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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

STREETS Of FIRE

The arms trade is booming in Moscow Our reporter goes undercover to buy a gun.


For the right price, nearly anything can be purchased in Moscow -- even guns. The Moscow Times reporter Joanne Levine hit the back alleys and dark cafes of the city to find out just how easy it is to buy weapons in Moscow. She barely had to say the word before a shiny black pistol was displayed for the offering. The price? A mere 10, 000 rubles.


But buying guns is not for the squeamish. Not only does it mean surviving negotiations with some explosively pushy salesmen, but it also requires dodging the police. Don't let Moscow's brisk gun trade fool you;


buying and storing guns can land you in jail


The sun streams through the second floor windows of Cafe Moskovskoye on Tverskaya Street. The wooden tables are empty, except for two women whispering in one corner and a party of three men tucked away in the other. It is midday, so waiters serve only vanilla ice cream dripping with honey or white wine. But there is another item, not listed on the menu, than can be had if ordered in advance: Guns.


At the colorless Cafe Moskovskoye, waiters double as gunrunners and the underworld rules over a dim eaterie that seems straight out of Al Capone's Chicago.


A lone, old man hunches over the coat room's barrier. He does not flinch when I ask "Have you something? "


"No, I am new here", he answers. "But go inside".


My Russian friend and I approach a waiter.


"Have you something? We need a real non-Soviet gun", I let my male friend ask, deferring to the society's chauvinistic tendencies. Without pausing, the waiter says, "Come back tomorrow at noon with 10, 000 rubles".


Same place, next day. The burly waiter with a mustache discreetly watches me climb the stairs. He remembers my face from the previous day. We order ice cream and wait while it slowly begins to melt. My friend abruptly leaves the table and disappears into the men's room. Less than five minutes later, he is back -- with an Italian Barretta tucked inside a leather holster in his maroon Harvard knapsack. I peek inside and touch the eight millimeter steely pistol. The troika seated across the room watch my every move. The waiter-gunrunner gives me a 5-minute grace period. I am now facing a serious dilemma. I can wrestle free from the deal, and risk the waiter's anger, or I can hand over 10, 000 rubles, neatly wrapped and counted, and become a criminal


Under Russian law, civilians are prohibited from owning pistols. If I get caught, I could be charged with at least two counts of illegal gun possession -- buying and storing a pistol -- which each carry a 5-year penalty.


I send my friend back to the men's bathroom, where he informs the waiter that the gun is used and therefore no good. Suspicion creeps in. "Are you from the militia? " my friend is asked. Without waiting for a response, the gunrunner continues. "We are waiting for you. We will have something new tomorrow. You have until 3 p. m. If not, you know what will be. We know who you are".


The ominous threat slowly dissolves as we walk out of the cafe into the day-light, and remember that this is Moscow, where the surreal is part of everyday life.


Gun trade booms


Penalties for illegally possessing firearms have not deterred a steady stream of weapons from making their way into Russia. Guns, once scrupulously regulated by the bureaucratic watchdogs of ironfisted Soviet rule, have crept onto the streets over the past four years.


The genesis of the illegal weapons trade in Moscow can be traced back to stirrings of civil unrest between Armenia and Azerbaijan, according to Colonel Anatoly Churzin, who heads the permits department of Russia's Ministry of Internal Affairs. He added that before 1988, only 300-400 illegal guns were found annually in all of Russia, 70 percent of which were retrieved.


Since then, the number of illegal guns confiscated has increased at least 10-fold. "The number of guns on the street is rising", said Interior Minister Viktor Yerin, who added that last year more than 34, 000 weapons and 500, 000 gun cartridges were confiscated in the former Soviet Union.


"With all the political turmoil, our frontiers are not working", Churzin said, explaining that there are leaks on the Azerbaijani, Moldovan and Baltic borders. "A weapons trade has emerged".


A new Lithuanian law allowing citizens to own pistols also has Russian officials worried. There is still little customs control between the newly independent Baltic nation and its larger neighbor.


As turmoil continues to torment the splintered Commonwealth, more weapons are being imported. and these days, soldiers caught in the crossfire of their nation's economic ruin sell weapons as an easy way to bolster their paltry 50-ruble-a-month salary.


