Life in Putin's Russia

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By Julia Latynina
Sunday, June 22, 2008

MOSCOW On Nov. 9, 2007, during a special operation in the village of Chemulga, in the republic of Ingushetia, Russian special forces shot and killed an individual by the name of Rakhim Amriyev. Eyewitnesses said that they shot him in the head and placed an automatic rifle beside his body. Then, as dozens of villagers who had run out of their homes looked on, the troops used an armored personnel carrier to demolish a wall of the one-room house where Amriyev lived and announced that he had died in a shootout.

You may ask how I can be sure that things happened this way -- that Amriyev didn't fire back, that he wasn't a terrorist and that the automatic rifle was planted. I'm absolutely certain -- because Rakhim Amriyev was 6 years old.

The most striking thing about everyday life in the Russia of Vladimir Putin (and make no mistake, it is Putin's Russia, despite the election of a new president, hand-picked by the great man) is the incredible corruption of the courts, the police, the special forces -- all the institutions that are supposed to uphold law and order in a democracy and that in Russia today have been transformed into a cancer that's devouring the state. Consider these further examples:

On May 20, 2005, in Moscow, a car driven by the son of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov struck and killed 68-year-old Svetlana Beridze as she crossed the street. Beridze, who was in the crosswalk, was hit with such force that she was thrown high into the air and the keys in her handbag were crushed. No criminal charges were brought against the minister's son, who, his father publicly stated, had "experienced physical and emotional suffering" as a result of the accident. Instead, in what appeared to be an effort to intimidate the dead woman's family, authorities opened a criminal investigation against her son-in-law, for allegedly assaulting the minister's son.

Last Sept. 10, Muscovite Natalia Trufanova was driving to her dacha with her family in her old Zhiguli when a motorcade carrying Supreme Court President Vyacheslav Lebedev came speeding down the road toward them, driving in her lane. One of the vehicles in the motorcade tore through Trufanova's car. Eyewitnesses reported that the head of the Supreme Court kept going, leaving it to his underlings to comb through the bodies and the heap of twisted metal. Without batting an eye, the police declared that Trufanova had "driven into the oncoming lane," which meant that, if she survived, she could be brought to trial. When angry witnesses started posting video on the Web clearly showing that it was the motorcade that was driving in the wrong lane, the lead investigator looking into the accident said that he didn't have access to the Internet.

On a rainy September evening a week after Natalia Trufanova fell under the wheel of justice, I witnessed an accident on Moscow's government thoroughfare -- the famous Kutuzovsky Prospect. A silver Lexus, traveling at what looked to be about 90 miles an hour, flew out of the far left lane and crossed four lanes of oncoming traffic, crashing into several cars. As I drove past the scene of the accident, the wind blew bits of crushed metal, pieces of cloth and broken glass along the asphalt; bodies still sat in some of the cars. Within the hour, I learned that the driver of the Lexus was a 27-year-old woman with no known occupation; with her in the car was a deputy minister of economic development.

I learned this from a mutual friend (of mine and the deputy minister's) named Pavel, who had rushed to the scene. The minister was already dead; the young woman was in a daze, due to either pain or drugs. A police sergeant, cheerfully surveying the pile of bodies the girl had left in her wake, asked Pavel in the most businesslike fashion: "So, how are we going to solve this problem?" Apparently they "solved the problem" -- they didn't even bring charges against the woman.

Strange but true: It's not only ministers, their wives and their children -- as well as their lovers -- who are going unpunished, but also high-priced prostitutes, high on cocaine, with important addresses in their little black books.

Crime in Russia is hardly being investigated. In May of last year, the body of 4-year-old Nastia Mokryakova, her throat slit, was found in the woods outside Moscow. What do you think the police told the news media? "The child got lost and died of exposure." A month later, in the Moscow suburb of Tomilino, some maniac strangled 10-year-old Nastia Butenkova, and the first thing the police did was to say that the girl, who'd been found on a staircase with her pants pulled down around her ankles, may have caused her own suffocation. (A public outcry ultimately led to an investigation of both murders.)

It's not as though this unwillingness to investigate is limited to crimes whose victims are poor. On Dec. 6, 2007, Oleg Zhukovsky, a prominent banker who worked with major clients of the state-run bank VTB, was apparently killed in his suburban dacha. The killers reportedly tied the victim's hands behind his back, put a plastic bag over his head and threw him into the pool. Before killing him, they apparently forced him to write a suicide note. "Suicide!" the police promptly declared. It's hard to believe, but their unwillingness to investigate the death of a high-ranking banker had nothing to do with politics or the state. The police simply can't be bothered.

Of course, there are some crimes that the police do investigate. They accused an acquaintance of mine of giving $20 million to the leader of the Chechen terrorists. Another person I know was accused of trying to privatize the air space above the Arctic Ocean. Of a third, a prosecutor wrote that his bank was trying to foment a revolution and overthrow Putin. These three suspects all had something in common: They are on the Russian Forbes 100 list.

A fourth acquaintance of mine isn't on that list. He was simply building a highrise in the southern city of Makhachkala. The local prosecutor telephoned and asked him what discount he'd give him on an apartment in the building. "Twenty percent," my acquaintance replied. The prosecutor thereupon ordered an investigation that turned the man's company upside down, then called again and demanded a 50 percent discount.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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