St. Petersburg—we were surrounded by five hostile faces. Shaking inside, we stood firm until the men stalked off. Bob and I crossed the street to photograph the scene of the crime. Since the gangsters were still at work, I ducked into a shop doorway to be less obtrusive. Two men followed me in. They were thieves ready to snatch my camera, so I threw its strap over my head, pirouetted in the vestibule, and stepped back onto the street. The suspicious pair trailed me out, gave Bob the once-over, and wandered off. It was a cosmetics shop I had entered, filled with only female customers.
We returned to the subway station with an ad hoc interpreter. Mohammed is a law student with a summer job selling paintings at the art market on Nevsky Prospekt. We’d met him the day before. He’s soft-spoken, a bit shy, black-haired and olive-complected; a Muslim Russian from the south of the country.
He was skittish about getting involved with a criminal gang, but in the end his curiosity got the better of him, or he couldn’t resist our pressure. Off we went to the Metro station, a block away. When we found them, all five predators were in the station lobby, watching for lucrative marks.
Here’s a bit of video. It’s confusing and hard to follow, but try. You’ll see the team of six Mongolian pickpockets at work outside the Metro station. It’s hard to spot them all. One wears a red hat, one a white hat, and the others are pointed out with arrows. You’ll see them start out fast after a victim, then go out of view. In the second sequence, all six surround a victim, then the biggest of them crashes into his chest to delay him. Then they turn and meet beside the canal to divvy up the swag.
Mohammed’s first timid overtures were rejected with disinterest. Then he used the words “Las Vegas,” and vor, Russian for thief, and the gangsters turned to look us up and down. A moment later we had them outside, and suggested we get out of the crowd. The eight of us walked a block away and around a corner, where there was less traffic.
By then Mohammed had warmed them up and the gang members were smiling and curious, though not comfortable. Bob got a two-fingered grip on the big guy’s wallet and gave him a little shove from behind, neatly extracting the wallet. That’s when they relaxed half a notch. We stood around small-talking for ten minutes, but nothing of substance was discussed. They claimed they throw away credit cards instead of using or selling them, but we’re not convinced. Mohammed said their Russian was not very good. Soon a well-dressed man with a briefcase joined us. “Professional,” one of the thugs said in English, and he made a gesture for pickpocket, stroking the back of the index finger with the tip of the middle finger.
You just tried it, didn’t you!
One by one, cell phones started ringing. I think the thugs were speaking with each other. A group of tourists paraded by, and two thieves caboosed them around the corner. Our conference dispersed, but ice had been broken.
Bob and I walked Mohammed back to the art market. He led us down a street parallel to Nevsky Prospekt, then cut through a long narrow alley to the back of the art market. After saying goodbye, Bob and I headed back into the alley.
Halfway through it, two scrawny young men came running up from behind us, shouting “Police!” They flashed ID at us. “Pseudo-cops,” we thought, bandits who pretend to be police. We’re about to be robbed!…
This is part 2 of 5. Part 1.