Kidnapping and Extortion in Self-Defense

The kidnappers didnt think it made sense to just drag their victim from his kiosk at the market. They waited on the street until the mans brother drove away and, after a few minutes, walked up to the little window. "Are you Aflatun Allakhverdiyev? Your brother Aslan has been in an accident and asks you to come help him." One of the three men was wearing a police uniform, so it was hard not to believe the news was true. "Our car is just around the corner," they told Aflatun as he emerged from the kiosk.

Turning the corner, Aflatun saw a Zaporozhets parked nearby. Thats when he became suspicious. The police dont drive such contemptible cars. But it was too late. The men were holding him firmly by the elbows. One slapped on some handcuffs. Another gave him a solid belt on the back of the head. "Shut up and get in the car. Now!"

These events took place in the Volga River city of Ulyanovsk, hometown of Vladimir Lenin. His bronze figure still towers over a central square from a solid pediment, and newlyweds continue to photograph themselves laying flowers at his feet. Traditions in Russia develop slowly, but they die perhaps even slower.

Aflatun was shoved into the back seat of the Zaporozhets. Someone stuck a gun in his ribs while someone else quickly taped over his eyes and mouth. Then a big man, who turned out to go by the name of Lenin, got behind the wheel and started the engine. The car lurched forward for a second and then died. Lenin cursed to the best of his ability, but it did no good.

Lenin and the other kidnappers were furious. They had trusted the guy who planned the operation and who gave them the car. He was, after all, Viktor Chugunov, the head of the police counter-narcotics division of the Ulyanovsk region.

Lenin ran to a nearby pay phone and made a quick call. The order came to sit tight and wait. After 10 excruciating minutes, a police Zhiguli screeched to a halt behind the kidnappers Chugunovs official car. To the kidnappers amazement, Chugunov himself was behind the wheel. The rest of the operation went smoothly.

Chugunov held his little band together with a means that was well known to him: drugs. As one of the gang later said under questioning, after the successful kidnapping of Aflatun, Chugunov paid them off with several small packets of raw opium. This was just an advance. Chugunov had promised them each $150 after the ransom was paid. Good money for Ulyanovsk, they said.

They kept Aflatun in that apartment for seven days without removing the tape from his eyes. They forced him to give them the telephone numbers of all his relatives and began calling, demanding 500,000 rubles ransom. In the meantime, Aflatuns brother Aslan had learned about the disappearance and filed a report with the police. He managed to get the license plate number of a Zaporozhets that had been seen in the area several times in the days before the kidnapping. The police tracked down the number and discovered that it was Chugunovs car. Immediately, they charged Aslan with criminal slander.

They also reported this information to Chugunov who, considering the situation, decided it was best to release the prisoner. Not wanting their efforts to go for nothing, however, the kidnappers called Aflatuns relatives and agreed to accept 5,000 rubles. They made the swap and disappeared.

The police were thrilled. They immediately closed the case without even looking into the matter further. But seven months later, when Lenin was picked up for a robbery and found with a considerable amount of drugs in his possession, the details of the kidnapping began to emerge.

Chugunov was called into the prosecutors office for a videotaped conversation. I saw that tape: Chugunov wore an impressive, new light-gray suit and cut an elegant figure. He was cautious and expected that some unpleasantness would emerge from this case. But he didnt expect what came at the end of the tape. He was arrested.

I saw on the tape how several large officers suddenly appeared behind him. Chugunov threw up his hands and said, "I didnt bring my gun." They searched him anyway. They made him take off his jacket and shoes. In later sessions, Chugunov looked more confident. He refuses to answer many questions. At other times, he justifies himself or claims that he is being "set up." Watching him, it was obvious that he thought if he stalls long enough, the case will go away.

But Chugunov was not so lucky. His case was handled by a group of young professionals who seemed to understand that criminals within the law enforcement community represent a particular danger. They had been watching Chugunov for some time and had a pretty clear picture of his life.

And what a life it was. He blackmailed drug dealers that his unit arrested. He regularly took charge of anything that was confiscated from dealers (drugs, money, property ) and used it for his own purposes. But for the most part these were small things a pager here, a music center there and they were not enough to satisfy him. He continued to drive a beat-up Zaporozhets while watching "25-year-old punks" on the streets in their luxurious foreign cars. And here he was a 40-year-old police officer in a respected position, barely able to afford a new suit, to say nothing of a new car.

That is when he decided a kidnapping might change his fortunes.

The poverty of Russian police officers is, of course, no justification for such crimes. But it is something of an explanation for the madness, even desperation that characterizes some of their actions. Chugunov, after all, is far from an isolated case. During the few days that I was in Ulyanovsk researching this story, the prosecutors came out with another case that local journalists quickly dubbed "The Affair of the Three Majors." According to the charges, three retired majors (one from the police, one from the tax police and one from the local FSB) used their contacts to "resolve" the tax problems of local businessmen.

"Our salaries are just too low," is a complaint I hear from cops all the time. And they are right. Not only are they constantly risking their nerves and their lives, but they are not even sure that they will be able to feed their children and cant imagine what will happen to their families if, God forbid, the worst happens.

"Yes, that is true," said Andrei Kireyev, one of the investigators of the Three Majors. "But they still have to make a moral choice. If they arent satisfied with the conditions here, they can always leave honorably." He then paused and added, "But something must be done about this situation anyway. It is impossible to expect people to survive in such an atmosphere of constant temptation. You cant ask for such heroism from average people."

At his trial, Chugunov continued to maintain he had been "set up." Too bad. He could have told the truth: "Yes, I did it. Just like my colleagues across the country do. Because we have no other way of living like human beings. I did it in self-defense."

Igor Gamayunov is a special correspondent for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.