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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Authoritarian Habits Die Hard

One day, I was walking along Makhachkala’s central Lenin Square with a Moscow-based photojournalist. In front of the Dagestani Interior Ministry, a platoon of local police was conducting routine marching exercises. The photographer habitually aimed her camera at them. That’s when our troubles began.

A police sergeant armed with a Kalashnikov approached us.

"What are you doing?" was his smart question.

Instead of responding with a noncommittal "just taking photos," the photographer produced a Moscow Times photocorrespondent ID card. That was a grave mistake.

The sergeant grabbed the woman’s document and ordered us to follow him. We didn’t refuse, but we did ask him to return the ID card — it is actually private property and can be confiscated only upon a court’s decision or at least after filing a needed protocol. Of course, the policeman never gave up; he clung to the usual mentovskaya habit of keeping a psychological hostage — the documents you depend upon — in his hands while talking to you.

The man guided us to the nearest police post and reported the case to his superiors. We were led to a room where two officers lazily started their interrogation. At first, the photographer, as the representative of the "free world," demanded respect for her professional and human rights. But on observing the darkening faces of the officers, I realized that her straightforwardness might land us straight in the local clink. So I took over the negotiations.

"What is the problem, captain?" I asked, after showing my ID as a local journalist.

"You were not supposed to photograph here. We have important sites around," he replied.

"Captain, the daily ‘Dagestan’ news program starts with a detailed panorama of our square. Every TV report from Dagestan has shots of the buildings of the State Council, parliament and government. Come on, what secret objects are you talking about?"

"You have no right to take photos of our servicemen. You know the dangerous situation we live in; these people may be trailed by the bandits."

"Captain, we local journalists usually take the film out of our cameras before we enter the square. That’s because our police demand to be photographed and then given the pictures for free. It’s always better to click through the empty camera than to argue. Watch your people, not us."

He tried to invent something else, more general. At last he said: "Nobody is supposed to take photos at all here. Those are our orders."

"Sorry, captain, look through this window at the square. You see these street photographers? I know them; they’ve been working here for years. By the way, can we see the orders you referred to?"

"No, it’s forbidden to show our documents to everybody."

It was a classic catch-22: Everything is allowed except what is forbidden. But it is forbidden to know what is forbidden. Luckily, the collision was exhausted. The captain returned us our IDs: "You may go."

"Write down their details," another officer advised. He thoroughly copied the information on our cards and let us out. As we were leaving, I heard their conversation behind us:

"How’d we do?"

"Yeah, great."

Beavis and Butthead.

Yes, this was an insignificant incident, but the conflict was a vivid illustration of what had been latent and is now what we’ll call the "Babitsky syndrome." The representatives of law and order never miss an opportunity to have some fun with journalists. And the degree of bullying is inversely proportional to the distance from the respective editorial office. This makes foreign journalists or, even better, Russian journalists working with foreign outlets a very special delicacy. The fun is easy, pleasant and, most importantly, absolutely safe.

The photographer left Dagestan. I remain. Now I have nightmares: Something horrible happens on Lenin Square. I am registered somewhere in the secret files of square’s security. And sooner or later, men with stern faces will knock at my door.

Nabi Abdullayev is a freelance journalist working in Dagestan. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.