Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 2

By Nabi Abdullaev

Over the past decade, contract killing and alcohol-fuelled slayings have become an everyday routine in Russia, leading many to look back nostalgically to the relatively crime-free days of the Soviet Union. Suicide rates and accidental deaths have also skyrocketed over the same period, due mainly, experts say, to the collapse of the country’s preventive law enforcement system and the disintegration of the social fiber that deterred individuals’ inner and outer aggression.

These processes are most salient in Russia’s large cities, where social networks for the poorest residents were broken entirely. Muscovites, for example, are today nine times more likely to be murdered than Londoners. The weapon of choice is a kitchen knife, followed by a length of rope or some other method of strangulation. And the typical catalyst is a swig of booze.

These are among the grim statistics gathered by various scientific and law enforcement agencies, which rank Moscow as one of the most dangerous cities in Europe. The statistics highlight the extent to which murder, suicide and accident rates in the city have escalated over the past fifteen years, largely due to enormous social upheaval and the disorganization of law enforcement and social welfare authorities. According to Moscow’s city’s Bureau of Forensic Medicine, out of the 130,000 Muscovites who died last year, 15,457 died of unnatural causes–murder, suicide or accidents. About 1,700 of the deaths were murders, up 21 percent from 2000. The rate of increase for Moscow was about three times higher than the 7.3 percent increase for all of Russia last year.

Vladimir Zharov, the Bureau of Forensic Medicine’s head, said that though murder figures have dropped from the peaks reached during the days of wild capitalism in the mid-1990s, they represent a huge increase on those recorded in Soviet times. Zharov said the murder rate in Moscow began to climb in the late 1980s, when the country’s economy started changing. “From the 1960s to the late 1980s, there were 200 to 300 murder cases a year in Moscow and almost all murders happened in drunken brawls,” Zharov said. “But, in 1989, there were already 688 murder cases and, in 1992, when the country had officially turned to the market economy and property redistribution had started, 1,795 Muscovites were killed.” According to Zharov, the highest murder rate was recorded in 1994, when 2,863 people were killed in Moscow. Since then, the murder rate has dropped, reaching half the peak level in the late 1990s before climbing again last year.

The motives for murder have also changed. With the advent of capitalism, business-related slayings have become much more commonplace. According to the Moscow police, they now account for almost 20 percent of all murders. In Soviet times, they made up less than 1 percent of the total. The vast majority of murders, however, are still caused by drunken and domestic arguments, which, according to Moscow police spokesman Kirill Mazurin, is reflected in the fact that the kitchen knife remains the weapon of choice in violent attacks. Next comes the rope with a slipknot, followed by the hunting rifle, the pistol and more random objects like bottles or forks. Police solve such drink-fuelled murders quickly, Mazurin said. “Very often when we arrive at the crime scene, the murderers are still there, intoxicated by alcohol or drugs. Even when the murder takes place in a drinking hole crawling with people day and night, the neighbors usually provide enough information about the victim’s entourage to help us find the perpetrator.” Mazurin said most of these murders take place among the poorest segments of society and are usually caused by trivial arguments. Yury Sinelshchikov, a deputy Moscow prosecutor, seconded this view. “A stabbing can be sparked off by an unfinished glass of vodka or by the wrong word or even glance,” he said.

Moscow’s murder statistics compare unfavorably with other major cities. According to the New York Police Department’s website, New York, which has a population similar to Moscow’s almost 9 million, saw 643 murder cases in 2001, not including the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. That was down from 671 murders in 2000. A recent survey by The Guardian newspaper in Britain showed that the murder rate in Moscow is twenty-two victims per 100,000, more than nine times London’s rate of 2.36 victims per 100,000.

Law enforcement officials and criminologists believe Moscow’s high murder statistics are to a great extent caused by the collapse of the district police system. In Soviet times, released prisoners had to report to district police officers every day. The officers also kept tabs on renowned drunkards, enabling them to avert potentially deadly situations. Under the Soviet laws, every person had to employed under the penalty of law. Both police and trade unions kept their eyes on asocial elements and tried to draw them into social networks. But experts say a lack of funding and control has meant that the system no longer works effectively.

