Lost Cosmonaut (Sample) – Kalmykia
Dirty Police Bastards
It happened in the bus station, as we were hailing a taxi. No sooner had we sat down, than there was a knock on the passenger window. I turned round and saw a policeman, a piggy bastard with an impertinent grin and beady eyes, and a spidery little moustache growing in spurts from his blubbery top lip.
‘Good afternoon, gentlemen.’ he said, smiling and saluting.
‘Good afternoon.’ I replied.
We handed them over.
He studied them slowly. Probably he couldn’t read the Roman alphabet. Then he asked the usual questions: where were we going, what were we doing? He found it difficult to believe that we were tourists. There were no tourists in Elista. He pointed a grubby sausage-finger at me:
‘You’ he said. ‘Come into the station.’
The function of the police in Russia is not to uphold law and order, but rather to stress the arbitrary nature of power in the country, and remind you that at any time, and for nothing, you can be thrown in a cell or worse. They routinely harass, beat and extort dubious ‘fines’ both from Russian citizens and from foreigners, ostensibly for infractions of the law, but mainly because they can. A common nickname for them is musir—trash. They are not very nice.
The police station in Elista’s bus station was very small, consisting of an office and a waiting room only. I was left standing in the entrance while Fat Cop’s superior, a grave man seated behind a glass screen, examined our documents. Suddenly I remembered I had hidden $150 between my passport and the passport holder.
I was scared that the cleaners in the hotel might steal my cash, you see. So I had placed it in the location where it was most likely to be found by the police, who were far more likely to steal it in the first place. Ah! My cunning was boundless. I looked down at the veiny hands holding my documents and saw the edges of my bills poking out from behind the passport cover. Had he noticed them?
Grave Cop asked me the same questions Fat Cop had, and then asked them again, and again. My answers did not change. Then he picked up the phone and dialed a number. I couldn’t understand the ensuing conversation, but somewhere amid the stream of Russian I heard the letters FSB. Startled, I listened more closely, to see I wasn’t mistaken. He said it again, FSB.*
For a moment I saw myself stripped and beaten in a concrete cell on the verge of the desert, injected with a truth serum, about to receive a visit from Mr Rubber Glove. Then I calmed down. Why would the FSB be interested in us? We were nobodies. Furthermore, he was taking it to a level where petty extortion would be more difficult on his part. It was actually good that he had called them.
At this point Yoshi appeared in the doorway. ‘It not good to be alone with police.’ he said. He was speaking from experience. He had been harassed by the Moscow police countless times. They don’t like Asians in Moscow. When Grave Cop saw Yoshi he indicated to Fat Boy to bring us inside the station. We were ushered into a little waiting room, which consisted of a table, some chairs and a ‘cage’.
The cage is the tiny jail cell located in every bus, train and metro station in Russia. Usually they are occupied by drunks and dark-skinned people who have been stopped in the street without the correct documents. Often they have mysterious marks on their faces, bruises and lumps and cuts. I had never been inside a cage. This one, however, was tantalizingly vacant- just waiting for some new guests. Fat Cop was sent to fetch Joe.
Grave Cop ran through his set of questions yet again. I answered patiently and politely, meanwhile trying to keep my eye on my passport to see if he was attempting a sleight of hand on the money. Not that I could have stopped him, of course.
Joe arrived, red faced, nervously twisting his moustache. He sat down between Yoshi and me. He too had had a few nasty run-ins with the police in Moscow, including a spell in the cage. Our current situation was more intimidating, however. If anything happened, there was no-one to call. And we didn’t know the Kalmyk police. We didn’t know what they were capable of. ‘They can’t do anything to us.’ said Joe. ‘We haven’t committed any crimes.’ ‘Stay calm, Joe.’ I replied. ‘The cops are like dogs; they only pounce if they sense fear.’ We sat there for another five minutes, while the Grave Cop typed on his computer and Fat Boy hung around in the background, watching us, waiting to see what was going to happen.
* The FSB are the successors to the notorious KGB.
