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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow's Finest Walk an Unappreciated Beat

Major Nikolai Khlystik pointed out the window of his patrol car.

"See that guy in camouflage carrying the nightstick?" Khlystik said with a touch of bitterness in his voice. "He works for a private security company, guarding that shop. He makes twice as much as we do."

"And if anything actually happens, he calls the police, and we take care of it," added fellow officer Pyotr Baran.

As he patrolled the city one recent Saturday night, Khlystik, who has worn a Moscow police uniform since 1980, reflected on what he sees as the main problem in Russian law enforcement: the minuscule salary.

Thanks to his rank and years of service, Khlystik's salary is at the high end of Moscow police wages, but that is small comfort to him as he tries to make ends meet on 2,300 rubles ($92) per month. His wife earns 2 1/2 times as much as he does cutting women's hair.

Khlystik, a gregarious man with a self-assured smile and a blister on his trigger finger, serves in the third regiment, which patrols the city by car and responds to calls to 02, the police emergency number. A senior officer, he supervises the work of the other patrol cars and accompanies them on the most serious calls.

In recent years, Khlystik has seen many of his experienced colleagues abandon the police for more lucrative employment. He himself may be on his way out the door, as he approaches retirement age after nearly 20 years on the force. He said he will probably opt to supplement his pension with private security work.

"It all depends on how the situation develops after the elections," he said. "If something changes economically and politically, there is reason to stay [with the police]. I like the people I work with."

But as experienced officers leave, few of the new recruits are qualified to meet the challenges of keeping the peace in the chaotic capital.

"The wrong people are joining the force. A policeman should have an understanding of legal issues," Khlystik said.

Some officials say that the problem is not a shortage of qualified personnel, but a shortage of personnel, period.

In "Militsia i Bespredel," or "Police and Lawlessness," a 1998 book about police abuses by journalist Maxim Glikin, one of Russia's top police officials put it bluntly.

"The population is always getting angry that we are often late. They say, 'I call the police and they don't come! They tell me there are no cars, no men,'" Major General Anatoly Sukhov was quoted as saying. "But that's the truth! It's not that they don't come because they're sitting watching TV."

Short-staffed and underpaid, the police face the gargantuan task of keeping their cool as they deal with dangerous criminals, distraught victims and angry, emotional participants in domestic disputes.

A typical call brought Khlystik and Baran to a middle-aged man lying in a pool of blood in front of the entryway to his apartment building. The man's son - who stood ranting as police helped medics put his father on a stretcher - said he had attacked him because of his incessant drinking.

"I'll kill him," the son screamed as police tried to calm him. "Everyone in the house knows what a piece of shit he is."

Soon after, the officers received information about a "parachutist" - police slang for someone who jumped out the window.

This particular young man only jumped from the third floor - apparently after a drunken fight with his girlfriend, who refused to marry him.

But after the jumper was retrieved and sent to the hospital, there was a moment of peace. Saturdays during dacha season are generally quiet, and this lull at about 11 p.m. gave Khlystik and Baran time to catch dinner at "the Russian McDonald's," as they put it - a makeshift cafe on Kutuzovsky Prospekt.

The two officers both hail from Ukraine, reflecting the Soviet policy of hiring non-Muscovites to keep watch over the capital. Many criminologists say that policy has contributed to the mutual distrust between the city's police and its residents. But Khlystik says the practice - as well as the perks it provided - helped make the job attractive to a wider pool of applicants.

Khlystik, for example, was granted a Moscow apartment and a coveted residence permit when he took the job. Today, however, the ministry cannot afford such luxuries and applicants are required to have those things before joining the force.

There are still a few perks that go with a job in the police - including free travel on Russia's railroads and use of ministry-owned sanatoriums - but the low salary barely covers basic needs, pushing many officers toward illegal means of supplementing their income.

Khlystik acknowledged that bribe-taking is a problem in the police.

"I can only speak for our division. Probably on a small level - like for registration - it [bribe-taking] exists. We get complaints, we deal with them. But the government itself causes this problem," he said.

The poorly funded police force is also simply poorly equipped.

Much of the information that comes over the radio in the patrol cars is incomprehensible, and Khlystik and his colleagues are forced to play telephone, with officers who are closer to the base repeating messages for those farther away.

"There just aren't enough relay stations," Khlystik says.

As the lack of funding becomes more critical, the job of the police has only gotten harder.

Crime - especially organized crime - has skyrocketed since Soviet days, and police are not treated with the automatic respect that they used to be.

The stress has taken its toll. According to Glikin's book there are more than 200 suicides a year among the ranks of the Interior Ministry.

"In the old times, late at night you could even sleep a bit. But now nobody sleeps at night," Khlystik said, as Baran drove north near Sportivnaya metro station at about 3 a.m.

Just then a car turned a corner into their lane before swerving at the last minute. Baran screeched into a U-turn and flashed his lights. With another two hours left on the shift, sleep was still far away.