You never forget how to swipe a bike

One fine morning Alain Fontanel, the former deputy mayor of Strasbourg, found his electric bicycle stolen. Nothing remarkable about that, such things happen.

Will Vittorio de Sica rise from the dead?

Soon thereafter he saw his bike advertised for sale on the Leboncoin website, France’s eBay. Shunning the buy-back option, attractive though it was, Mr Fontanel went to the police.

Sting-minded cops contacted the seller, who agreed to meet them just outside the Russian consulate. The proposed transaction predictably turned into a routine arrest, but then things got interesting.

The culprit turned out to be Russian, the consul’s driver, who clearly didn’t wish to pursue his side line too far from his day job. The thief’s lowly position didn’t entitle him to diplomatic immunity, which is why he was held in custody for 24 hours and thoroughly interrogated.

It turned out that swiping Mr Fontanel’s possession wasn’t a momentary lapse. The chap had stolen about 300 bikes all told, realising a neat €100,000 supplement to his consulate salary.

So far so ordinary, you may think. But here’s the interesting bit: Mr Fontanel’s bike came with a fake receipt of purchase bearing a Russian consulate stamp. Now employees who have access to such stamps occupy a higher rank in the diplomatic hierarchy, and they do boast immunity.

Anyway, when the cops wanted to interrogate the thief again, they were told he had left France “for health reasons”. Not Covid-related, I hope.

However, the consulate denied their man’s guilt. They also disavowed the rumour that a sequel to Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film Bicycle Thieves was in the works. Sorry, I made this one up, couldn’t resist.

That nice little earner fits into a long dishonourable tradition of Russian diplomatic missions engaging in ‘activities incompatible’. Usually this term is used on orders to expel spies, and Russia isn’t the only country to combine diplomacy with intelligence-gathering.

Yet Russian embassies have been known to perform less common functions as well. For example, during the 1918-1919 communist revolt in Germany, Soviet diplomats led by Ambassador Ioffe were doling out rifles, grenades and machineguns right in the embassy’s courtyard.

More recent and relevant was the 2018 drug bust at the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires, when Argentine police seized 858 pounds of cocaine worth about €80 million. Among other things, that showed that England holds no exclusive rights to Powder Plots.

That Russian diplomats routinely engage in contraband is reasonably well known. However, there’s something endearing about the Bicycle Plot.

If multi-million drug deals betoken vast conspiracies involving organised crime, nicking bikes and flogging them on the net has a nice down-home feel to it. It’s private initiative at the grassroots, a manifestation of the enterprising spirit so characteristic of the much-vaunted Russian spirituality.

Stealing everything not bolted down has always been a popular pastime there, and why should diplomatic missions be any different? As Horace wrote, “Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt.” (They change their sky, not their soul, who rush across the sea.) Or perhaps a Russian saying is more appropriate: like priest, like parish.

Post-perestroika Russia has elevated thievery to statecraft, where all public officials from the president down busily pilfer the country’s resources and monetise them through global money laundering.

Their loot, meandering through various offshore havens, is estimated at over two trillion dollars, and ordinary Russians don’t really mind, provided they can nick their fair share. A penny stolen is a penny earned, while we are bowdlerising proverbs.

Or, if you’d rather, he who does not steal, neither shall he eat. This version, more robust in the original, does exist in Russia, and it’s oft-repeated (Кто не пиздит, тот не ест, for the benefit of those studying Russian.)

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