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November|December 2002
Dude, Where's my Lada? By Jon Fasman
Traffic Court By Kim Lemon
Inside Job By David Taylor
Beverage Control By Marisa Matarazzo
Lost Savings By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

Dude, Where's my Lada?

By Jon Fasman

The world's first and only Museum of Automotive Theft is crammed into a single room on the second floor of a Lada-Favorit car dealership in northwestern Moscow.

A visitor coming from the heart of the city must wend his way to a scrubby outlying street lined with ramshackle auto mechanics' shops, where the preferred method of repair seems to be drinking beer while staring at the vehicle in need.

Between 25 and 40 cars are stolen every day in Moscow. In 2001, thieves in the city made off with a reported 9,126 cars, which was more than the year before, but still down from a peak of 16,531 in 1995. Because so many Muscovite car owners can't afford alarm systems—and because the city police are too busy palming bribes at traffic stops to hunt down criminals—the citizenry has begun to combat the problem on its own.

The Museum of Automotive Theft, which opened in July, is intended to raise general awareness about car theft. Its display cases feature a selection of homespun car-protection devices, sheaves of forged car documents, and a colorful array of skeleton keys, flexible jimmies, and wire hangers for prying locked doors. Sponsored and created by Lada-Favorit, one of Russia's largest car companies, the museum is also something of a publicity stunt.

One recent weekday afternoon, two Lada employees led a tour around the museum. Ivan Vladimirovitch Otvechalin, the official guide, was accompanied by his friend Andrey, a car salesman from the showroom floor. Otvechalin, a wiry young man with a serious, avian manner, explained that Lada consulted two groups when planning the museum: the Moscow police, who donated a variety of forged documents, and several designers, who helped style the exhibit's playful layout and display. "So we have half for crime," Otvechalin said, "half for fun."

The first display case contained four decidedly low-tech anti-theft devices: a bear trap, a baseball bat, a ring of multi-pronged fishhooks, and a Chechen scimitar. Many Muscovites carry weapons in their cars, and, according to Otvechalin, even those who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars on an alarm system will sometimes "still put snakes in their cars" to deter thieves. Andrey added that baseball bats are usually available at stores that sell car alarms, and joked that a Russian driver's hand grabs three things in turn: the gear shift, a baseball bat, and a girlfriend's knee. Carrying a bat as a weapon is illegal, but Andrey suggested that keeping a receipt from a sporting goods store and claiming to be a baseball enthusiast might help avoid a ticket.

The case next to the bat-and-trap display was filled with the paraphernalia of fraud: phony registration papers, purloined "auto passports" with fake addresses typed in, counterfeit drivers' licenses, and a metal letterpress used to stamp fraudulent serial numbers on car engines. On closer inspection, a collection of ordinary-looking license plates revealed sloppy lettering, crooked hand-painted borders, and incorrect renditions of the Russian flag. The case also included several fake police badges, including one that identifies the bearer as a cop from Chechnya. Otvechalin explained that "most cars stolen from Moscow end up in Chechnya or Dagestan." Indeed, the museum's most unusual artifact was originally owned by a Chechen car thief: a green alarm clock in the shape of a mosque that sounded five times daily, to remind him of prayer times. He had installed it in the dashboard after ripping out the radio.

Statistically speaking, the average Muscovite may be less likely than the average New Yorker to be a victim of crime—and less likely to have his car stolen. Nonetheless, fascination with criminal activity takes on a stronger, more macabre tone in Russia than in the United States. One of Moscow's most popular daily papers, Moskovsky Komsomolets, features a lively crime dossier page, and the biweekly English-language alternative paper, the eXile, has a section called "Death Porn," which recounts particularly grisly slayings in gut-churning detail. Of course, crime attracts its share of attention in the States, and generates plenty of anxious hand-wringing, but it's widely seen as a problem amenable to solutions: stricter laws, better policing, tougher prosecution. Not so in Russia. After more than 70 years of the Soviet Union, and a decade of embezzlement and spoils-grabbing by current government officials, faith in the law is weak. When crime begins at the top of the social ladder, and when enforcement of laws is seen as serving the interests only of the rich and powerful, a particular form of comic jadedness grows among ordinary citizens.

Hence the absurdist humor of the museum. At the opening festivities, the most popular exhibit was "anti-theft" metal lingerie, worn at the opening by fashion models. (Nowadays, it's less dramatically displayed on mannequin torsos.) The most elaborate garment—a sort of chastity belt—consists of a cage-like skirt with a demurely placed lock. Otvechalin called it "an ancient alarm system so nobody can drive your wife away." Lada also sponsored a contest to see which journalist at the opening could pick a locked door fastest. The winner took 16 seconds. The contest ruined a new Lada car, half of which remains as part of the exhibit, protruding from the wall with a mannequin crook breaking in and a mannequin police officer in hot pursuit. Otvechalin reported that the police officers who attended the opening joked that the only reliable security system was the Avtomat AKM submachine gun that hangs on a museum wall next to a bullet-riddled car door.

If the museum offers a take-home message, it's that protecting a vehicle from theft is ultimately a futile enterprise. The historical record is certainly discouraging: Otvechalin pointed out a set of rusted iron tools (found on an archaeological dig) that had originally been used for "chariot jacking"—unharnessing horses and driving them away. Having himself picked every lock in the museum with paper clips, drill bits, or crowbars, Otvechalin seemed mischievously resigned to this state of affairs. "You can break into anything if you really want to," he said, jiggling a paper clip in an ignition lock. "It's just a question of time."

Jon Fasman is an American writer living in Moscow. His work has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Washington Post Book World, and The Moscow Times.

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