Ethnologist Aimar Ventsel writes about Russian industrial settlements where a real man is considered strong, always ready to strike and never defeated by alcohol. What took place in Bucha, Irpin and other Ukrainian cities was shocking, while it was not a bit surprising, the author finds.
I came across a video by The New York Times treating with the investigation of war crimes in Bucha from a few weeks ago, courtesy of YouTube's algorithm. It reveals that we now know not just the military units, but also individuals who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bucha, which is basically a Kyiv suburb. The relevant question is whence such cruelty?
Russia is a very diverse and multilayered country. There is the Russia the world saw during the 2018 football world cup. Modernist, Western, hedonist. There is the Russia as described by various travelers: the Russia of Soviet nostalgia, covered in dust and somewhat static. The Russia where grandmothers and their grandchildren sit eating ice cream on Soviet era benches in the shade of green alleys.
There is also that Russia which is criticized by opposition activists a la Andrei Kuzitškin (for whom I have nothing but the deepest respect lest rumors start). The Russia of outskirts, slanted wooden houses and backed up sewage.
However, there is one other Russia that people are woe to speak about. The Russian periphery, larger and smaller settlements known as monocities. Places where jobs come or used to come from a single enterprise before its bankruptcy long ago.
The city of Rubtsovsk in Altai Krai, which recently made the news courtesy of marauders, has been sarcastically described by a blogger as a town where the local prison is the main employer. Most men have their pick of two career paths –either work for the police or join the criminal world. In both cases, the person ends up in the local prison.
There are thousands of other small villages where no one can really answer when asked what kind of people live there. Periphery with a capital P, home to younger and older people who somehow still manage to make ends meet.
A world where a person who enjoys Russia seldom finds themselves. Such settlements can be found just 50 kilometers from Moscow, while no tourist ever goes there. It is a world unto its own where life is far crueler and more brutal than what is shown in videos advertising Russia from the days of the football world cup. However, it is also that part of Russia which has seen a disproportionally large number of men join the army.
Before the mobilization, becoming a professional soldier was among the chief social elevators available to the residents of such peripheral parts of the country. The mobilization tends to avoid calling up a lot of men from populous cities in fear of sparking protests and to avoid negative impact on major employers. This, once again, results in many men being mobilized from the periphery.
Having carried our field work in such periphery (the Arctic in my case) for almost a quarter century, it stands out that while people are generally very nice and quite approachable, their way of life is decidedly cruel. There is still this idea in industrial settlements, including former ones, that a real man is considered strong, always ready to strike and never defeated by alcohol. As a result, the line between decency and criminality is vague to say the least in the peripheral way of life. Allow me to recount a few cases in point from my field work diaries.
Incident 1. Oil rig workers get an underage Khanty girl drunk, rape her with a bottle and make a video recording using a camera phone. The video quickly spreads among the local male population (including schoolchildren) to become a regional hit.
Incident 2. A long-distance truck driver casually tells me how they raped a pregnant and, naturally, drunk young woman during a drinking session without so much as a grimace.
Incident 3. I spend months lodging with a family where three of the four sons have done time in prison. One for group homicide, the other for causing grievous bodily harm and the third for stabbing someone. Cool guys, but quick to anger and feared by the entire village.
Incident 4. I'm working on my doctoral thesis in a village of 1,200 people where someone meets an untimely death every month. Some freeze to death in a snow drift while drunk, one gets shot, others are drunken stabbings.
Incident 5. I get to drinking with a bunch of local policemen in the city of Udachny, which is the de facto capital of the Russian diamond industry. It is a beautiful day of the midnight sun that virtually doesn't set at night. At one point, the guys decide to visit a colleague in a nearby satellite town of barracks. We all get into a "Bukhankha" (a Russian cab-over-engine van). It then turns out that the driver can hardly stand but refuses to hand over the keys, and off we go. Upon our arrival, the men go back to drinking. Everyone is passed-out drunk on our way back. The driver puts the pedal to the metal.
Fear jerks me out of the stupor, I clutch my seat, convinced that we're about to crash and die. I'm just waiting for the impact and praying for it to be over quickly and painlessly. Upon reaching the city, the van speeds through a neighborhood of panelkas akin to Mustamäe at full throttle. It is now early morning and I keep thinking about what would happen should a pensioner out walking their dog appear from behind a corner. It is clear that even if other police could be seen, they would not pull over their colleagues.
Incident 6. In a village on the other side of the Arctic Circle where everyone knows everyone else, neighbors break a home's window and, during the owner's absence, take everything "down to the last spoon" as she later told me.
It is a tough world with its own set of wild laws, little in the way of solidarity and respect for human life; where the strong are always right. Let us now imagine these guys finding themselves in a situation where, as soldiers, they have guns, unlimited power and alcohol. Without authority to keep them in check (officers in this case), they start living based on their Wild East laws. What took place in Bucha, Irpin and other Ukrainian cities was shocking, while it was not a bit surprising for me.
P.S. For those who do not believe me, I recommend Anna Politkovskaya's series of articles. In one, she goes in search of demobilized Russian soldiers who fought in the Chechen War. She visits many small backwater towns and offers a very good description of life there.
Editor: Kaupo Meiel, Marcus Turovski