (most likely with a wire), and the door slid open some more. I had enough time to look at the man standing in the well-lit hallway before I realized it was time to act: I sat up on the bunk and asked in a sleepy but firm voice: "Who is it?" The man was rather big and was wearing a gray sweater; he closed the door at once and, possibly, left.

Mishah slept through all this and when I woke him, he suggested that I'd been having a nightmare. The door was unlocked, however, and he was forced to believe my story. We decided not to follow the guy, partly because we were totally exhausted from the day spent packing and the night spent drinking, but also because we didn't feel it was safe: they say thieves don't kill, according to some sort of the underworld etiquette, but faced with the choice of either getting caught and going to jail or hitting someone on the head and quietly leaving the scene, chances are some people would prefer the latter option.

In the morning, the door to our compartment wouldn't open and we had to call provodnitsa. I told her about the incident (which actually took place around 5 am) and suggested it'd be a good idea for her to buy extra locks and hand them out to the passengers, to avoid trouble. She said she had the locks but had figured that people would come up to her themselves. Maybe, she said, she should indeed leave a lock on the table in each compartment - on a napkin.

I described the guy I'd seen, and she said there were three of them that night, loitering in and outside her car, until she chased them away. One said he came here to visit his uncle but when she asked for the uncle's name, he said he didn't remember it (the passengers' names are on their tickets; provodniki collect the tickets when you border the train and return them in the morning).

She complained that there were no police on this particular train (there're always at least two cops on better trains, traveling all the way to the final destination), and that the train station cops knew all the thieves working on this route, but were either unable to gather enough evidence against them, or were being bribed not to try too hard.

Then she told us an amazing thing: when provodniki manage to catch a thief, they gather together, five of them or so, and break the poor guy's fingers - with a door, on both hands, just like that, thus forcing him into early retirement. This may sound too brutal - and remindful of the Islamic prescription to chop off the thief's hands - but they really have no choice: provodniki are risking their miserable jobs if the thefts continue, while the police are better off not doing anything about it.


Mishah and I have been robbed on a train once before: in summer 2003, on our way from Odesa to Kyiv, also in a two-bunk compartment of a lousy Odesa-Chernihiv train. That time, we didn't hear a thing. Mishah had two cell phones then, one for his private conversations and the other for the long-distance battles with his colleagues. He spoke on the second one right before going to sleep and put it on the table; in the morning, it wasn't there.

Also, there were only 11 hryvnias ($2) left in Mishah's wallet - just enough to take a cab from the train station. I'm still totally charmed by this act of kindness - but it also means that we were robbed by a real professional.

The provodnitsa on that train must have been an accomplice - in the morning, she wanted us to believe that she was genuinely surprised: "Oh, but how is it possible to unlock the door??!!" Man, even I could have easily done it with a piece of wire or something...

But, knowing how things work in this part of the world, we didn't demand investigation or anything and, after a brief pro forma scandal, just took a cab home, paying with the money left for us by the thief.

No comments:

Post a Comment