Zoya Konstantinovna Baruzdova is the self-appointed "senior resident" in the 14-storey block of flats at number three, Nikonovsky Lane, Moscow. "I know everybody in all 104 flats," she says. "If any stranger appears, doing anything suspicious, you can be sure that I shall be on to him immediately."
In the wake of two deadly apartment-house bombings, apparently linked to the war in the Caucasus, Moscow is on red alert against terrorists. The authorities are studying the sophisticated anti-terrorist techniques used in Britain, France and Israel. But they are also falling back on Stalin-era methods of public surveillance, relying on networks of "alert citizens" - or busybodies who inform on others.
After the two bombs, which killed more than 200 people as they slept in their beds, hundreds of shocked Muscovites telephoned their local housing maintenance offices to volunteer their services as "seniors". "We're making lists. If we get too many offers, we will have to choose," said a clerk in one office in the central district.
There was no question who should be the prying eye at number three Nikonovsky Lane. Ms Baruzdova has been guarding the block on her own initiative since 1996, when somebody stole sugar and cooking oil from her flat. She sits on the ground floor in a little booth, watching the flickering screen of a closed-circuit television paid for by the residents, who also pay her a modest wage.
Other "seniors" may be less organised but they will be just as diligent, watching and keeping the police informed. But Russia's version of Britain's Neighbourhood Watch scheme is being exploited by Muscovites with scores to settle.
"There's a foreigner living in there," I heard a man's voice hiss in the corridor outside my flat on Tuesday. A minute later, the bell rang and I opened the door to my local constable, Sergei Bocharev, and a police inspector. They asked to see my passport and a copy of my rental contract. Luckily, I had this, as my landlady is not a tax evader, and is more scrupulous than most in providing written agreements with tenants. Satisfied that the documents were in order, they saluted and left.
The visit might not have passed off so smoothly had I been a member of Moscow's Caucasian community, the focus of Russian anger over the bombings and easy targets for over-zealous informants. The Caucasians are not alone. Illiberal Russians are not particular in distinguishing between Chechens, Dagestanis, Azeris,
Georgians and Armenians. All are "blacks" and "bandits".
"I used to be a Soviet man. I went to university in Leningrad. Now I am an alien," says Ruslan, one of the thousands of Azeris who sell fruit on the streets of Moscow. "The Russians say `mafia, mafia' but we are traders. The market is part of our culture. To us, the bazaar is theatre. To many Russians, it is still something dirty."
The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has ordered all the city's "guests" to re-register. "We will see who needs to stay and who should leave," he said on television, adding that in view of the bombs, "nobody can tell me that this is not the right policy".
Ruslan shows me a flimsy piece of paper, his temporary residence permit. "It's still valid but I'll have to go to the police station and see if I can renew it. The police are always taking bribes from me. This time, I'm afraid I will have to give a big one," he says.
PC Bocharev sadly confirms this will probably be the case. He tells me he earns the equivalent of $40 (pounds 25) per month. For the duration of the crisis, he will be working 12-hour shifts with no days off. Is it any surprise that some of his colleagues will seek to make a buck where they can?
Ruslan condemns the bombings. "Not all Russians are bad. There are good and bad in all races. I would not wish these bombings on my worst enemy. It is complete savagery."
Apart from the pensioners,constables and army conscripts set to patrol the streets, workers in municipal housing maintenance offices are bearing the brunt of the security operation. In one such office in central Moscow, four Russian women, all called Tatyana, and an Azeri guest worker called Eldar are drinking tea. Their usual detective work involves investigating blocked lavatories and broken light bulbs or, in winter, eliminating icicles dangling dangerously from roofs.
"We were out all last night with the local police, searching basements and attics for explosives," says Tatyana Lishova. "After the bomb at Kashirskoye Shosse [on Monday], Yeltsin gave Luzhkov 24 hours to check all Moscow buildings. Luzhkov in turn issued his orders and in the hierarchy, all the bosses kicked down until the poor people at the bottom did the dirty work."
Ms Lishova is highly critical of the operation and especially of the plan to use "seniors" for further surveillance. "It's illiterate and unprofessional," she says. A Mum's Army, rather than a Dad's Army, has been created, as most of the volunteers are elderly women. "It's very dangerous for them to be out watching, especially at night, and what could they possibly do against determined terrorists?"
As I leave the maintenance office, I see an old lady in conversation with a conscript. She is telling him there is something fishy about an empty flat in her building. The grey-faced, under-fed 18-year-old says he will report the matter to his senior officer, but the blank look on his face suggests otherwise.
As darkness falls, I see him once more on the street near my home. He is still in uniform, on duty. And begging cigarettes from people passing by.Reuse content