The Hunting Shop on the Arbat officially sells accoutrements for those registered with the state to own guns. But streetwise Muscovites know that the storefront is also a mini trading mart for weapons. Beside the store, a narrow alleyway leads to a litter strewn street On this particular day, three black marketeers stand by their yellow medical van. While they are fresh out of guns, they pull out a brown paper bag containing three foot-long Army knives. I plunk down 1, 000 rubles for the knife once assigned to soldier number 983. At least that is the identification number on the knife. I wonder how much of the fee the soldier retrieved.


Guns obviously bring in more cash than knives, with street prices starting at about 8, 500 rubles. According to a spokesman from the Russian Procurator's office, more than 15, 000 guns were sold illegally between 1988 and 1991 by soldiers based in the Caucasus region alone.


The number of illicit firearms currently changing bands in Moscow is unclear. "Nobody knows exactly what the situation is", Churzin said, adding that during the past year a new department at the Ministry of Internal Affairs has been created to attack the problem, and hopefully reduce the growing number of weapons on the street.


Anatoly Yegorov, first deputy chief of Moscow city police, refused to talk about Moscow's illicit arms industry. "Articles like this make foreigners cancel their trips to Moscow and Russia", he said in an interview over the phone. "And the Moscow government is losing hard currency".


A less official source offered his opinion of guns in the streets.


"If you can pay, then you can buy", said one gun owner, who asked not to be identified. "I have one and everyone I know has one".


Fears over rising crime and worsening economic conditions are prompting Muscovites to seek protection. "Anyone who has money feels unsafe", said the gun owner. Gas guns which use mace instead of bullets can be purchased from the myriad commercial kiosks dotting the city's crippled streets. Prices hover at about $100,


From dolls to guns


The Arbat bustles with young entrepreneurs hawking items that will bring them cash. That includes guns. Though the chief of police at the local militia station insists his turf "does not have any problems" when it comes to weapons, I know better. I have the


army knife in my black satchel


I peruse the Arbat. A friend of a friend steers me to a doll vendor dressed in an oversized denim jacket, blue jeans, leather sneakers and a black-and-white checkered kafiteeh cradled around her head. Her skull peeks through her blonde stubble crew cut


Her rickety table on the Arbat rising from the muddied snow cobble-stone is lined with dolls. Some are matryoshkas. Others are handmade. Few are sold. No matter.


The adolescent doll vendor's other job is more profitable. She is a go-between for those hunting for guns. Rocking back and forth on her heels to ward off the biting wind, she eyes me walking towards her . This is the third time we have met, though I have never learned her name. She has made me come back two other times to make sure I was serious about buying a gun. Each time the price creeps a little higher. The deal, which started at 6, 500 rubles has climbed to 8. 500 rubles.


"Okay, let's go", she says, keeping her head down.


"What have you got", I ask, as I coolly pull out a cigarette in an effort to disguise my fear.


She takes a Winston from me while leading me across the way. En route, a young boy dressed in a hip leather jacket discretely tags along.


Several old men linger together in a wartorn vestibule that lines the Arbat. Without skipping a beat of conversation they part, letting us enter the dilapidated slum. The young boy looks to the left and right as he reaches behind his back. From his jeans he whips out an Italian pistol. I feel queasy. I am not quite sure if it is the threat of gunfire or the fumes of stale urine wafting through the air.


He cradles the Italian pistol in his palm, proud of bis acquisition.


"What do you think? " he asks. "Is it okay? "


His pistol looks like a toy; I remind myself that it's real. I consult with my friend, who I have brought along to help broker the deal.


I have the 8, 500 rubles but I want out. and I cannot let on. So I let my friend do the negotiating.


We step back onto the snowy street where a tall young man joins the conversation. The dealers don't seem to believe our excuse that the gun is not "big enough".


"Can't you force her to buy it? " asks the tall guy, as a wave of French tourists brushes passed us, oblivious to our negotiations.


The tall guy asks us to wait as he ducks into a cafe. He emerges some ten minutes later, saying that he can get us a bigger German gun, but it will cost us. Time and money. He is testing us.


The price has soared to $180 and we will have to wait a month. Not to look too eager to get out of the deal, my friend and I pretend to mull it over.


"Okay", we finally concede. After all, we don't want to be impulsive about buying a gun. I tell him I'd rather wait for just the right one. He insists on taking down a phone num-ber, in order to call us when he gets a hold of the gun.


I keep hoping I don't get the call.