Is Saint Petersburg a safe city?

As one of Russia’s top tourist destinations, Saint Petersburg has the infrastructure to receive large groups of foreign tourists. Since these foreign tourists are on average more wealthy than the average Russian, you might expect that they attract a lot of crime. And, to a certain degree, this is indeed the case. However, Saint Petersburg is by far not as dangerous as its reputation would make you think.

The statistics

According to the official statistics, crime in Saint Petersburg is on the decline and the percentage of solved crimes (as a percentage of the total number of crimes committed in the city) has gone up.

In 2014 a total number of 56,000 crimes were registered by the police in Saint Petersburg, that number remained the same in 2015 and dropped to 52,000 in 2016 and subsequently to 50,000 in 2017.

Also the most horrible crime, murder, fortunately is on the decline. In 2014 257 murders were registered in Saint Petersburg. In 2015 this number went down to 203, bounced up again to 212 in 2016 and dropped again to 198 in 2017.

Fortunately the number of rapes in the city is also decreasing very steadily. In 2014 the total number of rapes totalled 153, this dropped to 74 in 2015 and further to 69 in 2016 and to 51 in 2017.

The most common crime in Saint Petersburg was and is theft, during the years 2014-2017 theft accounts for around 40% of all crimes in the city.

So there seems to be little room for doubt: Saint Petersburg is an ever safer place! Right?

Well yes, you should, however, take into account that many people in Russia look with distrust at such official figures. Especially when they come from an organisation like the Police. I personally don’t know of any other country where the reputation of the police is as negative as in Russia. In this case, however, my personal feeling of safety coincides with the statistics, it’s been getting slightly better in my opinion.

The general perception in Russia is that the police is not so much interested in solving crimes, as it is in ‘keeping a clean slate.’ The tendency to keep a clean slate arises from the formalistic approach on the basis of which the Russian police force is supposedly reviewed by its superiors.

Often times this tendency to keep a clean slate results in Russian police officers actually discouraging people from reporting a crime. I would believe this to be highly exaggerated if this hadn’t happened to me personally.

Be careful when entering an unknown Saint Petersburg courtyard
Personal experience

I have been a victim of crime only once during the 4 years that I have lived in Saint Petersburg. I consider myself to be a pretty careful person though, so my experience is not necessarily representative.

Anyhow, it happened as I was riding a very crowded trolleybus from Gostiny Dvor towards the Moscow Station (that’s in the very centre of the city).  I was wearing a backpack. When I wanted to get off the bus, however, someone was holding my backpack and gave it a jerk, which made me lose my balance and I had to grab on to something in order not to fall.

That was enough. In a fraction of a second, someone had managed to grab my wallet. As I turned around and grabbed the guy who I was sure had done it the doors of the bus closed and we drove on to the next stop. I felt the guy’s pockets, but of course, there was nothing there. He had managed to pass on my wallet to another guy who had jumped off the bus. And this other guy I hadn’t even seen. So the chances of finding him were absolutely non-existent.

So I went to the police. Actually at first I called 102, which is what you call in Russia when you need the police. They told me to come to the police department on Chaykovskogo street to declare, which I did.

Once there, I sat down in front of a rather fat police officer and from the wall a portrait of Iron Felix looked down on us, which I don’t believe to be insignificant. The fattish police officer wasn’t at all happy with me. As I had told him all the details of what had happened in Russian he said to me:” You know, I would with pleasure accept your denunciation, but I can’t do it without a translator.”

I was kind of dumbstruck at this remark.

-What do you mean? I asked.
-You didn’t understand the explanation I just gave you in Russian?

-No, no, I did understand, of course I did, the police officer said.

-So, what’s the problem, why would we need a translator? I asked.

He sighed…

-You see, he started, -my colleagues would not believe me if had told them a  foreigner, a Dutchman would have made his declaration to me in Russian…

We looked at each other. We both understood that this bullshit excuse was not going to be enough to get me off his back.

-Well, he went on. -Let me ask you this: in what direction was the bus moving on which your wallet was stolen.

-From Gostiny Dvor towards Vosstaniya I replied truthfuly.

His eyes lit up.
-I am very sorry, he said. -But you see, Nevsky Prospekt is cut in two for administrative purposes.I would have accepted your declaration with pleasure if you had been in the bus from Vosstaniya Square towards the Hermitage (which is the same street, but the opposite direction). But you were on a trolleybus going the other way and unfortunately, that is not our responsibility. This is the responsibility of another department. And as much as I’d like to help you, my hands are tied.

And with a peaceful smile of relaxation, he leaned backwards in his chair.

I stood perplexed.

Later I did manage to make a declaration, but that evening I left the police station with a deeper understanding of Russian’s distrust towards the police.

The history

Both in the 19th century and in the nineties of the twentieth century Saint Petersburg was known as a violent city. According to the census, in 1881, the city had 861,720 inhabitants. And the city’s police for made more than 150,000 arrests that same year! That means, almost every fourth inhabitant of the city was arrested. So compared to today’s statistics the situation has improved dramatically!

In the 19th century probably Fyedor Dostoyevky’s famous novel ‘crime and punishment’ contributed to the violent reputation of the city. In the novel the main character, a poor student decides to kill and rob pawnbroker for her money

Fraud

There is one crime that has been steadily on the rise in Russia, however. And that is the crime of fraud. Most fraudulent operations are directed at Russian citizens. But some are directed at foreigners.

Conclusion

During the 90’s Saint Petersburg was subject to a crime wave. To many newcomers to Russia this is the image that still stuck in their head, but it is no longer valid however. If we look at the rating of intentional homicide per country on wikipedia for example, we see that Russia is rated 168th (with a total of 230 countries listed), in between Romania and Slovakia, 2 EU countries. So objectively spoken, Russia is quite a safe country and Saint Petersburg quite a safe city.

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