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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Once upon a time, there was a very tall man. He was so tall that when he was eating his dinner, he had to put his legs on a stool because they would not fit under the table.

Most people who grew up in the Soviet Union will recognize that man as Uncle Styopa, the tallest policeman in the world.

Created by the prominent children's writer Sergei Mikhalkov, who also wrote the words to the Soviet national anthem, Uncle Styopa was the model cop: He helped old ladies cross the streets, rescued drowning children and even repaired toys.

But Dyadya Styopa is no more - if he ever was - and the popular image of a Russian cop is a crude, cruel and corrupt man who beats the homeless and picks on minorities for document checks.

But the militsia would like to bring back the Uncle Styopa image.

"I hope that, as in the good old days, our militsia will again be called 'the people's force,'" Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin said recently at the opening of an exhibit by police artists at the Russian Academy of Arts. He gave his speech as Russia's cops prepare for Militsia Day on Nov. 10, which commemorates the establishment of the force in November 1917.

In the glory days of the militsia, dozens of plays, television programs and mystery movies honored the work of the force. Devised in a simple, "good beats evil" style, the films portrayed police officers as highly motivated people without bad habits.

"I never looked at Western actors playing police officers as my heroes. I was just trying to follow the reality that we had," said Boris Shcherbakov, a theater and movie actor who gained fame portraying officers in Soviet and Russian whodunits.

"I was never that excited about playing police officers, but when boys on the street screamed, "Sarai is coming!", I was very happy to be recognized," said Shcherbakov, 49, referring to his role as the cop Sarayev in the perestroika-era detective film "The Criminal Quartet" - the story of a police officer who helps find his friend's kidnapped son.

Shcherbakov is not the only actor to gain mass popularity playing cops. Although he was already famous, actor-singer Vladimir Vysotsky became even more well loved after starring in the 1970s television series "The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed" as Gleb Zheglov, a tough but charming cop who plays billiards, seduces women and uses semi-legal methods to fight crime. In one episode, Zheglov puts a wallet into the pocket of a petty criminal who had thrown it away to escape punishment. Later, he threatens him with a long prison term unless he helps him solve a murder. When a colleague criticizes his methods, the hero says the line he will always be remembered for: "A thief should be in jail."

Alexander Putivtsev, a lecturer at the Interior Ministry Institute, said that Zheglov should be the role model for today's cops. "Uncle Styopa is a far-fetched image," he said.

In recent years, however, the prestige of the militsia has fallen in the popular culture, and the most famous actor to portray a policeman has been bad-boy politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who had a starring role in Valery Komissarov's film, "The Ship of Doubles"; Zhirinovsky is not exactly a poster boy for the good guy.

But the success of the police series, "The Street of Broken Lamps," which ran recently in a prime time slot on ORT - and received almost double its expected viewer rating - indicates that the image of Zheglov may be returning to the national consciousness.

"It was one of our aims to create an image of a new policeman," said Igor Urmantsev, a spokesman for Soyuz Video, the company that developed the "Broken Lamps" series - which was previously released as nine videos under the name "Menty," or "Cops."

"Menty," Urmantsev said, has been widely popular among ordinary Russians and police officers who already "speak the language of the movie." But he acknowledged that the series' characters are a far cry from Uncle Styopa. "They have nothing to do with Uncle Styopa. There is nothing sweet about them," Urmantsev said. "They are very good investigators, but they are not very good people."

Despite the popularity of the series, Urmantsev said that Soyuz - which is planning new installments - has sold only 700 copies of all the videos because the vast majority of those sold at kiosks are pirated.

The controversial heroes of "Menty," who love to drink, go to discos and play Tamagochi when they are not fighting crime, have even caught the attention of Interior Minister Stepashin. He said he has watched the series, and concluded that "even such an outrageous movie contributes to the prestige of the police."

But popular detective writer Alexandra Marinina, who only recently retired from the police force, doubted that "Menty" would have a positive effect on cops' images.

"I wouldn't recommend showing it to teenagers," Marinina said. "They might get the impression that all police officers drink and swear.

"During Soviet times all militsia officers were good because they had to be good, while today, though many honest officers exist, writers portray them as dumb people linked with an underworld."

Marinina's own books, of which about 9 million copies have been printed, feature officer Nastya Kamenskaya - an intelligent, self-made woman whose character, Marinina said, has already had an effect on the popular conception of the police.

"Recently I met some readers, and one girl said that she wants to become a police officer like Nastya. She understood that, even in the militsia, you can find your own place," Marinina said.

Other cops said that they approve of Marinina's portrayal. "She writes very realistically," said Olga Zotova. "Even now, when there is no justice, there should be some kind of ideals."

Oleg Leonov, an artist whose works are currently on display at the Academy of Arts, has painted a portrait of Interior Ministry General Anatoly Romanov, who was badly wounded during the campaign in Chechnya.

Leonov said the brave general could become a symbol of the new police officer. "We need to look at the man who honestly fulfills his duty," said the artist, pointing to the portrait of Romanov wearing a beret and Ray Ban sunglasses.

Leonov said that he thought the militsia should be renamed "the police." "The epoch of the militia has gone," he said. "Now we need to work under the image of the police. It is a more civilized name."

The police art exhibit runs till Nov. 21 at the Academy of Arts, 21 Prechistenka. Tel. 201-4771. Open Wednesday to Friday noon to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nearest metro: Kropotkinskaya.