ESSAY: Criminalized Society Favors Cruel Punishment

Almost one of every five Russian citizens today, according to statistics, has been in prison and isolation chambers. About 1.2 million inhabitants of the country are now behind bars. Such is the bleak picture painted by the chairman of the presidential Pardons Commission, writer Anatoly Pristavkin.

It should be said, of course, that not all among those who served various terms in the gulag or in exile are criminals. Tens of millions of Russian citizens passed through Stalinist camps and Brezhnev psychiatric wards. Furthermore, millions of talented and enterprising people have landed in prisons only because their activities did not fall within the ideological framework of the criminal code of the Bolshevik system. Under the present market economy, many of these activities would now be called entrepreneurship and business acumen.

Unfortunately, the flaws in Russian law and excessive severity of several criminal statutes continue to put hundreds of thousands behind bars.

"Russia, in general, is a traditionally criminal country," Pristavkin told me. "Theft has always been considered a national particularity of Russia."

It is hard not to agree with Pristavkin. In the company of civilized people, be they bankers or businessmen, journalists or artists, if someone admits he does not pay taxes to the state, he is not judged or criticized by his colleagues and friends. Moreover, knowing how to get around the law and the courts is considered an enviable skill or, at the very least, a just response to the state, which for many years tortured and robbed its own people.

The growing crime in the country also raises critical questions of how criminals should be punished. Among the most pressing questions facing the justice system today is whether Russia will abide by its pledge to the Council of Europe, of which it is a member, to abolish the death penalty. A new amendment to the Criminal Code requires that all capital punishment cases, not just the cases that have been appealed, be reviewed by the Pardons Commission and the president. But Russian public opinion is still clearly in favor of maintaining the death penalty.

"Strong pressure has been put on us at the Pardons Commission by both the highest authorities and simple people," Pristavkin said. "The paradox is that not a single organized crime case has come through our commission. But the people are under the delusion that we indulge the mafia, thieves in law and [criminal] authorities. Ninety-nine percent of all cases of murder and rape are caused by drunkenness at home, at work or among friends and neighbors. Maniacs are an exception. But these are the only cases that are widely covered in the press. And when we provide statistics that as many people who are sentenced have been pardoned, we are talking about alcoholics. This is where people are mistaken. It is not difficult to explain these statistics given that organized crime means a lot of money, highly professional lawyers and levers of pressure on the representatives of justice."

There is another factor in the evolution of a criminal conscience in society. There is complete lack of an understanding of mercy among Russians. People who have spent any term in confinement, justly or unjustly, are seen by society as outcasts when they are freed.

"The times of Dr. Gaas have passed," Pristavkin said. "Back in the last century, the Russian people still treated prisoners with sympathy. And Dr. Gaas, who helped the condemned and built hospitals for convicts, is an example of this. Sometimes criminals were specially led along the city streets so that the people could feed them. People threw prisoners bread, tobacco and even clothes. This was before the Revolution. When I now ask children who Dr. Gaas was, they all shrug their shoulders. There is even a monument to him in Moscow."

Where have mercy and compassion disappeared to in Russia? One of the main factors of the destruction of such Judeo-Christian values is the militant atheism and Bolshevik ideology of the Soviet authorities. The destruction of the priesthood and churches and sacrifice of family values for the good of the state dealt an irreparable blow to people's consciences.

The repression of the '30s, when tens of millions of people were accused of being enemies of the nation, strengthened the hatred and feeling of disdain for prisoners. A person who crossed the threshold of the investigation chamber and was not yet declared guilty was, in the eyes of the public, a criminal. Moreover, suspicion and malice were carried over to relatives and close friends.

A poll carried out in a school in Moscow that asked whether the death penalty was needed in Russia showed that almost all the students were in favor of it. Furthermore, many cited the methods of rooting out crime of Lavrenty Beria, chief of the secret police under Stalin, and Malyuta Skuratov, head of the dreaded oprichnina under Ivan the Terrible. This is not all that surprising given that many of these children have been raised by grandparents who experienced the era of Stalinist totalitarianism.

How successful is the work of the Pardons Commission? People often have misconceptions about the role of the commission, of which such well known figures as writers Lev Razgon and Arkady Vainer, the journalist Yevgenia Albats, the human rights defender Sergei Kovalyov and others are members. It is important for people to realize that the commission does not pardon prisoners but presents petitions to the president for clemency. Only the head of state can make a definitive decision.

"We try to lessen the punishments," said Pristavkin. "But all our decisions end up with the president through his aides, who in turn discuss one criminal case or another. They can hold up a document for a later time. The president signs a huge number of documents every day, and I am convinced that he is unable to keep up with every case and relies on his aides. Much depends on those who surround the president. When there were people around him like [Mikhail] Barsukov, [Alexander] Korzhakov and [Nikolai] Yegorov, between 80 and 100 people were executed per year."

Today, all executions have been suspended at the request of the Council of Europe, but neither society nor the State Duma or the executive authorities are ready to abolish capital punishment altogether. Death row prisoners continue to sit in cells, and no one can tell what lies in store for them. In a country with a criminal consciousness and a penchant for reacting with cruelty, the justice system will always be headed by those inclined toward extreme punitive measures. Only active pressure from European politicians can change the situation in Russia. But this will take years, and President Boris Yeltsin is unlikely to be the person who succeeds in changing the mood in the country's political establishment or in the consciousness of society.

Mumin Shakirov is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.