On the night sleeper from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok I foolishly left my money belt in the loo. An hour and a half later, I realised I no longer had it with me. Panic. I was without passport, credit cards, return plane tickets, $500 and £50, not to mention a quantity of Russian rubles and South Korean won (I had reached Khabarovsk by way of a stop-off in Seoul). The attendant in my coach was sympathetic and helpful. We had to hurry, she said, because in a quarter of an hour the train would make its first and only stop. The money belt could easily disappear without trace, leaving me with little to do but wonder how to find the British consul (if one exists) in Vladivostok. So much for the romance of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

As we hurried back down the train, she unlocked every loo we passed (regardless of whether it was occupied), until I identified the one I had been in. (It was quite a way back, because the train had been an hour late into Khabarovsk, which caused excess demand when the passengers waiting on the platform were finally able to board.) Most probably, the finder of my belt would have been seated in this coach. But the attendant there said that no one had handed it in.

I could not hear what the two attendants then said to each other. All I know is that a door opened, I was ushered into a compartment, and the door closed behind me. There was only one person in it, which means (I realised later) that it was an attendant’s compartment; on my journey back through the train I had seen the full complement of four people nearly everywhere.

It was a woman, probably in her thirties, wearing dyed blonde hair and a navy blue adidas track suit. She retrieved the belt from under the mattress where she had hidden it, and asked how much money I would give for its return. It soon became evident that she expected the lot. ‘After all,’ she said with a smirk, ‘I could have pocketed the money and thrown the rest out of the window. I’m doing you a favour.’ Taken aback by her triumphant enjoyment, I did not think to try grabbing my property from her by brute strength. And I knew better than to look for the policeman who should have been (but fortunately was not) accompanying the train: he might have found a pretext to take the money for himself. In Khabarovsk I had watched the police flag down motorists every five minutes to demand payment for not issuing a penalty fine on some made-up charge, and in the Russian press I had read much nastier stories about police extortion.

So I capitulated. I got my belt and the wallet it contained. She got the money. In its own way, it was a fair bargain. I was relieved of much bureaucratic bother in the Russian Far East, trying to obtain a substitute passport and plane tickets, telephoning long distance to report the loss of credit cards. Financially, as measured by spending power and the work it reflects in two very different countries, she gained considerably more than I lost. The attendant in my coach told me that she knew the woman’s name. Evidently, she was not going to report her to the police. But was that from benevolence towards me, or because the woman had already arranged for the attendants to receive their cut in return for the privacy they had provided for her?

Under English law, and other jurisdictions I have asked about, if you find another person’s valuables, and there is a reasonable chance of discovering the owner’s identity, then it is a crime to keep them or, when the owner comes to light, to demand a ransom; at best, you can claim reimbursement of expenses incurred in returning the items. Already in Roman law the principle was established that ownership does not lapse if property is lost, or even if it is deliberately thrown overboard to lighten a ship in a storm at sea; when it is found adrift or washed up on shore, appropriating it counts as theft.

An even earlier – possibly the earliest – propounding of the rule that finders may not be keepers is at the start of Book XI of Plato’s Laws, a work which discusses, in relentless detail, the laws that should govern an imaginary new colony to be founded on Crete. Under the general principle ‘Thou shalt not touch or move my possessions without my consent,’ Plato distinguishes two cases. First, treasure trove. If it was not one of your forefathers who laid it away, you must leave it there, both because you should prefer justice in your soul to gain in your purse, and because you ought to believe the stories people tell about how making off with what should not be moved bodes ill for your descendants. If you are caught breaking this rule, the authorities in Plato’s Cretan city are to send to the oracle at Delphi to ask what they should do with you.

The second case is finding something left in the road. Again, you should leave it there, believing that it has been dedicated by the law to Hecate, Goddess of the Wayside. The religious backing offered for both rules, and the threat to an offender’s posterity, are striking. Perhaps they reflect the difficulty of policing such cases. Unlike many of Plato’s proposed laws, this one has no known analogue in Athenian law of the time. There are scholars who suppose that the whole idea of respect for other people’s lost property is Plato’s invention. If so, he was the first to think a thought we deeply need.

