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Reign of impunity. Torture and extrajudicial killings as Russia's new normal

Askhab Uspanov, a Russian national and native of Chechnya who was detained after the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack outside Moscow, was tortured to death at the police precinct where he had been taken. One of the suspects in the attack had his ear cut off by law enforcement officers. At the first court hearing regarding the case of the attack, all of the defendants looked as if they had been beaten to within an inch of their lives. But in the wake of the brutal terrorist act, the general public remained unperturbed by the suspects’ suffering. After all, propagandists on state-owned television endorsed such interrogation methods. But appearances can be deceiving. Human rights activist Alexander Cherkasov outlines the evolution of systematic torture and extrajudicial killings in Russia — from late Soviet practices, through the two Chechen wars, and up to today's reality. Whereas the Russian state initially concealed and denied the very existence of systematic torture and took pains to conceal the role of its perpetrators, today torture is proclaimed to be the norm. Meanwhile, Russian society, which had turned a blind eye to law enforcement brutality for a long while, is coming to realize that things need to change.


Throughout the “lawless” 1990s, during the First Chechen War and at the beginning of the Second Chechen War, the Russian public was largely indifferent to televised “confessions” of separatist militants beaten to a pulp. However, already in the 2000s and 2010s, Russian human rights activists, journalists, and civil society organizations began treating torture as a systemic problem. The topic resonated more and more with the general public, and as technology developed, documenting incidences of state-sanctioned brutality only became easier.

Somewhat paradoxically, law enforcement agencies simply abandoned their attempts to conceal the systemic use of torture, thereby largely legitimizing the practice in the public’s eyes. After the Crocus City Hall massacre, the issue once again entered the spotlight, both in Russia and abroad. The suspects’ torture and the resulting injuries were broadcast on national television without even a hint of embarrassment. Incidentally, all human rights organizations and journalists who could have opposed this devolution of moral standards have been “purged”: banned, exiled, jailed — and thus rendered voiceless. Russia’s judicial system has degenerated, with its role reduced to mechanically passing sentences ordered from above.

Not just “unspoken” but top secret

The work of Soviet military intelligence and other special services has always been shrouded in mystery: what they did was not just “unspoken,” but top-secret. Some of it was described by former spymaster Viktor Suvorov in his books, and limited coverage of the “forced interrogation” practices can be found in works published in the 1990s.

But the nation saw the acceptance of torture happen all over again in Chechnya, where the practices of military intelligence were picked up by other special services and security forces fighting the separatist movement there. Brutal torture was not meant to keep the subject visually intact or even alive. With no formal trial in sight, the only purpose of torture was to extract information, and the victim's survival was immaterial. Afterwards, prisoners were often disappeared, their bodies destroyed or safely hidden. I've dealt with such bodies more than once. The total number of missing persons in Chechnya during the Second War was immense: 3,000-5,000 people by various estimates. Considering how small the Republic of Chechnya is — less than 1.3 million inhabitants by the start of the Second War — the percentage of the missing population is comparable to the death toll of Stalin's Great Terror in the Soviet Union.

The percentage of Chechnya’s missing population is comparable to the death toll of Stalin's Great Terror

Some of those detained by Russian troops during “filtration” were subsequently released, as one of the purposes of Russia’s approach was to recruit and plant its agents across the republic. Some of the survivors shared accounts of the torture they’d endured. Many such testimonies were collected during the First and Second Chechen Wars, and the reality of what was happening in the “temporary filtration centers” is undeniable. And the known story inevitably contains holes, as those who did not make it through the process alive were unable to add their horrors to the public record.

A typical example: after the First War, Chechens loathed Russian General Lev Rokhlin, an army commander who, according to numerous accounts, personally beat up detainees in Grozny before sending them to a filtration center. Meanwhile, Ivan Babichev, another Russian general who stormed Grozny in the winter of 1995, was hated much less. Paradoxically, it was because no one from Babichev's headquarters ever made it to the filtration station. Ditches were dug in the neighboring park to bury corpses. The walls near the headquarters were riddled with bullets — but the walls are silent.

Recall how many captured Chechen militants ended up in the Russian prison system. During the First Chechen War, the Russian command could not find a single militant in Russian prisons to exchange for their captured servicemen, because no Chechen fighters had made it that far through the Russian legal system alive. Those who were not exchanged immediately must have been slaughtered and buried. And this was happening in the time of Russia’s “democratic opening,” long before Putin’s “cursed” rule.

