There’s a common assumption that Russia is packed with police officers, most recently given form in a Most Heavily Policed: Countries that has Russia topping the table with 564.6 cops per 100,000 population, followed at some distance by Turkey with 474. Can it really be that Russia has so many more police per head of population than everyone else in the world, that it is so much cop-dense? And if so, why do they have to raid the training academies and Interior Troops just to police parades in Moscow, the city with the greatest concentration of them?
Well, first of all it is worth noting that the table, which is based on UNODC data, excludes such countries as Belarus, Azerbaijan, North Korea and Uzbekistan which might well be expected to topple Russia from its pinnacle. But it still dramatically overstates the size of Russia’s police force. This is a common and recurring theme; I wrote this over a year ago for my article ‘Purges, Power and Purpose: Medvedev’s 2011 police reforms‘ in the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies:
On the surface, the police force was a bloated bureaucratic leviathan reminiscent of its Soviet and even tsarist predecessors. Its 1.4 million staff as of 2010 included many paper-pushers and official busybodies, and a cut seemed an obvious move, especially given that it would free up resources for qualitative improvements. However, the real problem is not over-staffing but inefficient use of resources. If anything, given the size of the country and the scale of the challenges, a case could be made for more officers, not fewer. On the face of it, the MVD’s 2010 establishment strength meant a relatively high ratio of one police officer for every 101 citizens (compared with the UK’s 1:254, for example), but this was deceptive. That 1.4 million included 180,000 Interior Troops, an unknown number of unfilled positions (the highest estimate would be around 40,000) and a larger proportion of office workers compared with active police officers (defined as those who carry a badge and can make an arrest). Again to draw the comparison with the UK, there over half the total strength of 240,000 in 2010 were genuine police. While it is hard to come up with precise figures, the Russian figure was probably closer to 40-45%. This would suggest that the “1.4 million cops” were actually only some 530,000. Still more than in smaller, more advanced states (the true police officer to citizen ratios in the UK and US are 1:429 and 1:380, respectively, compared with 1:267 for Russia) but not quite so ridiculously excessive as might have originally appeared. (For the references to sources, please see the original article)
The UNODC data on which Bloomberg draws likewise, although claiming to exclude support staff, seem to include in practice uniformed officers, and many of the jobs which in Western countries would be carried out by civilian and contract staff are instead handled by uniforms in Russia. That does not mean they are ‘police’ — they are neither trained nor equipped to go out on the beat. But they do artificially drive the total strength upwards. Likewise, the Interior Troops must be discounted–although they are sometimes used for policing public events and the like, they are no more ‘cops’ than the New York National Guardsmen on the concourse I see every time I take a train from NY Penn Station. They are not like the Italian Carabinieri and French CRS, who blend military, public order and police roles.
The MVD now has a strength of around a million, factoring in unfilled positions. This includes the now around 170,000 Interior Troops, leaving 830,000. Nonetheless, although it would be possible to make a back-of-the-envelope calculation about the number of real cops across Russia as a whole, perhaps a better exercise would be to compare the Moscow GUMVD (Main Directorate of the Ministry of Interior Affairs ), which is rather more extensive and close to establishment strength (94.1% staffed, according to Moscow police chief in his 2012 report to the Moscow City Duma) with the London Metropolitan Police Service.
As of the end of 2011, the Met had 48,661 staff, of whom 31,478 (65%) were sworn police officers, 3,831 (7.7%) police community support officers (uniformed but civilian officers used for patrol and neighborhood support roles) and 13,350 civilian staff. Let’s be generous and lump the PCSOs in with the real police; that means that the Met is 73% cop, 27% civilian staff, with 430 officers per 100k population (and incidentally the Bloomberg figures give the UK a figure of 262.1).
In comparison, the Moscow GUMVD has an establishment strength of about 80,000; let’s assume it’s now at 95% strength, so 76,000 in reality. The Russians don’t provide a neat break-down of police to staff, but considering that the Met is one of the more efficient and lean services around, I very, very much doubt the Russians can match it. So, arbitrarily, I’ll assume a 65% tooth-to-tail (cop-to-civilian) ratio, which would still make MGUMVD distinctly more efficient than most other Russian police commands. That would suggest some 49,000 police, responsible for a city with a notional population of 11.5 million, although in reality it might be as high as 17M. Still, sticking to the official census data, that suggests that Moscow, the most heavily policed city in Russia bar Grozny, has 426 officers per 100k population. That’s about where the Bloomberg table puts Algeria, below Kazakhstan.
These are rough, back-of-the-envelope figures but honestly, they feel right. Certainly the notion that Russia today is some police state knee-deep in cops just doesn’t hold true, especially once one looks beyond Moscow and St Petersburg. Russia’s irony has often been, after all, that for its size, heterogeneity and challenges, it has often been under-policed, not least as the more numerous and powerful political police–which meant the Okhrana and Gendarmerie of tsarism as much as the Cheka, NKVD and KGB of Soviet times–would often annex police resources to their own ends.