Moscow Sees Resurgence of 'Mickey Finn'

The flat, murky-colored brew that passed for beer in Soviet times is gone and in keeping with the spirit of glasnost, Moscow's many drinking establishments now offer a range of quality liquors, but sometimes a distinctly KGB flavor still lingers.

While the Russian capital has been a lot more accessible and inviting to foreign tourists since the fall of the Soviet Union, a recent warning by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has drawn attention to the fact that the Cold War may be over, but Russia's notorious criminal underworld can still pull some old tricks in new drinks.

In a carefully worded message issued last week, the U.S. Embassy warned U.S. citizens in Moscow of an increase in the number of foreign nationals who have been drugged and robbed after their drinks were spiked with a drug called clonidine in local bars and restaurants.

The tactic, which was widely employed in Russia in the mid-1990s, appeared to have lost its popularity at the turn of the millennium, but a recent upsurge of clonidine poisonings has put the authorities on a state of alert.

The new warning urges U.S. citizens to "consider ordering bottled drinks rather than mixed drinks" and to "avoid leaving drinks unattended."

For unsuspecting travelers, the message is clear: After a brief hiatus, Moscow's Mickey Finn is in.

A Man Walks Into a Bar?

The modus operandi is simple and fairly typical: an unsuspecting foreign national walks into a Moscow bar. He is approached by a woman who takes a sudden but decidedly friendly interest in him. Warm and fuzzy from the unexpected attention, the victim relaxes and drops his guard until he begins to feel distinctly drowsy and a feeling of lightness overcomes him.

It's the lightness a man experiences when his wallet has been emptied.

Named after a fictitious character from the bad old days of 19th century Chicago, the Moscow Mickey Finn has adapted to Russia's changing times.

Since the 1990s, an international bar culture has established a firm foothold in Moscow. Establishments with names such as "John Bull's," "16 Tons," "Pancho Villa," "Doug and Marty's Boar House," "Tropicana," and "Dolls" compete with more traditional-sounding ones such as "Bochka" (The Barrel), or the very popular "Petrovich" (Peter's Son).

And Moscow's officially licensed "Hard Rock Cafe" is scheduled to open later this year in the trendy Old Arbat pedestrian walkway.

Unsuspecting Foreigners

But political and economic changes have, unfortunately, had little influence on the weather, which can be very uninviting for long stretches of time and best coped with indoors with an inviting drink near at hand.

It's a perfect setting for Mickey Finn to step in and the best victims are unsuspecting foreigners because they tend to be short-term visitors with a ready supply of cash for their travels.

Moscow's medical clinics that cater to the foreign community have recorded an increase in cases of clonidine poisoning in the past few months, although officials say it fair to say these figures represent just the tip of the iceberg, as a number of cases are believed to go unreported.

Depending on the dosage, clonidine can cause tiredness and partial or complete loss of consciousness for hours, but sometimes even days.

A liquid form of the drug is usually administered, which does not alter the taste or color of the drink it is mixed into. Experts say the beverage does not have to contain alcohol — cases of doctoring tea and coffee have taken place as well.

Difficult to Police

But law enforcement officials admit it's difficult to catch clonidine criminals as the cases tend to be isolated and often slip proper attention by Moscow's overworked police force.

In the absence of serious policing, some owners and managers of bars and restaurants say they have stepped up their security measures. These sometimes include undercover security personnel posing as patrons.

But the sheer mobility of clonidine-wielders makes apprehension of such criminals an uphill task, according to local police sources.

Perpetrators are known to constantly change areas of prey, moving not only from bar to bar, but also from city to city, and even from country to country.

Scandinavian patrons of cheap watering-holes in the Baltic States such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been falling victim to Mickey Finns for decades.

Moscow police officials believe the criminals tend to have universal operational rules: They usually work alone or in closely knit groups and rarely mix with other sections of the city's underworld.

And Moscow police, like most embassies, have very simple advice to give: stay vigilant.