In the First Chechen War, Russia could not find a single Chechen militant in its prisons to be exchanged for Russian POWs

A lot changed between the First Chechen War and the Second. By the late 1990s, Russian security services were gunning to exact revenge for their past failures — from the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and Eastern Europe to the defeat in the First Chechen War and the humiliating Khasavyurt Accords, which ended the first round of fighting on terms more favorable to Grozny than to Moscow. In the Second War, torture was just as brutal — and much more systematic. But this system was still largely hidden from outside observers — save for a few undeniable exceptions.

In late 1999, a national television channel aired the “confessions” of captured militants kept in prisons in the North Caucasus. On the screen, a barely conscious man with a swollen, heavily bruised face, smashed lips, and obvious signs of concussion was muttering something about the terrible crimes he had been plotting on behalf of global terrorism. The footage was shown amid other segments on the purported successes of Russia’s “counter-terrorist operation.”

On TV, a barely conscious man with a swollen, heavily bruised face, smashed lips, and obvious signs of concussion was confessing to terrible crimes

The nation showed no outrage at these practices, but they remained largely unaware of the “informal prison system” still working beyond the view of state television cameras. The faces of the beaten could be featured on screen, while the bodies of the tortured and executed were kept hidden. Thus the illusion of Russia’s relative decency was maintained.

Although information about disappearances and the locations of “torture centers” remained secret, money could buy almost any data. With a lot of money, one could even ransom a prisoner. With less, one could locate his corpse.

This was how relatives of “disappeared” Chechens learned in the winter of 2000-2001 about the dumping site for human bodies in the dacha community of Zdorovye outside Khankala, the main base of Russian forces in Chechnya. News of the unofficial graveyard spread in the community of those searching for their abducted relatives. Eventually, more than 50 bodies were exhumed for identification and brought to the Ministry of Emergencies office in Grozny. Russian law enforcement officers then cordoned off the site, loaded all remaining bodies — an estimated 200 — into trucks, and moved them. Russia's Prosecutor General gave Moscow’s official version, saying it was the militants who had dumped the bodies of their fighters as they were retreating from the city.

Bodies with signs of horrendous torture and violent death were found in various places, but the authorities denied the systemic kidnapping of locals by Russia’s “death squads.” Even worse, the members of these squads were prone to taking matters into their own hands — sometimes ignoring orders from above.

Torture Soviet-style

Police brutality was business as usual in Soviet times as well. As historian Arseny Roginsky noted, “The police would investigate even the theft of three meters of baseboard by beating suspects.” The death of a detainee at the precinct was nothing out of the ordinary. Some will recall the murder of KGB Major Afanasyev at Moscow’s Zhdanovskaya metro station in 1980. A group of drunken police officers attacked Afanasyev, who was carrying a bag of expensive delicacies, and beat him up. Upon learning that he was KGB, they decided to cover their tracks by killing him and disposing of his body. The highly visible case triggered massive personnel purges in the Interior Ministry. However, even before that well-known incident, many of the riots and other episodes of mass unrest in the Soviet Union began with someone being beaten to death by police. An enraged crowd would gather in the town square, storm the police station — maybe even the district Communist Party committee — and while they were thinking what to do next, the troops were on them.

“Soviet police would investigate even the theft of three meters of baseboard by beating suspects”

The relative “relaxation” of the torture system observed after Stalin's death soon gave way to a revival. The early 1970s saw the first reliable accounts of torture cells, in which inmates were abused by their peers at the behest of the prison administration (the first detailed report to be published by the underground press came from Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1975). By the end of the 1970s, it became known that the regime ran entire torture prisons, where its critics were subdued in the same way. At the turn of the 1980s, the White Swan prison was created in Solikamsk — a so-called “single cell-type facility” designed specifically to break prisoners living by the “thieves’ code.” Such facilities pursued practical goals: aside from squashing any dissent, they were also fertile ground for cultivating future collaborators and agents of the regime.

Filtration practices were perfected in the late Soviet years in Afghanistan, where Soviet troops went door-to-door in city neighborhoods. Men were driven into the stadium, and prisoners were led past armored personnel carriers, with informers indicating who should be detained. The ones they picked were loaded on a truck and taken away — for good. The system used several detention facilities, in particular the maximum security Pul-e-Charkhi prison in eastern Kabul. Only those who were there truly know what went on behind its wall. A few years ago, mass graves were discovered in the vicinity of this prison, but present-day Russian officialdom vehemently denied the involvement of Soviet occupation troops in filling them.

