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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Know Moscow's Finest: A Guide to the Police

The men in blue, in grey, in stripes and with dragon slayers on their sleeves - wherever you look in Moscow, there always seems to be a law enforcement official fining someone, or checking documents, or picking up drunks.

Who are all these different people, and what do they all do?

There are two different kinds of militiamen in Moscow. The first are the ordinary government militia, in their blue uniforms with red stripes.

They are the ones that Muscovites make fun of and deride as useless, but still call when fights break out or alcoholics collect in the stairwells. Their official mandate, according to Nikolai Boiko, press officer for the Moscow militia, is "preservation of public order".

The second group is the newly formed Moscow municipal militia, who have smart white cars with big red dragons, and nicer uniforms that bear a confusing resemblance to those of the Interior Ministry's OMON troops.

Boiko says they are better trained and have wider responsibilities. They are more involved with chasing criminals and breaking up racketeers than rounding up kids who throw stones at the elektrichka, and they speed after crooks who are trying to escape the law.

The municipal militia are the few but the proud - there are only 3, 000 of them, according to Boiko.

They have more power than ordinary militia, who have to take a police investigator with them if they want to search an apartment, and can't keep up with mafiosi Mercedes even if they are Olympic sprinters.

But even the municipal militia can't compare to the sheer intimidation power of the OMON. Remember the television tower in Lithuania in January 1991? The May Day riots in Moscow in 1993?

In the Baltics, they were the bad guys; in Moscow, the heroic defenders of democracy against the communists. But wherever they go, the OMON, in their grey berets, striped shirts and shoulder patches bearing the OMON logo, carry their reputation before them.

Founded in 1987, the OMON - or the Special Militia Division - now has 1, 500 men stationed in Moscow, with divisions in St. Petersburg and other large cities. Their mandate is varied. Although the OMON are most visible at demonstrations, combating the communists they once supported, their duties mostly involve fighting organized crime, gun and drug seizures, and controlling public gatherings, like football games.

The OMON have come to symbolize the tough arm of the Russian government, and depending what side of the police line you end up on, they may be savior or enemy. In a country often decribed as lawless, the OMON represent order with a big baton.