A man plays accordion on a Russian bridge
The Bolshoi Bandits and the Crosswalk Czar
In which Bob Arno and his fancy accessory spy on the Russians.
St. Petersburg, Russia—I was ensconced in my stake-out spot on the Canal Griboyedova across from the Gostiny Dvor Metro station; Bob was elsewhere. My position was excellent: close to the action, but the canal between my spot and the crime scene prevented my view from being blocked by passing people. It also had a massive, standing concrete slab, some sort of abandoned roadworks part, which I could duck behind when necessary. Leaded exhaust already lined my nasal passages, and fresh pee fumes rose from the slab. The location wasn’t perfect. I did enjoy the faint strains of accordion from a man squeezing one on the canal bridge half a block away.
Bambi's canal-side hide-out, beside a pee-stained concrete slab.
After filming alone for an hour or so, Bob passed behind me as if he didn’t know me and suggested I cross Nevsky Prospekt because the Mongolian pickpocket gang was at work in the crosswalk, out of my field of view. I did so, but felt exposed and nervous. I half hid behind a billboard and tried to film them, but the angle wasn’t good. A constant stream of pedestrians and traffic blocked my view of the corner. I was also afraid that, since they knew me, one of the gangsters would approach me from behind, or while I was looking through the camera’s view finder. After a while Bob came to get me again.
Bob speaks to the ice cream seller, who has contraband to pass off.
He brought me over to an ice cream cart on the corner in front of the Kazansky Cathedral. The proprietor, Katarina Pavlova, spoke French to Bob. She said she had noticed that he was observing the pickpockets, and that she had something to show him. She looked left and right before explaining that one of the thieves had walked past her stand and tossed something into her trash. Digging through the garbage, she retrieved a thick stack of credit cards, ID, and other wallet contents belonging to a 55-year-old French woman.
The wallet contents had been tossed into the ice cream seller's trash can.
The ice cream seller said she felt it was safe enough to tell us only because this was her last day of work; she was retiring from the ice cream business and planned to stay out of the city. She pressed the plundered heap into Bob’s hand with a forced crooked smile. He should take it. For some reason, she felt it was right.
She retrieved the stolen credit cards from her trash can after seeing the thieves throw them in.
So. Pickpockets were dumping ID and credit cards. This seemed to corroborate what other thieves and the police had told us: that the guys working the streets do not exploit credit cards. But what were we to do with the cards? Of course, we immediately thought, we’d try to return them to the victim. After all, they included a telephone number and address. But just as quickly, with a chill, we asked ourselves if this was a set-up. Can you imagine the shakedown? We’re accused of being pickpockets, searched, and found with a French woman’s documents. What would that cost in baksheesh? I imagined handcuffs; then beatings and prison and huge ransoms.
Here you can see the peeish concrete slab. Bambi stands against the canal rail, in her black camouflage.
Bob took the cards.
I objected. So we compromised. We gave the cards back to the ice cream seller, then videotaped her handing them over to Bob and explaining how she had obtained them. Might not stand up in court, but it eased my mind. Eventually, we did try to phone the woman in France, but the number was no longer good. We put them into the mail and never heard of them again.
A little Russian gypsy girl plays in the street
We wandered a couple blocks down, halfway between Nevsky Prospekt and the Church on the Spilled Blood, toward an internet cafe. We’d been inside it many times, and it was always empty except for the sour boy who took our coins. Wandering along, we paused in the oppressive heat to watch a tiny barefooted girl squatting in the street, spinning an old muffler.
She begs and gets a bottle of water
With fine-tuned radar, she leapt to her feet as a man and woman strolled into view and ran to them as fast as her heavy velvet dress allowed. Her big brown eyes netted a bottle of water, which she appeared to take with delight. She went back to her muffler, only to rise again for the next couple, who tried to ignore her.
She latches onto the leg of a passerby
The tenacious little beggar latched onto the man’s leg and wouldn’t let go. When she fell to her knees, the man literally dragged her along the pavement.
The girl is given a dollar
One American dollar freed him. The girl admired her take, carefully folded the bill, and stuffed it into a small pouch that hung from her neck. We watched her until she ran to her mother, who sat on the ground with an infant a block away, leaning against the canal rail.
The little beggar girl tucks money into her pouch
She runs back to, probably, her mother and baby sibling
Late that night, we spoke with a group of Belgian tourists who said that they had been robbed the day before while coming out of the Metro station on Nevsky Prospekt. Three women were hit. One had her purse slashed with a blade and all contents were removed. Her arm had been across her purse. The cut was just under her forearm. The thief had planted his elbow in the woman’s stomach. The other woman had her fannypack opened. The pickpocket handed her passport back to her, indicating that it had been on the ground. I didn’t get the story of the third woman.
Andrey Umansky, a front desk manager at the Grand Hotel Europe, used to work at Baltic Tours, a tour bus operator. Every spring, before tourist season began, they’d pay the police, he said. The deal was that they’d use special signs affixed to buses and carried on sticks, which were meant to tell thieves to stay away from this group. And the police, he explained, made deals with the thieves in order to protect the groups that paid for protection.
There’s lots more.
See Russian Rip-off, a five-part post with video.