Sometimes I wonder if a nation’s crime, like its cuisine, can tell us something about its character. When I was first exposed to Russian crime in the 1990s in the Death Porn section of the eXile newspaper, it certainly seemed to have a unique flavor. There was a heavy emphasis on vodka, businessmen getting shot in the pod’yezd, provincial misery, child victims, corrupt cops, and lots of Really Stupid Criminals.
This was but the tip of the iceberg. The 90s was an era of rampant illegality, and Russian writers filled newspapers and books with stories about violent gangsters and criminal millionaires. I was never sure how much of the stuff was truth and how much legend- surely the members of the Solntsevo gang did not want their deeds exposed? Then again, perhaps they did: the more their reputation preceded them, the less need there would be for actual violence.
Later I learned about the criminal empire in soviet prisons, the parallel system of thieves-in-law that mimicked and mocked the corrupt soviet hierarchy. The best introduction to this lost world is Alix Lambert’s remarkable Mark of Cain documentary, while Danzig Baldaev’s Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia adds a rich layer of detail.
There is also a strong element of the grotesque to Russian crime. Assorted morons in Siberia will occasionally butcher people in the name of Satan. Last year a necrophiliac in Nizhny Novgorod was arrested for filling his apartment with 29 human “dolls” he had exhumed from local graves. And then there are the world champion serial killers. The most famous is Andrei Chikatilo, a child-molesting schoolteacher who killed at least 52 people in southern Russia before he was executed in 1993. A decade or so later, Moscow’s Alexei Pichushkin may have killed 60 people in an attempt to fill a chessboard with his victims, but evidence was found for “only” 49.
It’s the serial killer element which provides the most cross over with the criminal traditions of Russia’s great rival, America, although of course there are gangs, corporate thieves and multitudes of really stupid crooks here too. In the world of true crime media, however, market forces demand an emphasis on murder, and while kids who kill their parents, or parents who kill their kids, or wives who kill their husbands will always attract interest, serial killers are the most lucrative subjects for publishers and TV producers.
Many of America’s most prolific serial killers have won global infamy. This is not always down to body count, but to an entrepreneurial spirit that the murderers and their pursuers have displayed. For instance John Wayne Gacy, who sodomized and killed at least 33 teenage boys wrote a book and painted clowns before he was executed in 1994. Others have been granted strange superhero names by the press, like “Zodiac.” Some, like Jeffrey Dahmer, commit deeds so vile that they leave a scar upon the public consciousness that cannot be effaced.
Serial killing in fiction and reality seem to have peaked in the 1990s, with films such as Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, and the capture of Dahmer. But these monsters still exist. A few years ago I had an interesting exchange with a writer who explained his latest book was about a man in Atlanta who had murdered eight or nine people a few years ago. “It kind of went below the radar though,” he said. “Nobody really knows about it.”
The market is sated; the audience has grown jaded. What you only killed 8 people? You’ll have to try harder than that if you want anyone to notice!
My favorite true crime author is a man called Fred Rosen. I think what I like most about his books is the banality, the sadness, the pathetic quality to the criminals (and often victims) he describes. There is a brutality and bluntness to his prose that strips away the perverse glamour that is often ascribed to monsters; his killers are cretins.
Take, for instance, his most recent book Trails of Death: The True Story of National Forest Serial Killer Gary Hilton. It is a squalid tale of a man who hung around Georgia and Florida stealing women’s bank cards at knife point, although in some instances he would abduct and rape his victims as well. It is filled with Rosen’s characteristic mournful detail: people who live in sheds; lonely victims last spotted in supermarket car parks.
But here Rosen introduces us to something new. Keen to explain to police that he only severed his victim’s head and hands to prevent her identification and not out of perversity, Hilton later explains that he had no choice but to kill women for their bank cards. He was old, and could not live on government benefits, you see.
Does this reveal something about the character of the nation, the struggles of “the 99 percent?” I doubt it, although Hilton’s mawkish self-pity is certainly characteristic of the narcissistic generation that came of age in the 1960s. But it does make one thing clear: the shallows of the human soul can be as fearful as its depths.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.