A British expat goes down to the local kiosk to buy himself a pack of cigarettes, and notices a street bum begging for money. He hands the bum 3000 rubles, gets his cigarettes, then leaves. The next morning, passing the kiosk on his way to work, he sees the same bum and gives him another 3000 rubles. The bum thanks him, leans closer, then asks him earnestly, “Is there anyone you want me to kill?”
Ever since Paul Tatum was mowed down in a damp, filthy perekhod last November, Moscow’s expats have been nervously asking themselves, “How safe am I?”
The answer is, a lot less safe than even the most paranoid among us have imagined. According to several sources interviewed for this article, our lives are cheap and easy. How cheap? Put it this way: Cheaper than even a Russian’s.
“All that talk that it costs a hundred or two hundred thousand bucks to take out a Westerner is a bunch of crap,” said one bar owner. “Those days are over.”
Up until a few years ago, a Westerner in Russia was as invulnerable as the shielded alien mothership in Independence Day. But in keeping with that film’s script, the shield has been pierced, the beam switched off, and our soft underbellies are exposed… In short, we’ve become lamppost-ornament material. The scariest thing is, you’re in danger not only from aggrieved Russians, but, ironically, from foreigners too, corrupted by Russia’s rampant crime and amorality.
Ignorance to this danger may not be such a bad thing. As the Western owner of one local pub put it, “It’s best for expats to live in complete ignorance. That’s the only way to get through the day here.”
“Most expats live in what I call ‘La-La Land,'” said another Western bar owner. “They don’t work on the street level. They have no idea how dangerous it really is.”
Ignorance may be a blissful state for the readers of other local English-language newspapers. But we at the eXile just won’t stomach it. We’re the seedy old men who hang out at bus stops, seeking to deflower the innocent. Our job is to open your eyes-to tweeze them open, Clockwork Orange-like if we have to.
The scariest, and most humiliating discovery of all, is how cheap Westerners have become. A week’s worth of the average expat salary could buy some aggrieved Russian businessman a messy hit on his Timberland-toting nemesis, and for the price of a dinner for two at El Dorado, he could have that person’s legs snapped in half. While this bodes ill for us, economically speaking, this could be taken as a positive sign that Russia’s inflation has finally leveled off.
“If anything, the Russians resent the Westerners, and so you could probably arrange a hit on a foreigner for cheaper. Hell, a lot of Russians would enjoy it.”
The price to hire some fearless rebyata, or wannabe flat-heads, to pop a cap in a foreigner’s ass could cost as low as $500 to $1,000. However, as one person put it, “Some might even do it for free, just cuz they hate Americans.”
The “wannabe flat-heads”-those under-25-ers who snatch a stack of dead presidents one week, then blow it all the next-have a lot to prove, and very little to lose. They fear losing their BMWs far more than they fear death. Anyone who has hung out with Russians in a non-professional environment knows that they are easily the toughest, and the craziest, of the European peoples. Craziness-not the whacky, social democratic, quirky-wire-rimmed-glasses “craziness” of the Berlin/Amsterdam sort, or the baggy boyz-from-duh-hood affectation of your average suburban mall rat-but real fearless craziness is a trait highly valued here. And what better way to show how crazy you are than to take a scuffed Makarov pistol, shove it into the gut of a happy-go-lucky American, and empty out a clip in his gut. Throw a thousand bucks in (after all, Seryozh owes all kinds of money to ten other flatter flat-heads), and it’s, “no problem,” as they say.
Not a comforting thought for those of us who lead fairly mainstream lives here. Even worse for those of us who don’t. In fact, as I began this article, I was hoping to disprove the notion that it’s now open season on expats, just in case anyone had designs on me. I was wrong.
Next time, I think I’ll write about a trade fair exposition on imported kitchenware. Something more up my alley.
…A collection of recent off-the-record tales of violence reveals a few choice stories which show how vulnerable we really are:
– An expat was recently slashed with a sword after firing his driver.
– Two Finns recently visited a certain popular Northern European-run nightclub, and returned to their apartment with a pair of whores. The whores then suggested calling in for some late-night pizza. Only, the pizza man turned out to be not the friendly nerd from Tulio’s, but rather a pack of grim flat-heads delivering torture instruments instead of pepperoni and mushrooms. The Finns were tied to chairs, robbed of all their belongings, and carved up with knives and burning cigarettes. Just Sucks anyone?
– The Western manager of one of Moscow’s most popular expat bars had to flee Russia just a few weeks back after word hit the street that his new Caucasian bosses had put a contract out on his life. He has since returned, working under the roof of a nearby restaurant.
– An American businessman who had fallen out with his Russian partners was savagely attacked in his podyezd late last year. He spent several months in the hospital recovering from broken bones, damaged organs and torn joints.
– Ex-Dolls’ owner and U.S. green-card-totin’ Joseph Glotser had a peep hole drilled into the front of his skull by a highly-skilled sniper. Glotser was said to have been arrogant and extremely difficult to work with, which didn’t go over well with his local partners. What better way to pacify an uppity partner than with a .762 humblizer?
Hath an eXpat not hands, hath he not eyes? Doth an eXpat not bleed when he is shotteth in the ass?
