Traveling abroad is an opportunity for endless enrichment experiences. Traveling to unfamiliar territory also inevitably invites the opportunity for security threats. In the last article of this series, “ Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What a Student Traveling Abroad Ought to Know“, I provided an introduction to my own travel experiences in Moscow, Russia as a student in a direct exchange program. I briefly shared about how my arrogant attitude towards my own status as an American citizen not only revealed my naivety about foreign cultures, but may have also resulted in the piano bar attack I described.
In “A Semester Abroad: Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance, Part 2” I would like to elaborate on the piano bar attack using a lens more analytical than theoretical. In doing so I will outline some of the mistakes that I made — be they false assumptions, improper preparation, or just plain old stupidity — which ultimately resulted in potential threats becoming a scary reality. With recent reports showing that each year near 300,000 American students study abroad, roughly 65% of these students are females, more discussion needs to be had on issues of travel security; because ultimately if you find yourself facing an attack situation then you have already made mistakes that led you to this point. Knowing how to prevent safety and security issues when traveling abroad is the best self-defense mechanism you could ever teach yourself.
Lesson One: ‘Prepare for the Worst’ is Not for the Weak!
Traveling to Moscow, Russia I would have never predicted that I would be the victim of a violent attack, let alone the victim of two violent attacks. Growing up in America where statistically two-thirds of Americans will never be the victim of a violent attack, I had grown comfortable with the assumption that my safety was practically guaranteed. My first presumptuous mistake was made long before my plane ever touched down in Moscow — I decided to dismiss the warnings of my friends and family as propaganda-motivated paranoia. I was not even remotely invested in any form of risk analysis — a process which considers any catastrophic events that could occur — but, I should have been. For students who are planning to travel or study abroad for any amount of time, particularly in an Eastern European nation, there are certain warnings which deserve your attention. You should give your attention to these warnings not only to alert your awareness to the possibility of such events, but in order to break down any false or arrogant assumptions you may have about the potential for such security issues. Here is a brief list of the warnings given to me by parents, friends, university officials, and experienced travelers of Russia which I, for the most part, dismissed:
- Do not be out on the streets of Moscow after dark.
- Do not go anywhere alone — day or night.
- Avoid hailing taxis from the street. Instead, call a registered taxi company.
- Do not drink (for too long) with a Russian. They can tolerate more alcohol than you. (Not a stereotype…a reality.)
- Pick-pockets are slick. Take extra precautions to avoid being the victim of theft.
- Do not carry too much cash on you. And never pull out your I-Phone (or smart phone) in an unfamiliar environment.
I failed to acknowledge, at one point or another throughout my stay in Moscow, nearly all of the above listed warnings. The series of events that led up to me being the victim of an attack at the piano bar, however, were the direct result of me assuming I need not pay attention to four of the above warnings. Talk about arrogant! Being prepared, cautious, and alert is not a sign of weakness. To the contrary, it demonstrates wisdom and a respect for the realities of the world that we live in.
Lesson Two: ‘Playing it By Ear’ Does Not Result in a Good Night Out
I could say that the best way to avoid being the victim of any sort of piano bar attack would be to avoid leaving your Moscow dorm room, unless traveling to class, the grocery store, or your nearest Visa office. The reality is, however, that most twenty-somethings traveling to Moscow, or any country for that matter, will choose to experience the culture in one way or another in daytime and at night. Entirely avoiding a threat may be improbable, but threat avoidance to some degree is certainly still possible with proper planning and situational awareness.
I certainly did not plan ahead to any degree on the night of the piano bar attack. A fellow American student knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to join him as we “went exploring”. Without a second thought, I grabbed my purse, all of my cash, and set out for a busier part of the city. Mistake: not giving it a ‘thought’ is typically not a good idea when traveling in unfamiliar, unforgiving environments.
We popped into a restaurant and ordered some traditional Russian dishes. After a while, we overheard two men sitting next to us speaking with British accents. We decided to be friendly and assumed these men were friendly Westerners. Before long we were sharing stories over drinks and eating up every word that these ‘friendly Westerners’ were telling us. Not once did we think to ‘red flag’ these men, despite the discrepancies in their conversation: misplaced accents with un-matching stories of origin, unusual advice which was contrary to all the warnings we had received elsewhere, and vague information about their own professional endeavors in Moscow. We simply went along with the coincidence of the night — we had found two friendly tour guides and it was time to play the rest of the night by ear. Mistake: assuming friendly strangers, no matter how much you may have in common with them, genuinely want to show you a good time.
Lesson Three: If It Seems Dangerous, it Probably Is.
Threat avoidance is a period within the progression of any given attack cycle that only lasts so long. Eventually, a threat shifts from being potential to imminent. At such a point, there is no more avoiding a threat, only mitigating such threats.
As the first restaurant closed, we hopped in a street taxi (See above warnings) with our new British comrades and headed for Chinatown — a notoriously criminal part of Moscow. It would have behooved my friend and I if we had chosen to call it a night before heading to Chinatown, but again we assumed there was no need to worry. We arrived on a busy street and one of our British friends led us to his “favorite little pub” – a piano bar located undergrounds. The night carried on; I was consumed in conversation with our British friends, while my American friend struck up conversations with Russian patrons who, quite frankly, had had way too much to drink. All five of us (two Americans, two British, and a Russian) moved, on the request of the Brits to a small table secluded in the back corner of the restaurant — on the side without the piano. (Just a note: my hope is that at this point in the story you, my reader, are picking up on the numerous naïve, dangerous, and careless decisions that we made that night.) An older Russian gentleman had been pestering me all night, but my new-found British friend assured me that he was a regular here, and to pay him no mind.
Then, all of a sudden, one of the British men proclaimed he had received a text stating his mother had had a heart attack and that they must leave immediately. We offered our shocked condolences and encouraged him to be on his way. We, being filled with joviality at the nights festivities, decided to stay to talk to more Russians. Mistake: do not stay late, in a dark corner of an underground bar, with no one but locals around. Two are easily outnumbered.
We had stayed maybe twenty minutes after our British friends left when my friend excused himself to the bathroom. I told him we ought to leave when he returned. I was all alone in the corner when the older Russian man that had been a slight annoyance all night suddenly turned aggressive. And thus, the potential threats that had been there since the before we had ever left our dormitory were realized in actuality. I had not avoided them, I had not mitigated them, and now I was left to defend myself against these actual threats.
The man pushed me into the corner of the table, while I yelled for help to anyone in the bar, while another Russian (the one that we had befriended throughout the night) stole my money and phone. Not a single bar patron looked our way — they were locals and knew better. My friend came out of the restroom only to be greeted by another Russian man in cohorts with this criminal scheme wielding a knife. He warned my friend not to interfere and that we would be able to leave soon. Sure enough, just as I thought that the physical violence was going to escalate to a point of serious injury, the older man stepped off of me and they fled the piano bar.
I tell this story not to dramatize the stupidity of the decisions I made that night, nor to fulfill any stereotypes about criminal activity on the streets of Moscow. I am telling this to encourage readers, especially those who may find themselves studying or traveling abroad in the near future, to take the time to think about your daily or nightly excursions. Listen to the warnings of those that care about you. Have a plan and stick to it. And most of all, do not walk into a trap — if it seems dangerous (underground bar in a criminal part of town) it most likely is.
Stay tuned for the next part in this article series, “ Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What a Student Traveling Abroad Ought to Know“, where I will introduce a different attack experience I encountered towards the end of my stay in Moscow. Along with this introduction, I will conceptualize apathy in terms of personal safety and security.