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December 20, 2001
Robbery, Russian Style
What could be behind the bizarre break-in at NEWSWEEK’s Moscow bureau?
A Web exclusive by Christian Caryl
By Christian Caryl

The call came in the wee hours of a frigid subzero morning. This winter has been a particularly cold one in Moscow, and it was harder than usual to drag myself out from under the warm covers. But this time I didn’t hesitate: “Your office has been broken into,” the voice in my ear had said. Just minutes later, I was dressed and setting off across the courtyard.

“What now?” I wondered. Moscow is the kind of place where you get used to fending off nasty surprises. The hot water gets shut off without warning, or a construction site suddenly materializes in the corridor in front of your door. A monster traffic jam can form anywhere, at any time of day, without rhyme or reason. The street you were planning to use to get to that urgent interview is suddenly cordoned off for 40 minutes because a senior official needs to hog it. A few years ago, Muscovites were regularly getting killed by ice falling off high roofs, or being swallowed up by boiling water suddenly emerging from burst pipes underneath a park.

I’m willing to concede that similar things happen in other countries all the time. I just don’t live in other countries. And a robbery is always going to be a drag, no matter where it happens. Still, I was sure that a Moscow robbery would have some sort of darkly satisfying twist, something to make it just a touch more disturbing than it might have been otherwise.

I couldn’t get in the door of the office at first. The burglars had locked it from inside. We had to wait for a car full of Moscow cops to go around the back way and enter the crime scene the way the robbers had done it: up a long and rather precarious 20-foot metal ladder with hooks on the end. They’d somehow managed to latch it to the top railing of our office balcony, two and a half stories above the ground.

Then they’d climbed up, broke open the balcony door and pushed their way inside. None of the neighbors, predictably, had seen or heard a thing. Now we stood in the hallway, outside the door, and felt the icy wind whistling out through the keyholes.

We waited for what seemed like hours. My employees began to worry that the cops, left to themselves, might finish what the thieves had started. (I fleetingly recalled a poll, taken a few years ago, in which a large percentage of Russians said that they were more afraid of the police than they were of criminals.) At last the police opened the door. The destruction wasn’t quite as bad as we’d feared. A few papers were scattered around and cabinet doors stood ajar. Our smashed office safe lay incongruously in the bathroom. They’d evidently taken it in there to muffle the noise as they cracked it—apparently in vain. We keep our money elsewhere, and they had missed it. They had also missed the money one of my Russian colleagues keeps stored in another cabinet.

In fact, the more we looked around, the more we realized that they hadn’t taken much of anything—an observation that soon began to acquire its own malevolent subtext. They had removed a small but very expensive satellite telephone from its case—and left it behind. They had ignored our desktop computers, our scanner, our phones, our fax machines. It soon became clear that they had taken only one thing: the Toshiba laptop computer that I had left lying on my desk the night before. It wasn’t just any computer. It was the computer I used to write my stories, to do all of my journalistic work. Surely that wasn’t what interested them about it?

The detectives—all men in their mid-30s, with short dark hair, black pants and black sweaters—took long statements from each of my employees. Then they sat me down in my office and began to ask me questions. “Let me tell you,” said the man in charge, “this doesn’t look an ordinary robbery. It just doesn’t make any sense.” He began to describe the oddities we’d already noticed. “This mess is just for show. It’s just to make it look like this was a real robbery.” Then he began to ask me what I’d been working on lately. First he wanted to know whether I’d been preparing any “particularly scandalous stories”—the kind of thing, he implied, that might have given someone in power a reason to take a closer look at me. Nope, I said, there’d been a project or two back during the summer, but since the attacks of September 11 we’d been preoccupied by Afghanistan.

Then the detective wanted to know about possible “business competitors” who might be eager to find out my “professional secrets.” Well, gosh. Who would be the best candidate for a Watergate-style dirty-tricks campaign? A colleague at a competing magazine? I figured I’d ask them the next time we went out to dinner together.

None of this was calculated to calm our already overheated imaginations. The behavior of the cops wasn’t much help, either. My answers to their questions went unrecorded; no statement was taken from me. They collected fingerprints from the furniture, and then, for reference purposes, they fingerprinted me—the only American—but no one among the Russian staff. And when our office manager volunteered the brand, the make, and the serial number of the missing computer, the detectives declined: “That won’t be necessary,” they said. They did ask me to autograph a few copies of NEWSWEEK for them, though. It doesn’t get any weirder than that.

Christian Caryl is NEWSWEEK’s Moscow bureau chief

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