Soviet Street Scams

They even salute like the Hitler Youth Corps!

Johnson’s Russia List, Sunday, 30 August 1998

Friday August 28

By Ray Finch

Upon leaving work Friday evening (28 Aug), I thought I’d check to see if
there were new signs of economic/political collapse along my way home. I
was not disappointed.

While standing in line to buy some rubles at one of the exchange points (the
rate was 10 rubles to the dollar), a couple of Russia’s finest dragged a
young girl out of line who was some 3 or 4 customers ahead of me. She was
hurried off to their nearby police car, and they took off down Prospect Mira.
No one was sure what crime she had committed, but the conjecture was that
she had tried to pass some counterfeit money.

After the crowded metro ride, I visited the market area near my apartment
to pick up something for dinner. As I mentioned in a previous epistle, sometimes,
there is a representative of the RNE (Russian National Unity) party handing
out their semi-fascist literature near this metro stop. Well it must have
been some sort of occasion (did they smell blood?), but last night there
was an entire squad of these black and leather guardians of Russian purity
handing out their free newspaper.

I figured that it might be instructive to watch their promotional efforts,
so arming myself with a Baltika No.#3 from a nearby kiosk, I began my
surveillance. There were some eight of these blackshirts, and they positioned
themselves at key locations (within eyesight of each other) all around the
metro-market area. What was truly amazing is that there were an equal number
of Russian police/MVD types tacitly watching the RNE marketing efforts. For
me (and probably for a certain percentage of Russians), it was difficult
to tell which group enjoyed more authority.

After some 20 minutes (and fortified with my Baltika-3; which is actually
a very good beer. Not to diverge from the subject, but the empty bottle was
quickly recovered by one of the stooped Russian pensioners who supplement
their meager incomes with the deposit from these empties), I approached one
of the RNE reps, feigning ignorance about the nature of their organization.
This True Russian Soldier, who looked maybe 40 (but might have been only
30), politely explained to me the party’s platform, which, by the way, sounded
like a rather reasonable recipe for fixing some of Russia’s ills (i.e. “upwards
of 90% of the Russian population is struggling just to get by, and some have
not been paid their wages for 6-9 months, while the remaining 10% is living
like the nobility of old.” He then offered me some free literature and invited
me to one of their introductory meetings, where the basic outlines of the
RNE’s platform could be explained in depth.

I thanked him for the brochures, and told him I’d think about it after reading
some of the material he gave me. I was not alone in my curiosity, as most
of the other RNE reps were engaged in conversations with the locals. The
market place was very busy, and as I began to shop for dinner, it soon dawned
on me the reason for such activity. Imagine that at noon tomorrow or maybe
the next day, all of your dollars were going to be transformed into monopoly
money, and you could nothing to limit your financial losses (like exchanging
your money for German Deutschmarks or British Pounds). And since all of Moscow’s
high-dollar consumer goods stores were closed “for technical reasons,” those
who had large amounts of rubles were frantically trying to spend them on
cheap consumer goods before they were changed into worthless bits of colored

There was a look of distress on the faces of most of the kiosk/shopkeepers.
Like the consumer, they also had lost faith in the government’s ability to
prop up this empty ruble, yet were prohibited from trading in dollars. Soon
they would be faced with depleted inventories and stacks of these worthless

Now, put yourself for a moment in the place of one of these little entrepreneurs.
You get up at dawn to set up this shitty little stand, hauling your goods
from some garage, and then for the next 12-16 hours you stand out in all
kinds of weather selling soap, toothpaste and detergent, maybe making 5-10
bucks on a good day. In the evening, you get to tear down your stand, and
haul it away to prepare for another day of “business.”

Or how about one of those lucky kiosk-dwellers positioned underground, in
a dim tunnel underneath one of Moscow’s streets, where all day long (and
some even spend the night!) you are trapped in a closet-size cubicle, breathing
the fumes of cars and subways, selling imported underwear or beer. These
god-awful conditions are not helped by the criminal protection money you
have to pay to stay in business.

