“I was for, he was against.” How Russians injure and kill each other while arguing about the war in Ukraine
Yuri Georgiyev
“I was for, he was against.” How Russians injure and kill each other while arguing about the war in Ukraine
16 January 2024, 16:58

Иллюстрация: Danny Berkovskii / Медиазона

The letter Z, drawn on the corpse with a bloodied fire iron, a stabbing against the backdrop of TV news, the murder of a nephew: domestic violence crimes committed “against the backdrop of political and ideological disagreements due to the special military operation conducted by the Russian Federation in the territory of Ukraine” are increasingly appearing in the verdicts of Russian courts. New Tab and Mediazona have researched such cases and explain how, in different corners of the country, in kitchens, garages, and on peaceful streets, Russians bicker and fight over the war.

“Every fifth ruble goes to support the SMO,” reads a sign attached to the door of a draft beer store on Lenin Street in Berdsk, a city half an hour’s drive from Novosibirsk. An iron lattice blocks the entrance behind the door. To get inside, you need to press the doorbell: the saleswoman assures that usually the lattice is open, it’s just that “today there aren’t that many customers.”

Next to the beer place is a door of the Dmitrievsky bath complex. A year ago, in  the evening of November 25, 2022, Nikolai Berezutsky was stabbed on this porch; he was leaving a friend’s apartment. Berezutsky had come to the Novosibirsk region from Altai, where he left behind an adult son.

A company of mobilised men drinking in the bathhouse were immediately suspected. Soon, the police detained 30-year-old Khuler Mongush from Tuva. The soldier was accused of beating Nikolai and stabbing him in the chest, puncturing his lung.

The fight began with a brief argument about the war. According to Mongush’s lawyer, Vladimir Gerasimov, Berezutsky asked the mobilised men: “Why are you going there [to Ukraine]?” Mongush replied that he was going ‘to protect the motherland’ and attacked Berezutsky.

The fellow soldier of the Tuvian man confirmed in court that the reason for the conflict was the ‘special military operation.’ The mobilised Mongush plead guilty, but insisted that Berezutsky was also drunk.

The girlfriend of the deceased said that the ‘special operation’ had nothing to do with it, but refused to give any other comments to the New Tab journalist.

The court ruled that the cause of the attack was a “reaction of self-importance and self-indulgence combined with and enhanced by simple alcoholic intoxication.” Khuler Mongush was sentenced to 8 years in a high-security prison and ordered to pay 1 million rubles to the mother of the deceased.

Eyewitnesses claimed that immediately after the murder, the soldiers got into a taxi and went to their camp near the city, where Khuler was later detained. In October 2022, the mobilised from Tuva were housed in the Grenada children’s camp, ten kilometres from Berdsk. They drank so much that by the governor’s order they even temporarily stopped selling alcohol in a nearby cornershop. The store owner told an NGS.ru correspondent at the time that the mobilised men begged to sell them alcohol and even threatened the shop staff, some of the them coming already drunk.

In the same Grenada camp, another Tuvinian conscript, Chingis Davaalay, stabbed a fellow soldier in October 2022. A month later, his fellow soldier Ezir Mongush pushed another military man who, according to the official version, hit himself on a chair and died.

Only Tuvinians lived in this camp. The general assembly point, where conscripts from all over Siberia were brought for training, was then located at the base of the Novosibirsk Higher Military Command School.

A year after the murder of Berezutsky, the beer store saleswoman in Berdsk says she was unaware of the incident because she started working later. “The SMO guys come here often, they are actually quite normal,” she adds.

In the store, there are photographs of a man from the internal surveillance camera, captioned with the words ‘We have a RAT here.’ A few dozen metres from the building is a banner advertising contract service ‘Join your people’. On the next billboard along the central Lenin Street is a photo of a local contract soldier, Corporal Vitaly Meshcheryakov, who died in Ukraine in December 2022.

The death of Nikolai Berezutsky is an example of how the topic of the war in Ukraine has become a reason for domestic murders. New Tab and Mediazona found more than 30 verdicts that show how disputes over the ‘special military operation’ lead to deaths and serious injuries. It is very likely there are many more such cases: courts, especially military ones, sometimes do not publish the texts of court orders at all, and the published ones often do not detail the reasons for the conflict.

