Gone in 6 Seconds: How Thieves in Saint Petersburg Stole My Gear

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.

Spilt Blood

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YWaloz-Duw

Apart from the fact that my camera was not around my neck but over one shoulder and hanging to my side (and the fact that this guy noticed) this is basically how it went down.

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.

Remnants of a Revolution

Surrounded by at least 1500 activists bearing placards written in Cyrillic, I feel a bit out of place. See, despite my basic Russian-language skills, a sign that transliterates to “System for soap” has a slightly confounding effect. I ask Ilya, a young member of the crowd, what on Earth it means.

“It’s an old saying. Soap used to be made from pig’s fat,” he tells me. “We are all calculating how much soap we could make from the people who run this country, and with that soap we can then lubricate the ropes from which we will hang the entire system.”

Protesters watch over the square

Protesters watch over the square

Spurred by the events of the Ukrainian “Euromaidan” revolution, where often over one-million protesters occupied Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) for four months throughout winter, these Kyivans remain in situ, unconvinced that the change they’ve bled for will eventuate.

This is not without good reason. The so-called “Orange Revolution” of 2004 raised the hopes of Ukrainians across the country, with then-President Viktor Yushchenko promising to usher in a new era of politics in Ukraine; one free of the corruption which has plagued the region since its independence after the fall of communism.

Fast-forward to 2010 when Ukrainians were so disillusioned with the performance of Yushchenko – who fulfilled few of his promises – that they re-elected previously-ousted President Viktor Yanukovich.

A perfect storm of factors lead to the Euromaidan protests: rampant corruption within governing structures; allegations of siphoning of state assets into private accounts owned by members of the Yanukovich family; and ultimately a critical mass was reached after the decision by Yanukovich to reject a European Union association agreement, instead choosing to accept a loan bailout from Russia to pay billions of dollars of overdue gas bills to Russia’s Gazprom.

The protest began in late-November and was initially peaceful, as activist Valerie Boyko recalls.

“I was so proud of my country at this time. I would come by train for 12 hours from my hometown in Donetsk when I could. Inside the barriers around Maidan, people were so happy: yes, we hated Yanukovich and his excesses, but we were part of something big.

“There was a whole functioning organism here. There was food for everyone; hot borsch soup, coffee – everything people needed for the cold winter nights. We had a peoples’ university where anyone could come and listen to highly-educated speakers. There were free concerts to help keep the people entertained through the cold.” She says.

In January the books and borsch were soon replaced with shields, helmets and Molotov cocktails after Yanukovich’s Party of Regions hastily passed a series of seemingly-authoritarian laws aimed at ending the protests. A deadline was then given to the protesters, the deadline was ignored, and the notorious Berkut riot police moved in with full force.

During the assault, much of the barricading was removed and several people were killed, but the police were ultimately repelled. Additional barriers were installed around the square and existing ones were strengthened with razor-wire, tank traps, tyres (to set on fire) and water was poured on the road, icing it so that Berkut officers couldn’t easily advance.

In a last-bid attempt to regain control of Ukraine’s capital, Yanukovich ordered a full-scale assault on the square. From February 18 to 21, over one-hundred people were killed, many in calculated attacks by snipers. Realising the gravity of the situation, Yanukovich fled to Russia, before being impeached by the parliament.

Since that day, though the media focus has shifted from Maidan to east Ukraine, where a war is being fought between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military, a contingent of Euromaidan protesters remain in Kyiv, manning the barricades.

Members of Maidan's Self-Defence force watch on as an Orthodox priest delivers a hair-raising service.

Members of Maidan’s Self-Defence force watch on as an Orthodox priest delivers a hair-raising service.

These people, who now wear army fatigues to identify themselves as part of the “Maidan self-defence force”, come from all walks of life. Many are ex-military, some are mothers, others homeless and looking to be a part of something important. All are steadfast in their resolve to defend the square until the Ukrainian governing system has been reformed.

“For these guys, it’s not enough that Yanukovich is gone,” Anastasia Bezverkha, a journalist completing her PhD in Kyiv explains, “We’ve changed the face but the system remains. Poroshenko is an oligarch; he is a billionaire and has a monopoly on chocolate in Ukraine.”

The protesters believe that their presence is required to remind the new government why they’re in power, thus guaranteeing that a slide back to the corruption of times gone by is prevented. Despite being a proud supporter and participant of the Euromaidan movement before the revolution, Anastasia disagrees with this argument.

“These guys need to go. The time of Maidan is over. These guys have done their job and the people of Ukraine owe them a great personal debt, but many are just here now because of the amount of money they earn from donations.”