The Soviet presence in Afghanistan was not limited to the military as such but also included “advisers” from other security agencies: the KGB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with its internal troops and its penitentiary service. Not only did the GRU Spetsnaz (special forces) make extensive use of its trademark “forced interrogation” methods, but they also exchanged skills and experience with other agencies, continuing to do so in every subsequent Russian military conflict over the next few decades. In fact, it is the war in Afghanistan that we can consider to be the breeding ground for Russia’s “Spetsnaz” subculture, which includes the normalization of torture and dehumanization of its victims. When a senior penitentiary service officer who had served in Afghanistan told me in 1991, “We can make anyone sing,” I could hear a wealth of practical experience in his words. Such was the baggage of the “new democratic Russia” as it entered independence.

The normalization of torture and dehumanization of its victims began during the war in Afghanistan

The Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU) remained tight-lipped about its methods. However, in the 1990s, Viktor Suvorov’s book “Aquarium” was followed by more insider accounts from GRU operatives, such as «Training an Intelligence Agent: The GRU Spetsnaz System.” The book explicitly detailed the “forced interrogation” methods Spetsnaz used on its prisoners — a system of torture that the Soviet war machine surely would have unleashed on Europe had its forty-year plans to conquer the lands between the Rhine and the English Channel come to fruition.

Impunity is key

On Feb. 2, 2000, early in the Second Chechen War, a grouping of Russian troops led by General Alexander Baranov captured a hospital in the Chechen village of Alkhan-Kala. Shamil Basayev and other militants had secretly withdrawn from Grozny towards the mountains, leaving their wounded in the hospital. A CNN journalist filmed Gen. Baranov interrogating one such wounded militant, Haji-Murat Yandiyev. Yandiyev spoke defiantly, and Baranov eventually ordered him to be taken away and shot. The military officers who were taking him away offered the journalist the chance to follow them and film the shooting, but he refused. A few days later, six bodies were found in the cemetery where Yandiyev had been taken. The bodies were transported for identification to Mozdok, and were then moved on to Rostov. The criminal case of Yandiyev's “disappearance” fell apart: internal expert examination established that Baranov's order to “shoot him to hell” was allegedly not an order, and the paperwork documenting the unidentified bodies in Mozdok was somehow misplaced. Still, in 2006, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ordered Russia to pay 35,000 EUR compensation to Yandiyev’s mother.

General Baranov interrogates Haji-Murat Yandiyev
General Baranov interrogates Haji-Murat Yandiyev

When it comes to leaks of sensitive information, all sorts of things happen in war. A journalist may film something not intended for their eyes. A general may say something inappropriate in front of a journalist. However, two decades ago, the distance between a general's words and their public exposure was far greater than today. Mobile internet was not widespread, so videos did not emerge online immediately after filming, and a firing squad could not share “a job well done” on social media. What mattered was the intent: the Russian law enforcement apparatus did everything it could to save the general who gave the criminal order from punishment, and the policy of covering up such “abuse” has persisted ever since.

However, in recent years, those complicit in systematic abductions, torture, and disappearances have begun to share their “memories” in ways the authorities cannot control.

Igor Strelkov, also known as Igor Girkin, who was engaged in the kidnappings in Chechnya in 1999-2005 as an FSB officer, apparently could not resist writing a memoir of “a quiet Russian,” — following in the footsteps of “The Quiet American” — although Strelkov himself denies authorship. The story covers one day from the author’s work, detailing how he prepared a kidnapping in November 2000 in the village of Mesker-Yurt. He recounts how he met with Spetsnaz heavyweights — the “muscle” of the upcoming operation — and how he paired up with a Spetsnaz fighter and got into a stolen car with fake license plates to meet with an intelligence agent for a reconnaissance mission. Strelkov does not reveal what happened after nightfall, but the results of his work — the remains of three abductees and the clothes of the fourth found in February 2001 in the dacha settlement Zdorovye — have been confirmed. Strelkov appears to have shared his story with only his closest friends, but in the spring of 2014, his email account was hacked. Novaya Gazeta covered his leaked correspondence in a feature story.

Igor Strelkov in Chechnya
Igor Strelkov in Chechnya

Such a leak was hardly possible even a few years prior. But even in 2014, this story did not attract much attention: everyone paid more attention to the Ukrainian period of Strelkov's correspondence. Moreover, his kidnapping job had been exposed much earlier by the relatives of at least six Vedeno district residents who were abducted and “disappeared” in 2001. Russia has not investigated or brought to trial any of the instances of “disappearances” in which Strelkov was implicated. Even after one episode was adjudicated in Strasbourg, no follow-up investigation was conducted in Russia.