But even this limited number of examples shows what such conflicts look like when they lead to serious injuries and court cases. In half of the cases, the dispute ended in death. Many are related to participation in military actions: some were preparing to go to the war zone or had already returned from there, some have relatives fighting, others have family in Ukraine. Sometimes the quarrels occur between closest ones, often against the backdrop of news on TV. The majority of those convicted are supporters of the war. And almost always, as is the case in most domestic conflicts in Russia, the disputes were accompanied by drinking

People usually prosecuted for bloody disputes about the war under the these articles of the Criminal Code

In 14 of the cases we found, the quarrels ended in death, and the verdicts were made under Article 105 of the Criminal Code (murder) and Part 4 of Article 111 of the Criminal Code (serious injuries leading to death). One conflict was classified by the investigation as an attempted murder (Part 3 of Article 30 and Part 1 of Article 105 of the Criminal Code). In addition, 12 people were found guilty of causing severe bodily harm (various parts of Article 111 of the Criminal Code, but without Part 4). Three men, including a mobilised soldier and a contract soldier who had returned from the war, were tried for causing moderate harm to health (Article 112 of the Criminal Code)

“I’ll bend you lot over.” People from Zabaykalsky Krai vs. Wagner fighter with no leg

Such domestic fights happen not only with those who are preparing to go to Ukraine, but also with those returning from the front lines. For example, in the settlement of Nerchinsky Zavod in Zabaykalsky Krai, Mikhail Taskin was beaten up. An inmate and Wagner PMC recruit, in 2020 he received 9 years for attempting to shoot three people over a parking spot. Taskin went to war, lost a leg fighting in Ukraine, and was pardoned. In August 2023, he came to a local cafe ‘covered in medals,’ started throwing his crutch at waitresses, and, as witnesses recalled, “ordered to bring it back to him, and then threw it again.”

Taskin’s sister insisted that her brother was beaten by the opponents of war and stripped of his awards. This version was also supported by Alexander Osipov, the governor of Zabaykalsky Krai. However, journalists from Regnum found out that Ivan Zyryanov, who was detained for the beating, is not an opponent of the ‘special military operation’: on the contrary, he organises patriotic events in the district with his brother. Residents of the village, who witnessed the conflict, reported that Taskin himself provoked the fight, threatening everyone. The brother of the detained, Alexey, explained the conflict by saying that Taskin saw one of the people he shot at in 2019 in the square and started threatening him and those around him: “I will **** all of you. I’ll bend you lot over!”

Several people were detained for beating up the Wagner veteran and his acquaintance, as well as for damaging their property. Police claims that they not only stripped Taskin of his awards, but also rammed their car with two of their own vehicles, smashed the windows, and punctured the tires.

Local residents believe that the investigation is being conducted under pressure from the authorities and blame Taskin’s sister, who, as Regnum wrote, “called the governor, portrayed this criminal as a good person, and all the other guys became scapegoats.”

The settlement residents assured the journalists that the police were afraid of Wagner fighters coming, and a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party, Alexander Khinshtein, directly demanded the dismissal of Ministry of Internal Affairs employees who, according to him, initially failed to see the ‘discreditation of the SMO’ in this fight.

Art by Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

The Z fire iron. “This will happen to everyone who disagrees with me”

In the Irkutsk region, law enforcement also failed to notice the connection between the “SMO’, the victim, and the killer. In September 2022, shortly before the start of mobilisation, a body with dozens of injuries and a letter Z drawn in blood on the abdomen was found in one of the private houses in the Ekhirit-Bulagatsky district.

According to the investigation, a local farmer and former municipal official, Maxim Khalapkhanov, who was described by the administrations of several settlements as a “responsible and compassionate person”, went to visit some acquaintances to drink vodka together. The men started relaxing in the afternoon, went several times to get more drinks, and then sent a neighbour to the store for a fifth bottle.”

Finally, Khalapkhanov was left alone with one of his acquaintances. The conversation turned to military gatherings and the war. The farmer said he wanted to go to Ukraine, but his drinking companion made fun of him. “What kind of army is it if you have to buy your own uniform?” he said.

