Once upon a time there was an honest traffic cop ...

MOSCOW DAYS

At least life here has not lost its sense of mystery. Walk into any bookshop in Moscow. Consumerism and computer electronics may have stripped the Western world of its magic, but Russian children still read fairy stories, and believe the planet is populated by no small number of elves, goblins, witches, pirates and sundry other life forms who outshine the dreary human being. And that, in my view, is exactly how it should be.

My favourite fairy tale was told to me by a patient young woman called Irena who teaches me Russian. It must be made clear that she insists her story is absolutely true in every detail. Being a Westerner, and a sceptic to boot, I do not know if I entirely believe her; but you can be the judge. It is the story of the White Crow.

His real name is Alexander. For some years, he has been working in Moscow as an officer with the traffic police, otherwise known as the State Automobile Inspectorate or GAI, whose staff are about as popular here as an Iranian in the White House.

Their dreadful reputation is rooted in their habit of standing on the streets of Moscow, flagging down cars, usually for no reason, and extracting bribes from drivers. In the last 18 months, I have been compelled to shell out three times, after being stopped on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Alexander, however, was different. He is, Irena insists, a highly educated man who only joined the force because the alternative was a compulsory stint in the Soviet army in Afghanistan. He was also the only honest officer in the GAI. No matter how hard his colleagues pressed him, he refused to accept bribes of any kind, or to give in to the threats and intimidation of party big wigs and other jumped-up officials who felt they were above the law.

Of the latter, he had plenty of experience. For several years, his beat was the Rublyovskoye Chaussee, a wide road that sweeps out of Moscow towards the towns and villages where many of Moscow's "shishki" - a term for the high-ups which literally means "bumps" - have their country houses. Then, as now, every weekend the road was packed with expensive cars, travelling at high speeds, their lights flashing.

"Drunk drivers would shout at him: 'Do you know who I am? Do you know who my father is? I am going to complain about you'," says Irena, a close friend of the Crow's. "But he absolutely refused to budge. If they had broken the law, they would have to pay the official penalty."

The story has a sad ending. The White Crow - or "bielaya varona", the term given to people who stand out - has been promoted to a senior rank and is now working as an administrator. Irena says his wife tired of seeing his colleagues grow rich with corruption while he scraped by on government wages, so she left him. The force's only straight officer is now off the streets, and alone.

Yet, gloomy though the conclusion is, many Moscow drivers have now even more reason for not wanting to deal with an honest cop. This month, penalties for road traffic offences were raised by up to 15 times. Speeding is punishable by a fine of more than 1.2m roubles (pounds 130), the sort of money that the average Muscovite makes in a month (although car owners generally tend to be wealthier than the norm). Not wearing a seat-belt can set you up back pounds 63. With such draconian punishments, many motorists, whether innocent or guilty, prefer to pay a lesser bribe to a bent cop than to pay the official fine.

There is another way to ease the blow. Under the law, the GAI (pronounced Guy-ee) have considerable discretion when deciding the exact level of the fine. The fines are defined partly by the circumstances of the offence but also by the attitude of the driver when he (there are very few women drivers) is flagged down. A certain amount of servility pays off, although blatant grovelling is widely deemed counterproductive. So, too, is being stroppy. There is an offence listed as "conscious insubordination". Fine: 1.25m roubles (pounds 138).

Some foreigners sail close to the wind on this front by pretending they understand no Russian.

The authorities do seem to be trying to clean up the GAI. They are working on a scheme to introduce a plastic debit card, which you purchase in advance. Traffic police will be able to deduct fines from the card, using an electronic scanning machine. Mysteriously, the force's commanders appear to believe their officers will dutifully use these, instead of asking the victims for a lesser sum in cash, and pocketing it. Perhaps the bosses are right; perhaps there are more white crows out there on the streets. But I suspect that Russian children are not the only ones who believe in fairy tales.

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