Europe

'Freeze... and marry me!' - Russians who propose at gunpoint

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Media captionA "special forces" raid turns out to have a romantic twist

Anastasia is expecting her boyfriend Sergei to be waiting for her when her flight arrives at St Petersburg airport.

But as she lands he texts to say that, due to unforeseen work commitments, a friend will be picking her up instead.

So far, so normal.

Later, as Anastasia is approaching her apartment building in the friend's car, a minibus with blacked-out windows screeches into their path. Armed men in masks jump out and take her driver friend away.

Anastasia is led to the back of the car she was travelling in. The men begin rifling through her things in the boot and discover a small packet full of white powder.

Surrounded by men clad in black special ops uniforms, a female plain-clothes detective turns to her: "You're suspected of supplying banned substances."

The colour in Anastasia's face swiftly drains away.

"You must be mistaken. That's not mine," she says, smiling nervously.

"Then whose is it? Enough of the games!" a man barks.

The questions continue, until the man opens the packet to reveal a small pink box.

"And what's this?" he asks.

"No idea!" she replies, her voice breaking.

Suddenly the man gets down on one knee, rips off his mask and shouts: "Marry me!"

It's Sergei, and it turns out he's the only one here who actually works in law enforcement. The others work for an "extreme proposal" service - part of an industry established in Russia in recent years.

Image caption All's well that ends well: "How can you get angry over this?" said Anastasia

Sergei's driver friend was in on the secret - he pretended to be frightened when the masked men stopped them.

Expensive 'treat'

Extreme proposals can cost as little as 700 roubles (£8.70; $10.50) for a half-hour photo session with a "member of the security forces", to around 60,000 roubles (£745; $900) for a full security forces show.

Sergei's extreme proposal set him back 30,000 roubles. He had considered approaching real law enforcement colleagues, and had approached people from the Federal Security Service (FSB), but they turned him down - something he's now relieved about.

"People from work could go over the top and break something: they can be scary!"

Image caption Sergei Rodkin hires security professionals but keeps quiet about their backgrounds

Spetsnaz (special ops) Show creator Sergei Rodkin says there is no upper limit on the price if clients really want to get carried away.

The 36-year-old businessman says he used to organise the shows for free back in 2010 for friends.

"Things gradually got bigger, and a year later we started doing it for money," he tells the BBC.

The first extreme proposals came in 2014. By 2015, several franchises of Spetsnaz Show had been set up around Russia. Now there are 14 of them - and competitors have also set up shop.


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Taste for realism

Among the actors are former police offers and ex-military personnel, to lend authenticity to the performances. They work part-time as there is not enough demand yet for it to be their full-time job.

Sergei says his clients always want the same drug-bust routine.

"They've got no imagination! They all want special ops, armed arrest, drugs," he gripes.

A recent, very real case involved police alleging they had found drugs on Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov.

At the time, the journalist insisted that the drugs were planted on him by the officers involved. He was soon released after police dropped the charges against him, due to lack of evidence.

Psychologist Polina Soldatova says the appearance of Spetsnaz Shows and other extreme engagements are a testament to the role of police officers in Russians' everyday lives.

"Humour is a way for society to respond to what is happening with it," she tells the BBC.

"These pranks… are a way of accepting the fact that the security forces can always come for you. People need a way to reconcile themselves with this reality."

Image copyright Spetsnaz Show
Image caption The extreme proposal angered Yulia from Ryazan - she threw the bouquet at her husband-to-be

Anastasia says she wasn't angry with Sergei for long, but that the affair was an initial shock for her. "It was really scary. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before".

Sergei asks her if she knows how many years in jail she would have faced had the drug bust been real. "Up to 20 years for that amount of drugs," he says.

And in reality, not everyone sees the funny side of such extreme proposals.

Alexander from Penza says his would-be fiancée was reduced to tears when she was on the receiving end of one of these "shows". She accused him of trying to give her a heart attack.

Yulia from Ryazan reacted with less polite language when her husband organised an extreme surprise to mark her 30th birthday.

She also swiped him round the head with the bouquet of flowers she'd just been given.

Image copyright Spetsnaz Show
Image caption Spetsnaz Show has even performed for children's birthday parties

Polina Soldatova, the psychologist, says the only people who get to enjoy the experience are those in the position of power. "The would-be fiancées laugh and smile out of relief that the men aren't real cops," she says.

"There's nothing funny for those who are subjected to stress and then made to be thankful for having such a creative partner."

In fact, the BBC has seen videos of "shows", made by regional Spetsnaz Show affiliates, in which people are handcuffed, forced to the ground with their heads pushed down, searched, or pushed up against the bonnet of a car.

Soldatova says these are forms of violence and humiliation that leave the person prepared to do anything to distance themselves from the scene, and that includes by accepting their partner's proposal.

But Sergei says that in the five years his Moscow branch has been operating, only one would-be fiancée has turned their partner down.