Contemplating one particular suicide – of a young girl who threw herself from the 4th floor window floor with an icon in her hand–Dostoevsky wrote in his essay, “Two Suicides”: “There are some things which, no matter how simple they seem on the surface, one still goes on thinking about for a long time; they recur in one’s dreams, and it even seems as if one is somehow to blame for them. This meek soul who destroyed herself torments one’s mind despite oneself” (Diary of a Writer, Oct. 1876)
Indeed, there are similar haunting acts of violence like that occur all over the world. One such has been committed a couple of days ago in Russia, in some small village in Tver region. Yet, universal as these crimes might be, there is something particularly Russian about this crime, as there was in the act of a suicide falling to her death while embracing an icon.
I refer to the mass murder of nine people which occurred when a bunch of drunkards (ten altogether) got together to celebrate the weekend along with the Orthodox Feast of Pentecost, and who drank themselves to a rather irrational state in which insults and taunting are flowing easily and so are the propensities to take offense. So the men at this gathering began to taunt their neighbor for being too weak to serve in the Marines. The 45 year old neighbor, who served only in border patrol, got upset, rushed home and re-emerged with his rifle out of which he shot and killed everyone who was present at this party, four men and five women, ranging in age from ninety one to twenty one. Turns out that one his tenth intended victim survived having hidden herself beneath the blankets on the bed.
So the murderer found a way to show his toughness. How senseless and how stupid! Yet, despite its drunken senselessness, there is something in this outburst that does haunt one’s soul, and keeps one wondering at the causes of such disproportional brutality.
On the surface of it, the crime looks just like another shooting at an American high school. A student or two, who feel slighted by other more popular kids, decide to take revenge on the school, and end up killing a lot of people. There is a difference however, between an insecure teenager and a grown up man with the experience of serving in the army and taking care of his elderly mother. The murderer was good with his hands, he was known in the neighborhood as “electrician” for his ability to help other inhabitants with various household shores. In fact, he was invited to the drinking party after he helped his neighbors with their electrical problem. A seemingly nice, friendly, and mature person. Yet, he still ended up with nine corpses on his hand. His anger was so strong, that he drove one participant to the cemetery and told her to dig her own grave, only to shoot her after she refused.
What triggered this “senseless and merciless” act, as a Russian journalist labeled it, referring to Pushkin’s description of a Russian peasant rebellion?
To blame vodka on this senseless crime is hardly sufficient. A lot of Russians drank themselves into stupor only to wake up the next morning and continue with their routine. We clearly need Dostoevsky, the keen observant of all the complexities of Russian character to explain it. In fact, Dostoevsky explored the examples of hyper adolescent touchiness and insecurity, the qualities exhibited by many Russian criminals that he observed during his life in Siberian prison and that which he so brilliantly captured in his later texts, be it, Notes from the House of the Dead, Notes from Underground, or The Diary of the Writer.
House of the Dead is filled with Russian criminals who at certain moment decide that that they “cannot take it no longer” and go on rampage, demonstrating such levels of degradation, anger, and frustration, which vodka or other provocations can easily push into a violent explosion. These people, all subjects of some underground anger and rebellion, plunge into crime like a rock fallen from a cliff. Such is a relatively harmless Luka Kuzmich, an extremely vane but not much respected prisoner, who ended up in Siberian exile for killing his officer in the army. Why? Because he didn’t like how this major talked down to him. So one day, Luka obtained a knife, and killed the officer when he was declaring to the soldiers his usual tirade that he is their “Tsar and God.” Such is a cheerful and good-natured person, Baklushin, who at certain moment just lost it. Baklushin was in love with a girl whose relatives pushed her into accepting the offer of a wealthy German artisan. So Baklushin invites himself to the house of his former fiancé, and after a phrase of two of a smug German, and he kills him. Somehow he could not stand being exposed as inadequate in front of the woman he loved. And finally, there is the most disturbing and violent story of Akulka’s Husband, a petty and abusive man, constantly taunted and mocked by his fellow villagers, who in turn, takes his anger on his wife, whom he brutally beats and eventually kills.
Dostoevsky never gives up exploring this strange yet persistent need of people to assert themselves, to show their own worth. These moments of self-assertion are as unpredictable as they are inevitable: “A convict is obedient and submissive to a certain degree: but there is a limit beyond which one should not go. Incidentally, there is no phenomenon more curious than these strange outbursts of impatience and obstinacy. Often a man will suffer in patience for several years, resign himself, endure the most savage punishments, and then suddenly erupt over some trifle, some piece of nonsense, almost nothing at all.” (35)
In the same text, Dostoevsky provides the following explanation of prisoners’ sudden and unexpected outbursts of anger: “The cause of this sudden outburst in the man of whom one least expect it is nothing more than an anguished, convulsive manifestation of the man’s personality, his instinctive anguish and anguished longing for himself, his desire to declare himself and his humiliated personality, a desire which appears suddenly and which sometimes ands in anger, in frenzied rage, in insanity, fits, convulsions… it is enough only for him to get started: when the man grows intoxicated, there is no holding him back. And therefore it would be better in every way not to let him get to this point.. yes, but how can this be done.” (110)
While in his 1875 notebooks for Adolescent, Dostoevsky goes even deeper, as he connects these outbursts of wounded egos with the sense of tragedy, while suggesting the that it is the society’s obligation to be more pro-active in addressing the circumstances that lead to these tragic outcomes: “I am proud to have presented, for the first time, the real image of the Russian majority, and to have exposed, for the first time, its misshapen and tragic aspects. The tragic lies in one’s awareness of being misshapen… the tragedy of the underground …consists of suffering, self-laceration, an awareness of a better [life] coupled with the impossibility of attaining it, and, most important of all, a strong conviction on the part of these unfortunate people that everybody else is like them and that it is, therefore, not worthwhile to improve oneself! What can sustain those who do try to improve themselves? A reward, faith? Nobody is offering any reward, and in whom could one have faith? Another step from this position, and you have extreme depravity, crime, murder.”
Today’s killer, also went crazy after being humiliated in front of men and women. Somehow he felt that they have slighted him. Could have this awful outburst been prevented? On many levels, it is a duty of a society to instill in everyone a sense of self-worth. Religion surely helps, as does the proper education, or family love. But last years of Soviet Union coupled with the decimation of perestroika were surely the worst for the ego, it was indeed the time, when people’s degraded sense of themselves had very few healthy outlets, when one’s personality had difficulties realizing itself through work, or other achievements. It is obvious that Russian society, despite its noticeable improvement in economics and morals, hasn’t yet found the cure to all the crushed and frustrated individuals out there. As the result, ten lives were wiped out (I include the murderer’s life here as well). Haunting indeed. God rest their souls.