Burglar alarms ring in Moscow
On a quiet street in the house of Moscow, where prominent officials live, burglars recently forced entry to the spacious apartment of a noted film director.
They tied up his wife, locked her in the bathroom, and calmly loaded valuables into a waiting truck and drove away.
Word of the theft quickly circulated on the Moscow grapevine. It was avidly discussed as unwelcome evidence that crime continues to rise here despite Communist Party exhortations and police efforts against it. Nor is theft the only kind of crime worrying Moscow residents.
In October a young American, a student on a exchange program, was attacked by two men as she returned to her dormitory at night. On another occasion, two more American students, both women, were struck by two men as they walked to a bus stop, again at night. None of the three women involved in these two incidents was seriously hurt.
Word flashed around the Western community. The US Embassy detected no political retaliation in the attacks, even though Soviet diplomats frequently complain that they have been harassed a number of times at their United Nations mission in New York.
US Embassy officials raised the attacks with the Soviet Ministry of Higher Education, "More to inform than to complain, since crime is common to all big cities in the world," an embassy spokesman said.
The embassy also circulated an administrative notice to all embassy personnel and dependents, listing six precautions against crime and saying they were sensible in any big city, not just here.
Among the recommendations: Don't walk alone late at night. Leave engagements early enough to be sure of catching a taxi, bus, or metro (the subway, which closes at 1 a.m.). Take the license number if trouble arises with a taxi driver. A woman's best defense is screaming.
Park and lock vehicles in well-lit areas, preferably near apartment entrances or near the police boxes that guard almost all buildings where foreigners live here (though the police watch Westerners' movements more than criminal activities).
The advice included: Lock apartment doors. Observe callers through peepholes before opening.
The list could have been issued to residents of New York or Chicago.
Crime figures are not published here. Communism is supposed to have removed the social causes for crime, but chronic consumer shortages and a thirst for material goods at all levels of society ensure that crime goes on.
Traditionally most crime has been theft of state property. Violence is fairly common in big cities, though, and in Siberian boom towns, where oil and gas workers mix, many of them young and unattached.
A leading cause of crime, acknowledged in the Soviet press, is alcohol, and particularly enormous consumption of vodka ("the green snake" as it is called).
A research worker in the All-Union Institute for the Study of the Causes of Crime wrote recently that every third murder, and every single aggravated assault, was preceded by a drunken quarrel. Two out of every five rapes occurred after men had been drinking with chance pickups.
Some Western experts estimate that Russians drink 40 percent more hard liquor (spirits) than Americans or Europeans. There is little social stigma attached to drunkenness here: Men are expected to drink hard, and they do.
USSR Health minister Boris Petrovsky told a correspondent for the weekly Literary Gazette recently that consumption of alcohol hac been rising at a slower rate than before, but that the number of alcoholics had grown.
Party lectures have told meetings lately that the number of alcoholics in the Soviet Union is above 22 million, or just under 9 percent of the population.
The general interest in crime in Moscow is both fed by, and has caused, a sharp increase in the number of films about crime issued here since the summer of 1980.
The films make money for the state film industry, but some critics have complained privately that they glamorize criminal lives and give ideas to potential lawbreakers.
Among recent releases:
"Petrovka 38," named for the address of the MVD, or internal police, in Moscow; "Detective," the story of a young inspector on the trail of a dangerous gang; "A Shot in the Back"; "The Last Performance of the 'Artist,'" which tells of a criminal who quotes Shakespeare and other classics and thus earns the nickname "Artist."
Justice always triumps. The criminals are caught and punished. Yet criminals are portrayed as people with lots of money, apartments, cars, and other privileges.
It is more and more common to find Muscovites these days with burglar alarms in their apartments. Husbands and wives both work, as the social system requires. New apartment blocks are huge and impersonal. Trucks drive in and out all the time.
The privileged elite can have an alarm hooked up to the local police station. Lesser beings can install a siren that goes off if doors or window are forced. Cost: 30 rubles ($45), plus 1 1/2 rubles ($2.25) a month.
In September 1979 the Central Committee of the Communist Party ordered a new campaign against crime. In October, the justice minister even conceded that in some provinces, crime rates had risen.
The state has set up 230,000 voluntary people's militia units (said to total about 10 million members), 90,000 crime-prevention coun- cils in factories, and 32,000 law-and-order centers in residential areas.
Whether such organized snooping is successful is hard to answer. Embezzlement of state property, however, continues on a staggering scale, especially in southern republics.
In Baku, Azerbaijan, the press has just reported a mammoth knitting-goods swindle said to have involved more than 2 million rubles ($3 million). The ringleaders worked in the state prosecutor's office and were sentenced to death. In all, 77 people were prosecuted and 111 volumes of evidence amassed.
Press accounts spoke of strings of pearls, apartments, cars, vacations, and more financed by proceeds, and they labeled the chief ringleader "an underground millionaire."