24 October 2022

What is it like to be a police officer if you are against the war? An interview with a former criminal investigator from Saint Petersburg

The Russian police are a major instrument of state oppression: they break up rallies, hunt social media users guilty of reposts and high school students for blue and yellow colors on profile pictures; they also track down objectors to military service. There are, however, officers among police ranks who are against the war and the political regime. What has 2022 been like for them?

Paperpaper.ru has talked to a criminal investigator from Saint Petersburg who left the service a few months after the war began. He told us about dealing with detained protesters instead of solving grave crimes, people being discharged from the service for liking wrong posts, and motivations of those who keep working for the police.

“Nobody in the police is ever interested in helping the people.” Police service before the war

Why did you decide to become a policeman?

As a kid, I thought that police service was an interesting job. I had a glamorized perception of it from watching movies and reading books. Long story short, it was a childhood dream.

So, how did it turn out? Were you disappointed?

Yes, there was disappointment for sure. During my training, I interned at a police station for half a year, attached to a criminal investigator as his partner. Frankly speaking, my partner was crooked, absolutely cynical and generally mean as a person. He told me on one of my first days: “Remember, nobody in the police is ever interested in helping the people: if someone comes to file a complaint, make it clear he isn’t welcome (but take the complaint if he insists, so that he doesn’t make trouble).” I was surprised to say the least.

He explained the “quota system” to me. There are performance stats, and you need to make sure there aren’t too many cold cases. In Saint Petersburg, the share of solved cases mustn’t be lower than the share of unsolved ones. For instance, half of robbery cases must be solved.

That was a red flag. But I decided against quitting: I thought I should finish my training. And I sort of accepted this during my internship: yeah, there are downsides, but we still catch criminals, track people down, bring them to justice. And the rest is collateral damage.

How did you move up the ranks?

For the first couple of years, I worked at a territorial subdivision in a Saint Petersburg neighborhood: the lowest level in the police hierarchy. It is a very hard job. The shifts are 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., you have to work on weekends on a regular basis; there’s one day off per week at best, and sometimes there aren’t any days off at all. The quota system is enforced by superiors assigning performance targets. During my time there, we needed to solve 15 cases a month, meaning you have to solve a crime every two days. It was a complete mess all the time, morally and physically hard.

At one point I was offered a place at a different department and took the opportunity. The workload was easier, and working on [grave] crimes is more interesting than solving bike thefts.

“We were shown a badly made video featuring Putin.” How did the war affect the work of criminal investigators

As far as I know, there is a “state and legal information day” held weekly for the police. My colleagues wrote that, after the 24th of February, these sessions have been complemented by justifying the “special military operation.” What was your experience with that?

We had just one such session between the 24th of February and my resignation, and it wasn’t until April or May. Most of the personnel were gathered together at the district office’s conference hall where the personnel chief officer told us he was ordered by the headquarters to explain the reasons for the special military operation in Ukraine.

We were shown a badly made video. It featured an excerpt from Putin’s speech at the Munich conference [in 2007], that, according to propaganda, was the starting point of Russia’s “following an independent policy.” There was a brief mention of the Maidan and some footage of young people jumping at one place, chanting “If you aren’t jumping you’re a moskal [a derogatory term for Russians].” The bottomline was, broadly speaking, that Ukraine provoked Russia and invading was necessary.

The video was about thirty minutes long. We watched it and left. We weren’t required to take notes or anything. The headquarters probably ordered a lecture of this kind once a week. Personnel officers are in charge of it. My guess is that they give reports to the HQ about doing it on a weekly basis, while in reality there was just one session.

So there wasn’t much ideological pressure?

No, no, there wasn’t.

Were there a lot of changes at your job after February in terms of work objectives or mood within your team?

I wouldn’t say that things changed a lot. Probably because criminal investigation is generally less politicized. For instance, officers at criminal investigation units are never assigned to maintaining public order during street rallies. There have been some changes, though. I’ll give you one example. Every territorial subdivision in Saint Petersburg has a criminal investigation unit, and every unit like that has people responsible for working on extremism cases. That is to say, every district has its own branch of the “E Center” [Department for Countering Extremism of the Russian Ministry of the Interior]. The E Center hands down assignments for the officers to implement. Those people now have assignments linked to the SMO [“special military operation”].

After the SMO began, there were [anti-war] rallies near Gostiny Dvor [metro station]: people were detained all the time and brought into police stations, and arrest reports had to be drawn up. After that, files would be opened on these people. They’d be considered “unreliable”, so to speak, and subject to preventive conversations to warn them against protesting again. So, the E Center would send a letter to district stations: such-and-such was detained at a rally, you need to open a file on them, conduct a preventive conversation, and report on measures undertaken to the E Center within a week.

Officers responsible for this field of work would go to people’s apartments and talk to those who opened the door: “Did you go to a protest? Don’t do it again.” They’d also offer to sign a statement. After that, my colleagues would report to the E Center: five people were visited, three refused to give a statement, two signed a statement. So, officers in charge of political cases had new work to do.

Profiling of people detained at any protest is one of the main objectives of the police right now. When officers in charge of “political line of work” are overwhelmed with a large number of people to have preventive conversations with, other criminal investigators are assigned to this job, as are officers from other units in some cases, such as precinct inspectors and juvenile justice inspectors. I, too, had to make rounds a few times knocking on people’s doors and taking statements.

“Most officers are conservative and not too bright.” Why members of the police don’t reflect on the war and repression

How did you feel about this additional, politics-related work?

I wasn’t enthusiastic, to put it lightly. If we’re honest, it made me mad. It was clear to me that most people detained at the protests were normal, educated, law-abiding individuals who’d only wanted to express their opinion and hadn’t done any harm to anybody. But, due to the political situation in this country, they had to be watched more closely than actual criminals. Of course I was annoyed.

