Saint Petersburg is a beautiful, colourful, monumental city. Coupled with the behaviour and questionable fashion choices of some of its inhabitants, it’s a photographer’s paradise. It also has a very bad reputation for being a hotbed of most types of criminal activity, from corporate crime to kidnappings and murder, right down to petty theft. I thought this reputation seemed a little undeserved as this was my fourth visit in as many years with no incident; ultimately becoming exactly the reason I fell victim to its curse.
It’s a sunny winter morning and I’m taking a walk along the mighty River Neva in temperatures which would make zero feel like summer. We’d just arrived from Moscow by train and were taking advantage of the time we had to burn before checking into the hotel. Blue skies bring out the best in Saint Petersburg’s notoriously colourful buildings, while the fresh snow glistens like a freshly steam-cleaned white carpet under the bridges traversing old Leningrad’s countless canals.
After shooting some of the major sights around the city, we headed back to the hotel along Nevsky Prospekt, a sprawling boulevard lined with colossal 19th century buildings painted in every pastel colour you could imagine, punctuated with variously-designed churches of different denominations.
As we rounded the corner and up a large side-street, a friendly young man ran up from behind me, thrust some calendars and hats in my face, and begged me to follow him to his souvenir store. As is my general policy with such things, I declined without breaking-step. I know where to find souvenirs without being corralled there by strangers.
He tried the same on Mirjana, who wasn’t enjoying her -15 degree surroundings and whisked him away with less than a word. He then decided to chase down someone behind us.
Five minutes later as we entered the hotel, it dawned on me that my camera was without a lens. Immediately realising where it had gone, my heart sank.
I couldn’t believe someone would be capable of removing the lens (requiring the pressing of a button on the front of the camera while twisting it 90 degrees, so I googled “how to steal a camera lens” and the first result made my heart skip a beat:
Reading the frustrations of camera-owners on many forums, it became clear that this is an incredibly frequent occurrence blighting the experiences of many of those wishing to visit the so called “Venice of the North”.
What’s worse: there’s no way you can really stop it.
These thugs are no-doubt armed with knives, so any resistance once their hands are on your gear would almost-certainly result in personal injury, or at the very least the spine-chilling situation where you’re probably asked to hand over everything you own at knife-point.
It was all caught on camera and it’s in police hands, though as one officer said when asked about the prospects of seeing the lens again, “do you believe in miracles?”
All in all, given a few days to relax, I am glad it wasn’t worse. Mirjana could have been holding the camera and I could have seen what they were doing and tried to intervene, escalating the situation. We could have been asked to hand over everything, which, since we had just arrived, included iPhones, tablets and laptops, not to mention cash and passports.
I could do without replacing a $1000 lens that I need for my job, but in the end I still have my camera body, the photos on the SD card, and we both have our lives.
My advice? Saint Petersburg – and Russia more broadly – is not a place where you can let your guard down. Efforts to curb corruption and reform the police force clearly have not been successful, as this exact type of theft appears to happen daily. If you own a DSLR camera, hide it as best you can. Only have it on show while you’re shooting, and not when you’re walking. Be “that guy” and wear your backpack on the front. Every effort to make it harder for thieves to recognise you have expensive equipment are paramount, because once they know, there’s really nothing you can do.