CHELYABINSK, Russia — Young men with sores on their arms shuffled up the stairs of a dark, underground shopping arcade and into the daylight to plop dingy wads of rubles into the drug dealers' hands. The dealers casually reached into their pockets or plastic shopping bags and handed over tablets of synthetic morphine, a type also used as a horse tranquilizer, and paper packets that appeared to contain heroin.
Across the street in this gray, post-Soviet industrial town, two Russian policemen sat in a faded wooden booth, and a couple more sat in a police truck outside. They didn't seem the least bit interested.
A police officer walked by but didn't interrupt the transaction. Asked whether he was worried, one of the dealers, a young man with a white driving cap tipped down over his eyes, leaned back against a railing and giggled.
In Miass, a small town west of Chelyabinsk near the foothills of the Ural Mountains, Elena Shapkovskaya wasn't laughing. She works at the No. 40 pharmacy and often has to call the police when heroin addicts crowd the shop and begin shooting up in plain view.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"Sometimes instead of calling the police, we call an ambulance, because they're lying on the floor," Shapkovskaya said, looking down at the tile floor beneath her feet.
Drugs have become yet another scourge of post-communist Russia, with millions addicted to heroin and an annual death toll reportedly in the tens of thousands from overdoses and other drug-related causes.
- Russian authorities seized 2.4 metric tons of heroin in 2006, about three times the seizures in 2002, according to United Nations figures. That's a small fraction of the estimated 60 metric tons that are thought to arrive in Russia from Afghanistan each year.
"It is difficult to be anything other than pessimistic when it comes to forecasting what the future holds for Russia vis-a-vis heroin abuse and trafficking," said a report last year by the U.N. office on drugs and crime.
Russian officials publicly blame America for the plague because almost all the heroin comes from U.S.-dominated Afghanistan, but they won't discuss in detail how drugs move through their country. They've yet to devise a comprehensive plan to address the issue. Trials of high-level traffickers are conducted in secret. Even midlevel police officials usually don't talk, and when they do, it's privately and away from their workplaces.
'THE AMERICANS HAVE DONE NOTHING'
Chelyabinsk, a city of more than 1 million in southwest Russia, once was known as Tankograd — "tank city" — for its World War II production of T-34 tanks. It later gained notoriety as the center of a region swamped by radioactive waste from a nearby nuclear-weapons facility.
A different poison is spreading today: Chelyabinsk has become a major transshipment center for Afghan opium and heroin, which enters Russia from Central Asia.
The drugs usually reach Russia from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan in trucks or, in smaller amounts, tucked away in train compartments or nervous travelers' stomachs.
The trade is nothing new in Russia, but after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, it exploded. Afghan opium production climbed from 3,400 metric tons in 2002 to a record 8,200 metric tons in 2007, partly because U.S. and NATO-led troops put a low priority on curbing it. Heroin flooded into Central Asia, and on to Russia.
"When I heard the Americans were going to enter Afghanistan I thought they were going to solve the problem, to stop the drugs," said Yevgeny Roizman, who had connections with Russian organized crime before he became a member of parliament. He now runs an anti-drug organization in the city of Yekaterinburg, another big heroin-distribution hub north of Chelyabinsk.
"But in the period after they came, there was a big increase in the region . . . ," Roizman added. "It makes me think the Americans have done nothing to stop the drug trafficking."
Although it's an unintended consequence of the U.S. action in Afghanistan, some Russian officials trace the growing problem to an American plot.
Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, the national drug enforcement agency, told parliament in May that it was reasonable to "call the flow of Afghan opiates the second edition of opium wars." He was referring to the 19th-century war between Britain and China sparked by exports of opium from British India to China.
Ivanov isn't alone.
"I can name you a lot of politicians in Russia who said that the Americans specially arranged the situation in Afghanistan so that we would receive a lot of drugs, and this is the real aim of their occupation," said Andrei Klimov, the deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house of parliament. "I'm not sure this is true, but who knows."
The U.S. government takes no direct responsibility for fueling Russia's drug problem.
"I would say the entire international community is responsible. The U.N. Security Council looked favorably on the U.S. and NATO doing what they're doing in Afghanistan," a State Department official said, referring to the U.N. mandate backing the foreign presence in the country. "So when critics like Russia say the U.S. and NATO aren't doing enough, well, it's really the entire international community that needs to take action on this."
A second State Department official pointed to the lack of Russian effort to provide assistance in Afghanistan.
"The Russians have had opportunities to come to the table on this and to provide alternative options," the official said. "If this really was a priority for them, we could work something out."
Both officials were authorized to speak to a reporter only if they weren't identified.
