Russian Rip-off: pickpockets and thugs

Bob Arno at The Church on the Spilled Blood

St. Petersburg— The beefiest of the five Mongolian thugs shoved his fist in front of Bob’s face, thrust forward his chin, and stared. Bob stared back and so did I. Two more brutes joined the first. One pointed to our camera and said “No!” The other swept his hand as in “get out of here, scram!”

Experienced at this sort of confrontation, we didn’t back down. That doesn’t mean we weren’t nervous and aware of the danger. We’ve been threatened before, not to mention spat upon and mooned. But pickpockets, by our own definition, are nonviolent. Sure, there are the unpredictable drug addicts desperate for money for a fix, but these five fixed us with alert and stone-cold eyes. They did not look harmless.

Metro station on Nevsky Prospekt

We’d spotted two of the gang within minutes of reaching Nevsky Prospekt, the broad boulevard of St. Petersburg. They stood on the corner of what might be the city’s busiest intersection, where tourists get their first glimpse of the magnificent Church on the Spilled Blood, a subway station upchucks clotted streams of humans, and tinny, battery-operated speakers screech the muffled pitches of Russian barkers selling canal cruises.

We picked the pair out of the crowd as we crossed the street toward them. They crossed and passed us, then u-ied and immediately separated, one in front, one behind us. The Russian sandwich. Instead of worry, we felt glee. Bob had a prop wallet stuffed with newspaper in his back pocket. Bait.

A pickpocket team in Russia

As Bob and I paused outside the subway station, the crew ditched us, ducked inside, and came out following a tourist. Bob managed to snap two blatant frames with a camera, one of which shows the gang leader looking straight into the lens as a partner shields a backpack for another’s grope.

Did they get anything? We don’t know because, as always, the thieves cover their moves. But a moment later…

This is part 1 of 5. Next (with video)

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