November 10, 2019

A Prudently Droll, Privately Disquieting Police Day

A Prudently Droll, Privately Disquieting Police Day
“Happy Police Day!” But is it really all that happy an occasion?

Today is an obscure holiday in Russia: Police Day. Police Day (День полиции or День милиции), though little known to the wider world, has its origins in an infamous organization: the NKVD. Specifically, on this day in 1917, the NKVD created the Workers’ Militia, which became the basis for the Soviet police. The holiday started being celebrated in 1962 and has been marked every year since, except when Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982. In 2011, after a reorganization of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the holiday’s name changed to День сотрудника органов внутренних дел (Internal Affairs Servicemen’s Day). As one might guess, nobody uses that name in daily life. In fact, one news site lamented that few care about Police Day at all.

Nevertheless, Police Day always draws a small flurry of social media attention. Some responses are lighthearted, while others are serious, but more often than not they mix the two. Police Day features parades of police in full uniform, and thus, in the lead-up to Police Day, one can see parade rehearsals on the street. One Tweeter walked past a rehearsal with their grandmother and had the following conversation.

Grandma: What’s the gathering for?
Me: It’s going to be Police Day soon.
Grandma: Ahhh, I thought they were celebrating Halloween.

The talk show Evening Urgant created an entire skit for Police Day in 2016. Members of the show “interviewed” Russians on the street about the crimes they committed. Most people had committed at worst trifles: one person jaywalked, another stole from the cookie jar when they were little. But there was one heinous criminal whose face the interviewer had to disguise:

— No, I’ve never broken the law!
— So you never stole anything…
— No!
— Do you lead a cult?
— No, I only voted for Yabloko.

Evening Urgant’s skit. / Evening Urgant

As one might expect of a political holiday, it’s impossible to escape politics on Police Day. As one example, President Putin is well known for staging photo ops exclusively with people his height (5 foot 7 inches) or shorter. His clever move was rudely called out last year on Police Day when he met with several police cadets on TV. The camera zoomed in on Putin and the cadets (all suspiciously close to his height), before panning out to reveal the six-or-so-foot-tall Minister of Internal Affairs towering over them all. “Clearly nobody found anyone who was the Minister of Internal Affairs’ height,” quipped one Tweeter.

Putin with police cadets
One commenter calls Putin a “Chekist with a complex.” / @ilya_shepelin

We’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention the Instagrammer who, for Police Day 2018, dressed up as a police officer and sang a thieves’ ballad while haphazardly driving a BMW. An outcry erupted over the sorry state of the Russian police before social media denizens pointed out that she’d done this before as a prank. It’s not clear whether the Instagrammer pulled this prank to make fun of the police, to pay tribute, or just to get more follows. “If I did not behave properly towards everybody in this profession,” she wrote in the video’s description, “then I will reply… Not all members of the MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs] deserve congratulations on this day.”


A post shared by Варданян (Якунина) Виктория (@yakyninavictoriia) on

Though her video was silly, the Instagrammer had a point. This year’s Police Day is being celebrated in the shadow of flagrant police violence that took place at protests in Moscow and around the country last summer. This aspect of the police’s activities, however, has been largely whitewashed in news coverage of Police Day. Moskovsky Komsomolets published a puff piece about how the current Minister of Internal Affairs once persuaded a murderer to confess — through nonviolent methods, the article stresses. Meanwhile, Komsomolskaya Pravda linked to an innocuous video tribute whose description lambasts perceived American trolls for attempting to “humiliate, stir up, and destroy our executive power.” Argumenty i Fakty acknowledges that the police aren’t universally liked, but brushes that aside: “You can choose not to trust them, you can say whatever you want about them, but on November 10, we celebrate a holiday for those who most people call to get help in times of danger.”

Independent outlet Meduza takes a different approach from its pro-Kremlin counterparts. It elects to validate the concerns of people who genuinely worry about their safety in situations like protests. Four days ago, Meduza published an 11-step guide called “I see a police officer and I’m scared. How should I manage my fear?” The guide takes as its starting point the fact that the Russian police are known to arbitrarily detain and beat people at protests. It instructs people how to cope with fear of the police, walking them through anxiety management tactics such as mindfulness and de-escalating negative thoughts. Appropriately for Police Day, the guide is at the top of Meduza’s website as of November 10. Without condemning the police wholesale, the guide positions itself as an honest counterpoint to state media’s blind effusion for the police.

Meduza's homepage as of November 10, 2019.

Who would have guessed that such a tiny obscure holiday could be packed with so much meaning and debate?

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