Russian courts have passed only four decisions on a total of 3,000-5,000 disappearances in Chechnya (a more exact estimate is impossible for obvious reasons), bringing the impunity rate down from 100% to a mere 99.9%. The Memorial Human Rights Group shed light on these and other statistics in a detailed report titled “Enforced Disappearances in Chechnya”.

Russian courts have passed only four decisions on a total of 3,000-5,000 disappearances in Chechnya

Impunity is a key part of the “superhuman” subculture, which treats torture as a natural and necessary measure. Importantly, impunity applies only to those who torture and kill on orders, whereas many crimes committed at the subordinates’ own initiative have been duly investigated and punished. Therefore, the system has the capacity to investigate any crime committed in the course of “service and combat activities.” However, it was the guaranteed impunity that motivated the execution of new criminal orders. Criminals like Strelkov went from one war to another without facing any consequences. Had Strelkov been convicted of kidnapping in Chechnya, he would not have been able to lead the Kremlin-backed forces who captured the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk on Apr. 12, 2014, or who shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on July 17 of that year. More importantly, the impunity of such “heroes” encouraged others to follow their lead.

These Russian dirty wars also presented the opportunity for the exchange of experience among torturers. A chain of wars, a chain of crimes, a chain of impunity — where the latter was a necessary condition of the first two.

Criminals like Strelkov went from one war to another without facing any consequences

In March 1996, in the vicinity of the Ingush village of Arshty, the body of a young man previously captured by scouts was found at a position of the 693rd Motorized Rifle Regiment. According to the official version, the prisoner, who was purportedly left unattended, had grabbed a rifle, started shooting, and was killed by return fire. Criminal proceedings were never initiated — even though the dead man's hands were broken and tied, he had been shot in the back of the head, and, judging from the bullet entry angle, his killers had forced him to kneel before the kill shot was delivered.

Even more outrageous is the official “inquest” into the sweep of the village of Samashki on Apr. 7-8, 1995, when Russian security forces massacred at least 103 people. The state refused to initiate criminal proceedings on the grounds of a “military statutory examination” conducted at the Frunze Military Academy, which found no fault in the law enforcement officers’ actions.

Mass graves in Samashki, 1995
Mass graves in Samashki, 1995

In the first half of the 2000s, a video titled “Khankalenok” surfaced online, showing Russian special forces fighters sharing the details of their combat work in Khankala, a Chechen community outside Grozny. The video includes footage of mopping-up and torture, apparently filmed in Alkhan-Kala in June 2001, when dozens of villagers were slaughtered or disappeared. In the video, a brutally beaten man is suspended on a rack by handcuffs to the soundtrack of a song that keeps repeating: their work is “outside the law, outside the law.” There is nothing to suggest that the creators of this video were investigated in any way. That said, it did not cause any public outrage either.

Of course, unlike the selectively deaf and blind Russian courts, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has heard hundreds of Chechen cases of enforced disappearances. Each of these crimes was meticulously documented. Each mentioned secret prisons, summary executions, unmarked graves, and torture. Despite the lack of immediate practical results, this work was significant because, as lawyer Kirill Koroteev pointed out, it did not allow the tragedy to be turned into a statistic. The names of the tortured and the forcibly disappeared will not be lost, even if memory remains their only grave for now.

Moreover, this body of Strasbourg decisions proves that enforced disappearances in Chechnya were not isolated incidents, but were rather part of a widespread, systematic practice. Under international law — the 2006 UN International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance — they constitute a crime against humanity with no statute of limitations. However, under Russian law, the statute of limitations, even for particularly serious crimes, is 15 years, so the executioners can sleep easy so long as they refrain from traveling outside Moscow’s jurisdiction.

30 years of torture ignored by Moscow

And that's where the cognitive bias occurs. The Second Chechen War was much better documented than the First. As a result, it seems much worse — much scarier. Nevertheless, the First Chechen War claimed twice as many civilian lives (30,000–50,000) as the Second (15,000–25,000). As it turns out, residents of the capital are as susceptible to cognitive bias as the government-controlled press. Despite the presence of free media in Russia in the 1990s — including independent television channels, whose journalists generally opposed their country’s actions in Chechnya — the horrors and brutality of the First Chechen War ended up buried beneath the abundance of reports on the crimes of the Second War. We know less about the First War simply because the world was different 30 years ago. And the temporal perspective is always there, of course: the farther away we are on the timeline, the less significant and distinctive the events seem.

