How violence breeds violence

Love, Russian-style

Russians don’t just kill Ukrainians. They also do an increasingly good job killing other Russians.

Street and domestic violence, including murder, have shot up in the past two years. Some explanations of this upsurge are instantly obvious. Others lie deeper under the surface, which may make them even more destructive over a long term.

The most obvious reason is the demobilisation and homecoming of Russian soldiers completing their combat tour. Some of those veterans were murderers, rapists and even cannibals recruited out of prison camps. They were promised an amnesty in exchange for a six-month stint at the front, too good an opportunity to miss.

The promise was faithfully kept, and surviving serial murderers went back into the community, which community they promptly began to terrorise. I don’t know if a carte blanche to post-demob murder was part of the deal, but one could easily get that impression.

Yet even law-abiding recruits are so thoroughly brutalised in the army that they don’t return home the same rosy-cheeked innocents they were at the recruitment office. Beatings, torture and arbitrary executions are routine in the Russian frontline army. Soldiers refusing to go on suicidal attacks (‘meat storms’ in Russian army slang) are beaten to a pulp, raped, kept in icy holes filled with corpses, shot without trial, have their skulls smashed with a sledgehammer and so on.

A few months of frontline service, where such practices are routine, can turn even previously normal lads into sadistic brutes, especially since they are encouraged – often ordered – to treat Ukrainian POWs and civilians with sadistic brutality. And then they descend on their native towns and villages, with the line separating war from peace smudged in their minds.

A woman walking the streets of a Russian town looks, often also talks, just like her Ukrainian counterpart. A demob-happy rapist may ignore the nuances and treat the Russian the way he treated the Ukrainian.

Nor is it just violence against female strangers. Wife beating is a traditional Russian sport, and society has always treated it with good-natured indifference. I often cite Dostoyevsky’s Diary of a Writer in which he describes a peasant who beats his wife within an inch of her life, which, according to the author, doesn’t diminish in any way his spiritual superiority over any Westerner.

Russian women, known for their forbearance, accept black eyes, busted lips and broken bones with equanimity. They often repeat the old proverb, “If he beats, he loves”, a sentiment that hasn’t quite caught on in the West.

That meek acceptance of savagery has been enshrined in the law. In 2017, perhaps in preparation for things to come, wife beating was decriminalised in Russia. First offenders now risk nothing harsher than a small fine, which puts domestic violence on a par with jaywalking.

That was before thousands of brutalised murderers, looters and rapists returned home with blood on their hands and savagery in their eyes. “Hide, honey, I’m home!” is becoming the slogan of Russian domestic bliss. Those women who dare complain are accused of militant feminism, which Russian courts treat as a terroristic crime.

Against that background, any growth of violence against women shouldn’t strike anyone as counterintuitive. Yet so far we’ve only probed skin-deep.

Deep subcutaneous shifts are occurring in Russian social mores and morality, especially in its relation to violence. For the past 10 years, especially during the past two, the Russians have been exposed to incessant all-pervasive propaganda demonising the 40 million people living just west of the country’s borders as subhuman.

Exterminating them is equated to culling a herd or spraying a field with insecticide. As a result, people’s nerve endings become cauterised and thus incapable of feeling normal human revulsion to violence. Their immune system no longer resists savage acts with the same fortitude; what used to elicit a gasp of horror now elicits an apathetic shrug.

The Russian state is also doing its level best to increase the volume of violence exponentially. Just look at the prison sentences meted out to those perceived as dissidents.

In my day (I left the Soviet Union in 1973), the harshest sentence for dissent was seven years in a labour camp. Most sentences were less severe: for example, my KGB interrogator, Major Sazonov, only threatened me with a year or two.

These days, someone expressing the mildest disapproval of the war can go down for 25 years or even for life, sentences unknown in a post-Stalin Soviet Union. Officially, Russia no longer has the death penalty, but anyone who has glanced at the papers over the past 20 years knows there are ways around that annoying obstacle.

One minor example: the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were outlawed in Brezhnev’s Russia, as they are at present. But back in the 1960s they’d typically receive a one-year sentence in a milder camp. Now they routinely get a fiver of “severe regime”, where survival rates are worse than with some cancers.

Beatings and torture in both police stations and prisons are neither exceptional nor even simply widespread. They are so ubiquitous as to be invariable. Throughout the Russian penitentiary system, inmates (including those in remand prisons) are beaten, tortured and raped by their captors. The powers that be don’t just condone or close their eyes on such crimes but actively encourage them.    

Add to this the war itself from which hundreds of thousands have come home crippled if at all, and you can see how the sum total of violence in Russia has gone beyond a certain critical mass. The whole society has become brutalised, with violence accepted as not just a necessary evil, but increasingly as not an evil at all.

Such are some of the traditional values so admired by Putin fans in the West. And these ‘values’ won’t disappear the moment the last shot of the war is fired. With the best will in the world, they’ll take decades to expurgate. And where in Russia have you ever seen the best will in the world?

4 thoughts on “How violence breeds violence”

  1. I don’t think the Putin fans in the West are innocent in their so called deception by the mass murderer’s talk of God and traditional values. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence could not fail but perceive the overall evil nature of that regime. And by making excuses for Russia they are willingly accepting that evil.

  2. In 1997 I was encouraged by a coworker to visit Moscow. I did a little local research and found out that two other coworkers who had visited recently had been robbed: one on a train and the other in front of his hotel – by two police officers! End of research. This article fills me with pity for those poor souls who are stuck in such a place.

    1. The Russians do have their own take on law enforcement, which is now indistinguishable from law-breaking. Then again, they don’r have any laws ro break. But Moscow and Petersburg used not to be without some charms, enough to merit a quick visit (Penelope liked them when she saw them, especially the former — which is more can I say for myself.) But I’m afraid you’ve missed your chance. Russia won’t again become even a modest tourist attraction, not in our lifetime.

  3. Unlike Soho, the streets are clean and tidy in Moscow; unlike Chicago, there are no shootings at night between gang members; unlike greater LA, there are no stinking tent towns for the homeless; unlike Naples, there are no piles of garbage in Moscow streets; people are not afraid to go for a walk at midnight; unlike most European cities you can hardly see any graffiti in Moscow. Unlike northern Philly (Kensington Street), there are no drug addicts lying at every corner.

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