February 04, 2005

Gypsy Curses and Moscow Crime

Posted by Ed

Living in Russia can be really fascinating, and one of the things that intrigues me most about the country is reading reports on crime. Just yesterday, for instance, I read a fascinating Moscow Times article on a problem that seems bizarre to most Westerners: every year, 300-400 people go to the Moscow police, claiming that gypsies hypnotized them into giving away hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The article fascinated me, since it touches on three things that really intrigue me about Russia: the country's ethnic diversity, its views of superstition, and its amusingly graphic crime stories. (Those stories wouldn't be nearly so amusing if I were involved in them, of course, but they're still fun to read.) I think the article probably says more about Russian views of the mystical than it does about the gypsy community, however. Here's an excerpt:


Across Moscow, a chestnut as old as crystal balls and gypsy curses makes regular appearances on the crime logs hundreds of victims a year who say they were seduced out of their money in seemingly chance encounters with strangers. Many claim they were hypnotized by intense stares, mesmerizing babble and warnings of curses on their loved ones.

To some of Moscow's cynical detectives, their desks heaped with Mafia assassination and billion-dollar business fraud cases, the idea of street hypnosis has the whiff of mumbo jumbo. Not so to many Russians who were reared on folk tales of vampires, witches and, in the modern era, the hidden powers of the mind.

Czarina Alexandra famously fell under the influence of the allegedly hypnotic powers of the "mad monk," Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, in the early 20th century. The late Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev had a personal psychic healer. Former President Boris N. Yeltsin's staff included a security consultant hired to protect him from "external psychophysical influence" after a mysterious antenna was found in his private office...

For years, famous Russian chess masters have suggested that their games were impaired by hypnotists planted in the audience. Garry Kasparov has long credited Azerbaijani psychic Tofik Dadashev with helping him win the world chess championship in 1985 against fellow Russian Anatoly Karpov, who had his own psychologist trained in hypnotic techniques on hand.


That excerpt probably overstates the Russian love of the mystical--what would a Soviet newspaper think of Nancy Reagan's consultations with an astrologer, for instance? But it's still a fun read. Besides, if you ever go to a decent-sized Russian bookstore, you'll almost always find a huge selection of occult books--dwarfing the number of such volumes at your average Barnes and Noble.

My interest in Russian street crime extends beyond Gypsy curses, however. Soon after I arrived in Moscow, I received a U.S. embassy report describing a scam, often perpetrated on Westerners, called the "turkey drop." In this scam, one person "accidentally" drops a conspicuous wad of money on the ground and then walks away; the second perpetrator either waits for the unsuspecting Westerner to pick up the money, or he picks it up himself and offers to split it; then the first perpetrator returns and starts a confrontation. The embassy email I got was loaded with amusing details, in which perpetrator #2 looks around conspiratorially, whispers "ssh!" with a finger to his mouth, and starts nodding vigorously and saying "It's okay!" The whole story barely sounded believable to me--would anyone really fall for this?

There's a part of me, I'll admit, that's inclined to write this off as one of the many quirks of living in Russia. Perhaps, if the history thing doesn't work out, I'll write a sociological study of Moscow street scams! But then I remember my Chicago grad student orientation, when Barack Obama's wife, the head of campus security, and a bunch of other university officials briefed us on the many perils of living in Hyde Park. My favorite part was the discussion of the scams people would try to perpetrate on us--it's not uncommon, apparently, for suspicious people to claim to have gotten access to someone's bank account, and to offer to split the money for a fee, while other scams sound a lot like the turkey drop. Maybe Chicago and Moscow are more similar than I'd thought...

Update: The Moscow Times article mentioned above originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. It was freely available on the web yesterday, when I started writing this post, but it's now behind registration. The article seems to have disappeared from the Moscow Times site, but it's available here.

Posted by Ed at February 4, 2005 02:00 AM
Comments

"Maybe Chicago and Moscow are more similar than I'd thought..."


Have you ever seen the second of the two Brat/Brother movies?

Posted by: eb at February 4, 2005 02:25 AM

Nope--I've just seen the first. (I can't say I was a big fan.)

For those readers among you who don't know, Brat-2 (or The Brother, Part Two) is a Russian movie about a mafa hitman who comes to America:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0238883/

Posted by: Ed at February 5, 2005 05:13 AM

Well, he's not exactly a hit man - since he's not really working for anyone else - but it's still a Russian organized crime movie.

The second movie is not as "serious" as the first - in the sense that there are more stunts and more attempts at comedy - but it is interesting to watch for the contrasts made between America and Russia and their respective values.

The reason I mentioned it is that in the second movie the main character and his brother go from Moscow to Chicago. There's even a scene with an Illinois policeman who turns out to be fluent in Russian.

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