When The Robber Hits the Road

The United States has 50 states. In Russia, the equivalent-ish political subdivisions are called “federal subjects” and there are 85 of them. One of them, the Komi Republic, is located in the western part of the nation, as seen in red above. Komi is large, geographically — it encompasses¬†160,600 square miles (415,900 km2), making it roughly as large as California. But population-wise, the same can’t be said. Fewer than a million people live there, meaning that a family of about five people has, on average, an entire square mile all to themselves. (For comparison’s sake, California’s population is nearly 45 times larger than Komi’s).

Connecting all of those people together — and to the rest of Russia — requires infrastructure. So, as you can imagine, there have to be a lot of highways in Komi that simply don’t get a lot of use. So in 2014, figuring no one would notice, a man maned Alexander Protopopov decided to steal one.

That’s right: he literally committed highway robbery.

In 2014, Protopopov was — ironically — an acting deputy chief of Russia’s prison service. Specifically, according to the BBC, he headed up the prison system in Komi, and decided to use this authority there to order some new construction. Or, more accurately, he ordered a bunch of deconstruction. Over the next year or so, employees of the prison service, under Protopopov’s direction, removed 30 miles (50 km) worth of roadway, rendering the highway useless (obviously), according to CNN.

The scheme wasn’t simply destructive, though. In total, Protopopov was able to cart away 7,000 reinforced concrete slabs (of undisclosed size), which he then sold through a company that likely sold them back to local governments for use as new highways or other paved surfaces. In total, the theft cost the Russian government about 6 million rubles (or about $75,000 at the time).

It has, sadly, gone unreported (at least in English sources) as to how the authorities discovered the scheme. But for¬†Protopopov, that probably no longer mattered. After leading Komi’s prisons for five years, he was due to experience them for another ten — but from the other side of the bars.¬†

Bonus fact: Apparently, road-related theft in Russia extends to fraud as well. As the Guardian relayed in its report around Protopopov’s crimes, in 2014, the nation created a 29-mile road needed for the Sochi Olympics. Given then Protopovov’s stolen road was about the same length, it probably should have cost about $100,000, give or take a couple of grand. The total cost for the Sochi road? $8 billion, or ” the same to cover [the road] with black caviar.”

From the Archives: Let’s also steal a bridge, while we’re at it.