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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.