Culture, Travel & Sport

Mullo Nurov, the most honest cop in the Soviet Union

Instantly recognisable by his diminutive stature and magnificent moustache, Mullo Nurov built himself a reputation over more than three decades of service as the Soviet Union’s incorruptible and just traffic cop.

In his time, police captain Mullo Nurov was a minor celebrity in Tajikistan.

For drivers, being pulled over by Nurov was considered to be a good omen. Prominent visitors from the rest of the Soviet Union would look out for him, hoping to grab a photo.

He even played himself in a Soviet crime film.

Instantly recognisable by his diminutive stature and magnificent moustache, Nurov built himself a reputation over more than three decades of service as an incorruptible and just traffic cop. Serving in a part of the world where police corruption was (and still is) a fact of life, Nurov stood out from his peers for his honesty and fairness and today is an icon of the Tajik Ministry of Interior Affairs.

Nurov was born on March 8, 1936, in a small village in Tajikistan. His name then was Yermahmad – he only got the nickname Mullo after he memorised most of the Qu’ran at the age of eight (Mullo being Tajik for “mullah”, a Muslim cleric). According to his relatives, from childhood, he was fascinated by cars and dreamed of working as a driver.

In the 1950s, his dream came true when he was conscripted by the Soviet army and was deployed to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. There, he boasted about meeting Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and working as a personal chauffeur to Sergei Korolev, one of the most famous Soviet rocket engineers.

Too short for a police office

After completing his military service, Nurov moved back to Tajikistan, settling in the capital Dushanbe. Initially, he continued working as a driver for a state-owned enterprise. However, a traffic incident inspired him to become a police officer.

Nurov was pulled over by the police, despite not violating any rules. After refusing the aggressive officer’s demands, he was heavily fined for an arbitrary offence. The experience infuriated Nurov, who resolved to become a police officer, to set an example of how to carry out such an important job with honesty.

Initially rejected from the police academy due to his height, Nurov nevertheless managed to get in by demonstrating his passion for the profession.

“Please just look at how I will work, and if I can’t cope, I will resign,” Nurov is known to have said to his superiors.

So began a 33-year career as a traffic cop. Nurov quickly became a legend among his comrades. He could allegedly spot a drunk driver at a distance. His colleagues were initially sceptical about this ability and offered him a wager one evening. They accompanied him on his evening shift and pulled over cars according to his orders – to their surprise, Nurov correctly identified every drunk driver on the road that night.

According to the records of the Tajik Ministry of Interior Affairs, Nurov detained over 14,000 intoxicated drivers in his 33 years of service.

Incident at the Airport

Whenever Nurov is mentioned in local media, two anecdotes always come up. The first is how he once fined his own wife for jaywalking – according to their children, she was furious and refused to speak to her husband for a week.

“How could I look people in the eye if I allowed my own wife to break the law and escape punishment?” Nurov said of the incident.

The second involved a car accident near Dushanbe airport. Nurov was contacted by one of his colleagues, who said that one of the people involved in the accident was refusing to sign documentation admitting his responsibility, and that he was specifically asking for Nurov to mediate. At the scene, Nurov saw that the driver being held responsible was a simple courier, while the other driver was a factory manager.

Seeing through the situation, Nurov quickly deduced that it was the factory manager who had caused the accident, and that he had been trying to strong arm the policeman at the scene to blame the worker. Nurov then fined the factory manager the appropriate amount.

His burgeoning reputation landed him a role in the 1989 Soviet crime film/mini series An Incident at the Airport. He plays himself, an honest but eccentric traffic cop with a massive moustache who does his job meticulously.

Despite pleas from his family, Nurov kept working following Tajikistan’s independence in 1991, although he was by now past the retirement age. During that period, Tajikistan was in chaos. A radical Islamist political movement was sweeping the country, paralysing it politically and eventually leading to a full-scale civil war. Crime was skyrocketing, and heroin was flooding into the country from neighbouring Afghanistan. Street shootouts – either between rival political factions or rival criminal gangs – became commonplace.

A national hero

On December 2, 1992, Nurov came home for lunch. His wife claims that she asked him not to return to work that day, and to instead stay home, in relative safety, with his children. He is said to have replied that he had 33 other sons in the police service who needed him.

The next morning, Nurov was found dead in his bullet-riddled patrol car. The perpetrators were never found.

In 1994, on the anniversary of Nurov’s death, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Interior Affairs established the Mullo Nurov prize for police officers who demonstrate integrity, honesty and courage in the line of service.

In most of the world, police, especially traffic police, are unpopular. This is particularly true in poorer or more authoritarian countries, where police exist primarily to protect the state rather than to mediate between citizens and enforce the law. Even after the downfall of the Soviet Union, police departments across the newly independent countries have reputations for negligence, corruption and aggressiveness.

This is what made Nurov stand out – that he did his job fastidiously, without falling into the trappings of authority.

He is proof that national heroes come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes sporting a magnificent moustache.

Photo: Nurov playing himself in Incident at the Airport.

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