Akademgorodok (something like “University City”) was founded in the 1950s and 1960s as the seat of Novosibirsk State University and a number of scientific institutes. Its planners strove to make it a nice place for scientists and scholars to live and work. It was and still is considered a highly desirable area of residence. Despite its advancing age, real estate here sells for a premium price.

One of the benefits of this quiet and cultured community is its many natural wooded areas, left intact by the planners, who deliberately built around them. These are beautiful year round, consisting not only of evergreens, but also of broadleaf trees, especially tall birches. These areas were intended for the refreshment of the residents, and also provide convenient shortcuts from one point to another.

Who could have known back then that the ticks would become carriers of deadly encephalitis? Besides these ticks, however, there’s another danger in the woods of post-Soviet Akademgorodok. This danger, needless to say, is humans. Besides the occasional reported rape or murder, there’s no shortage of those ready to rob. What better place to find targets than in the woods, where it’s easy to surprise passers-by at the last moment, and easy to hide from the police?

There’s the usual kind of muggers. One of the instructors at the university was telling me the other day how, now long ago, she was walking through the woods behind the House of Scientists, a cultural hub of the community, and was accosted by youths who took her money and cell phone. As a long-time resident, she walked there because she thought it was safe, but learned later that there’s a high incidence of this kind of crime in that vicinity.

From my place in Nizhnaya Yeltsovka to the church and seminary in Akademgorodok, it’s a 45-minute walk—but only through the woods. By the roads it would take nearly twice that long. I’ve made this walk, but only in groups. This is because there have been many reports of crime there. One clever method is for the robbers to dress as joggers. They run by their prey, paralyze them with stun guns, and then take their money and possessions as the victims lie helpless.

The strangest and perhaps most dangerous kind of robbery, however, is committed by gypsies, who lurk in the woods near the university. These know how to hypnotize with their eyes. A number of foreign university students, unaware of the danger posed by the approaching strangers, have found themselves unhurt but bereft of their possessions, not remembering how or why it happened.

As with ticks, one can reduce the chances of an encounter by avoiding the woods entirely. It’s hard to do, though. The beauty is irresistible, and the time saved by the shortcut is sometimes precious, especially if one has a bus to catch. As with any area where crimes can be committed, it’s always safer during those times when there are many people about. At other times, it’s better to take the long, boring route.