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Regular version of the site

Which Crimes Do Russian Police Investigate?

Russian police tend to regard some incidents and crimes as more worthy of investigation than others and act accordingly.


Elena Berdysheva, Senior Research Fellow, HSE Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology (LSES).

In deciding whether or not they will register a particular incident or offence and whether they will investigate it according to the rules or in exchange for a bribe, Russian law enforcement officers tend to act from one of four different perspectives: state, departmental, commercial or professional, according to Berdysheva's study 'Varying Worth of Crimes in the Eyes of Policemen in Russia'.*

Perspective One: Checkmarks for the State

Effective suppression of crime is the single most important test of police performance in any country, including Russia, where police performance indicators are based on departmental statistics reflecting period-on-period changes in the number of detected crimes from the previous year. Police performance reports contain lists of investigated cases with checkmarks against those completed. Today, just as in the Soviet times, numbers are prioritised over any other consideration.

"I've talked to many [police officers] – all they say is checkmarks, checkmarks, checkmarks! I do not know about [other types of police] services, but as far as I remember, a while ago, a district police officer was required to report five administrative offences per month, whereas today they are required (at least in our service) to write up one administrative offence report per day, i.e. about thirty reports per month (interview with Vadim, Ministry of Interior department employee, 2015)."

Depending on the numbers in their performance reports, police officers can be either rewarded or punished, e.g. by withholding certain components of their salary. According to the author, "the pursuit of quantitative performance indicators can force police officers to focus on cases likely to result in checkmarks," i.e. the types of offences which take less time and effort to investigate. By the same logic, the police are reluctant to register cases with poor prospects of successful investigation.

How much effort is invested in certain types of crimes also depends on the current policies and performance targets set by superior authorities.

«Different articles of the penal code can have varying weight. When senior officials at the Ministry of Interior indicate that certain types of offences currently have priority, relevant penal code articles will be focused on more than others ... (interview, Igor, retired police colonel, 2010)."

"Of course, it's up to the guys at the top to set the course: like, today we arrest drunkards, tomorrow arrest gangsters, and the day after tomorrow illegal traders, and so on (posting on Ministry of Interior employees’ online forum, 2015)."».

Perspective Two: Chained Together

"In Russia today, police units function as a form of clan. Anything and everything officers do on the job is controlled by their superiors and subject to collective responsibility," notes the researcher.

A police unit chief controls both the officers' pay ("he can withhold benefits or issue a reprimand thus cancelling the officer’s entitlement to bonuses") and their continued employment in the police force; being in conflict with the chief often results in the officer’s transfer to another unit or even dismissal. Therefore, officers tend to be loyal to both their unit and its chief.

This clan logic determines how the police treat any incoming cases: in addition to the objective of maintaining law and order in the community, officers make sure that any action they take meets the targets set by their superiors and contributes to the unit’s performance indicators.

Perspective Three: Financial Interest

The author uses the term 'quasi-market' to describe the perspective where police officers make decisions with their financial interest in mind.

According to Berdysheva, "in this context, incidents, offences and crimes acquire a price tag."

The law prohibits current Ministry of Interior employees from taking side jobs outside the Ministry (except for teaching, research and artistic activities). While accepting this restriction, some police officers do not mind earning an extra income within the system by "taking money in exchange for informal assistance," such as helping with automobile registration, providing security to business owners, ignoring or covering up offences, etc.

While pretty common, this quasi-market approach cannot be described as a routine practice since "for many officers, accepting unofficial remuneration for their services still borders very closely on misconduct."

Perspective Four: Matter of Honour

The fourth perspective is inspired by professional pride and commitment to service.

«Personally, I am proud of having protected ordinary people from thieves, robbers and bandits (posting on Ministry of Interior employees' online forum, 2013)."».

Officers sharing this perspective adhere to the Penal Code and regard proper investigation of crimes a matter of professional honour.

While only about 13% of the Russian police consider law enforcement to be their true calling, it does not mean that the rest never look at their service from the professional honour perspective. In practice, different perspectives often overlap and interact.

Those governed by the professional and departmental perspectives tend to keep in check their colleagues driven by the quasi-market perspective and discourage too much bribery and blatant corruption. Indeed, since police officers operate as a clan rather than individually, their interest-seeking quasi-market behaviour is subordinate to departmental priorities. In turn, interest-seeking can strengthens the clan ties by the shared responsibility for informal earnings.

The study concludes that this arrangement serves almost as a system of checks and balances, enabling the Russian police generally to act in the interests of victims and uphold the law.

*The study was conducted as part of the project 'Informal economic activities of the police in transformation countries and security problems (cases of Russia, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan and Latvia)', implemented by the Higher School of Economics since 2012.

The study is based on in-depth interviews with officers serving in the Moscow City police force; senior students of the Kikot Ministry of Interior University in Moscow who at the time of the interviews were completing their practical training at Moscow police departments; and postings on Ministry of Interior officers' online forum dated 2010 to 2016.

March 01, 2017