by Nick Byrne for The Saker Blog
“Russia is such a dangerous country! Why did you come here? How have you managed to survive?» I’ve heard these and similar comments from pessimistic locals, when they learned that I moved from Canada to Russia nearly six years ago. While St. Petersburg is a very safe city by any standard, I’m an active traveler, outdoors sports enthusiast, and I’ve lived in and visited many different parts of the country that are far less wealthy and developed. Most of my perambulations have been entirely without conflict, although on a few occasions I ended up in situations where I had to defend myself. Analyzing these conflicts may provide useful lessons for those interested in self-defence. Taking a cue from Sun Tzu, I will start with a few words about myself before describing the environments in which conflicts may occur, and «the enemies».
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Yours truly is a reasonably successful, self-employed English tutor who mostly works from home, although in pre-quarantine times spent two or three days of the week in the St. Petersburg city center with corporate clients. I do not own a car, and I take public transport (commuter trains, metro, busses) to and from most of my meetings. I’m a good runner and cross-country skier, I served in the army 10 years ago, and I trained in Shotokan Karate as a teenager. I’m tall and on the strong side of athletically-built. Also, I do not engage in any high-risk lifestyle activities, I never visit nightclubs and only occasionally visit the local pub for a couple of pints with friends. I’ve never had any issues with the police, either here in Russia or while living in Canada. So, who I am as a person and my lifestyle precludes many problematic situations that other people may be faced with.
My living environment here in Russia is suburban, approximately middle-class, family-oriented, and (pre-coronavirus) economically stable, although not particularly wealthy. There’s no obvious criminal activity or racial tension around, no gangs and only minimal trade in illegal substances, and violent crime, muggings and burglary are rare. Beautiful, natural parks are within a short walk of my apartment, and they’re mostly used by locals for fishing, walking alone or with friends, barbecue parties, bike riding, fitness and dog walking. When I commute to the city center or travel further afield, most of the people around me are students, a mix of blue- and white-collar workers, parents with children, and the elderly. Commuter trains are well-kept (although simple), and monitored by train conductors and security guards. Prohibited behaviour like smoking (between wagons) and drinking openly or covertly is uncommon and increasingly rare. Weapons are generally restricted, and laws against violent behaviour are enforced. Because of my living environment, conflict is also unlikely.
So, who is my «enemy»? Who do I really need to watch out for here? Speaking from experience, the enemies are dogs, drunk people, and mentally/emotionally unstable people, in descending order of likelihood multiplied by danger. I got bit by a dog once (the owner, also a total b****, walked off to avoid getting in trouble, even as blood was flowing down my leg) and I vowed to never let that happen again. The pain was one thing, but repeated scheduled visits to the hospital for anti-rabies vaccinations messed up my work and travel plans for months afterwards. I have also had several close encounters with dogs since then, in which I successfully defended myself using pepper spray and a walking stick I carry.
Enemy #2, drunk people, not very dangerous but worth keeping an eye out for. Most drunk people here are lazy, somewhat friendly and conversational, and even philosophical, but from time to time they’re aggressive if you somehow catch their blurry eyes. I’ve never had to fight any drunks, simply because I’ve just been able to walk away from the most aggressive ones. In enclosed spaces, like when I was on a city bus in Tyumen, it was a bit more difficult. A drunk guy heard my accent as I was speaking with friends in Russian, and started to make aggressive antisemitic remarks at me. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, so I assumed he was, I asked some disarming tourist-type questions about the city, and he got off at his stop. As I was looking at him I saw a security camera on the bus and thought that it might end badly for me (legally) if the conflict escalates.
Enemy #3, mentally and emotionally unstable people. Rare, but this is the type that I’m more concerned about. Once I was on a bus in Cherepovets, speaking in English with a colleague of mine, and was attacked by a random crazy guy who probably got triggered by the presence of a foreigner. He was trying to choke me (unsuccessfully), and my colleague and I managed to push him out the open doors when the bus stopped. Thankfully everyone was alright, although the situation could have turned out much worse. If I was to re-live that situation, I would deal with him much more quickly and forcefully instead of hoping for a peaceful outcome.
So, given who I am, the environment, and who the likely enemies are, what’s my self defence strategy? First, avoid the conflict before it begins, not out of cowardice but because of risk management- even tIf you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battlehe best, most well-armed fighter will lose sometimes, and losing may mean permanent health or mobility problems, or death. Secondly, if a conflict is going to happen, go in to win it without holding back. Thirdly, fighting empty-handed reduces the chances of success, so having a weapon is useful. Deadly weapons such as knives and guns are restricted here in Russia, but you can carry pepper spray (just not on trains and planes- I’ve had mine confiscated before) or a walking stick. Walking sticks, if you know how to use them, are nice because they increase your range and striking power, aren’t affected by wind (like pepper spray is), and can be carried absolutely anywhere.
As our world enters into ever-more interesting and unpredictable times, I’d encourage you to think practically and realistically about self-defence, considering who you are, the environment you live (and mIf you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battleay have to fight) in, and who your enemies are likely to be. There are no guarantees, but with a solid strategy you will have the confidence to properly address dangerous situations and keep yourself and loved ones safe.
Does anything change security-wise in the current environment of coronavirus? From my perspective in Russia, I honestly don’t know. Russia has many strengths, culturally and institutionally, that can help her to weather crises. But, in the event of international economic collapse, and multiple internal economic sectors facing hard times (restaurants, fitness clubs, tourism-related businesses are in trouble now), exactly what will happen with internal social stability is difficult to predict. To date, I haven’t seen or heard of anything troubling connected with this crisis- there is a quarantine in place, but people still go for walks in local parks (this is St. Petersburg, and Moscow is more strictly locked down from what I’ve heard), church services continue but with reduced frequency, and there are no noticeable shortages of products in local shops. The mood on the streets here is somewhat concerned, but quite calm.