In Russia, it's much easier to blame a U.S. conspiracy than to bring up the subject of corrupt officials, the Russian mafia and their involvement in the drug trade.
Russia's Federal Drug Control Service wouldn't respond to McClatchy's questions over the course of a month, nor would the Interior Ministry or the national intelligence service. The Russian government routinely suppresses basic information about drug-related trials, even the names of defendants.
Igor Khokhlov, a senior researcher at the Academy of Sciences, a government-funded research institute, has researched the drug trade and concluded that high-level authorities aren't involved.
"They have safer and better ways to benefit from their high offices," he said in an e-mail interview.
However, it's almost impossible to do business in Russia, legal and otherwise, without a "krysha" — a Russian word that means "roof" — a patron to protect a businessman from corrupt government officials, criminals and other realities of modern Russia. It seems unlikely that kryshas could operate in Russia's estimated annual $15 billion drug-trafficking industry without high-level government contacts.
A 2008 U.N. report concluded that Russian organized-crime groups "provide protection to drug trafficking networks in exchange for a share of the proceeds."
The former deputy director of the Federal Drug Control Service, Alexander Mikhailov, said that Tajiks usually ran the wholesale heroin business at the border and delivered the drugs to gypsy communities, who handled retail distribution. He acknowledged that both groups have patrons whose "job is to corrupt those who affect his business: police, customs, narco-police, the people who should be fighting drugs."
Who protects the drug dealers, and how do narcotics get from the border to places such as Moscow? Mikhailov, who served for 25 years in the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service, ignored the questions. "I don't like to give names in the drug business," he said. "Most people don't."
Sporadic news reports suggest that narco-corruption occurs at senior levels of law enforcement. In 2003, five federal anti-narcotics agents were arrested, accused of taking bribes from a drug dealer. During 2004, an Interior Ministry lieutenant colonel was charged with leading a group of former police officers who were caught selling heroin in the Moscow region. Russian news wires reported in 2006 that more than 160 staff members of the federal anti-narcotics service had been caught for drug-related crimes.
'I PAID BRIBES TO GET LET GO'
As his friends died drooling and shaking with Afghan heroin burning through their veins, Alexei knew that things were getting out of control. In 2002 or 2003, it seemed as if a dam had burst: The number of heroin dealers in his north Moscow suburb grew from three to a few dozen, and the supply was purer than anything he'd had before.
Alexei, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of legal concerns, started shooting up heroin every day and earning cash as a drug courier.
After 2002, more than a dozen of Alexei's friends didn't survive overdoses after vomiting in nightclub bathrooms or on their apartment floors. Roman, 23, died in a hospital ward after shooting up in a stairwell. Christina, 21, overdosed at home. Pyotr, 37, went to a party, used some heroin and had a fatal heart attack at his girlfriend's apartment.
Nevertheless, Alexei, a 28-year-old with a buzz cut who favors black jeans and bright white sneakers, said he didn't worry much about getting caught ferrying packages of heroin between Moscow and outlying towns
"I was arrested in clubs and apartments, but . . . I paid bribes to get let go," he said.
A federal anti-narcotics officer who works in a region near the Kazakh border sat down recently with a McClatchy reporter for a meal of grilled pork and vodka, but agreed to an interview only if his name wasn't used; his agency had said that its agents weren't allowed to talk to journalists.
"I've heard about a lot of cases of local police taking bribes to protect drug dealers," said the agent, who had a pink face, thick shoulders and a gold tooth that shone when he smiled. Those cases, he said, are investigated by police departments' internal affairs bureaus, which aren't above suspicion themselves.
The agent said he earned $540 a month for working to control a trade worth millions of dollars in his area. Local police, he said, make even less.
A second federal officer, who met a reporter in his car in a parking lot, sighed when he talked about the subject. "I can't tell you that there's not much police corruption," said the officer, a thin man wearing a cheap brown jacket who drove up in a small white Lada, a matchbox-like Russian car.
"I can't say the situation is getting any better," he said, speaking anonymously for the same reason as the first federal officer. "The amount of heroin coming in increased a lot during the past two years."
Vladimir Bogomolov, who's run a drug treatment center in the city of Chelyabinsk for 10 years, started to describe the network to a visiting American reporter.
"The Russian (criminal) groups are above the Tajiks and gypsies; they allow them to sell drugs and take a percentage of what they make," he said between sips of coffee. The police, he said, "are extremely corrupt."
An associate who sat in on the interview interrupted Bogomolov: "We shouldn't talk about what's happening right now."
So Bogomolov, who's committed much of his life to fighting the drug problem in his city, stopped talking about it.
He had the look of a defeated man.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington