The recent brutal slaying of a family of five – including three small children - in a provincial town near Moscow was enough to shock even Russia, a country with some of the highest murder rates in the world, and led a parliamentarian to suggest the killings were a sign that the country was “sick.” Perhaps incurably so.
The bodies of the 35-year-old woman, her three boys aged four, five and nine, and their grandmother were found stacked up in a bathroom in an apartment in Tula, some 200 kilometers from Moscow, late on August 1.
Police were called to the apartment after neighbors complained of an unusual smell. Initial reports suggested the victims had been beaten to death with a hammer nine days before their bodies were found. Two days after the gruesome discovery, police detained a 19-year-old male suspect. Reports suggested he had carried out the killings after his love affair with the mother had soured.
The murders echoed last year’s notorious killings in a village in south Russia’s Krasnodar region, when 12 people, including four children, were slaughtered by a criminal gang. The discovery of the Tula bodies also came on the same day that an improvised bomb injured a five-year-old girl in a kindergarten in Russia’s Far East and a provincial police officer was charged with beating up a six-year-old boy.
Russia has been plagued with rising violence since the split-up of the Soviet Union, and most people here are jaded by daily reports of crimes that would make the headlines for weeks in other far less brutal countries. Still, the Tula and Krasnodar murders stood out.
‘The country and society are seriously sick and may already be untreatable,” Gennady Gudkov, deputy head of the Russian parliament’s security committee, told the Komsomolskaya Pravda paper after the news of the Tula killings broke.
“The country is wallowing in corruption, theft, and hypocrisy, and all of this is reflected in incidents like the one in Tula,” he went on. “We need to understand very clearly that this is a reflection of the general symptoms of the degradation of the nation.”
But if Russia is, as Gudkov claims, “sick,” what ails it? Gudkov, a supporter of President Medvedev’s often ridiculed “modernization program,” didn’t really have any suggestions on that.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, were he still alive, apart from being very old, would undoubtedly put this overall “degradation” down to svoevoliye, a word often mistakenly translated as “self-will,” but better defined as the practice of pursuing one’s desires no matter what, to the sacrifice of all and everyone else. Even if that means destroying lives in the process. It’s a theme that underpins novels like “Crime and Punishment” and “The Devils” and is the “sin” that inspires some of his most notorious characters’ crimes.
The opposite of this is, of course, rationality, or the ability to act upon the realization that ambitions and desires can be controlled, and no one has the right to try to fulfill them at any cost.
Unfortunately, that’s not the message being given out by the country’s officials.
Let’s look again in more detail at Gudkov’s assertion that Russia is “wallowing in corruption.” A recent poll by the Levada Center found that just over half of respondents believe corruption among the country's leadership is higher now than it was in the notoriously “lawless” 1990s. Almost 40 percent of respondents thought corruption was greater the higher you went up the political ladder, with 50 percent saying all officials were “equally” corrupt.
Polls also reveal an equal distrust of police, and with good cause. One of the clearest examples of the malfeasance of the country’s law enforcement agencies is the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow pretrial detention center. Magnitsky had uncovered massive fraud by police officials in the days before his arrest on trumped-up tax evasion charges and – as the Kremlin’s rights council has suggested – he was simply thrown into jail to die as punishment. Svoevoliye can lead you down some nasty paths.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the Tula or Krasnodar murderers were thinking about all this high level unpleasantness before, during, or even after their crimes. But they didn’t really need to. All they had to do to get infected by this lack of self-restraint was look around them. As Gudkov put it, “even the criminals have degenerated.”
Memorial human rights chief Oleg Orlov successfully argued in court earlier this year that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was “responsible” for the death of human right activist Natalya Estemirova in 2009 by creating a society in which such killings could be carried out without sanction. The same idea holds true for mainstream Russia – the country’s leading officials and law enforcement bodies have combined to pollute the collective mindset to such an extent that nothing, it seems, is sacred any longer.
Or, in other words, “Everything is permitted.”
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, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).