The horrors and brutality of the First Chechen War ended up buried beneath the abundance of reports on the crimes of the Second War

What happens if you overcome this bias?

It turns out that for all these 30 years, Russia has been at war, albeit with small intervals of deceptive peace. Russia killed enemy combatants, bombed villages and towns, captured people, tortured, cut off ears, and blew up houses. Its security services gained and shared practical experience. Law enforcement became permeated by impunity to the core. The process started somewhere out there: in Central Asia, in the Caucasus. Then it was just around the corner. Now it's happening right here, before our eyes, in the capital itself.

Deceptively peaceful Moscow was oblivious to these events for a long time — partly because it didn't want to know, partly because the line between good and evil had become blurred, and no one saw these acts as abnormal. However, in recent years, Russian society has been experiencing a growing realization: things have to change.

A problem for society, a norm for the state

Over the past two decades, Russian society has come to see torture as a problem, and an unacceptable one at that. It is hard to pinpoint when the breakthrough occurred, whether it was during Putin's first decade in power, when the subject of torture remained the purview of human rights activists and marginalized figures like Anna Politkovskaya, or in his second decade of developing dictatorship, when the topic was picked up by a new generation of journalists and opinion leaders. Despite the persistent mantra that Russia is sinking into an abyss of violence, experts testify to the contrary: in recent years, people have resorted to violence less often in everyday life, and public tolerance for violence has decreased right along with its use.

In recent years, people have resorted to violence less often, and public tolerance for violence has decreased

“Practitioners” — security guards in restaurants who have decades of experience — say that guests hit each other less often, and the people around them react more sharply. Professional sociologists confirm the trend: in the “extended 2000s,” the attitude to violence at the grassroots level changed with the advent of the new generation, shifting toward less cruelty and less tolerance for cruelty.

Attitude to police brutality and lawlessness followed the same trajectory: the Russian public has been less willing to put up with these abuses as time goes by. In the turbulent 1990s, who would have even noticed Major Yevsyukov shooting people in a supermarket? By contrast, in the late 2000s, a tragedy of this sort was enough to cause an uproar that brought about the reform of Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. In Russia, society's comprehension of significant problems is always a slow process: it takes 15 years or so to move on from “it can't be” (“we don't see it”), through to “there might be something to it,” before ultimately arriving at “everyone knows it.”

In the turbulent 1990s, who would have even noticed Major Yevsyukov shooting people in a supermarket? In the late 2000s, the tragedy brought about the reform of Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs

Even during Putin's tenure, Russian human rights activists have been waging a systematic fight against torture. The Nizhny Novgorod Committee Against Torture (established in 2000), which became the most important interregional network, as well as Public Verdict (established in 2003), worked consistently and extensively. Around the same time, the European Court of Human Rights appeared, and Russia remained under its jurisdiction from 1998 until 2022. Strange as it may seem, it was Russia’s penitentiary system that turned out to be the most sensitive to the ECHR judgments, with opposition politicians like Alexei Navalny winning judgments against the Kremlin in Strasbourg.

In addition, public oversight commissions were introduced in 2008, establishing public control over detention facilities. The more media coverage the topic of torture received, the more mainstream it grew. In the meantime, the widespread abuses seen during the Second Chechen War were still raging on the outskirts of Russia, with horrific torture and enforced disappearances. As a result, the government moved to squeeze human rights defenders from the Public Oversight Commission and eventually succeeded. Shortly thereafter, both the Committee Against Torture and Public Verdict were declared “foreign agents.” Finally, Russia placed itself outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

And yet, the work undertaken in these years appears to have changed the attitudes of a significant part of Russian society — this despite the authorities’ attempts to normalize war, torture, and unjust imprisonment. An example of such this new norm was “Prigozhin’s sledgehammer,” which despite celebration from nationalist circles, inspired outrage and disgust among many Russians. And the most recent example, of course, is the severed ear of a suspect in the Crocus City Hall attack case — and with it, the prospect of the return of the death penalty.

For the past decade, Russian authorities have been imposing a trend for the normalization of war, torture, and unjust imprisonment

The state institutions that follow the “Russian matrix” — army, prison, police, and special services — are based on torture as one of the core structural elements. In this regard, you could say we're back in the last century. But that would be a simplification: the world is different, and so is Russia. Russian society is not what it was 100, 50, or 30 years ago. This fact alone offers no guarantee, of course, but it does at least offer an opportunity to avoid repeating past mistakes.

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