Grave Cop stopped typing. Leaning over, he opened a drawer in his desk. He rummaged around for a few moments, sorting through papers, and then pulled out a compact, black revolver. I blinked: had I really seen a gun?
He held it up to the light, as if he was admiring it, or perhaps allowing us to do so, intentionally instilling fear. He checked it was loaded and then stood up. He nodded to Fat Boy, who quickly went outside, closing the door behind him.
‘What the fuck is this?’ whispered Joe.
‘I’ve got no idea.’ I said. ‘But it’s weird.’
The cop walked towards us. He stopped by the little table, and very solemnly, spoke: ‘Get down on your knees.’
‘What did he say?’ asked Joe.
‘I think he told us to get down on our knees.’ I said.
‘Excuse me?’ I said, to the cop.
The cop stared at me, icily.
‘I don’t understand.’ I said.
‘You’ve understood everything else so far very well. Get down on your knees. Now.’
‘What did he say?’ asked Joe.
‘He er… he told us to get on our knees again.’
‘He can’t make us do that…’
The cop was staring at us, teeth clenched. Barely suppressed rage flashed in his eyes. He leveled the gun at my face.
‘You understand’ he said.
‘Maybe we get down on knees.’ suggested Yoshi.
‘OK’ I said. I slipped out of my seat and knelt on the floor. Joe and Yoshi did likewise.
‘Good.’ said the cop. ‘Good.’ He smiled briefly.
We studied the floor.
‘Look up.’ he barked. ‘Look at me.’
We looked up, obedient as dogs. Slowly, he extended the barrel of the revolver towards me.
‘Now’ he said, ‘You. I want you to…’
This time I really didn’t understand what he had said. But I didn’t want to make him mad.
‘Excuse me?’ I said, trying hard to sound sincere. He watched me. Clenched his jaws, briefly. Paused.
‘I said I want you to…’ he repeated the same unknown word.
I stood there on my knees, trying to guess what he wanted. It was very awkward.
‘I think he wants you to suck it, man’ whispered Joe.
‘What?’ I said. ‘Fuck off.’ But when I looked up at the cop, he was nodding.
‘Right…’ he said in English, nodding. ‘I vant you to sack eet.’
I paused. ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ I asked.
He shot Yoshi in the face. ‘Fuck!’ I yelled, diving for cover, as brains spattered against my jacket. I heard Joe screaming: I looked up and caught a glimpse of Yoshi’s faceless corpse leaning against him. It was pouring blood onto his shoulder, down his arm, into his hair. ‘Get it off me! Get it off me, man!’ Joe was soaked in Yoshi’s blood. Then the cop indicated me with the barrel of his revolver.
‘You’ he said, ‘Suck eet. Or die.’
‘How about I squeal like a pig instead?’
Actually, I made all that up. He didn’t pull out a gun. He didn’t do anything, except give us our documents back, wish us a pleasant day and then let us go. He even checked that our taxi driver wasn’t ripping us off. He was an honest man. But I figured that was a little anti-climactic.
We were stopped repeatedly by the police in Southern Russia. There was, after all, a war on, although it was hard to imagine the violence in Chechnya when surrounded by the peace of the steppe. After leaving Elista we traveled to Astrakhan where we were detained in a police station inside that city’s Kremlin for half an hour. Two days after that the police raided our hotel room in Volgograd at midnight to check our documents. And then on the way back up to Moscow the police entered our carriage on the train and interrogated us for twenty minutes.
Fat Cop led us back to the taxi rank, all smiles and friendly questions.
‘Do you like Elista?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes’ I said. ‘It’s very beautiful.’
‘Have you been to Chess City?’
‘It’s hard to find.’ I said. ‘We looked all day yesterday and couldn’t find it.’
‘Ah!’ he explained. ‘That’s because it isn’t actually in Elista. It’s in the steppe. You need to take a taxi there.’
‘Is it actually a city?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes’ he said. It has streets, houses, offices… and the Palace of Chess. It’s very beautiful.’ he assured me, ‘Very beautiful.’
Once more the mirage of Chess City flickered before my eyes. I had to go there… I had to see it…