The Leviathan has gone berserk

The case of police Major Denis Yevsyukov shooting at people in a supermarket draws attention to the level of state violence in Russia.

The story of police Major Denis Yevsyukov that shook Moscow just before the May holidays remains very much on everyone’s mind, despite efforts by officials and government spin doctors to sweep the matter under the carpet. I am acquainted with a journalist who is loyal to the authorities but who recently admitted to me that she could not get an interview with any high-ranking Interior Ministry officials. "No matter what I started to say," she told me, "they thought I was going to ask about Major Yevsyukov."

The reputation of the police was already so bad that Yevsyukov’s shooting spree did not make it significantly worse. Yevsyukov was a government official — in the worst sense of the word. Although, as head of a police precinct, his job description undoubtedly included taking bribes and various forms of racketeering, this did not extend to murder, of course. In fact, there is no known precedent in recent history of a policeman killing innocent bystanders, even while under the influence of alcohol.

In January, a helicopter crashed in the Altai Mountains with high-ranking officials aboard who were alleged to have been illegally hunting endangered argali sheep. Public indignation called for an investigation and punishment of the poachers. At one meeting, protesters held up a sign reading, "Today they shoot sheep — tomorrow people." Who would have thought that prophecy would be fulfilled so quickly?

Sociologist Anna Ochkina once noted that Russians perceive the state as something between Santa Claus and a leviathan — that is, either a kind, old grandfather or a monster. Maybe the authorities will bring us a gift, or maybe they will eat us alive.

For the people in the supermarket that night, Yevsyukov did not personify the leviathan itself as much as how the system had gone completely berserk. The situation was clearly beyond anything they might have expected but still within the unspoken laws governing Russian life in general.

But Yevsyukov’s act provoked a reaction that was very unusual for Russia. The police major stood before the public not as a calculating, cold-blooded killer, but as a beaten and frightened man, hiding his face from television cameras.

Now the case must be brought to court, and no matter which verdict is handed down, it will influence people’s attitudes toward the authorities.

If the court is fair in its judgment and sentence, it will inspire people everywhere to seek justice when mid-level authorities abuse their power on a regular basis. And it would create the hope — however illusory it may be — that the authorities are siding with the common people in this conflict.

If the verdict is unjust and if investigators and the prosecutor’s office are perceived as trying to protect the malefactor, it will deal yet another blow to the prestige of the authorities as a whole.

The Yevsyukov case draws attention to the level of state violence in Russia. If the man in uniform had shot bystanders not in a Moscow supermarket but in a market in Grozny or Nazran, for example, we would be hearing the cries of human rights advocates denouncing the act along with a whole chorus of Russian patriots yelling support for the heroic major.

Unfortunately for Yevsyukov, he committed his crime in the wrong city.

Boris Kagarlitsky, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, Moscow. His latest book is Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (2008)

The Moscow Times, 14 May 2009

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