Corruption in Russia wears police uniform Saratov crusader loses battle for honesty

July 06, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SARATOV, Russia -- His friends call Igor Lykov the last honest cop in Russia. They always chided him for it, telling him his crusade to uphold the law was lunacy in a country like this one.

Lykov laughed off the admonitions. He couldn't live any other way, and he didn't.

The doorbell rang at 10 on a Saturday night. Lykov was going over some papers, evidence related to corruption. His 15-year-old daughter, Lida, was in the kitchen with a girlfriend. When he opened the door, two shots rang out from the shabby, dark, fourth-floor hallway. He staggered into the kitchen, calling Lida's name, and then he fell. He died in front of her.

Lykov was a provincial policeman in a solitary battle. He felt a compulsion to slash away at the tentacles of corruption that gripped nearly every institution in this country.

"He was killed because he was better than others," says Sergei Grigoriants, chairman of the Glasnost Public Foundation, a Moscow human rights organization. "He was braver and more honest than others. It's a very great loss for the country. I personally don't know anyone else like him."

Lykov was a tough but gentle 47-year-old police major assigned to the port in this Volga River city 500 miles southeast of Moscow. He had the deceptively sleepy-eyed look of a Robert Mitchum. His job was catching the brigands poaching sturgeon and caviar, but when he stumbled upon corruption in other departments, among policemen or court officials or intelligence officers, he was morally unable to look the other way. He insisted on intervening. He was killed in a contract murder, his family and friends say, because he spoke up once too often.

"Maybe there are other honest policemen," Grigoriants says. "There are other policemen who don't take bribes. But there are none fighting as effectively as he did, and it's awful that it all ends in murder."

Corruption in Russia is staggering in its pervasiveness. It is a condition inherited from the past, from a system where everyone was entitled to the same kind of food and housing and jobs and vacations, but there was never enough to go around, so citizens had to resort to bribery to get their share. The new system has encouraged them to refine those arts.

In Moscow, police Chief Vladimir Abramov says 60 percent of the city's robberies and assaults are committed by criminals wearing a police uniform -- many of them former police officers who quit and went over to the other, more profitable, side.

Saratov is no different, says regional Gov. Dmitri Ayatskov. "Unfortunately, the police are very corrupt," he says. "In the last few months, there have been crimes committed almost every day where police take part. They take bribes. They sell drugs. They sell weapons."

Police have both opportunity and need -- even an experienced policeman like Lykov, with 25 years on the force, earns only $200 a month. With salaries low and living costs high, many public servants feel they have no choice but to live on bribes. Bribes have become an expected part of their salary.

Russians spend $6 billion a year bribing officials, says Georgy Satarov, a former aide to President Boris N. Yeltsin who is president of the Information Science for Democracy fund.

In addition, he reports, 10 percent of the profits of small and medium businesses are siphoned off into corrupt deals, which result in higher prices for goods and services. He estimates $50 billion a year is lost to corruption -- more than the nation spent on science, education, health and culture last year.

How could any one person stand up to all of that?

Not a day passed that Inna Grigoryevna Shvidenko, Lykov's sister-in-law, did not remind him he was in danger, that he should think of his two motherless children, Lida, 15, and Ilya, 20. Their mother, Alyona, died nine years ago from cancer. She was a doctor, and her family blamed her illness on exposure to faulty equipment used to administer sonograms.

"Not many people could understand his idealism," says Shvidenko, also a doctor. "Such character is rare, and most people didn't understand it.

"He acted according to his ideals, his convictions and his upbringing. He never changed his convictions. If that's good or bad, it's not up to us to make judgments."

Grigoriants and Lykov met about six years ago, after Lykov was arrested and charged with violating state secrets because he criticized the KGB in Saratov. Lykov had been quoted in a local newspaper complaining that the KGB recruited informers by entrapment, pushing them into compromising situations and then threatening to expose them unless they worked as informants.

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