U.S.-style crime wave shakes once-safe Soviet Union

October 22, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- On a recent Sunday evening, eight hoodlums burst into "Voskhod," one of the capital's expensive, new, privately owned restaurants.

As stunned diners dove for cover, the assailants opened fire with sawed-off hunting rifles and then attacked the diners with sticks and knives. After 10 minutes of terror, the men ran outside, jumped into waiting cars and made their escape.

The toll: three dead and five wounded, including an Australian tourist.

"I've been in criminal investigation for 24 years, and I've never seen a crime like this except in foreign videos," said Igor Y. Vasiliev, assistant police chief for Moscow's Babushkinsky District.

The hit men were obviously after somebody, but police so far think all eight victims were innocent bystanders in a criminal dispute.

"The witnesses told us: 'It was like Chicago,' " Mr. Vasiliev said in an interview.

Not so long ago, relative safety from crime was the silver lining of the iron political control exercised by the Soviet state.

While it is true the state-controlled media covered up many offenses and the crime rate was a state secret, most Americans resident in Moscow found Soviet cities far safer than their hometowns.

No more. After a decline apparently connected with the crackdown on drunkenness that began in 1985, the increasing political freedom of the past two years has been accompanied across the Soviet Union by a dramatic growth in crime.

According to official figures, the total number of crimes rose by 32 percent last year. So far this year they are up another 12 percent.

In Mr. Vasiliev's district, 670 crimes were recorded in 1987. In the first nine months of this year, he said, the total already had passed 1,400.

Comparisons with the United States are hazardous, because of varying definitions and reporting procedures. The overall U.S. crime rate still appears to be far higher. But a comparison of murder statistics suggests that the Soviet Union's homicide rate is just below that for the United States, which is one of the highest in the world.

Police and Soviet experts say crime is being fueled by a sharp reduction in the number of people behind bars, by the resulting feeling of invulnerability on the part of criminals and by the thriving shadow economy and the riches it produces.

The change is not only quantitative but qualitative.

"The criminals are younger, crueler and more heavily armed," says Leonid Nikitinsky, a Moscow journalist who has covered crime for the last decade.

Last week, Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov announced a "war on crime," using language familiar to Americans from past government anti-crime campaigns.

His televised speech reflected the high profile of the safety issue -- even in a country plagued by shortages of basic foods and consumer goods.

The attack in "Voskhod" is only the latest sensational Moscow crime story.

In August, in a dispute over black-market vodka sales, an armed gang attacked a Moscow taxi park, stabbed one driver to death and wounded two others. A few days later hundreds of cabbies blocked traffic outside city hall to demand greater protection, and police with submachine guns were posted at the taxi park.

At the same time, Moscow police put out notices for a local killer newspapers dubbed "The Ripper." He had killed two women "in an especially cruel way" and left their bodies on commuter train platforms, police said. Two other women had been attacked but managed to escape, police said.

Last month, police arrested a suspect they think may be the Ripper -- and simultaneously sounded the alarm for another scary criminal. A well-dressed man had been approaching young women in lines at Moscow department stores, showing them a catalog of Western goods and setting a meeting for the next day, purportedly to sell them whichever items caught their eye.

Several women -- police haven't said precisely how many -- never returned from their rendezvous. Passers-by found their corpses. The murderer is still at large.

On Sept. 9, a well-known Russian Orthodox priest, the Rev. Alexander Menn, was killed with an ax outside his home in Zagorsk, north of Moscow.

"People are scared," says Olga P. Dmitrieva, morals and law editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda. "Most people live in high-rises in the outskirts, where there are almost no streetlights. A woman coming home has to walk a long ways through the dark, and then she becomes a hostage in the elevator."

The wait to have a burglar alarm installed has grown to several months, Ms. Dmitrieva says. "People are suffering psychologically, even if they haven't become victims themselves."

She and others say the fear of crime is growing even faster than crime. The reason: the Soviet media, denied for decades the sensations of the police beat, are making up for lost time.

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