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

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.

“Yup.”

“So you drink Hennessy?”

“…what?”

“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.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

View all posts by SnarkyNomad

17 Comments on “How my poor Russian language skills got me out of paying a bribe”

  1. That is hilarious! I can totally relate to having run ins with the nonsensical antics of bureaucrat loving paper pushers. Glad you made it out in one piece, and if anything, I’d try Henessy just to see what the heck he was going on about. Tweeting this now. ;-)

    1. I should have come back with a bottle. We probably would have just gotten drunk together and laughed and had a good time.

  2. I am glad to see you both avoided a bribe and got a funny story out of it at the same time. A lot of times when you can laugh or make others laugh later it is not before money is lost. Sometimes not knowing the language has its benefits.

  3. When will the rest of the world learn that we Americans don’t drink Hennessy. In fact, when was the last time you saw a bottle of Hennessy in the US?

    Great post. Keep up the non-foreign-language speaking skills (however, listening skills are okay), especially around the police.

  4. I faked a language barrier to avoid something like this. Argentina has ridiculous Customs rules and basically tries to charge you insane fees on anything you bring in, even if you purchase it legally through something like Amazon. When I came back from a US visit, I was carrying quite a few electronics for friends. Even though I am fluent in Spanish, I just kept repeating words like “mochila” (backpack) “laptop” and “mine” and smiling. Eventually I practically yelled “UNITED STATES!” and gave him a thumbs up. He was so annoyed with me he just let me through. WIN!

  5. This is hilarious! Language barriers can be quite interesting. Glad it worked in your favor and he let you go. Hopefully my limited language skills will help me out if I am ever in a similar situation!

  6. Russians do tend to think very stereotypically. In fact, 70% of Russians never crossed a border! So their knowledge about a country is taken from Russian TV and movies. I guess that guy just saw some american movie where they all drink Hennessy.
    Anyways, you got off pretty easy, good for you!

    I was in a similar situation in Peru. My dad got pulled over by some cop who just wanted a bribe. After 3 minutes, my mother started yelling at him in Russian, asking what the hell he wants. He gave the driver’s license back to my dad and ran away!

    1. It would be easy to make fun of them, but then again most Americans have the same narrow view of other places. They have all sorts of silly stereotypes that are incredibly lame. Sigh!

      1. True, I guess having been the two greatest nations for a while, both Russians and Americans think of themselves as slightly better than other people. So they’re not interested enough to study other cultures (since theirs is the best).

  7. Haha sometimes not knowing a language definitely can play to your advantage! I’ve never had anyone try to bribe me, but my plan is simply to feign understanding. I like the idea about offering to call the embassy for a translation. Also, Hennessy? Bleargh! You should have just given him some PBR.

    1. You know what’s great about PBR? They brag about their 1800s Blue Ribbon victory, as if it’s a badge of honor not to have won anything for 150 years.

  8. I remember the first time I ate food without my parents while on a trip to China. I was with my brother. Since we were both so goddamned terrible with the language, we thought the server was asking if we would like “buy eggs” at the end of our meal when she was actually asking if we would like to “settle the bill”, the two phrases being homophones in Mandarin.

    Pizza Hut in China is a strange place.

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