Like Plato, Russian law gives an extra-judicial incentive to encourage compliance in such cases. Article 227 of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation obliges the finder to notify the owner and return the valuables. It expressly provides for the case of valuables found on some form of transport. They should be handed over to a representative of the owner of the transport – in my case, the second coach attendant – who then has the same obligations as the original finder. For this service Article 229 permits you, as English law does not, to demand a reward, over and above expenses incurred, of no more than 20 per cent of the value of the find, or, if the value is purely personal to the owner, an amount agreed between owner and finder. It is a nice question how this stipulation would apply to my passport.

Colin Thubron’s wonderful book In Siberia (1999) describes the author’s visit to a village on the river Yenisei in the far north inhabited largely by one of the native peoples of Siberia, the Entsy. It is a remote, brutal place where the only consolation is getting drunk. He meets an old man who is living in the village hospital because his house burned down before his eyes. He had time to run in just once before it was too late. What had he salvaged, Thubron wonders, in those few seconds? His passport. For in Russia, ‘without his passport he could not move, did not live.’

The ‘passport’ referred to is not for the luxury of foreign travel. It is the internal passport, an instrument of state control like the identity cards that David Blunkett is planning for us. Until 2002 it recorded not only your name, age and address, but your ‘nationality’ as well. Our word ‘Russian’ does duty for two distinct adjectives, rossiski and russki. The Russian Federation, like the Russian Academy of Sciences, employs the first, while the second is used for ethnic Russians, their language, and other matters pertaining to them. Hence not all citizens of the Russian Federation are Russian. Some are Entsy, Buryats or Chechens – or Jews, for officialdom does not allow you to be both Russian (russki) and a Jew. As a foreigner without my passport searching Vladivostok for a British consul, I would be in a far better situation than the Russian woman on the train would be if her passport went missing. What for me would be a great nuisance, for her would be a disaster possibly worth risking death to avoid. With her passport gone, registering her domicile with the police would be impossible, which in turn would prevent her getting an officially registered job. How could the two of us possibly follow Article 229 and agree on an amount that would constitute a fair, legitimate reward?

The requirement of domicile registration (propiska) was a repressive Soviet measure invented during the forced collectivisation of the peasants. It was designed to stop ruined peasant families abandoning the countryside and flooding the cities. It is still used restrictively, so that even when you have your passport, getting your propiska stamped in it can turn into a bureaucratic nightmare far worse than the bother that threatened me.

A day or so later, safe with my passport in a Vladivostok hotel, I read a newspaper report about a scam in Moscow. The 45-year-old woman on trial would go to Yaroslavl railway station, find a public telephone, and ring a number at random. When she got an answer, she would claim to be an attendant working on a train which ran from that station to the south and back again. She would then tell her respondent that she had been given this number by relatives of theirs down south, who had asked her to deliver a parcel containing presents. If the respondent denied having family in that region, she would simply hang up and start again. When someone took the bait, she would arrange a rendezvous at the station for handing over the parcel, which of course contained nothing of value at all. She would charge 1000 rubles as ‘commission’ for looking after the parcel until it was safely delivered, which would mean the recipient delving into their handbag or inner pockets – an opportunity for her to purloin the victim’s passport as well. If all went as planned, she would ring the same number the next day demanding 500 rubles for the return of that vital document.

Numerous victims paid up without informing the police. Finally, a 79-year-old woman recognised the voice which called back the next day. Furious at having surrendered half her monthly pension for a parcel of torn-up rags and newspaper, she informed the police, who promptly set up a sting. Does Blunkett appreciate that his identity cards will attract far more thieves, because the cards will be far more worth stealing than our present passports? And will job-seekers be required to show their cards to secure employment?

The region where Khabarovsk and Vladivostok are situated is known as Primorye, the area ‘by the sea’. It is bounded by the Pacific coast to the west, the Amur river to the north and the Ussuri river to the east, almost on the border with China; its population is 90 per cent Russian in the narrow sense. The look of both cities is entirely European. The civic buildings in the centre, with their white columns and stucco façades washed in pale greens and yellows, remind me of Helsinki. Very attractive, but hardly the kind of beauty you expect to find at longitude 135°E. Much of the rest is the usual ugly apartment blocks from Soviet days. The sight of people queuing to wash their clothes under a cold-water pump in the front courtyard is depressing evidence of how crude and ill-equipped such housing can be. The only visible sign that one is in the Far East is the large number of Chinese tourists buying jewellery and other luxuries in the shops. When they are not shopping, they can be seen gambling in the casinos, which remain open 24 hours a day to soak up the profits of the booming economy over the border just a few miles away.