Did it interfere with your regular work? Were there any situations when you had to redraw your focus from grave crimes to “extremism” work?

It happened, of course. I wouldn’t say the unit’s work in general was affected. In some cases, though, officers were too busy writing ridiculous reports for the E Center to help their colleagues doing their normal work, because the stupid reports were more important than catching criminals. Nobody likes this kind of work, I can tell you.

What was the general feeling about the “special operation” within your unit? Any polar opinions or conflicts? Were your colleagues depressed or was there, on the contrary, a patriotic uplift?

Within our unit, opinions were equally divided. We had seven to eight people on our team. Three of us were dead set against the war. Two people supported it, and two were neutral: “This doesn’t concern us, so we stay out of it.”

Could you be outspoken about your opinions or was it better to keep silent while at work?

Our unit was a tight group regardless of political differences. I felt confident I could speak my mind without fearing that someone would rat on me. But I feel like you can’t be so open at other units.

Officers at criminal investigation units and all investigators in general are more educated than, for instance, people working at the traffic police or the patrol-guard service. They tend to be better informed. That’s probably why there are people there who are reasonable about the situation. I’m pretty sure there aren’t conversations like that among patrol officers or the traffic police. They adhere to the general line. I’m speaking from my experience of talking to them. I don’t know if the military draft has affected their opinions.

Most officers are conservative and not too bright, to put it frankly. They aren’t accustomed to thinking, analyzing facts, or logical reasoning. “We serve the state and follow the orders, and other people do the thinking.”

In public perception, the police tend to be seen as monolithic. Did you feel the civilians’ attitude to the police and your work became worse during the war?

No, I wouldn’t say I encountered hostile attitudes among civilians. Some colleagues who had to work with protesters told me that, during their apartment rounds, these people or their relatives would ask them: “Don’t you have anything better to do?” That’s probably the only example I can give. Officers would usually say to that: “Well, it’s not up to us, we’re doing our job, we’re following orders.”

I have worked on many street protests since 2017 and always heard two chants addressed to the police: “Fascists!” and “Police with the people, don’t serve the bastards!” I know you never worked on street protests, but, as a police officer, what kind of response do you think it could provoke?

As you say, I never was in that situation, so I never heard things like that yelled at me. I imagine that a conscientious officer, if he was made to go to a rally under order, could take heed of these words. Typically, though, I don’t think anyone would take it as a reproof: they’ll just keep arresting people and not say anything.

“Some officers live on their salary, but those are few.” Why members of the police don’t quit the “dirty and underpaid” work

Have you heard of people who quit during this year for ideological reasons? For opposing the war?

I don’t know of any cases like that. Never heard anyone say “We are an aggressor state, I can’t keep working here.”

I have heard about an officer in Saint Petersburg fired for liking posts on an oppositional page. A document was handed down listing people who had accounts on social media and had liked posts by Navalny and such: “Take care of letting them go.” Those officers were told they had to quit. If they didn’t budge, their life at the service would be made extremely hard, which is very easy to do at the police. That woman worked as a forensic expert. She resigned after they talked to her just once.

Why did you decide to leave?

Mostly for personal reasons. My wife was unhappy with my job, the salary was low and I had to work late hours all the time. There was an opportunity for a different job. I thought I should take it. The money was better, and I wanted to try working a civilian job.

I don’t regret my decision to resign: I’m feeling better on a civilian job. It’s calmer and more comfortable. I realize that it would be uncomfortable for me to keep working in the police. Especially now, after the news about the draft. If I were still with the police, we’d probably have to track down objectors to military service.

It seems like it all comes down to the old problem of the Russian police: the workload is high, the pay is low.

Yeah, this is it.

The police in Russia is generally perceived as an instrument of oppression, conducting political investigations and pressuring citizens…


It is hard work that doesn’t pay well. Do you have an explanation why people keep doing it?

My guess is that people stay on this dirty, underpaid work because of an unsaid agreement between the regular officers and their superiors: yes, your salary is low, but you can exploit your authority to make money: take bribes, for example. If you’re caught, you’ll have to respond, if not, good job, you can carry on.

Some officers live on their salaries. But, to be honest, those are few. To tell you the truth, I always lived on my salary [of 60 thousand roubles, or about 900-1000 euros per month], and it wasn’t easy at all. I even had to ask my parents to help me out. That felt uncomfortable: a grown man who can’t make enough money to support his family. At some point, though, I came to the acceptance stage, thinking: alright, I have a job, and the work is interesting.

There is another category of officers who have additional income. They have their salaries and take bribes, or start a legal business, or rent out apartments. A colleague from a different department opened a car repair shop near his workplace, and he’s making good money.

But there are few businessmen like that: in most cases, additional income comes from bribes. Traffic police are, obviously, entirely corrupt. The same goes for the patrol guard service. During my time with the police, I found out about a “popular wisdom” of sorts: every Uzbek [immigrant] carries a 500 rubles note in his passport at all times, in case he is stopped by the police for an ID check.

As a criminal investigator, I was making 60 thousand rubles. Patrol guards were making 55 thousand and up to 80 thousand among senior ranks. A patrol officer used to tell me: come on, join our unit – the pay is better and there are the Uzbeks. I refused.

Cover photo: Alexander Petrosyan / Kommersant

Paperpaper.ru — is independent media from Saint-Petersburg, Russia. We’ve been reporting on the Russian-Ukrainian war since the day it started. As a result, our website was blocked by the Russian government.

For 10 years we’ve been writing about the local community, business and initiatives. Yet, our main goal was always to improve life in the city we love.

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