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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How Nemtsov's Arrest Differs From Anya's

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Last week I heard the most optimistic news that an inveterate pessimist like me could have possibly imagined. No, I'm not referring to the recent State Duma elections. That isn't news. The word "news" implies something unexpected, and there was nothing unexpected about the results of these elections.

It wasn't the elections that made news, but the arrests of prominent opposition figures prior to the elections: Boris Nemtsov of the liberal Union of Right Forces party, former world chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov and liberal activist and satirist Viktor Shenderovich. But even more surprising than their arrests was what happened while they were in custody.

I called all three of the detainees while they were behind bars. First on my list was Nemtsov, who told me that the police officers at the station asked him for his autograph and for a group photograph. Next I called Shenderovich, who said he was given the same kind of reception. These celebrity convicts were dutifully served hot coffee while in captivity, and one was even given a bottle of whiskey.

One hour before I heard the story about this VIP treatment, I heard a completely different story about Anya, a modest, attractive girl from Ryazan who had moved to Moscow and later found work in a large department store. City police stopped Anya on the street one day and demanded her Moscow registration papers, the infamous propiska. They then took her in for "questioning," which meant a lot of frisking and crude taunts. Then the police chief stepped in and, with a lewd smile, said to his subordinates, "When you're finished searching her, let me have her for a while in my office -- for further 'questioning.'"

At this point, Anya was terrified and handed the cops all the money that she had managed to scrape together. Then she was released. Had the officers really been planning to rape her, or was it simply a scare tactic to extort money? It is hard to say.

This is the sad reality in our country.

Returning to Nemtsov, Kasparov and Shenderovich in custody. I understand why a police officer complained to one of the prominent detainees about the rampant abuses of power in Russia, why another cop complained about his low salary, and why a third sighed and said, "When will we ever get rid of Putin?"

In Anya's case, the police understood that they could do whatever they wanted with a provincial girl, while officers holding Kasparov, Nemtsov and Shenderovich realized that they had to be much more careful. Famous people are like aristocrats, and they enjoy a kind of diplomatic immunity that protects them from physical abuse by the police.

President Vladimir Putin has successfully created a system in which those higher up on the pecking order are allowed to do as they please with their subordinates or with powerless citizens. Putin, for example, has a free hand with the oligarchs, and the governors can do what they want in their fiefdom with local businessmen. Similarly, Moscow cops can get away with abusing a girl from Ryazan.

Russia is enmeshed in a huge criminalized web involving millions of people. Every member of this system benefits from the fruits of his crimes, while swearing absolute loyalty to his boss -- the one who grants him the right and privilege to abuse the powers that come with the job.

To be sure, there are millions of people outside this corrupt system who do not commit crimes, but they are often filled with envy when they see how their colleagues get away scot-free with abusing their office. And those who commit crimes are also boiling with envy, thinking to themselves, "Here I am, pocketing only a couple hundred bucks from a simple, provincial girl from Ryazan, while my bosses are able to extort millions."

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.