This view is not the exception. During my time on the square, I witnessed several people, often middle-aged women, voicing their opposition to the continued occupation. One was almost forcibly removed by one of the younger, more hot-headed self-defence men, before his superior reminded him that Maidan is a place for the people now.

Visitors to Maidan vary widely in age, sex and social standing.

Visitors to Maidan vary widely in age, sex and social standing.

You get the feeling that the occupiers take their role as some sort of democracy insurance policy seriously. They keep tabs on everyone in the square, questioning people if they believe there may be a threat to the very existence of the occupation.

For the majority of Kyiv’s three-million inhabitants however, the picture is not quite so clear. Many appear frustrated as pompous self-defence men and women divert their usual walk to work around the barricades, tents and monuments to the fallen. Some of the self-defence forces stumble around the square, intoxicated and without purpose.

I witnessed the fourth Maidan “viche” – an old Ukrainian term for a gathering of the people to discuss important matters facing the community. The participants, numbering about one-thousand, discussed matters of administration of the square – including perhaps removing some of the barriers – a proposition which was met with a resounding “no”.

A crowd shows their support of Maidan's leadership at a viche.

The crowd shows their support of Maidan’s existence at a viche.

After a Ukrainian-Orthodox service, one of the leaders of the occupation demanded an audience with members of Kyiv city council, whose recently-elected leader – the charismatic ex-boxer Vitali Klitschko – has been calling for the removal of the encampment altogether. Despite the city council building being located only about 500 metres from Maidan, Klitschko and the rest of the council were nowhere to be seen.

Such is the enormous shift in focus from Maidan to the east, that Klitschko has been actively involved at the negotiating table with President Poroshenko rather than dealing with the his fresh portfolio in Kyiv. While it appears that popular support for the occupation of Kyiv’s centre has run dry, there is plenty of activism continuing to occur in the city.

One morning, a large procession from parliament carried the body of Vladimir Martsishevskiy, a journalist and activist who disappeared from the square two days prior, before being found murdered in a forest on the outskirts of Kyiv. A solemn Orthodox funeral was given by priests on Maidan stage, and the tightknit group were able to farewell a comrade of over 9 months.

Martsishevskiy Funeral

The mourners used the afternoon to vent their frustration that, like Vladimir, the “heroic hundred” who died defending the square in February still haven’t been avenged. Many of the Berkut riot police officers fled to Crimea and are now safely protected by Russia; others are now reportedly fighting against the Ukrainian army in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The distraction of war in the east has been an effective tool for Poroshenko, Klitschko and company, who, despite the ongoing occupation of Maidan Nezalezhnosti, are forgiven by most for not being entirely accountable. Poroshenko has not yet sold his businesses and major assets as he guaranteed he would when inaugurated as President, and has not yet enacted the sweeping reforms required to rid the government of the corruption that has plagued Ukraine since its independence in 1991. Many members of parliament accused of working against the country’s interests remain in their positions.

On my last morning in Kyiv, one unimpressed businesswoman was the focus of attention on the square, producing a sign demanding the self-defence forces “clean this mess” and suggesting to those protesting her presence that they take a train to the east and fight if they actually want to help. She pointed out the drunks, calling the wider group “freeloaders and morons,” before storming from the square, closely followed by a detachment of self-defence forces.

While no capital city with a long and proud history should look as littered as Kyiv does today, given Ukraine’s history of relapse after revolution, I’m lead to believe that perhaps the real battle hasn’t actually moved east and is as these men see it: right in the centre of Kyiv. Indeed, the old system is not yet hanging from that soapy rope.

An Assessment of the June 2 Luhansk Administration Building Attacks

Note to the reader (Oct 2020): I first published this piece the day following the explosion at the Luhansk Administration Building on June 2, 2014. While content was subsequently added in the days that followed (as commentary to that effect below will indicate), I have made no effort to sanitise what follows. As a result, what follows amounts to a pretty crude analysis of those events that gives a snapshot of my abilities as both a writer and OSINT interpreter at that time. More importantly, six years on I still stand by the conclusions I drew back then. Please forgive the amateurish images, especially if you’re colourblind. It wasn’t until late 2014 that Bellingcat had really professionalised OSINT investigations.  -Tom

There is no doubt people were killed yesterday after the Luhansk regional administration building was attacked. Just how many remains to be seen, though reports indicate at least five.

What is in doubt, however, was who orchestrated the attacks. Russian media claims it was the Ukrainian military, specifically an SU-25 using “cluster bombs to deliver a pinpoint strike“.

Western media is skeptical, and Ukrainian media completely disagrees with the theory, arguing that while the Ukrainian Air Force was in the Luhansk Oblast, it was providing support at a border post being sieged by some 500 separatists.

The Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, was questioned on the subject (6:44) and responded, “no… even Russian experts recognise that it was not a Ukrainian air-strike… it was misuse of grenades by the terrorists themselves. No bombing either by air-plane or artillery was permitted by the Ministry of Defence.”

There is much conjecture on both English- and Russian-language social media regarding the incident, so I decided to investigate myself.

The video below was one of the first to surface after the incident, and shows Shevchenko Park in Luhansk.

 

 

 

 

At 0:02, we see a flash between the flagpole and the tree to the left, which critics of the separatists claim is a misfired rocket-propelled grenade. This theory is certainly believable as we can see what appears to be a blow-back flash to the right of the first flash immediately afterwards. The rocket then hits the ground – perhaps a second (or third) is also fired – and hit the administration building. Certainly seems plausible.

The second video below shows a ground-support jet releasing defensive flares as well as at least eight unguided missiles before flying away.

Many Russians and separatists claim this video shows the exact moment the regional administration building is attacked by the Ukrainians. There are definitely rockets fired, but the location of filming is ambiguous. Could this simply be a video showing the Ukrainian Air Force providing support to the soldiers surrounded near the border?

The final video was streamed by “Newsfront” and shows the chaos immediately following the incident. It shows damage to the fourth floor of the administration building (0:45), as well as what appear to be small craters in the road and footpath (10:12, 13:44) in the park. Warning: video shows dead and injured people. Update 2020: this video was taken down and I haven’t been able to find it since.

Given the contradictory information, I decided to use some free software to try to make sense of the situation. Firstly, I found the location on Google Earth, then, using geo-tagged photos uploaded to Panoramio, located the positions of each camera. I have included stills from all three videos as well as the locations on a map of central Luhansk. The administration building is highlighted in green.

Luhansk

The letters on the map correspond with the letters on the stills from the videos in order to link the filmed events with the map.

What I found from the first video is the first flash (A) could have occurred anywhere along the yellow line drawn. The second (B) and third (C) flashes are clearly on the road.

The second video was a lot harder to analyse given the zooming and panning, but the location I have indicated for ‘Camera 2’ is 100% accurate to within about 20 metres. Make up your own mind on the trajectory of both the plane and the missiles, but given there is no obvious turn made by the aircraft, I have indicated a rough flight path on the map. How far to the left the missiles were released (D) is hardest to tell, but it’s certainly to the left of the administrative building.

It’s pretty damning evidence. As much as I would like to hope the Ukrainian Air Force wouldn’t fire on the centre of a major city, it certainly appears that’s the case here. While the trajectory of the rockets is impossible to calculate precisely, they definitely aren’t travelling in the opposite direction to the building. We can’t discount provocation by pro-Russians nor Russians, but it seems highly unlikely that a Russian jet would enter Ukrainian airspace, let alone fly over a major Ukrainian city and – even more impossibly – fire missiles on it. I just hope some further evidence comes out that proves this was just a horrible accident, not a government-sanctioned air strike.

Update:

We have a fourth camera, and I’ve located it using Yandex Streetview!

Update 2020: it seems the author of this video was banned from YouTube, so the link no longer works.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPf1IM6zgaY

 

Luhansk

 

Below is an updated map with each of the four cameras, and rough flight paths for the jet. The dotted lines show roughly where the camera was pointed when the rockets were launched. A good project for someone with more time than me would be to precisely calculate the direction of each camera, and triangulate the position of the plane when the rockets were fired.

Luhansk

Unfortunately, the new angle agrees with the existing conclusion.

Update:
As accurately as I could, I have identified the location of the jet at the moment which it released the rockets, using the two available videos.

I calculated the location by first pinpointing the location of the camera holder. Camera 2 was pretty easy – I just used Yandex maps and lined up the sign on the building with the trees either side when he pans. Camera 4 was even easier, as he moves forward past the last tree in front of the bar just before the rockets hit.

I then paused frame on both videos just as the rockets were released. On Camera 2 you could see the edge of the trees as he zoomed out, and when he turns the other direction later, you can see roughly how far back he is standing. I gave a wide margin of error for Camera 2 as it is unclear how far from the road he is standing.

Camera 4 was a little easier, as the jet releases the rockets in the direction of the building in the distance.
rockets

I then used these two points to extrapolate the red and green lines you see on the picture below. For reference, the yellow line runs perpendicular to the entrance of the administration building. The plane most likely fired its rockets from somewhere inside the “box” created where the red and green lines intersect.

impactzoomimpact

Original Google Earth file download for reference.

If you still have questions or are intrigued by this story, please read the comments as I go to some length to respond to questions there.