Khabarovsk was founded in 1858 as a garrison and fur-trading post. Only when the Trans-Siberian Railway arrived from Vladivostok in 1897 did it start to develop. Vladivostok (the name means ‘Lord of the East’) dates from 1860. The Russian Empire reached into Alaska, and even California, well before it got to this area. I have a small volume on Russia published in London in 1825 as part of a series entitled The Modern Traveller: A Popular Description, Geographical, Historical, and Topographical, of the Various Countries of the Globe. Its map of the country shows Primorye still part of China and a white blank – nothing substantial there at all. The further south you look, towards where Vladivostok will be, the more inaccurately the coastline is drawn. The outlines of Japan across the water and the Korean peninsula are similarly approximate. Whichever capital you started from in 1825, London or St Petersburg, it was all a very long way away. As it still is. Which makes it so much more surprising to arrive, after stopping off in thoroughly oriental Seoul, to find oneself in a completely European atmosphere.

From 1958 until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vladivostok was a closed city. No foreigners were allowed in lest they saw the Russian Pacific Fleet, which is now visibly rusting away in the harbour; you can see the red-brown patches from quite a way off as you walk along the embankment. Equally, no resident was supposed to leave the city without a permit (apparently, certain suburban stations offered an unofficial escape route). Already in tsarist times it was the most fortified city in the world. The cannon are still there, hidden away in dozens of bunkers on the hill overlooking the sea. Climb up the hill and you find a museum full of old weapons, military equipment and photographs illustrating life on board ancient warships. The attendants in Siberian museums are touchingly pleased when you arrive, but get offended if you do not look at absolutely everything they have to show, whether it is old weaponry, stuffed tigers, pictures by local artists, or craftwork from the native peoples. This urge to educate the visitor is a refreshing reminder of Soviet days, when art and culture were important tools of Communist enlightenment, when there were certain things you should see or hear, and others you should not. Not everything in the new Russia has yet been taken over by market forces.

Still, market forces have made a difference. I recall the puzzlement of a hot summer in Moscow years back. It was a time when transparent white blouses were popular on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The difference was the colour of the bra that could be seen underneath. In London it was a matching white. In Moscow that summer, it was a rather loud and unsuitable blue. Why? One part of the command economy had decreed white transparent blouses, another blue bras.

But any economic system benefits some at the expense of others. It is not only Chinese tourists who are buying jewellery in Primorye. So too are numerous Russians who do not have to wash their clothes at a communal cold-water pump. These are not all from the family of a super-rich ‘oligarch’. Lesser biznesmeny are profiting very nicely too. One such, very young, was sharing my carriage on the sleeper from Khabarovsk. His stories about extortions he had been subjected to made it clear that I had escaped lightly. Imagine you are stopped at traffic lights, waiting for them to show green. Here, someone may try to clean your windscreen, or sell you flowers. In Moscow, much the same. But in Primorye, he said, the message may be: ‘How much will you give me not to stab your tyres?’ My biznesmen always paid up. The Russian Federation has a long way to go before it can count as a ‘civil society’.

Eventually, I got all my money back. On returning to Britain I put in a claim to my insurance company under the ‘All Risks’ section – more on principle than because I thought it might succeed. They asked for evidence that I had reported the crime to the local police. I wrote explaining why it is best to keep away from the Russian police. To my amazement, Ecclesiastical replied at once with a cheque for £50 plus the sterling equivalent (at the exchange rate on the day of my journey) of $500. This is still a reasonably civil society. Blunkett’s concern should be to make it more so, not less.

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Vol. 26 No. 7 · 1 April 2004

M.F. Burnyeat should not confuse a worst case with a general case (LRB, 19 February). It may be little short of lethal to lose – or to have stolen – a passport in Russia, but that doesn't necessarily mean that theft will flourish if Blunkett introduces ID cards in Britain. I lost my Luxembourg residence card while travelling in Paris, and a straightforward request to the appropriate ministry brought forth a replacement.

These photo ID cards are universally used in Western Europe. They afford the police a convenient way (as in Russia) to know who people are and where they live, which is seen as a reasonable provision, and are a handy and acceptable way to identify oneself, for example, in banks or to gain access to secure premises. No one here thinks of them as anything but an obvious and convenient precaution which enables us to demonstrate that we are who we say we are.

Colin Buckland

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