Specter

Specter

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 8 1997 3:30 AM

Specter

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       I jumped in my car, deliberately broke the law, and got arrested this afternoon. My crime? I didn't pull a bank job or try to smuggle priceless icons out of the country. I wasn't even caught buying kilos of caviar on the black market (although I do it every chance I get). None of that. I took a left turn on one of Moscow's main boulevards. Nothing will land you in trouble in this country faster than hanging an illegal left. And for reasons I have never fully been able to divine, pretty much every left is illegal. Moscow today has fewer rules than ancient Babylon, but this left-hand-turn thing is one of the toughest. You can gun down a member of a parliament or a bank president and pretty much expect to walk. But don't you dare turn left.
       That means you have to take monstrous detours just to get where you are going. Since today is the Orthodox Christmas and few people are on the road, I figured it would be worth taking the chance and skipping the tour of the city. Mistake. I was immediately pulled over by a cop. Now, you have to take care with the police here. For a while, I pretended to be the ugly American (well, maybe it's not such a huge leap) with bad Russian skills and no understanding of the customs of the country. Then one day a cop waved me down near the Kremlin. I told him I was new in town and confused. He reminded me that he had stopped me at the same spot for the same offense about 10 months earlier. OOPS, that cost a bundle.
       It usually comes down to money. I used to take a lot of pleasure in screaming and refusing to pay bribes. I was once with my friend David Remnick when a cop stopped me on a left-turn beef. He made me get into his car, and we screamed at each other for 15 minutes because I refused to pay him off. I really went nuts that time. David sat in my Volvo thinking the worst as the police car gently rocked back and forth in front of him. Another day, I was also with Remnick and the editorial-page editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines. We were nabbed in a pouring rain. The cop made me leave the car and told me he was going to confiscate it. You'd be better off just driving the damn thing into the river. I begged, but he waved a large automatic weapon at me. It was two days before the presidential election, and I was a little tense. I climbed into his police cruiser and asked his boss, who was behind the wheel, if I could speak. He said sure. I told him that I was about to cover the biggest story of the year, that one of my bosses from New York was with me, that I couldn't afford the humiliation of losing my car, and was there anything I could do to solve this problem?
       Sure, he answered without hesitation. Give me $50.
       So, when I was stopped today, I was ready for anything.
       "You a foreign correspondent?" the cop asked, knowing from looking at my license plates that I was.
       Yes, I answered as rudely as possible. Did I do something wrong?
       "Of course not," he replied, with a knowing smile. "I just wanted to wish you a merry Christmas."

Michael Specter is Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times.