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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia a World Leader in Murder Rate

Police Major Vladimir Kanunnikov patrols a working-class neighborhood in northern Moscow, preaching the virtues of strong families and keeping tabs on criminals and troublemakers he calls "parasites.''

If a card game explodes in a brawl, or neighbors in a communal apartment square off with frying pans or knives, Kanunnikov answers the alarm.

And then there are the telephone calls that start "Someone's going to get killed, either him or me,'' Kanunnikov said, describing the marital violence he tries to mediate before it explodes into murder.

Russia has become a world leader in homicide, chalking up close to three times more murders per capita each year than the United States, five times more than France, and seven times more than Germany. Only a handful of countries, including Colombia, outstrip Russia, although there are no exact global figures.

The soaring murder rate is part of a broader explosion of crime in Russia. The country's economic slide is partly to blame; so are the opportunities opened by economic reforms. There are more and better cars to steal, more and wealthier customers for prostitutes, more and pricier properties to fight over.

Jobs, education and technical training f to say nothing of salaries, pensions and other social support f are no longer guaranteed. Laws and policing have weakened, drug use has soared and corruption is rampant. "There's been a massive catastrophe of values, a loss of goals,'' said Igor Arshinov, a psychologist at Moscow's Institute of Neuroses. "Earlier, society was building communism. People knew it was idiotic, but on some level they still bought into it.''

The country's murder rate doubled between 1990, the first year official nationwide murder figures were published, and 1994, when the level of murders and murder attempts reached 32,286. The next year, it began a three-year dip nationwide, but resumed its rise again last year, to reach about 29,550, according to the Interior Ministry.

The contract hits and gangland wars that fill Russian newspaper columns and television screens account for just a fraction of the murder toll. In 1998, about 43 percent of murders took place in private, up from 35 percent a decade earlier, the Interior Ministry said.

The Russian Criminological Institute, which works with unpublished data, said such murders have always been in the majority, comprising 60 percent of the whole.

These murders are committed by neighbors, drinking buddies, husbands, wives and children f not gangsters.

The Interior Ministry lumps them all in the category of "crimes committed against the background of everyday life.'' There are no separate statistics on domestic violence; women's rights advocates say that reflects what a low priority it is for law enforcement agencies.

"Many people here don't accept that domestic violence is a crime. In our society, it's considered the norm,'' said Yelena Potapova, the telephone hotline coordinator for Moscow's No to Violence women's crisis center.

A U.S.-Russian study published in 1997 showed that 1.7 times more Russians than Americans are killed by their spouses, and that Russian women are 2 1/2 times more likely than American women to be killed by husbands.

Two factors of Russian life have consistently kept the level of everyday murders high. The first is alcohol abuse, which Moscow police say is involved in four-fifths of everyday murders. If alcoholism was checked somewhat in Soviet times, now it faces practically no constraints. "Alcoholism has always been our national habit, but now there are absolutely no limitations on when you can get hold of liquor or how much you can drink,'' Arshinov said.

The second factor is Russia's chronic housing shortage. People cannot afford to move out of trouble's way, and the country's economic decline has put unprecedented pressure on families.

"Divorced couples continue to live in the same apartment, and so do all the generations, with old people, children, grandchildren, and new daughters-in-law,'' said Masha Mukhova of the Sisters crisis center in Moscow. "There's no exit. The situation itself provokes violence.''

The burden of preventing everyday violence falls on policemen like Kanunnikov. The clean-cut 44-year-old sits at his desk ramrod-straight, like a soldier, but slides easily into conversation like an old neighbor.

He says the job was easier in Soviet times, when there was a range of disciplinary institutions, from mandatory alcoholism treatment centers to so-called comrades' courts.

"Then it was decided that these weren't democratic institutions, so they were abolished and everything fell on police shoulders: We're the comrade court, the priest and the psychotherapist who have to persuade people to live like human beings,'' Kanunnikov said.

He and the women's crisis center staff say they have increasingly few legal tools at their disposal to punish violent offenders. As long as there's no place for victims to take shelter, the violence will continue to take a heavy toll."It's practically impossible to solve this problem in the near future, because it requires a very serious government program in which one of the priorities would be municipal housing for victims of domestic violence,'' Potapova said.