– Phakespeare, The Merchant of Volgograd
If someone wants to cause you, a foreigner, problems, he has a whole range of unorthodox choices (see menu) ranging from the bureaucratic to the grotesque. Your status as a Westerner is no protection at all-in fact, if anything, it could be a liability. Local “businessmen” will assume that you, the Westerner, are not well connected; that you are naive; and that when push comes to shove, you value your life more than your business. Which he apparently doesn’t.
If this sounds like we’re mixing up gangland battles with common business competition, it’s because we are. In Russia, sadly, the two are so closely intertwined that the line between them doesn’t exist.
“Beating the competition” in Moscow doesn’t mean clever new marketing techniques or improved distribution networks… It means literally, beating the competition: as in, with a lead pipe. Of course, competitive strategies don’t always involve brute force. A slightly more civilized form of competition involves tapping your competitor’s fax lines. Fresh copies of all of their off-shore wire-transfers and bank instructions roll out of your Panasonic for your future use. (Can you say “kompromat”?)
If we’re talking bars and restaurants, a couple of g’s could ensure that the competitor doesn’t open up for a long, long time-if ever. Licenses are required to operate such establishments, licenses which need to be renewed every year. So if the new restaurant down the street had the nerve to cook up better food at cheaper prices than you, why bother redoing your menu when, for a fraction of the price (and headache), you can just have him shut down! Renewing a commercial license can be a scary and expensive process. If you pay the right people say, $2,000 bucks to have your competitor’s license stripped, he might have to pay $2,500 to get it re-instated. A bidding war ensues, which makes a lot of petty ministry officials very happy, while you frantically try to figure out the marginal utility of dishing out bribe after bribe. If your nemesis manages to outbid you, and keeps his restaurant open (albeit with slightly higher menu prices), there’s always a higher, and scarier ministry you could turn to. The tax police. A tax police raid is a bit trickier to arrange. It’s not just money here that counts, but good connections too. You’ll have to have a well-established business in order to make your “tip-off” credible. That, and a few bottles of Nina Ricci perfume or Johnny Walker Black slipped to the right people who order the raids wouldn’t hurt. Other cruder “competitive” tactics include smear campaigns (such as sending anonymous faxes meant to slander your competitor), hollow death threats and false lawsuits, all of which can have the residual effect of dirtying your successful competitor’s reputation-or, it could backfire and make you look like an ass.
While all of these “bureaucratic” competitive strategies are fine and dandy, they aren’t 100% effective. When all else fails, there’s only one way to kill the competition. And that’s… to kill the competition. Here, a hit could be anywhere from as low as $500 (on a small-time foreigner) to as high as $50,000 to take out a high-profile, well-guarded target. The key to this equation is whether or not your competitor has a krysha. Generally speaking, when problems arise, your krysha and your competitor’s krysha will sit down and negotiate a solution. The problem is, you may not have a krysha. Or, your krysha may be weaker than the other guy’s, which in some ways is worse than than having no krysha at all. If your krysha isn’t respected, your opponent’s krysha will have about as much pity for you as a pack of starving hyenas does for a lame zebra. There’s something about a weak opponent that brings out the savage in a Russian. I’ve seen it in street fights here, four or five flat-heads thrashing the shit out of some pasty botanik… ‘Member those pillow fights you used to have at your grammar school slumber parties? Well, flat-heads just loooove to use a defenseless botanik like a goosedown pillow, swinging his body wildly against storefronts, lamp posts and car hoods, until all the bloody stuffing goes slinging out in the air… the fun doesn’t end until the stumbling flat-heads are too exhausted to go on, and the botanik doesn’t have a graspable piece of flesh left on his corpse… for this reason, the eXile highly recommends that before ordering a hit on someone, make doubly and tripley sure that your target has no krysha. If your own krysha finds out that you lied, not only will you suffer at the hands of your opponent’s krysha, but your own krysha will come back to find you, and they won’t be in the mood for vodka shots and “ochi chyorny.”
The hardest part to swallow in all of this is that it isn’t just wrathful Russians that expats have to beware of-expats themselves have got caught up in the dirty business of Moscow. Moscow has corrupted many of us not just in terms of turning once-decent citizens into drug-abusing sex-fiends and arrogant jerks… Many of us have become downright nasty and amoral on the business front as well.
“I know I’ve changed a lot here. I’ve become hardened. Very hardened,” admitted one of the restaurant owners.
“I do things here that I never believed I’d ever do back [at home],” said another. “I’m a different person. Sometimes, I wonder what the fuck happened to me.”
For some, there’s no choice. For others, the naked corruption of everyone and everything from the government and the police down to the hunched old dezhurnaya has poisoned their souls. Many expats think that they understand the game here, but often they go about it recklessly wrong.
“For Westerners to come from their middle-class backgrounds, then to spend a few years here and suddenly think they know how to play dirty and get away with it, it’s a dangerous game. Usually, they think they’re more clever than they really are. They can get themselves in a lot of trouble.”
While it’s not known if or how many expats have ordered hits or tax police raids on partners or competitors, the undeniable fact is that, as Johnny Rotten said, “No one is innocent.” My own experience even with something as seemingly insignificant as an alternative newspaper has opened my eyes to the savage lengths that expats—and not just Russians—are willing to go to, just because they think that in Moscow, everything is possible, and nothing is forbidden.
This article first appeared in Issue #1 of The eXile.
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