ESSAY: Corrupt Village Cops Make You Want a Gun

The situation is insane even by Russian standards. Drunken thugs break into a country house. They thrash the owner. They throw his wife to the floor. And being driven off, they come under the protection of the police. Only because while driving them off, the owner shot one of them in the leg - after he had fired a warning shot in the air. All of this happened in the village of Shukhurdinoin the Kameshkovsky district of Vladimir region.

"They didn't have guns," said the peace officers, referring to the drunken nighttime visitors, as they sent the shooter to jail. "And they didn't break in with the intention to kill."

Remarkable logic! The police say Nikolai Shanikov was supposed to ask the hoodlums who were beating him - before he grabbed his gun - "You don't have a knife or a gun in your pockets, do you? And are you beating me with an intent to kill me or just cripple me?" Perhaps he could have guessed that the intruders didn't have guns. And how should he have behaved during the attack? Should he have read two insanely drunken hoods a sermon about how fighting is a bad while peacefully waiting for his ribs to be shattered and his head broken?

It could be that there are idiots who would decline to resist drunken aggression with reasonable violence. But Shanikov, a retired coal miner, is not among them. He was beaten. They threw his wife on the ground. And when she rose, they broke her arm. It was impossible to see the drunken visitors in the midnight darkness, even more so since they broke Shanikov's glasses. Shanikov took the only natural course - he defended himself. By all means necessary.

In civilized countries, it's as simple as A-B-C: Two drunks break into a private home and beat Shanikov and his wife. He could have killed them with impunity. But they were lucky: After firing a warning round, he shot one in the leg and sent the other running. He even drove the injured intruder to the hospital. Then, Shanikov was sent to jail. It would have been better for him if he'd been laying on a gurney while taking to the police. That's what they're used to.

The Kameshkovsky police were traumatized by Shanikov's non-standard behavior and charged him - are you ready for this? - with aggravated armed hooliganism. It's a crime carrying a four- to seven-year sentence. Those Kameshkovsky cops don't mess around.

Of course, they knew the courts would note how absurd the charges were and would acquit Shanikov. But as the investigation limped along, Shanikov got to sit it out in pre-trial detention. He had been in jail for 39 days when Literaturnaya Gazeta published the facts of his case and he was freed.

Shanikov is slightly shorter than average. He is quick to smile. He confesses, however, that jail drove him at times to almost suicidal depression. Imagine the heat of this past June with 40 other prisoners in a cell meant for 10.

"Did you sleep in shifts?" I asked.

"I didn't sleep at all," he said. And how did he surmount his depression? He told me that the Literaturnaya Gazeta article had convinced him to find the strength to fight the absurdity of his situation. A conversation with a cell mate also gave him heart. "Don't give up," the man had told him. "Have you forgotten what country you live in? If you give up fighting, they will trample you."

"I understood I couldn't yield to them," Shanikov told me. "Even though the police were ready to cash in their winnings." How could they do that? It seems, Shanikov told me, that they had plenty on him.

In 1998, Shanikov bought his house in Shukhurdino. The locals soon thereafter dug a garbage dump near his property. He protested to the authorities and had endless quarrels with teenagers who lit campfires in the forest clearing during the dry summer. The teenagers, in turn, spread rumors that Shanikov had threatened them with a gun. One of them told Shanikov: "You can't order us to do anything; we're the masters here."

Don't tangle with us, they told Shanikov. The police have interests here. The kids were brewing moonshine in the woods and weren't getting fined for it. Could it be that the police had "interests" because they were being bought off? "But my worry was the fires," Shanikov said. "They could have burned down the forest."

The police started hassling Shanikov. A cop paid a visit to Shanikov's house and, turning a sleuth's eye on his car, asked him where he'd got the money to pay for it. They asked him if he was a drug dealer. Later, Shanikov was pulled over by officers who asked him why he had hunting rifles and if he had a permit for them. He did, but they turned his car inside out in a search anyway.

"Do you really have nothing better to do but tail me?" Shanikov asked the officers. "I'll complain to Moscow."

"Complain to Yeltsin," one of them said. "We are the masters here. Do you get me?" Shanikov didn't get him.

The armed battle with the intruders came as a gift to the police. Two drunken rednecks, Lev Kornychev and Sergei Mishin, were egged on by the local masters to their midnight confrontation with Shanikov and came out in the police version of events as the innocent victims of Shanikov's "hooliganism." This shoddily concocted version didn't add up at all. The police department tried to convince me that Kornychev and Mishin had been totally sober when they went to have their "talk" with Shanikov and that they went during daylight hours. But Kornychev told me that he and Mishin had a hard-drinking end-of-the-week celebration that Friday night, and decided after it got dark to deal with "the miner."

Things with the Kameshkovsky police aren't so simple. The same regional prosecutor who had hurried Shanikov's arrest warrant through also set him free on bail after the Literaturnaya Gazeta publication.

After I returned from the village, I tried to find out what had influenced this decision over the telephone. The prosecutor's office refused comment. What will happen when the case comes to trial is unpredictable.

If the police are capable of pulling such a bait and switch routine - calling the victim a hooligan and the attackers the victims - should Russians bother depending on them? Or can we only depend on ourselves? If this is so, the only option for normal people is to buy guns. This suggestion will get a hostile reception, but if anyone has a better idea, let's discuss it.

As for the cops who thought they could manipulate the law, their epaulets should be ripped from their shoulder in a public square. This should be done for the sake of those officers who have not been corrupted by authority and who still serve in the police because of their belief in the law.

Igor Gamayunov writes for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.