Russia: Exposing the Private Side of Lawlessness

On April 3, 2011, in a sleepy Moscow suburb, Natalya Seibel decided to go out and walk her dogs. As she was walking, a blue Land Cruiser pulled up next to her and the driver drunkenly tried to flirt with Natalya. Natalya ignored him, but he jumped out of the car, grabbed her by the hair, and punched her in the face.

Her attacker? None other than the Chief of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Unit.

We frequently hear stories about this kind of official abuse in Russia. In fact, the recent Pulitzer Prize went to a brilliant series of New York Times articles focusing on this very topic: the shadowy role of the Russian state in repressing journalists, businessmen, and citizens. And there is no doubt plenty of truth in this. A recent poll suggested that almost half of Russians do not trust the police and almost a third actively fear the police.

A policeman and a security guard at Evropeyskiy shopping mall in Moscow. Photo by Ilya Varlamov/

A policeman and a security guard at Evropeyskiy shopping mall in Moscow. Photo by Ilya Varlamov/

Bloggers’ mission

There is more to Russian lawlessness, however. Indeed, with the help of a digital camera and a copy of the applicable law, some young Russian activists have exposed another side to the arbitrary exercise of power in Russia. These bloggers – many of whom prominently feature photography on their blogs – have made it their mission to expose the anti-photography bans in many Russian supermarkets and private malls as illegal.

Ilya Varlamov and Dmitry Ternovsky, prominent photo-activists, have led this charge, heading to a Perekryostok supermarket at the Evropeyskiy shopping mall near Kievsky Train Station and the Moscow-City business complex to challenge these bans. After a few minutes taking photos in both places, they were approached by private security guards telling them that they were not allowed to take photographs. In both cases, the private guards were wholly uninterested in the legality of the ban on photography; their main interest was in ensuring compliance with their own “private” rules.

At Moscow-City [ru], after it became clear that Ilya and Dmitry were not going to leave, the guards – who Ilya later determined worked for a Turkish construction consortium named ENKA – used verbal and physical threats to force them to leave. One typical exchange went as follows:

- Я имею право попросить вас не снимать здесь, – грозно сказал мужчина в костюме.
– Это незаконные требования! – уверенно парировал я мужчине в костюме,
– Вы знаете что, ребят, это частная территория! – стоял на своем мужчина в костюме…
– И что? У вас законы РФ не действуют? – поинтересовался я,
– Здесь многие законы не действуют! – шокировал нас своим ответом мужчина в костюме,

- “I have the right to ask you not take photos here,” a man in a suit said threateningly.
– “That is an illegal demand,” I [Varlamov] parried back assuredly to the man in the suit.
– “You know what, guys, this is private territory,” said the man in the suit, standing his ground.
– “So what? Are Russian Federation laws not in effect here?” I said interested.
– “Many laws are not in effect here!” the man in the suit said, shocking us with his response.

After the police arrived, the private guards were much more “polite.” Ilya later opened a criminal complaint against one of the private guards for assault; the police never followed up.

At Perekryostok/Evropeyskiy, Ilya and Dmitry again faced [ru] a phalanx of irate and threatening private guards. One addressed them:

Ты вообще знаешь, кто владелец этого торгового центра? Ты думаешь, он сюда с воздуха упал? Нет, он не с воздуха, он из-под земли вырос! Ты же все понимаешь, ты сейчас на улицу выйдешь, тебе не камеру разобьют, тебе шею сломают, а менты смотреть будут и ничего не увидят. И никогда ты тут ничего не докажешь. У нас тут район такой, опасный, вокзал… понимаешь?

Do you know who the owner of this supermarket is? Do you think he just fell out of the sky? No, he didn't fall from the sky, he came from the underworld. You should know that if you don't leave right now, it's not your camera that will be smashed, it's your your neck that will be broken, and the cops will be looking but will never see a thing. And you'll never prove anything here. This neighborhood here, it's dangerous, a train station… do you get it?

