Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Living on the Edge: Mafia and Guns in Russia

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River Ob'
 
Russia in the mid-1990s was exciting.  Law and order among the people had broken down to perhaps the worst level since the Reds gained control over the Whites and established national control.  The new capitalists of the 90s largely were made up of two groups: former members of the state security apparatus and young people.  Of course, in many cases, the term new capitalist was synonymous with belonging to a mafia.

This wasn’t necessarily a new development, just the expansion of secret combinations into a more visible presence.  Guns, US Dollars, drugs, and foreign merchandise were the order of the day.  What was the black market was now the main market.  Crime syndicates would approach the owners of any money making venture to offer their protection in return for a cut of the earning.  Entrepreneurial success, even for the law-abiding and honest, was a dangerous proposition. 

There was a member of one of our branches who managed to make some decent money using his ingenuity.  He was wise.  He didn’t flaunt his money.  Instead of buying a new western automobile, he purchased a used Russian one that was in working order.  He didn’t make any major renovations to his apartment.  For the time that I knew him he tried to keep his money quiet.  The only times I saw any outward sign that he had money was when he purchased a new washing machine and when he paid for the use of some land for the members of the branch to plant some potatoes in the countryside.  I think he paid for the seed potatoes as well.  I hope and pray he was successful through those years at avoiding the attention of the mafia.

I remember when one gentleman wasn’t so lucky at avoiding the mafia.  We had gone to visit an investigator who was preparing to be baptized.  We had been to her apartment several times.  It was near the school where we met on Sundays in the middle of a large housing project.  On this particular day as we made our way up the stairs near the bottom level we saw some biological material splattered on the wall with a large chalk circle drawn around it.  Quickly we pushed past the scene and the smell to our destination.

Our investigator told us of how a trucker who had brought in a load of valuable merchandise had stopped in the building to stay with some friends for a day or two.  The mafia, learning of his “unprotected” wealth, stopped by the evening prior to offer their help in return for a cut.  The driver refused their offer.  Strong words and threats were exchanged.  Early that morning, as the driver attempted to leave the apartment he was accosted by one or more thugs.  They shot him in the head and fled.

During my time as a missionary I remember having two very distinct conversations with individuals who told us they were members of a mafia group.  At the time there were only a handful of stores that brought in western merchandise and food.  Occasionally, being homesick for something familiar, we would shop at these stores knowing that the mafia owned and operated them.  I’m not certain, but I’m convinced that the mafia had a role in the real estate market and was involved with most of the apartments that were available for rent. 

They knew us.  They knew where we lived, where we shopped, and what we did.  One day as my companion and I were walking along the sidewalk near the center of Novosibirsk, a man and his friend stopped us. 

“How do you like Russia?”

“We love it.”

“Good.  Good.  I know you’re here to teach people about God.”  He pulled out his crucifix to show us.  “I donate to the Church and God forgives me.”

We smiled waiting for him to continue.

“I’m with the mafia.  You know us?”

“Yes, we know who you are.”

“Good.  Good.  We want you to know that we know who you are and that your safety is important to us.”

For a brief moment I was worried that he was about to offer his “protection” in return for some type of payment.

Noticing our discomfort, he said, “No, my friends don’t worry.  We value your business and your money.  And we wouldn’t want to offend anyone of a religious nature.  If anyone causes you problems, then you tell me and we’ll take care of it.  Do you hear me?  Any type of problems and we’ll take care of it.”

He gave us his name and number, slapped us on the back and moved on.

Several months later on the left bank of the River Ob’, an older gentleman approached us. 

“Greetings.  Are you Christian missionaries from America?”

“Yes, we are.”  We took a few minutes to introduce ourselves.

“Ah, I’ve seen you around.  Listen. I am Jewish but my wife and daughter are Christian.  You may be aware that at times the Jewish people get it, if you know what I mean, from the government and other groups.  They like to blame us for their stupidity.  Well, I belong to a local Jewish mafia that works to keep us safe and exact revenge on those who harm us.  Let me know if anyone causes you problems.  We can help take care of it.  Who knows?  One day you may be able to help get my daughter to America.”

We took his contact information and moved on.  I never did get in touch with any of my new mafia contacts for help, even when my apartment was burglarized a year later in a different city.

For six months of my mission I served as a branch president in the Yugo-Zapadni (Southwestern) micro-region of Novosibirsk on the left bank of the River Ob’.  The housing development itself was around one square mile and housed upward of 20,000 people.  People, no matter the weather, were always out and about.  The crime rate was high in the neighborhood forcing us to be careful at all times.

There was a group of young boys, ranging in age from 5 to 12 years of age, which roamed the area.  They loved to share their favorite lines from American action movies, often those that involved a lot of profanity.  They would ask us to translate for them.  We would make up some funny translation into Russian and they would laugh, knowing already what they were saying.  Often they would ask us for a dollar.  I would respond with:

“I’ll give you one American Dollar for 100,000 rubles.”

They would laugh and run away. 

One day I and another elder had to go to a meeting together so we put our two junior companions together with instructions to contact people on the street.  A couple of hours later we arrived back to my apartment to find the two junior companions looking scared and near tears.

“What happened?”

“We were robbed.  They took all of our money.”

“Were you hurt or injured?”

“No.”

“Who took your money?”

They looked at each other and then down at the floor, neither wanting to answer.

One of them looked up at me and said, “The children.  They all ganged up on us and made us give them our money.”

“Did they threaten you?”

“We think so, but we’re not sure.  We just couldn’t get them to leave us alone.”

I don’t remember how much money they lost to the group of the miniature mafia, but we did spend some time practicing how to be firm, authoritative and assertive in the Russian language.