Oleg Myasnikov, a criminologist at Moscow State University, believes that because homicidal attacks spring up so spontaneously among the poorest sections of society, the only way to lower murder rates would be to establish constant preventive control over this potentially dangerous group–meaning a rehabilitation of the district police system. “A drunk vagrant walking on the street must be detained by police, even if he has committed no criminal offense,” he said. “This man is potentially dangerous to the public, and the task of law enforcement officials is to avert any potential crime he may commit.”

Myasnikov acknowledged that such preventive measures would not be well received by human rights groups, but said that the Soviet experience showed that it was worth it. In 1986, for example, only 14,848 people were murdered in the whole Soviet Union. In 1990, 16,122 Russians were murdered and by 2000 this figure had almost doubled to 31,829. A little more than 34,000 murders were committed in Russia in 2001, according to Interior Ministry statistics. Myasnikov pointed to the example of New York under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to show how crime levels can be reduced. In 1993, when Giuliani took control of the city, 1927 New Yorkers were killed in violent crimes. In three years, this amount decreased by half, and, by 2001, the murder rate was almost three times lower than in the early 1990s, according to the NYPD’s web site.

Myasnikov believes that Giuliani’s initiative of tougher police control over poor neighborhoods, mostly populated by ethnic minorities, was responsible for the drop in murders in the city. “Giuliani was widely criticized by human rights activists for his cops being hard on colored youths,” he said. “But the positive outcome of such a policy is obvious.”

Moscow’s suicide rate is also high–roughly four times higher than in the United States and most West European countries. According to the Bureau of Forensic Medicine, about 1900 Muscovites committed suicide in 2001. This figure is in line with the bureau’s statistics throughout the 1990s, which show that the number of suicides in Moscow hovering near 2,000 each year, reaching a peak of 2,365 in 1993. Suicide rates show a similar pattern to murder rates. In 1965, 17.1 people per 100,000 committed suicide in the Soviet Union, according to World Health Organization figures. By 1985, that figure had increased more than 30 percent, to 24.6 people per 100,000.

Zharov believes that suicide rates are high because Russians lack goals in life. “During World War II, there were very few suicides in Russia because people had posed a goal in front of themselves–they wanted to live through the war,” he said. “Today this reflex of a goal, which keeps a person alive, is very weakened in our citizens.” Sergei Ginekolupov, a psychiatric expert at the Mental Health Center of the Russian Academy of Medical Science, agreed that a lack of social optimism was responsible for the increase in suicides and murders in Russia. “In the post-Stalin period, the suicide and murder rates were minimal because people felt as though they were on an escalator going up,” he said. “People were getting new apartments from Khrushchev, buying their first private cars and even new clothes–everybody had bright expectations for the future.”

In addition, communist ideology unambiguously forbade suicide, portraying it as a sign of weakness, Ginekolupov said. The sharp increase in the suicide rate in the mid-1980s coincided with the degradation of the communist system and the country’s stagnation, he added. He believes that the suicide rate has stayed high because of a breakdown in social values and because social services no longer have the resources to help disturbed people. “Most suicides are people with a troubled psyche,” he said. “In Soviet times, they were taken care of by the state and by their relatives. In the early 1990s, the state healthcare system nearly collapsed and social tension was very high, disintegrating individuals. People were killing themselves because of a loss of interest in them.” Ginekolupov noted that in the Caucasian republics, where society is clannish and people support each other unconditionally, the suicide rate is minimal.

On top of all this, 9,300 Muscovites were killed last year in various accidents. According to Zharov, most them were heavily drunk at the time. Most died in car crashes or fell from balconies or out of windows. In 1990, only 4,566 Muscovites died in accidents. Zharov said that the increase was largely due to escalation in road traffic accidents. “Traffic deaths have increased because the number of vehicles in Moscow has skyrocketed in recent years,” he said. The Interfax news agency, citing the head of Russia’s traffic police, Vladimir Fyodorov, reported that some 31,000 Russian citizens were killed in auto accidents in 2001, an increase of 4.7 percent from 2000. The newspaper Novye Izvestia reported that at a recent conference with regional traffic police chiefs, Fyodorov asked them why the mortality rate on the country’s roads was so high. “Drivers and pedestrians,” one of his subordinates replied.

Nabi Abdullaev is a journalist based in Makhachkala, Dagestan.