Criminal Russia: the Traditions Behind the Headlines

Mark Galeotti looks at how crime and punishment in Boris Yeltsin's Russia, and that of the Tsars, have uncanny resonances.

At the beginning of this year, the patience of market traders in the southern Russian town of Sarztov 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 oneself – 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.

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