After the police finally arrived, the private guards ceased their physical and verbal intimidation. A policeman then made a show of arresting Ilya and Dmitry, but released them as soon as they were outside the store. He told them:

Хорошо, пройдемте. Ну и зачем вы с ними спорили? Вы что, не видели, кто это такие? Зачем вы нарываетесь! – это говорит мне сотрудник полиции, который от таких “бандитов” должен нас защищать.

“Ok, let's go. Why are you picking a fight with those guys? Did you not see who they were? You guys are just looking for trouble – and for what?” – this was said to me by a police officer who is supposed to defend us from such “bandits.”

The policeman apparently thought he was doing Ilya and Dmitry a favor. As Ilya commented,

Как мне показалось, полиция не особо хочет спорить с охраной ТЦ, . . .Видимо владелец установил здесь свои законы, против которых господа полицейские идти не могут.

It seemed to me that the police really did not want to disagree with the private security guards of the shopping center . . . apparently, the owner has established his own set of laws here, which [even the police were not willing] to interfere with.

In Krasnoyarsk, two photobloggers tried the same thing [ru] in a local supermarket. After being confronted by private guards, they insisted that they had a right to take photographs and demanded that the police showed up. The police refused to arrest them, agreeing that they had a right to take photographs. After the police left, however,

…из подсобки выскочил взъерошенный мужчина в спортивном костюме, который представившись начальником службы контроля, резво попытался вырвать у приехавшего в самый разгар разбирательства Коновалова видеокамеру. После чего он набросился на меня с кулаками.

a disheveled man in a track suit emerged from a store room and identified himself as a the head of security. At the climax of the examination, he tried to grab Konovalov's camera. After that he came at me with his fists.

These encounters reveal a hidden side of Russia's problem with lawlessness: the private individuals – often associated with powerful business interests – who have no regard for the formal law and who enforce their own private laws almost exclusively through force (or the threat of force). These shadowy, non-state actors are a symptom of Russia's weak and corrupt state and a powerful sign of a governmental apparatus where the government's reach is either limited or coopted.

Almost fifteen years ago, the famous political scientist Stephen Holmes noted that

Today's Russia makes excruciatingly plain that liberal values are threatened just as thoroughly by state incapacity as by despotic power. “Destatization” is not the solution; it is the problem. For without a well-functioning public power of a certain kind there will be no prevention of mutual harm, no personal security, and no “standing rule to live by,” to use a Lockean phrase.

The experiences of these photo-activists therefore remind us that the fight against lawlessness in Russia is as much about making law matter for powerful private interests as it is for officials.


  • I sympathize with the subjects of this post. I do a lot of food writing in Russia, and have been harassed by Russian security guards and police, despite, as the author points out, the fact that there are no official bans on photography in public places.

  • DJT

    Out of morbid curiosity, how do Russians typically react when visiting Westerners are unfamiliar with (and ill-prepared for) official corruption and tout the virtues of rule of law, especially in the face of circumstances like those described here?

    I’m guessing their reactions fall into one of two categories:

    A) utter confidence that societal rules in the West are not intrinsically different; tight-fisted Westerners merely use sanctimonious propaganda and feigned shock as bargaining tactics to “haggle down” our civilized obligation to pay a reasonable bribe, which is all the more rude of us because, of course, we’re all rich anyway.

    B) shocked realization that Westerners are being sincere, thus betraying the depths of our emasculation, naivety, illogic, dogmatism, imbecility, unsophistication, “do-gooderism”, and other such self-destructive flaws, all confirming their lifelong belief that the West is mere months away from total systemic collapse, given that corruption is the only reliable glue holding any proper society together.

  • […] Varlamov and Dmitry Ternovsky continue [ru] (see also feature article by Will Partlett) their quest for the freedom of photography. This time they visited three Moscow railway stations […]

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