In the land of Dostoevsky, Tim Warrington takes comfort from Bridget Jones after a brush with Russian muggers and apathetic police.
The police officer sitting opposite me in the blindingly fluorescent interview room had spent an eternity digging for something in his nose.
Whatever he was looking for seemed either permanently lodged, or gone
I’d hoped it was my missing camera, but all I discovered from this bear of a man, who refused to shake my hand or make eye contact, was my four-day trip to St Petersburg had been whittled away to just two.
Things move slowly in Russia.
There are moments in life you don’t forget: getting married, perhaps… or divorced, a birth, a graduation, or a wildly expensive, 3kg lens falling from your camera bag and smashing to pieces on a cobbled street — a confetti of broken glass, plastic and mirrors littered about my feet.
These shards of memory remain bitterly fresh and a wee bit sickening. I was mugged 10 minutes after arriving in St Petersburg. It may have been five — hard to say.
The exact point at which the robbers cut the padlock and emptied the top half of my camera bag remains a mystery; I did not feel a thing… until the robbers fled and the bag, which slowly unzipped due to the weight, dumped what remained of my gear on to the floor.
Looking back on it, there were signs: the bald man with the crumpled face who bumped me on the busy train station platform, and another chap who was just a little bit too close behind me on the sidewalk.
But hindsight is a wonderful thing and, besides, my bag was locked.
The policeman laughed when I told him this.
He came later. Much later. In the early evening, with a seven o’clock shadow and a mouthful of gum. Like a giant cow, he masticated slowly: bored. Between yawns, he asked, with the help of a translator, what happened. Judging by the scribbles on his Russia 2018 soccer notepad I surmised he wasn’t particularly interested. I couldn’t read his notes but I was pretty sure the boobs he doodled were not connected to my case.
His mind appeared otherwise occupied. And the numerous times he shushed me seemed to confirm this. When prompted to list my missing items he shushed me.
I was shushed.
I began to describe the camera, “Canon,” I said.
“You have gun?” he said, his lips pressed tightly together: two thin lines of disapproval.
I gave up.
On leaving the police station a rainstorm washed away whatever cheer remained and the temptation to crawl into bed at my hotel and read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot almost won the day, but instead I flicked on the telly. A dubbed version of the Bridget Jones sequel propelled me from my den of self-pity and I decided I would not be beaten by a nose miner and some pesky pickpockets.
This sort of stuff happens everywhere.
And St Petersburg is like no other city in the world — the Romanovs’ incredible riches left a legacy of wildly exotic architectural masterpieces and a wealth of art that boggles the mind.
Russians don’t do anything by halves. Why should I?
In the 18th century, when a court artist painted a naval battle scene so poorly that salty seadogs objected to his rendering of a burning ship, Catherine the Great ordered a frigate destroyed purely so the artist could get it right.
No sooner had I hit the sidewalk, en route to the Winter Palace, than a man brushed past me and eyeballed my hip pocket. All it contained was a folded map of the city but the outline through my shorts may have suggested a wallet. Perhaps I’m simply the poster child for would-be robbers.
“Move along,” I said, “nothing to steal here.”
I had left all my valuables back at the hotel except for one card and some cash, and these were safely stowed in my undies, but the idea I was already being scoped, so soon after my last fleecing, suggested the pickpockets were hard at work.
Later on, I had a half-day guided tour of Peterhof and its magical golden fountains. The guide told me what she suspected the locals know but rarely discuss; crime and corruption are rife in many parts of Russia — and the two are cosy bedfellows.
She said that in St Petersburg at least, the police for the most part know who’s committing the crimes.
During this year’s World Cup, crime bosses were politely asked to ease up on petty crime and annoyances to tourists, she said. But once the final whistle blew, they resumed with gusto.
Was she right?
Perhaps. Unfortunately, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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