Now just imagine the hatred and disgust you might feel when you discover
that all of your grim labor for the past couple years was in vain, and that
you are poorer today than when you began this commercial-prison enterprise.

When you put yourself in these shoes, you begin to see the wisdom and propriety
in belonging to a group like the RNE.

Moscow Times February 5, 1999

MEDIA WATCH: A Nazi a Day’s a Nazi at Bay

By Leonid Bershidsky Staff Writer

Nazis are bad. Or are they? Let my Jewishness protect me when I say they
can be good – in the right doses and when used correctly. After all, what
is penicillin if not mold?

When the boys from Russian National Unity, or RNE, marched down the streets
of Moscow this week, they did more for liberal and anti-Nazi causes than
even Duma Deputy Albert Makashov did with his recent anti-Semitic remarks.
To get people to recall how and why World War II was fought, someone has
to wear a swastika armband before a few TV cameras.

So here’s a little manual on how to use the Nazis correctly.

1. Do not dispel their first illegal march. In fact, assist it by
holding off the rain or snow, the way Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov does on major
city holidays: The weather must be good for the cameras.

2. Alternatively, if the Nazis cannot get enough people together to
stage a march, sign up a bunch of them to try to disrupt your party congress,
black- tie reception or soccer match. Look at the publicity some shouting
from a bunch of National Bolsheviks generated last weekend for the latest
congress of Russia’s Democratic Choice, the dogged but feeble liberal party.
It is highly doubtful that the congress would have made the evening newscasts
without the “fascists” trying to shout down Yegor Gaidar.

The National Bolsheviks’ leader, Eduard Limonov, would have ended up in a
concentration camp under the real Nazis – if only because he has documented
his own homosexual dalliances in his popular writings. But for PR purposes,
that is totally irrelevant, and Limonovite Nazis will be happy to help: Like
Gaidar, they are not on TV often enough.

3. Blame the police for not dispelling the march/not preventing the
disruption to the party congress. Most people think the cops are no better
than the Gestapo, anyway. Then get the police to crack down on Nazis, question
RNE leader Barkashov and catch the crazies who made a home video of themselves
making an anti-Semitic speech against the backdrop of a burning synagogue.
(They did not actually burn a synagogue, it was just a video trick, but for
PR purposes that’s just as well).

4. Immediately arrange for more people with cameras to come around.
Start making speeches about how bad Nazis are. Try to be the first one to
do that. After that, the speeches get repetitive and the people with the
cameras get bored.

5. If you were not directly involved in the previous four steps for
some worthy reason, such as a shortage of Nazis in your town, take credit
for that too.

Take your cue from Yaroslavl Governor Anatoly Lisitsyn, who declared in the
daily Kommersant a few days after the RNE march, “In Yaroslavl, such extremist
actions are practically ruled out. For eight years, we have been working
actively and we have learned to counteract extremism in its early stages.”

6. Keep the press interested. Never let on for a moment that the Nazis
are incapable of taking over your town and the rest of the country anytime
they want. Get the police to arrest a Nazi wacko a week. But be careful not
to exhaust your supply of Nazis.

From the above, it is easy to conclude that there already are some people
in Moscow who know how to use the Nazis correctly. Luzhkov is definitely
one, and Gaidar is another.

For example, if Luzhkov had just sent in the police before the RNE boys had
a chance to start marching, and if the police had quietly arrested those
extremists, the mayor could hardly have advanced his presidential campaign
by being the first to denounce the rise of Nazism – no one would be frightened
enough to pay attention. The same goes for Gaidar’s congress: If security
people had properly checked the IDs of those entering the meeting, the congress
would never have been on TV.

From the perspective of someone who hates Hitler as much as Luzhkov does
but who is not running for president, Nazis should be in jail. There should
be a law that allows Nazis to be put in jail immediately after they are seen
wearing swastikas or giving the straight-arm salute. There is no such law
simply because everyone who passes laws in this country is either running
for president or a Nazi himself. And the laws that exist are not applied
be cause their quiet application has no PR value.