Voices from Russia

Monday, 16 April 2012

Death Becomes Us


In recent weeks, the Russian media suddenly revived the topic of the death penalty… with both the likes of government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta and colourful TV host Arkady Mamontov weighing in. Since 1996, Russia has had a moratorium in place on the death penalty. A moratorium or an outright abolition of the death penalty is mandatory for all Council of Europe members… hence, the move to stop capital punishment. Nevertheless, popular opinion tends to be in favour of the death penalty… as most Russians aren’t particularly interested in what the Council of Europe wants, as it’s an amorphous alien body to them. Most Russians just take note of the heinous crimes happening all around them, become horrified, and cry out for vengeance.

One such heinous crime was the murder of baby Anya Shkaptsova, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. The case shocked the town of Bryansk and the whole of Russia. Anya “disappeared” from her stroller when her mother popped into a shop… and the authorities launched a massive search, only to halt it when Anya’s parents confessed to murdering the child and faking a kidnapping. Pictures of Anya’s mother, Svetlana, celebrating the 8 March International Women’s Day holiday seemingly without a care in the world just a few days after Anya was killed and her body burned, have made their rounds in the media… fully convincing the public that Svetlana and her boyfriend Aleksandr Kulagin, who was the one to kill the child, are monsters. In a video released by the police, Svetlana makes a statement in which she tries hard to make it seem as though Kulagin did not mean to hit Anya while he was, allegedly, in a drunken rage, saying, “He told me later that he didn’t even remember what had happened”. However, Aleksandr gave the police a detailed statement, even mentioning what kind of beer he was drinking at the time. It’s obvious from Svetlana’s own statement that she’s desperately trying to cover for her boyfriend.

A police officer who had been in the presence of baby Anya’s murderer told the audience on Spetsialny Korrespondent, a talk show hosted by the aforementioned Arkady Mamontov, “The people of Bryansk want blood”. There was a hot debate on the topic of the death penalty, with many of the guests referencing the United States, where 34 states have death penalty statutes and the majority of the population supports carrying out the death penalty in the case of murder. American author and journalist Jeffrey Tayler, who was a guest on the show, pointed up that the states that carry out the death penalty also tend to have higher rates of poverty and violence… but it seemed as though Mamontov wasn’t interested in the point that Jeffrey was trying to make. I believe that the point is that the death penalty doesn’t improve society and doesn’t rein in cold-blooded killers. To be specific, it isn’t a deterrent. Not only that, but there are theories that suggest that the death penalty makes society more brutal over time… if kids grow up seeing that the government has the right to take people’s lives, then, human life’s devalued in their eyes.

Again and again, studies have shown that most Russians, like most Americans, support the death penalty. Yet, studies also routinely show that Russians don’t trust law enforcement… in Moscow alone, two-thirds of the population mistrust the police. I believe that the recent scandal with sadists on the police force in Kazan only reinforced such views… in many ways, Kazan is only the tip of the iceberg. The horror that people experience when something as tragic as the murder of baby Anya occurs runs up against the terror people experience when they consider that many of the police officers charged with keeping them safe are corrupt and negligent. Add to that the fact that Russian criminal courts rarely exonerate individuals charged with crimes, introducing the death penalty seems like a sure recipe for disaster.

So, why do so many Russians still insist that capital punishment is the way to go? Personally, I think such insistence is a defence tactic. Russians know that popular opinion isn’t likely to sway the authorities on this issue any time soon… but people also need a way to blow off steam. There’s a sense of helplessness most of us feel when we encounter a situation in which a defenceless child such as Anya becomes the victim of a horrific crime and a cynical cover-up… and debating the death penalty at a time like this is a great means of wresting control back from the forces of evil. The banality of it all… the drunken fight, the broken body of a child, the rural bonfire in which Anya’s remains were destroyed, the cell phone pictures of the grinning mother just a few days afterwards, the residents of Bryansk screaming “give her to us, we’ll tear her apart!” as cops led the mother towards a police car… must be counteracted with a period of reflection.

The Lord said, “Vengeance is mine”. Like many people, I take comfort in that. I also take comfort in the existence of Bryansk police officer Vladimir Didenko. Vladimir lost his own child, Kirill, in a horrible January accident that shocked the country and shamed Bryansk officials tasked with keeping the infrastructure in decent condition… Kirill, a toddler, died in a pavement collapse that also nearly killed his mother. In the wake of his personal tragedy, Vladimir Didenko hasn’t given up on people. He was among the hundreds who searched for Anya when we thought that she might still be alive.

13 April 2012

Natalia Antonova



Editor’s Note:

As for me, I believe that we should reserve the death penalty for crimes against society and/or the state, not individuals. Tsar Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, no weak sister he, routinely commuted all the death sentences of murderers that crossed his desk. However, he never commuted the death penalty in cases of treason or political assassins (such as the killers of his father)… ergo, the recent execution of the Minsk Metro bombers was in accordance with such a tradition. Russia isn’t Texas… and it shouldn’t start copying it. Thank God, Vladimir Putin isn’t Rick Perry… he isn’t a hangman…



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