How my poor Russian language skills got me out of paying a bribe

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That’s right, kids! My abject failure to understand a few cursory expressions of elementary Russian resulted in a somewhat-accidental dodge of the dreaded ex-Soviet police officer and his daily hobby of looking for a kickback.

Many of the former Soviet states require you to carry your documentation with you at all times. Being the paranoid backpacker that I am, I don’t like carrying my passport around with me all day long. So I carry a photocopy.

My favorite is the saxophone.
“Stop it. Stop everything.”

Unfortunately, Russian law enforcement officials require the following documents:

  • Passport
  • Visa
  • Registration
  • Your firstborn child

The registration is a little tricky; you need to register your visa within 7 days of arrival, at least for now. So while you’ll probably have no trouble photocopying your passport and visa while at home, you can only register your visa after arrival, which means in order to avoid carrying your passport, visa and registration with you at all times, you’ll need to wander the streets aimlessly looking for photocopying facilities.

“Come with me,”

…said Mr. Russian Police Officer upon his discovery and subsequent jubilation that I did not have all the necessary documentation with me. And into a small private office we go.

I knew enough Russian to have a basic idea of what was going on, and he asked me to empty out all my pockets, after which he inspected my belongings as though taking a look at my meager possessions was somehow critically important to the safety of the Russian Federation.

“You’re American?” he asked.


“So you drink Hennessy?”


“You’re American, so you drink Hennessy.”

“Um, no…”

“No, you’re American, you drink Hennessy.”

“Um, okay…”

“Give me a bottle of Hennessy and you can go free.”

Due to my limited knowledge of Russian, what I understood from this exchange was:

“Give me a bottle of Hennessy and you can go _______.”

I mean, I was pretty sure I knew what he meant, but due to my English major integrity and INTP adherence to truth and accuracy, I chose not to jump to conclusions.

“Um, I don’t understand.”

“Give me a bottle of Hennessy and you can go _______,” he said again, whilst a nearby female police officer chuckled good-naturedly.

“I don’t speak much Russian. I really don’t underst…”

“Oh whatever, just go!”

He said it with a laugh, waving me out the door, after which I returned to the hostel and requested they direct me to the nearest photocopying establishment.

Mysterious unanswered questions!

  • Did he think I had a bottle of Hennessy on me at the time?
  • Did he expect me to go out and purchase a bottle of Hennessy and return?
  • Did he expect me to leave cash or camera equipment as collateral?
  • Why did he think all Americans drink Hennessy?
  • Why are their hats so big!?!!?

I’ve since then read stories about how the Russian police force chose to fight corruption merely by increasing the number of female police officers. Apparently that’s all it takes. So was that lady’s laughter my saving grace? Did he specifically pick an absurd item to request so that he could pretend he was laughing it off all along? I shall never know!!!

Lessons learned:

  • Photocopy everything immediately
  • Act like an idiot
  • Do not carry bottles of Hennessy around at all times

Reasons it might still fail anyway:

  • They stop people at random looking for excuses to extract a bribe
  • If you hand them your passport, they might not hand it back without a bribe
  • They’re better at getting a bribe than you are at avoiding one
Looking toward the Kremlin, Moscow.
“Tell Putin this is bollocks.”

The best strategy I’ve heard for bribe avoidance is to offer to call the American embassy to translate the exchange over the phone, which is a good way to get corrupt cops to give up, since they don’t want to deal with the awkwardness of saying “tell this tourist I’m trying to get him to give me $5 or something.” Though some of them will put in a stellar effort.

But I succeeded with naught but my wits and charm. Me, one. Corrupt Russian police officer, zero.

Fortune favors the bold.

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