In the Russian media in recent weeks, the issue of the death penalty has been suddenly revived - with both the likes of government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta and colorful 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 required for all Council of Europe members - hence the move to stop capital punishment. But popular opinion tends to be in favor of the death penalty - as most Russians aren’t particularly interested in what the Council of Europe, which is to them an amorphous alien body, wants. Most Russians just take note of heinous crimes happening all around them, grow horrified, and cry out for vengeance.
One such heinous crime is 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 a massive search was launched, only to be stopped when Anya’s parents confessed to murdering the child and faking a kidnapping. Pictures of Anya’s mother, Svetlana, celebrating the March 8 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 Alexander 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 really hard to make it seem as though Kulagin did not mean to hit Anya while he was, allegedly, in a drunken rage. “He told me later that he didn’t even remember what had happened,” Svetlana says. But Alexander has given the police a detailed statement, even mentioning what kind of beer he had been drinking at the time. It’s fairly obvious from Svetlana’s own statement that she is desperately trying to cover for her boyfriend.
“The people of Bryansk want blood,” 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 issue of the death penalty was hotly debated on the show, 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 out that the states which carry out the death penalty also tend to have higher rates of poverty and violence - but it seemed as though Mamontov was not interested in the point that Jeffrey was trying to make.
The point, I believe, is that the death penalty does not improve society and does not rein in cold-blooded killers. To be specific, it is not 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 is 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 do not trust law enforcement - in Moscow alone, two-thirds of the population mistrust the police. The recent scandal with sadists on the police force in Kazan has only reinforced such views, I believe - and Kazan, in many ways, is 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 who are charged with keeping them safe are corrupt and negligent. Add to that the fact that the Russian criminal courts rarely exonerate individuals charged with crimes, and 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 the insistence is a defense tactic. Russians know that popular opinion is not likely to sway the authorities on this issue any time soon - but people also need a way to blow off steam. There is a sense of helplessness most of us feel when we encounter a situation in which a defenseless 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 the mother is led towards a police car - must be counteracted with a period of reflection.
“Vengeance is mine,” said the Lord. 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 which also nearly killed his mother.
In the wake of his personal tragedy, Vladimir Didenko has not given up on people. He was among the hundreds who searched for Anya when it was believed that she may still be alive.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.