Magazine article History Today

Criminal Russia: The Traditions Behind the Headlines

Magazine article History Today

Criminal Russia: The Traditions Behind the Headlines

Article excerpt

At the beginning of this year, the patience of market traders in the southern Russian town of Saratov broke. When local gangsters came as usual to collect their protection dues, they were beaten unconscious, then beaten some more, and then one of them was impaled upon a piece of metal scaffolding. This was an especially brutal and graphic example of the resistance of ordinary Russians to the new criminal class the collapse of the Soviet Union has liberated, but it harkens back to another age.

In 1873, a peasant by the name of Kuz'ma Rudchenko was found near a village called Brusovka, having been accused of stealing from the community. His hands had been chopped off, his head crushed and his body impaled upon a wooden plank. Far from an unusual and horrific crime, this was just an extreme instance of peasant samosud literally, 'judging for onself -- the rough justice of the village community. Saratov today has its police force, but the market traders could not or would not trust them. Instead they took the law into their own hands, just as the peasants of imperial Russia had put their faith in samosud, rather than the Tsar's courts or the rural police.

Although both Tsarist Russia and the USSR were seen as police states, it is actually striking just how unruly they really were. The relatively few police officers at work were thinly distributed across this huge country. As a result, communities were encouraged or forced by necessity to police themselves. Perhaps more importantly, though, policing remained a crudely political affair. The legal codes, concerns and priorities of the government seemed alien to most Russians, while the state's own agents seemed to break the laws openly with impunity.

The initial pattern had been set in Tsarist times. Until 1903, a mere 8,400 rural constables and sergeants were faced with the task not only of policing a countryside of over 124 million souls, but also collecting taxes, inspecting sanitation and carrying out a multitude of other administrative duties. The cities of Moscow and St Petersburg were exceptions. In 1905, Moscow had 4,843 policemen, meaning one for every 278 inhabitants, a ratio that compared favourably with those of Berlin (325) or Paris (336). Yet even where they were present in sufficient numbers, their training and methods left much to be desired. Whereas British constables would patrol a beat, their Russian counterparts were simply assigned places to stand within earshot of each other and waited for trouble to come their way.

Most importantly, they never really managed to win the trust and support of the commoners, not least because of their notoriously lax morals and their powerlessness in bringing the law to bear on the crimes of the rich and powerful. Tsarist Russia was a corrupt and lawless nation. Civil servants were even expected to survive by kormlenie, 'feeding', supplementing inadequate wages with backhanders and private scams. A government commission in 1856 even concluded that a bribe of less than 500 rubles -- perhaps five times a policeman's entire annual salary -- should not even be thought of as a bribe at all. No wonder that the Russian proverb had it that 'law and money flow from the same spring'.

In practice, the peasant community -- the mir -- looked after itself. Cutting wood illegally in forests owned by the Tsar or a landowner was regarded as perfectly acceptable. Crimes against other members of the mir, though, were punished accordingly, but usually through samosud rather than the state's legal system. In 1884 alone one district medical officer found himself carrying out autopsies on 200 victims of the lynch mob, in a province of only a quarter of a million inhabitants. As another peasant proverb had it, 'the vengeance of the village is nearer than the mercy of a Tsar'.

The 1917 revolution and the subsequent consolidation of Bolshevik power thus took place in a country already accustomed to think in terms of two sets of laws. …

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