The court verdict states, “From these insults and incorrect beliefs about the special operation, Khalapkhanov developed a hostile feeling towards Kh. [his drinking companion].”

The farmer punched his friend, then grabbed a fire iron and attacked him. He finished off the victim with a knife, which had a handle adorned with the Russian tricolor. With the bloodied fire iron, he drew the letter Z on the abdomen of the deceased. After being detained, Khalapkhanov told the police that Z stands for the West (Zapad) group, but allegedly could not explain why he drew this symbol.

In Khalapkhanov’s confession, which is cited by the court, it is stated that the murder occurred “due to political and ideological disagreements on the special military operation conducted by the Russian Federation in the territory of Ukraine”: “I was for it, he was against it.”

However, the case was investigated as a regular murder, not under a more serious charge of murder motivated by political hatred. Moreover, the court considered “the immoral behaviour of the victim, which was the reason for the crime,”  as a mitigating circumstance and took into account Khalapkhanov’s desire to participate in the “special military operation.” The farmer was sentenced to 7 years in a high-security prison

A similar horrific story occurred in Orenburg. There, Anton Rakov, a cell equipment operator from the Ural Broiler poultry farm, invited a friend to help repair his car. After the work, they grabbed a couple of bottles of vodka and within a few hours “started arguing about the advisability of Russia’s participation in the special military operation.” Rakov later assured the investigator that he tried to explain to his friend that “every man should protect his homeland”, especially since his father fought in Ukraine and Chechnya. But the opponent allegedly “began to rudely speak about Russia and the Russians.”

Rakov, who had already been convicted four times, including for robbery, beat his acquaintance so badly that “he couldn’t tell where the blood was coming from.” When he realised that his friend was not resisting but just wheezing, he called an ambulance. Before the doctors arrived, he managed to record a video with his half-dead friend, in which he lifts his head and says: “This will happen to everyone who disagrees with me!” The beaten man died in the hospital.

“You bastard, I’ll kill you.” Domestic violence against the backdrop of the war

Differences of opinion about the war in Ukraine lead to family disputes. For example, in March 2023, Vladimir Tofel from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky shot his nephew in the kitchen with a hunting rifle. From two metres away, he fired a shot at his stomach “due to the opposition of views and beliefs regarding the conduct of the special military operation by the Russian Federation in the territory of Ukraine, as well as in connection with the aggression shown [by the nephew] towards him,” stated in the court’s decision.

The nephew had moved in with him in 2021 from Odessa. In court, his uncle claimed that they often argued when they drank, but on the day of the murder, the nephew allegedly took a kitchen knife and threatened his uncle. Then Vladimir Tofel took a shotgun from his safe to “calm down” his nephew, but accidentally shot him.

The deceased’s former girlfriend told the court that he had a mother, son, and ex-wife left in Ukraine during the war. She tried not to talk to him about the Ukraine invasion because “it was unpleasant to discuss this topic.” Another witness called the deceased a “provocateur who had a negative attitude towards the special military operation’, but insisted that the nephew was “like a son” to Tofel.

Yuri Makarkin’s son from the Moscow region town of Yegoryevsk survived — though his father stabbed him twice with a knife, in the stomach and chest. The young man came to visit his father, and they started drinking vodka. Both had previously participated in combat, but when the conversation turned to the war in Ukraine, they argued due to “differences in views on this situation.” Makarkin became angry and grabbed a knife. The wounded son managed to get to his mother, who lives separately, and she called an ambulance.

The mother told the court that the wounded son asked her not to call the doctors, fearing that his father would be imprisoned again: in 2013, Makarkin was given a two-year suspended sentence for stabbing a man twice in his home; in 2018, he was sentenced to 2.5 years for causing severe bodily harm resulting in death.

Not only men become defendants in cases related to disputes about Ukraine. A resident of Talmenka district in Altai Krai, Anna Cheremnova, was systematically beaten by her civil partner, but she did not want to press criminal charges against him. On Easter in April 2022, they started drinking, and her husband attacked her again — this time under the pretext that Anna wanted to go to Ukraine, which he did not like. Saying “I’ll kill you, you bastard,” he began to beat his wife, then Anna threw vinegar at him from a mug and stabbed him in the stomach with a kitchen knife.