Shortly after that experience that same companion and I were leaving a discussion with a young couple that lived with one of their parents.  One of the husband’s friends had joined us.  The husband and his friend walked us down the stairs and into the courtyard to wish us farewell.  Before we left our investigator asked us if we wanted some sunflower seeds for the walk home.  We quickly accepted.  He reached his hands into his pockets and gave us both a handful of seeds that we quickly deposited into our own coat pockets.

Just as I removed my hand from my pocket I heard the action on an assault rifle and the words, “Put your hands on your heads and do not move.”

All four of us quickly complied and a squad of five or six police in body armor and carrying AK-47s surrounded us.

The leader of the group asked, “What did he give you?  Did he give you drugs?”

“No, he gave me sunflower seeds.”

“Who are you?  Where are you from?”

“We’re missionaries from the United States.  We share with people about God and Jesus Christ.”

Looking at one of his officers who were standing behind me, the leader said, “Check his pockets.”

He reached in and pulled out some seeds and paper copy of our church meeting invitation that we would give out to people we met.  He dumped the seeds on the ground and looked at the paper.

“What does it say?” the leader asked.

“You are invited to attend our church meeting on Sunday morning at 10am at the school on…”

Quickly the order was given to lower the guns.  The leader proceeded to lecture us about the area being much too dangerous for foreigners.

“If I can’t keep you safe here, I’m not sure that God can either.  You should move somewhere else in the city.”

As we left I actually felt a little safer knowing they were in the neighborhood.

Despite the offers of help I received from the mafia, they were the only ones to press the business end of a pistol against the side of my head.  I think there was one pressed into my abdomen at the same time, but I wasn’t thinking very clearly. 

It was in the winter of 1996.  I was assigned to MZhK micro rayon on the right bank of the Ob’ river.  I was a new zone leader trying to figure out my new responsibilities.  On this particular night I was on splits with an elder from the UK.  It was bitterly cold and we didn’t feel like walking very far to tract.  We decided to tract in the same building where I lived.  It was a large horseshoe shaped building that likely housed 6,000-10,000 people. 

We started on the other end of the building.  As always we started on the ninth floor, making our way down.  After making it through only a few of the floors we heard multiple vehicles pull up on the snow right outside the entrance.  This was odd because at night Russians, who had vehicles, would have to park them at a parking lot or facility that was often some distance from the building. 

We ran to the window to see who it was.  Two brand new Ford SUVs had just pulled up and several men jumped out.  They ran for the door of the entryway in which we were tracting.  Immediately we knew it was the mafia or some other group that was after someone. 

I looked at the other missionary and said, “We need to get out of here now.  I’ll see if I can tie up the elevator.  You start ringing doorbells to see if we can get into someone’s apartment.  It won’t be good for us to see who they kill or what they do.”

We tried desperately to get into the elevator or an apartment as we heard them running up the stairs.  The elevator was too slow and nobody would answer his or her doors. 

As they came around the corner, somebody yelled, “Who is it?  Grab them.”

Forcefully and immediately both of us were grabbed by multiple men and pushed against the wall.  I had one gun pressed against the side of my head and one into my solar plexus.  Trying to look around I saw the other missionaries face.  I saw stark terror that I am sure mirrored my own.

One of the group started yelling at us, “Are you he?  Are you he?  Tell me now, are you he?

“No!  No!  I am not he.  I don’t know who you are looking for.”

Both guns seemed to push into me harder yet.

“Who are you?  Tell me who you are!”

“We’re missionaries!  Missionaries!  Check my coat pocket.”

He forced his hand into my pocket and pulled out an invitation to our church meetings.  As he read I wondered what he would do once he realized that we were not his targets.  Would he feel the need to get rid of us, to dispose of us in some way?  I was sure my knees were going to give out, that I would collapse.

He looked up from the invitation, “It is not he.  Let them go.”

Grabbing me by the arm he hurled me down the stairs.

“Get out of here now!  Run!”

We did.  We ran down the stares with abandon.  Clearing the door we hit the cold air and started to run across the courtyard.

One of us, I don’t remember which, pointed out that maybe we should go somewhere else to hide for awhile rather than show them where we lived.  We did.  We walked and ran for several minutes, not staying in one place and trying not to be seen.  Eventually we made our way back to the building.  The SUVs were gone.  We slipped up to the apartment.

I’ve always wondered what happened after we left.  Despite my curiosity, I never did try to find out or to associate myself with anything that happened that night.  To this day I am grateful that I had that invitation in my pocket.  It was the second time an invitation to church had rescued me.

My last day of tracting in Russia as a missionary, at the beginning of September 1996, almost ended with a bang.  My companion and I went a to a building in our area that hadn’t been tracted out previously.  We made our to the ninth floor and rang the first doorbell.  Through the two locked and bolted doors, a lady asked us what we wanted.

“We’re missionaries and we’re sharing a message about God today.  How do you feel about God?  May we share a message with you.”

“Oh, I don’t think I’m interested.”

We turned ninety degrees to face the next door.  After ringing the doorbell we again were speaking with a lady through the door.  Suddenly a booming voice yelled at us through the first door.

“Who are you?  What do you want?”

I turned back to the first door while my companion tried to carry on a conversation with the person behind the second door.

“We’re missionaries.”

“What?”

“We’re missionaries.”

“What do you want?”

“To speak with you about your feelings about God.”

“You want to speak about God?”

“Yes.”

I hear a cabinet opening behind the door.  He starts to unlock the first bolt.

“God?  You want to talk about God?  I’ll help you meet God.”

Immediately I grabbed my companion by the arm and shoved him toward the stairs.

“Run! Run fast!”

We cleared the first two landings by the time the man in the first apartment got his second door open.  Looking up, I hear him pull back the action on his pistol as he leans over trying to see us. 

It was the last doorbell I ever rang as a missionary in Russia.
 

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