My accomplice in a great escape from the scene of the crime

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The Independent Online
Anyone who works for a few months as a journalist in Russia develops a habit. They can hardly type the word "police" without, almost by reflex, also writing "corrupt".

With good reason. Westerners in Moscow face demands for money from traffic cops with such frequency that they refer to the lollipop-shaped batons with which patrolmen wave down cars as "pazhaluista sticks" - "please" sticks. Police forces the world over have their bad apples; in Russia they seem to come by the barrel-load.

Yet it is only fair to report an incident which proves there are exceptions, albeit 5,587 miles to the east of the capital.

It was in the sea port of Vladivostok that I was relieved of my wallet. It contained credit cards, almost all my cash, and my air ticket home. Weary after three days on the Trans-Siberian railway, I had made the mistake of leaving my jacket on a chair in a bar for a few moments.

Anywhere else, the matter could be resolved by calling your credit card companies and wiring some money overnight. Not here. Automated bank tellers, freephone numbers, telephone cards, reverse charge calls - all have yet to come to this litter-strewn backwater on the Sea of Japan. Cash is everything. I had $8.

Some cities are worth being stranded in for a day or two, but Vladivostok - until six years ago a Soviet naval base closed to foreigners - is not among them. At this time of year, it is as clammy as a Russian bath-house. Power cuts sometimes last all day, because the Kremlin is delaying energy payments.

I demanded that the police be called to the bar, after failing to persuade its security men to get involved. Their walkie-talkies and bully-boy swaggers were evidently intended to resolve larger issues. Two young policemen arrived, looking like mackerel entering a shark pool. Mystifyingly, they took in a waitress, and carted us all off to the decrepit police station.

In mafia-infested Vladivostok, where there are three or four murders a night, a stolen wallet is about as interesting as a case of apple scrumping. The duty captain wore one of those heard-it-all-before faces; the reek of vodka hung in the air.

I was interviewed by a detective who asked one question: "Did the barmaid do it?" Answer: "I very much doubt it; she was nowhere near me." I knew the cops wanted to shelve the crime as soon as possible; what I wanted was a way home.

It was at this point that I met Major Sergei Zhukovsky. Nothing about this young detective's appearance (tatty jeans and sneakers, mouth full of gold teeth), his office (cubby-hole with a photo of his Cossack grandfather and a safe containing his coffee supply) or his views (tsarist) inspired hope.

What chance was there of getting a flight to Moscow without a ticket, I asked, as he poured us a large vodka from a tin can. Very little, he replied.

I do not know whether it was pity, kindness, the vodka or a desire to rid himself of a nuisance, but after offering me a bed at his place for a few days, the major and a female captain took me to the airport.

Here the major padded wolfishly around until he found the right person. "The airlines don't have to take any notice of the city police," he said, flourishing his badge in yet another face, "I'd say your chances are 50-50."

Together, the two braved the permafrost frowns of airline officials. There is no Western equivalent of the distrust, doubt and unco-operativeness that can occupy the space between the hairline and the cheekbones of a Russian bureaucrat.

We ended up pleading my case in the airport director's office, as if before a judge in chambers. After studying the paperwork, half-moon glasses perched on his nose, he relented, and jotted out a note. An hour later I was flying west.

The police in Vladivostok, always poorly paid, haven't seen any wages for several months.Not once did either officer ask for money or gifts, or anything other than a warm farewell handshake. Russia has some good cops; you just have to know how to find them.

Phil Reeves