Police Can Be More Frightening Than Bandits

In a letter that was sent to my paper, a mother talked about her deceased son: "I have three children," wrote Nina Polyakova from the small town of Skopin in the Ryazan region, some 125 kilometers southeast of Moscow. "Their father died more than 10 years ago. And a year and a half ago another misfortune occurred in our family. My middle son Sasha, 22 years old, wanted to get the family out of its hard times. With my help he borrowed 10 million rubles and bought 79 shock absorbers for Zhiguli automobiles. The factory pays their workers in them when there is no money. Sasha wanted to go into business and sell the shock absorbers for a profit in Moscow. But as he was leaving Skopin his truck was stopped by the police. They took the shock absorbers and arrested Sasha "for illegal entrepreneurship" given that he did not have a license for trade. But here in Skopin and the surrounding villages the majority of people are involved in this -- without licenses. For you cannot survive on unemployment pay, and almost all of the Skopin factories lay idle except the one where these shock absorbers are made. So my son did not manage to sell anything. What kind of entrepreneurship is that? They let him go the same day. But they did not return the shock absorbers. There was nothing with which to pay back the loan. My son was in a state of depression for an entire month, and in the end hanged himself with his own belt."

Why had the police not returned the shock absorbers? Polyakova wrote that the Skopin court, to which she had appealed, had ordered the police department back in May 1997 to do so. I went on a five-hour bus trip to Skopin to find out. The Polyakovs, it turned out, live several kilometers outside of Skopin in the tiny village of Pobedinka.

I admit that it was not easy to question Nina Polyakova, who was confused and nervous as she spoke. It was not easy to see her crying. To feel all around the misery of this family -- in the threadbare carpets on the floor, in worn-out shoes by the door and in the old sideboard, on which there was an enlarged photograph of Sasha. This was the only one left of him. It was taken from his passport picture when he was 16. He had the face of a boy with a perplexed expression. It seemed to be asking, "How did such a thing happen with me?"

Polyakova painted a picture of an unhappy family life. She herself worked as an accountant in a local factory. ("And we haven't been paid our wages for months," she told me.) Her oldest, Sergei, 26, was out of work. Furthermore, he had a stomach ulcer, and there was no money to treat it. Her youngest, Polina, was still in school. Sasha had quit school after the eighth grade and worked at whatever came his way. He took care of horses at a neighboring collective farm and went to his mother's factory where he tried to master one specialty after another. But he never had steady wages. If it were not for the garden, there is no telling how the family could have fed itself.

Finding the money to buy the shock absorbers turned out to be fairly simple. He also had no trouble finding a driver with a truck. The only thing Sasha did not have was a license. But he considered that so many people went to sell products on the market without licenses that he would not be stopped. But he was.

He was held at the police station for only a few hours. When he returned home, according to his mother, he was completely lost. It was not that he was afraid of an investigation, because he knew that the person who sold him the goods would tell the police, and they could not accuse him of theft. Just as they could not accuse him of illegal entrepreneurship. What tormented Sasha was the huge debt he now owed. He had promised to return the money to his neighbors in a few days, but the police were unlikely to return the goods to him. He was also tortured by the thought that here he was, 22, with a girl who was ready to marry him, and he had turned out to be such a bungler.

He lived for an entire month with these thoughts. Sasha tried to see his fiancee more and more often. But she had her own problems. She had finished a trade school, but had not succeeded in finding work for a year. When she told him it was not the time for them to get married, it was the final blow. He left her late at night. And by morning he was found hanging from a tree across from his house. In his pocket they found a note saying, "I, Alexander Polyakov, do this with a sound mind. ... There was no other way out."

After the funeral, Nina Polyakova tried a hundred times to recall the details of what had happened and came to the conclusion that what made Sasha take such a step was not the fight with his fiancee (this was only an excuse), but the thought that instead of helping his family he had saddled it with a huge debt. He knew that the police would not return the shock absorbers.

Polyakova went to the prosecutor's office where she was told that the criminal case that was conducted on her son had ended "because of the absence of corpus delicti." In May 1997, the city court that reviewed the suit she brought against the police ruled that it must return the 79 shock absorbers or their value to Polyakova. But the head of the police to whom she had come with this court decision responded: "We are a budget-funded organization. We only have money to pay wages." "Then give back the shock absorbers," she said. He said he didn't have them. Where they had gone he could not say. He only added: "I don't have any money to fix my office, and you're asking me for money."

"But he had already renovated his office and brought in new furniture," Polyakova said.

I was in that office. I had the feeling that I had landed in the office of a wealthy businessman who had just done a European-style renovation. The police chief did not have a trace of worry on his face, although as a legal expert he could not have but known that he had been breaking the law for an entire year by not carrying out the court decision.

"I understand that the decision of the city court on Polyakova's suit must be carried out, but there is no money," the police chief told me. Where did Polyakova's shock absorbers disappear to? The answer: They were given to a businessman who said they had been stolen from him. But the investigation had shown that Sasha had not stolen them but bought them. It seems that the Skopin police had also put its head in a noose -- the noose of lawlessness.

But this happens in police departments around the country. Letters to the editor from everywhere speak of this. Can Russia be turned into a state functioning according to the law without reforming its police? The interior minister has already been replaced, but the defects of the system remain. Not only the people, but the nature of the work of this department should be changed. How precisely?

And when will this finally occur?

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