The woman was charged with causing severe bodily harm, but the court — in a rather rare instance — reclassified the case as exceeding the limits of self-defence and closed it due to reconciliation of the parties.

Some participants in domestic conflicts were personally affected by the war, such as Alexander Stelmakh from Bryansk, who cut his drinking companion while they were celebrating the awarding of Stelmakh’s son with the Suvorov Order for his participation in the war in Ukraine. The acquaintance said that “soldiers fight for money, including his son,” after which a fight broke out

Art by Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

“A TV show on the special military operation.” Disputes over television

In Zlatoust, near Chelyabinsk, Viktor Konnov stabbed a friend he had known for 20 years. They were drinking vodka while the news about “actions of Ukrainian troops” was on TV. The friends began to heatedly discuss it. The friend “spoke in defence of the Ukrainian authorities,” which Konnov didn’t like: two of his nephews died during the fire at the Odessa Trade Unions House in 2014.

Watching television also accompanied other bloody disputes. In Ivanovo, near Moscow, Mikhail Vitruk was drinking vodka and wine with his girlfriend. They were watching the news, started discussing the “special operation,” and then argued “about Ukraine.”

The woman told the investigator that she called her cohabitant a “Nazi,” while Vitruk claimed she insulted him “on a national basis.” He grabbed her by the neck and started to strangle her, then let go and went back to the store. When he returned, he beat up his cohabitant  with a metal chair. The woman suffered two fractures and a dangerous chest injury; Vitruk was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.

In Krasnoyarsk, the broadcast of “news about Ukraine” on one of the TV channels ended with a stabbing death. A group of people were drinking, and when a “program about the special military operation” started, one of the drinkers said he would like to go to war. He grabbed a knife, began waving it, and touched the blade to the leg of Sergey Ivanov, who was drinking with him. A witness told the court that Ivanov twice asked him to put the blade away, warning that otherwise he would stick it “in his buttocks.”

The would-be warrior didn’t listen, Ivanov snatched the knife from him, pinned the man to his knees, and stabbed him in the back. The wounded man died. The court sentenced Ivanov to 6 years in a high-security colony.

“Everything is burning by itself”

So far, the war is “just one of the topics that cause disagreements among people,” notes a criminologist and Florida State University doctoral student Vladimir Kudryavtsev. He emphasises that there is not enough data yet to draw conclusions: “In a year, there are 9–12 thousand murders in Russia (depending on the counting method). Thirty cases is not even one percent.”

But this does not mean that the war is an “unpopular topic” for domestic conflicts, adds Kudryavtsev.

“Overall, what is called a minor altercation or ‘suddenly arisen hostile relations’ is one of the main motivators for non-instrumental murders [where the infliction of violence is the main goal] around the world. If you look at the verdicts in Russian courts, the topic of the dispute in general is usually not specified,” the criminologist clarifies.

However, sociologist Andrey Pozdnyakov suggests that such crimes may be the evidence of a societal rift and even a hybrid civil war.

“What are the characteristics of a civil war?” the sociologist speculates. “Ideological opposition, and we have ideological opposition: there are people who agree with what is happening, and there are those who disagree. Those who agree feel they are right and have the state’s support.”

Sociologist Alexander Bayanov, in turn, is convinced that the “civil war’ in Russian society has not ended since 1922. It is still in deep division because, after 1991, no reconciliation procedures were conducted, as was done in other countries that experienced similar catastrophes.

Pozdnyakov emphasises that the state and its institutions of power should be smoothing over such conflicts, but instead, they are inciting opposition. He believes that the role of state propaganda is not as significant now: if the incitement of hatred began with talk shows on federal channels, now “everything is burning by itself.”

“People may no longer watch Solovyov, even think that everything in his program is lies,” says Pozdnyakov. “And this, probably, is a characteristic of any war, when its participants move from the ideological level to almost an animalistic one — in the degree of intolerance, in the readiness to maim and kill.”

Edited by Yegor Skovoroda and the New Tab editorial team.

Translator: Anna-Maria Tesfaye

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