The end of the Soviet Union did not bring an end to human rights abuses in Russia. If, under the Soviet regime, individuals suffered at the hands of the repressive machinery of the state, the threat to human rights today stems from Russia’s pervasive lawlessness and the individual’s total physical and moral vulnerability.
The attempt to introduce capitalism quickly and without a moral or legal framework gave rise to a criminal business oligarchy. This oligarchy does not persecute people for their beliefs. It is interested solely in money. But no individual is safe from it if he interferes with its efforts to steal the nation’s wealth.
In most localities, some if not most of the police force has been appropriated by the local criminal business oligarchy, and the police offer no protection to a citizen who, intentionally or inadvertently, interferes with them even when it is obvious that the complainant is in danger of being killed. The mafias’ sway over the police and, to a great extent, the courts have destroyed faith in law enforcement. Russians are afraid to intervene on behalf of the victim of a crime, to testify as witnesses in trials involving gangsters, or even to respond to a knock at the door.
Citizens are also deprived of the right to private property. It is nearly impossible to operate a business in Russia without paying protection money to criminal gangs or the police. Criminals, businessmen, and government officials are constituent parts of rival and competing criminal syndicates who do not accept any overriding, universal rules. Finally, the individual cannot hope for any redress of his grievances under the law. Millions of workers go for months without pay although failure to pay salaries is illegal. Millions more have been cheated of their life savings in fraudulent investment and pyramid schemes but have been unable to recover their money despite court decisions in their favor. An individual who loses his life or health through government or private negligence has little hope of seeing either compensation or action taken against the guilty parties. A horrifying example of the negligence such total legal impunity evokes is the case of ten-year-old Artyem Mkrtumyan, who was boiled alive on February 22, 1998, when he fell into a pit of boiling water that had been created by a leaking hot-water pipe in central Moscow. His father, Vladimir, jumped into the pit to save him and was also killed. The last time I spoke to Galina Mkrtumyan, his wife and Artyem’s mother, she had received no compensation and no one had been punished for the crime. The organization responsible for Moscow’s hot water pipes is part of the city administration headed by Yuri Luzhkov, a leading candidate for the Russian presidency.
Fear for one’s physical security and the conviction that one is helpless to ensure the safety of one’s family can only be morally and spiritually corrosive. Generalized to an entire population, this condition instills a distaste for democracy and a desire for authoritarian solutions which, in Russia, could have extremely violent consequences. Insofar as the U.S. and the world have a vested interest in preserving stability in Russia, it is important that Russia’s current lawlessness be recognized as the nation’s most important and overriding human-rights issue.