Nuances of Russian Police Document Check 101

Welcome to part 2 of our 2 part series “Nuances of… 101” which in itself consists of an introduction and then 2 parts.


Now that you know how and when to say “Hello” and “Hi” you’re ready to hit the streets of Russia and get your documents checked by the police or the road police.  Yes, that’s right, the police.  Until ever so recently, the police were the militia, but now they are simply known as the police.  The road police were known as ГАИ (that’s short for “Government Automobile Inspection”), ДПС (“Road Patrol Service”), and my personal favorite: ГИБДД (“Government Inspection of Safety of Road Movement”).  Perhaps someday they will follow in the steps of famed recording artist Prince and be known simply as an unpronouncable symbol.
I think I mean to translate that to mean “Safety of Movement on the Road”.  Indeed, the road is never safe if it is moving.

So, now that you have established that the road is not moving and you are, make sure you put all of your documents in your pocket (or purse, if you are a woman, or murse if you are a Russian man) before you step out of the house.  Depending on your situation, this would include things like your passport, visa, driver’s license, driver’s license translation (notarized original copies only, please), immigration card, registration papers, residency documents, 3rd grade 2nd semester report card, and a few pictures of your small children (if applicable).

Keep in mind that copies of documents are not documents.  This will be quickly pointed out to you during a document check if you were thoughtless enough to think that Xerox is part of the Foreign Affairs department of your particular nation.  Also, in the event of lack of proper identification, the police can detain you for up to 72 hours in order to “установить личности” (establish personality).  I mean, identify.  That happened once to my friends whom, for the sake of this blog, I will call “Ed and Jon”.  Happily, another friend, whom, for the sake of this blog, we will call “Avgust” was kind enough to drive to “Ed and Jon’s” homes and pick up their real passports and bring them back only an hour or so into their incarceration.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the document check will depend largely on your personal appearance.  The main tip here is don’t try too hard.  In most major Russian cities the only people wearing fur hats anymore are visitors from distant villages, the elderly, and tourists.  I suppose you can’t do too much about your skin color, but if you look like you are from Central Asia or Caucasian (as in “from the Caucusus” not as in “White Nation”) there is a good chance you’ll get your documents checked today.

Great!  Now that you know what not to wear and which paperwork to carry, let’s go outside for a document check.

The best way to find out if you forgot any papers is to step out of your house and walk up to the nearest available law enforcement personnel person and offer them a hearty “Привет!” accompanied with an equally inappropriate bear hug.

It happened to me not too long ago.  I was walking down the street, just minding my own “П’s” and “Й’s” when I noticed a policeman seating a young man in his car who was, unhappily, unable to do anything about his Central Asian features.  This ever so slightly conflicted with my values and I made the main mistake you shouldn’t make if you don’t want to have your documents checked.  That brings us the Main Law for Avoiding Getting Your Documents Checked:  Never Make Eye Contact With The Policeman or Road Policeman.

Yes, never look at a policeman.  I have overwhelming empirical proof that doing so will result in a document check.  Driving past a road policeman?  Look at everything in all of creation except the policeman.  Of course, at the same time you must look at him out of the corner of your eye just in case he does want to pull you over anyway.  I find that now that even when I visit my native land it is ingrained me to avoid all eye contact with all law enforcement personnel.

And that’s exactly what I did.  Since my sense of justice had been ever so slightly encroached upon I made eye contact with said Mr. Policeman (formerly it was proper to address them as “Comrade Militia Man”, now it is “Mr. Policeman).  Mr. Policeman walked up to me with the same smug look that I would have if I had such a smart looking uniform accompanied by an automatic assault weapon draped around my neck and said, “Let’s check your documents, too.”  I would have been less offended if he hadn’t said “too”.  Apparently, taking offense on behalf of the young man with Central Asian features sitting in the cruiser found its limits when Mr. Policeman suggested I share those Central Asian features.  Somehow my indignation is not as righteous as I would like it to be.  Or perhaps I’m just a little sensitive about my bushy eyebrows that have somehow lost their appeal since the glory days when Comrade Breshnev was at the helm of the Red Empire.

All in all, I feel I did well with this particular document check.  I used my latest and greatest document check strategy:  The Strategy of Staring Blankly with what some Russians describe as the “square eyes”.  Yes, I want to help you by giving you my papers to look at.  No, my elevator is not the sharpest in the drawer and no my knife does not stop at all the floors.  Yes, it’s up to you to guess whether I speak a word of Russian or not.

To my amazement, since using this technique, not a single law enforcement officer has asked me if I speak Russian or not.  I just stare blankly, grunting or nodding my head if necessary.  They then eventually hand me back my papers and off I go.

Part 1:  What to do?

Here are a few more of my favorite past techniques when having documents checked:

1) Demanding a translator in perfect Russian.  This worked for traffic police stops until I got a Russian driver’s license where my name is spelled “Endryu”.

2) Pretending to fall asleep.  This worked well in the middle of the night once at a road police post.  I asked for a seat and pretended to nod off while the policeman kept repeating their favorite question: “Что делать будем?”
3) Being totally relaxed and talking about everything in life with the policeman as if he is not checking my documents.

4) Smiling, nodding, and agreeing totally with whatever the policeman says.  This works especially well if you actually did break a law.  You might be the first person to do this in this particular policeman’s career.  Even if you get fined, it’s worth the look you will get in return.

Part 2:  What NOT to Do?

And a few things I’ve learned it’s best NOT to do either by observation or personal experience:

1) Offering a bribe.  It’s interesting to watch even the most self-righteous Westerners give in and pay a bribe.  It’s been at least ten years since a policeman asked me for a bribe.  They don’t have to because Comrade Citizens are all too eager to offer on their own.  Fact is, the way to stopping corruption begins with you, the potential client.

2) Getting all huffy and self-righteous.  You just look nervous and unsure of yourself.

3) Threatening to call the US State Department or a lawyer.  You better be sure you can back this up or you will end up looking pretty silly.

4) Pretending to speak Russian poorly.  I don’t recommend this one.  Very few people who speak well can actually pull it off.  One good friend attempted this one and ended up on camera with an English speaking local news reporter who happened to be filming the road police at work.

What about you?  What is your favorite document checking experience?  What do you do when your documents are checked?  How does this makes you feel?  Comment below!

4 thoughts on “Nuances of Russian Police Document Check 101

  1. That's great Andy. I'm glad you consider me a “good friend” and that you think I “speak well” in Russian. 🙂 You're right, the English speaking reporter ruined my whole plan, and it turned out just as poorly the next time I tried to pull the same stunt.

  2. I figured my chances of having another English speaking reporter show up a second time were pretty absurd (less than 10 to the 50th chance). The problem the second time was that the officer called my bluff and said “I can see by your face that you understand everything I am saying to you.”

  3. My incarceration was very pleasant. At times I felt like a zoo monkey but thanks to Avgust that did not last long. Ed and I were wondering what that dried black stuff was on the floor. Ed's theory was that someone vomited. Other that that it was nice to see the 5-6 different guards laugh at us wondering if we were truly Americans. Never forget your documents… or you might have experience like us.

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