Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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The Guardian (UK)
December 13, 2001
Revelry in Russia
Andrea Osbourne celebrated Christmas in Moscow, and got raided by the police during lunch
Andrea Osbourne

I have always disliked Christmas ­ trudging around the packed rainy London streets is not easy at the best of times, but it becomes particularly loathsome during the festive season. The tinny ring of electronic renditions of Hark the Herald Angels Sing and the ubiquitous So Here It Is Merry Christmas - bah humbug. But this year would be different - I was living in Moscow to study Russian.

A group of us expats planned a Christmas Day meal and celebrations. Lots of snow added to the festive feeling. Some of our number had been planning weeks ahead, and on the day produced not only a turkey with stuffing, but a jar of Roses and boxes of crackers complete with hats. Table groaning with goodies, we sat down to eat. But, no sooner had we pulled the first cracker, than came a knock at the door. And another one. And another one. Each one louder than the last.

Who could that be? All the invited guests were here ­ and you just don't knock on doors in Russia without making a prior arrangement. Santa?

My friend went to the door. We could hear men's voices. It was the police, and they wanted to come in. Now in Russia you can be arrested for not to carrying identification at all times - even in your own home. If you are unfortunate enough to have dark hair and eyes (obviously Georgian or worse ­ Chechen) then the demand for "documenti" quickly becomes part of your daily life.

OK, let them in we said, until a small cough from the other side of the table confirmed otherwise. Unfortunately, Jill had forgotten to bring her passport. Ohmigod ­ what should we do. Now it may have been a bit too much Christmas spirit, but with her likely arrest looming, we figured hiding her in the wardrobe in the next room was the only option. By the raised voices coming from the front door, it was obvious our friend couldn't stall the police any longer and they were intent on coming in.

We bundled her into the wardrobe and shut the door. In they came - three Russian policemen in full Russian winter dress of fur and padded camouflage. It wasn't just their dress and burly size which was intimidating, but the fact they were all armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, and handguns. Now out on the street, this doesn't seem so threatening (trust me, you just get used to it), but in a tiny flat, the three large men carrying guns across their chests seemed to fill the whole room.

"Documenti!" growled one.

A loud "miaow" came in response. Oh no, we had shut the cat in the bedroom and, sensing something wasnąt quite right in the wardrobe, she started to miaow loudly. We scurried to produce our passports, keeping an eye on the three policemen as they scanned the room looking to see where the offending noise was coming from. They flicked through our documents with disappointment ­ our residents permits were all in order.

"So, who owns this flat?", their leader demanded. "I rent it," replied my friend.

Their faces brightened. "You must pay the tax," said one of them. Ah, here we go. I should mention here that Russian police regularly try and extract "taxes" from Westerners.

Fortunately, our Russian was good enough to argue back. "No, we rent the flat ­ we don't pay the tax."

"Yes, you have to pay the tax," they insisted.

I picked up the phone and loudly asked in Russian for the number of the British Embassy, but the police didnąt budge. They were obviously not going to leave without their money. We needed to get rid of them before they decided to investigate the miaowing which was continuing unabated from the other room.

With inspiration founded on pure panic, my friend piped up: "No, we don't pay the tax ­ our landlady said she would pay the tax ­ let me find her address for you." Brilliant.

She quickly scribbled the address down on a piece of paper, and the police, sensing they weren't going to get any money from us, made do with a chance to extract some cash elsewhere. But one thing puzzled us. Why had they chosen this flat which just happened to be full of "foreigners"?

Under Soviet rule, every block of flats had a caretaker, whose job was to report the goings on of the entire block to the KGB. So the old babushka in the flat below, doing her Soviet duty, had phoned the police to report that there were "foreigners" in her block, and the police had seized the opportunity to making some extra cash. Unfortunately for them, they left empty-handed. We let our friend out of the wardrobe, who was OK if a little shaken, and sat down to finish our meal.

And the old woman downstairs? Well, after dinner we took up the rugs, put the CD player on the floor, turned up the volume as far as it would go, and danced for hours. So Here It Is, Merry Christmas.

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