Russia’s guardians (and I use the word loosely) of law and order have a new name. As from March 1, they are no longer militsiya, but politsiya. Or, to translate, once militia now police. But will this stop the brutality and corruption they have made their trademark?
The cops here, known throughout the country as musor, or rubbish, have had a bad reputation since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the events of recent years have seen it get a lot worse.
After Moscow district police chief Denis Yevsyukov shot dead three people in and outside a supermarket in the south of the Russian capital in 2009, a wave of unprecedented criticism culminated in President Dmitry Medvedev dismissing the head of the Moscow force.
However, the Moscow slaughter was just the tip of a particularly bloody iceberg. According to Interior Ministry figures, police here are responsible annually for around 4,500 serious crimes. Many of these have involved extreme violence, including the burning alive, beheading and torture of suspects, as well as child rape and kidnapping.
Indeed, police crime is so commonplace that only the most gruesome incidents become the subject of widespread media attention. The remaining crimes, including more “mundane” cases of murders and rapes, are merely worthy of a paragraph or two in the country’s press. If they make the news at all.
So what exactly drives Russian police out of their minds?
In response to widespread public and media criticism, police officers have used Internet message boards to launch into a discussion of the psychological and emotional hazards of being a Russian cop. Some of the comments are chilling.
“I’m not surprised that such a tragedy occurred,” wrote a certain Shevelevee after the south Moscow supermarket killings. “Looking at the officers around me, I realized if you put a pistol in the hand of any of them when they are going through a tough time at work, combined with some unpleasantness in their personal life, multiplied by debts…the same thing would happen.”
“Police officers go out of their minds because they work in a lunatic asylum,” Prepod commented. “You have to answer to everyone and for everything…you are always wrong. Everywhere they tell you you’re a moron…that you should just go and flip burgers for a living…You have no money. Nowhere good to live. If you die, even as a hero, no one will remember you. Who can take all this?”
Interior Ministry psychologists admit that Russian police officers are at risk of what they call “personality deformation.” Long working hours, harsh conditions, and miserly official salaries all contribute to the build-up of stress. The mildest form of “personality deformation” consists of cynicism and a lack of compassion. The most extreme expressions of the illness result in cops grabbing their weapons and killing friends or family, passersby or themselves. Although the Interior Ministry offers psychological counseling to police officers, very few make use of it over fears that their colleagues or bosses will find out.
Russia’s New Times magazine has quoted an unnamed Moscow police officer as saying that the inherently corrupt nature of the Russian police system, where bribery is commonplace and the posts with the “best” prospects for extortion are allegedly sold for massive sums, was responsible for turning potentially honest cops into musor.
“10% joined up to work and 40% just see the job as a chance to make a pile of cash. The other 50% are theoretically prepared to act according to the law, but the current conditions mean they have to play by the rules of the game,” the paper’s source said.
“The rules of the game,” namely corruption and routine brutality, do little to endear Russian cops to their compatriots, and the resulting widespread hostility results in the police seeing the outside world as a case of “us versus them.” Pressures build up, and release is most often found in a heady mixture of vodka and violence.
“Vasya started to go out of his mind,” Svetlana N, the ex-wife of a Russian police officer told me. “He couldn’t get to sleep without a shot of vodka, said he couldn’t relax without it. Once, I was coming home late and saw him drunk out of his skull, shooting off his pistol in the street.”
“I froze, and just ran home before he had a chance to focus on me. Then he came home and started shooting from the balcony in the middle of the night. They have to answer for every bullet fired, and I asked him ‘Are you crazy? How are you going to explain that?’ ‘I don’t care,’ he told me. Luckily, maybe because it was the middle of winter and there was no one on the street and everyone had their windows sealed up, no one called the police.”
Did she have, I wondered, a theory about the predilection of the Russian police for violence and dishonesty?
“The system is to blame,” she replied. “It’s set up in such a way that only thugs will join.”
Medvedev has promised to increase salaries and weed out corrupt and violent cops in an attempt to improve the standard of officers. But for a force of which the country’s interior minister not so long ago advised Russians to “give as good as they get” if attacked by cops “for no reason,” it’s hard to be optimistic.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.