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When Russian President Vladimir Putin walks up to a boy in Red Square and—as if impromptu—lifts the kid's shirt and smooches his belly, as the postcommunist tsar did this summer, remember this: His government hired the American PR firm Ketchum to make Russia look good.

A winsome reputation is not easy to come by in a place where not only are oil profits skyrocketing, but so are less flattering things—numbers of skinheads, homeless orphans, violent crimes against minorities, aids infections, and incidents of religious discrimination. Then there's the leprosy of the Russian soul—the corruption permeating all levels of society. What PR campaign could pretty it up?

I got a glimpse of this turpitude at the airport in the famous south Russian resort town of Mineralnye Vody, on the northern edge of the Caucasus, Europe's tallest, austerely beautiful mountains. A band of airport security and police officers there shake down foreigners for bribes.

When they're handed a foreign passport, the uniformed mafiosos look for a piece of paper issued to all visitors entering Russia. Hotel desk employees are supposed to stamp it for the purpose of tracking. For some reason, they often fail to do that. (Would it be paranoid to wonder if the area hotel desk workers could be in cahoots with the airport gang?)

Upon finding gaps in the stamps, security officers call the airport police. The police take the foreigners to an office with heavy steel doors. They insist that the foreigners broke the law, even though they didn't. When this happened to me and a friend last May, our Russian guide, Sergey Rakhuba, stepped inside the interrogation room to intervene. (He knew what he was dealing with: Not long ago, at the same airport, his ...

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hide thisOctober October

In the Magazine

October 2006

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