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Talking About Crime in the Abstract Experiencing Crime in the Street A Letter from Moscow


Moscow. -- FBI Director Louis Freeh spoke forcefully here last week about organized crime, but I wasn't around to hear him because at the moment of his address I was standing in a dim, scuffed, smelly police station on the second floor of the Kazan Railway Terminal.

Mr. Freeh was worrying about international drug-running and even nuclear smuggling. I was worrying about getting my wallet back.

He was trying to draw the big picture. I was dealing with organized crime the way most Muscovites see it -- on the street, up close and personal.

I had been summoned to the Kazan Station out of the blue, more than two months after the crime itself.

Someone had found a pile of my things beside the railroad tracks, things I hadn't seen since a fine spring afternoon toward the end of April, when, on a busy sidewalk leading to Mayakovsky Square, a half-dozen teen-agers had swarmed out from behind a kiosk and had fallen upon me from all sides.

I had struggled and roared at them -- roared myself hoarse -- but I couldn't shake them. While perhaps a dozen onlookers watched the spectacle from a safe distance, one of the attackers finally grew tired of the effort and grabbed a big chunk of my hair, so that he could begin yanking my head around.

In a moment of sweet clarity I could see that knives would be next, and relented. One of them tore my pants down the side and grabbed my wallet, and off they ran.

Afterward the police were sympathetic, said there were always gangs of Gypsies on that corner, that really something should be done about it. They said I should carry a gun.

Last week, on the day Mr. Freeh was speaking, I drove by that corner. About two dozen teen-agers in distinctive clothing were jogging purposefully along, looking for prey.

I still don't have a gun, but I considered trying to run a few of them over.

Instead I went home, to grab a notebook and find out where the FBI chief was giving his address. But the phone was ringing, and it was the police. All these weeks later, the contents of my wallet -- except the money, of course -- had turned up at the Kazan Station.

And, no, it would not be convenient if I came around another day. These things had to be cleared up before the shift changed.

So I gave up on the FBI and plunged into the distinctly Russian hell that is a major railroad station. Past pickpockets, con men, price-gougers, ticket scalpers and cheats of all varieties; past flower-sellers, booze-vendors, fortune-tellers and baggage-smashers; past tobacco and spit and the reek of too many people and too much use over too many years, I found my way to the second floor.

The police post was brown and scarred. Two men stood spread-eagled against a wall, while a plainclothes officer with a wet lower lip that made him seem to be thirsting for a little action kept arrogant watch over them. A row of broken blue plastic chairs lined one wall; the chairs, or what had been spilled on them, had a swarm of flies.

Of course no one was interested at first, but then someone showed up who knew about the find. Everything was wrapped up in dirty paper, it was all filthy and sticky, but everything was there, except, sadly, a picture of my two kids.

There was more, too. Some other American -- a 63-year-old Washingtonian -- had lost his wallet to the same band, and here was his driver's license, bank card, phone card and all the assorted trash that ends up squeezed in along with your money.

Take it, please, the police officer said. It's too much trouble for us. Take it to your embassy. Please just take it off our hands.

Other police officers had told me that gangs of marauding families live during the summer among the crowds at the Kazan Station, at some higher-up's sufferance. Among them, evidently, were the kids who attacked me, or their bosses.

But this was too much for the station police to bother with.

The police know, too, that these gangs like to find their victims in Mayakovsky Square. But somehow they are either too ill-equipped or indifferently motivated to act.

Cynical Russians to whom I have told my story naturally suppose that the police are simply bought off -- that they're crooked. Why not? These are people who cringe every time they drive past a lowly traffic cop, because he might very well pull them over and demand an on-the-spot fine for some impromptu offense.

Muscovites move through their city, and all some of them can see are tyrannical, arbitrary police officers standing virtually side-by-side with brazen criminals.

Of course there are honest and dedicated officer here, but a lot of people simply scoff at Mr. Freeh's ideas of U.S.-Russian cooperation in the fight against organized crime. A better idea, they say, would be to send some latter-day Elliot Ness and his Untouchables over here, and let them clean up the place first.

Will Englund is a correspondent in Moscow for The Baltimore Sun.

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