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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Big Babushka' Is Watching Central Moscow

MTAn employee monitoring multiple closed-circuit television cameras in the Baumansky Subdistrict information center.
Ever get the feeling that an old lady in your stairwell is eyeing you suspiciously? Ever think she's displeased that you haven't shaved or brushed your hair?

You're not paranoid -- though having a shave might be a good idea. Somebody is indeed watching your comings and goings: not from your stairwell, but from a screen a few kilometers away.

And they don't like you making a lot of noise.

City Hall this year finished installing closed circuit television cameras in and around entryways of every municipal apartment building in the city's central district, totaling more than 8,600 cameras. It hopes eventually to equip every building in the city with an eye in the sky.

The system is less Big Brother -- other European cities have more cameras -- than Big Babushka.

Brigades of mostly elderly and middle-aged women staff the information centers set up in each of central Moscow's 10 subdistricts, watching footage of every moment of every day of every building entrance, ready to call emergency services if they see something suspicious.

"It is very interesting," said Galina Borodulina, 52, smiling as she sat in front of three screens showing 48 entryways. "There are entrances where they bring flowers, there are some with weddings."

The idea of having older women tracking people's lives may sound redundant in a city that has long been under the surveillance of friendly -- and not-so-friendly -- babushki parked on courtyard benches.

It was the 1999 apartment bombings on Kashirskoye Shosse and on Ulitsa Guryanova in southern Moscow, in which more than 300 people died, that pushed the city into introducing surveillance cameras, said Viktor Muravyov, who runs the center for the Baumansky Subdistrict. The Tverskoi Subdistrict was the first to outfit all of its apartment buildings with cameras in 2001, and other subdistricts followed suit, with the last building equipped in January.

Despite the trend, Moscow is still far from the level of surveillance in other European countries. There are more than 14 million closed-circuit television cameras in Britain alone, according to some estimates. Most of the cameras are on the street rather than in houses, as there is much less municipal housing in Britain than in Russia.

Moscow has some cameras on the streets, but they are relatively few in number. The Basmanny Subdistrict has only 33.

The British Home Office has even begun experimenting with a system where closed-circuit television operators can warn off lawbreakers through a microphone attached to the camera.

The two dozen women who sit in blue uniforms in the Basmanny Subdistrict center do not have any microphones to tell anyone off as they sit and watch the city's denizens.

Each operator watches three screens showing 16 entryways each. The cameras are motion-sensitive, and the edge of the screen goes red when something moves to alert the operator immediately of the action.

Each center sends out an average of 15 alarm signals daily to emergency services, and the cameras have helped reduce crime, said Yekaterina Zolotaryova, spokeswoman for the Central Administrative District. Burglaries and muggings dropped 11 percent to 16 percent, and street crimes fell 13.2 percent, in 2006 compared with the previous year, Zolotaryova said.

A city police spokesman concurred that the cameras have helped reduce crime, though he had no statistics on hand to make such a case.

The number of robberies has decreased despite the fact that police are often slow to react, said Stanislav Yegorov, marketing director of Panir B, the company that runs the Baumansky Subdistrict information center.

Police often request footage when investigating crimes, but the centers keep only two weeks of material on their computers. After that the footage is erased, Yegorov said.

The killer of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was captured on a surveillance camera in the stairwell where she was gunned down, as was a man suspected of committing a quadruple homicide in the Moscow region last week. But the quality of the footage is often too poor to recognize people, even if their faces are caught on camera.

"The quality of cameras is not good enough to use in court, but newer, better cameras will soon make this possible," the city police spokesman said.

The centers also get the odd request for footage from ordinary people.

"We don't have the right to give footage to anyone except law enforcement authorities," Yegorov said.

Police must file a written request, though the Federal Security Service can just ring up and ask for whatever it wants, Yegorov said.

The operators at the Baumansky center take their job seriously, if a bit too eagerly for some.

Operator Nadezhda Deyeva, 50, said she calls the police if someone is making too much noise.

"They're disturbing other residents," Deyeva said.

She said she also calls police if she sees someone drinking alcohol. And if operators see large items being taken out of stairwells, rest assured they will inform police.

"When I moved I held up a sign saying that I was going to a new apartment," operator Irina Dyominova said.

The operators watch the screens and see a small slice of daily life in the district: Husbands coming home late and people walking their dogs at the same time every day, most of them unaware they being watched by eager eyes.

"It's as if we are not there," said Borodulina, with a just a touch of annoyance.

One man used to leave his building in the winter with no shirt on, reach into the snow, pull out a bottle of alcohol, drink it, and then hide the bottle again, Dyominova said.

Teenagers running from a fight, on the other hand, often know the cameras are there and run into the stairwell if they are in trouble, Borodulina said.

Basmanny Subdistrict residents seemed in favor of the cameras.

"I don't mind," said Yulia Makeyeva, 68, as she was walking along Ulitsa Pokrovka, "I want to put up a camera in my hallway too to see who comes near my door when I am out."

Civil liberties activists in Britain have warned of the dangers of such surveillance, but there has been little outcry in Russia, human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov said.

The spread of closed-circuit television is worrying, as the footage could be easily be misused by the FSB or criminals, especially given the ease with which supposedly confidential information can be obtained in Russia, Ponomaryov said.

"That is a real danger," he said.

If people are not asked whether cameras should be installed in their apartment buildings, that is an "abuse of rights," Ponomaryov said.

Still, when his building's residents voted on whether to install cameras, Ponomaryov voted in favor. "There had been burglaries," he said.